Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Governor Smoke 'n' Mirrors

California Governor Jerry Brown was famously dubbed ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his half-hearted futurism, and an apparent willingness to sail against the prevailing political winds (though in actuality he was more likely to ride the waves generated by grassroots environmentalist or labour rights movements).  If his claim to possessing any political courage, and the extent to which he earned the ‘Moonbeam’ sobriquet were always open to question, the 2010 Jerry Brown model is decidedly passé. 

He resembles nothing so much as a drowning man, frantically grabbing onto anything that floats his way without pausing to consider whether the object in question is sufficiently buoyant to take him (and incidentally California) to safer waters.  You’d be tempted to throw him a life preserver, but you’d hesitate, for such is his proclivity for getting things wrong that you suspect you’d only be prolonging the inevitable. 

First Brown latched onto the morally and intellectually bankrupt notion of the political pledge, the very thing which has transformed California’s Republican Party from a responsible participant in state politics into a nihilist cult.  In this iteration, Brown pledged not to raise taxes without resorting to the initiative process—the other feature of our politics which, in its present form, makes the state ungovernable.  Then, failing to recognise the Republican Party for the anti-tax monstrosity that it has become, Brown politely asked them to support putting a tax measure on the ballot, and spent the next several months negotiating with a group of pledge-taking, oath-swearing economic fundamentalists, with predictable results.

In the meantime, the Governor forced a ruthless, anti-social budget on the state, which continued the carve-up of our world-renowned public universities, our social system and our public spaces.  As George Skelton recently pointed out, Brown’s decision to close 70 state parks was purely a gesture.  Shuttering the parks will not contribute so much as one penny on the dollar to closing the deficit, and will have serious consequences for the communities which depend on said parks for their livelihood.  In the long term, small, individual financial sacrifices which fund our health, welfare and education systems pay big, collective social and economic dividends.  But this is too sophisticated an argument for the Governor. 

Sinking deeper, Brown launched a signature-gathering drive to put a measure on the ballot for the fall of 2012.  But the measure consists of temporary tax increases to relieve our beleaguered state.  There will be no mention of reforming Proposition 13—either with an end towards ending the incongruity of minority rule which requires a supermajority to raise revenues and a minority to shred our social system, or with an end to rationalising our property tax regime, which in its current iteration treats real estate moguls, large corporations, and Jane and Joe citizen alike.  There will be no effort to institute a rational voting system which gives voters actual choice (unlike Proposition 14, which in this year’s election will present voters with neoconservative Democrats like Feinstein, brainless budget-cutters like Brown, and assorted zealots from the Republican Party, and no progressive alternatives).  There will be no move to overhaul the initiative process, or to fully integrate it into state politics. 

In his campaign against billionaire Meg Whitman in 2010, Brown once said “the process is the plan”.  This was derided as a typical Brown-ism, but in one sense he was correct.  So broken is California’s political system that any large-scale economic or social plan is doomed to fall apart in the face of the state’s mangled democratic apparatus (unless, of course, that plan is to dismantle the state’s institutions, for the structure is tailor-made to implement such a right-wing agenda).  But Brown’s grasp of the process, and specifically of the need to reform the process, has proved spectacularly poor, almost unbelievably so, in fact, for someone who has spent decades in state politics.  This is all the more galling because Brown made his understanding of state politics his primarily selling point during the 2010 election.  So steadfast has he proven in his unwillingness to address the faulty machinery of California’s political system that one can only conclude that the Governor is possessed by laziness and driven by political expediency rather than any real desire to come to grips with the forces that first paralysed, and are now propelling our state’s public sector inexorably towards self-immolation. 

Like his predecessors, Brown is substituting the artful deployment of smoke and mirrors for either a principled stand for the progressive agenda his party once espoused or the kind of rational reform of California’s politics which would both empower progressives in the state and introduce an element of reason into our politics from which we could all benefit.  The Governor has been, from day one, obsessed about the budget process, the dysfunctionality of which is merely a symptom of the deeper problems which plague our state.  In the context of minority rule, fiddling with the budget, as Brown has chosen to do, can only cause more pain for more Californians. 

The Governor is a wily politician, whose entire career has been based on the premise that governance by an unholy combination of inaction and short-term expediency will enable him to survive to fight another election another day.  I suspect, however, that the 2014 election will be his last, and the one during which he will be unable to evade facing up to his legacy.  Between his airheaded approach to state government in the ‘70s which brought us Proposition 13, and his casual dismantling of our education, research, parks, welfare and healthcare sectors in the ‘10s, Brown will be responsible more than anyone else in the state for implementing our descent into a state of anarchy presided over by the state Republican Party and its wealthy paymasters. 

As things stand, there is nothing remotely forward-thinking, courageous, progressive, or even rational about the Governor’s approach to our plight.  Moonbeam appears to have swerved out of orbit and lost contact with reality on his home planet of California.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The View from the Top--UCOP and Politics

I just ran across an article written by a UC Irvine professor which describes an e-mail sent by the University of California Office of the President to the university community, warning UC personnel to avoid 1 May events—for their safety.  You can read Professor Jon Wiener’s piece here.  The substance (if it can be dignified as such) of the e-mail was that any members of the UC community who stumbled upon an Occupy Wall Street event were in danger of losing life or limb (Wiener points out that an earlier alert had been issued in conjunction with the Fukushima meltdown, showing just how safely removed from reality UC’s administrative leadership is). 

As quoted by Wiener, the e-mail urged recipients to “Avoid all demonstrations as a precaution”, and to take care around “cities with a large immigrant population and strong labor groups”.  Gee, that’s interesting.  In the world inhabited by UC’s managerial elites, the very sectors of society which bolster our university’s idealism and give some credibility to its claims towards social and economic diversity pose a threat to the safety of our community members.

This, of course, is laughable to anyone at Berkeley or Davis who has been on the receiving end of police rubber bullets, baton charges, or pepper spray.  Breathtakingly idiotic e-mails from UCOP, Yudof, and the campus chancellors (Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau’s blithering gems take pride of place in this pantheon of pea-brainedness) are nothing new.  But it’s baffling how these people again and again undercut their credibility by missing the point about the political nature of the threat to higher education.  Our cause is, to a very large degree, that of the Occupy movement.  The fact that both could state their case with greater clarity and cohesion should be no obstacle to our finding common cause.

Dated by a month though it is, the UCOP message remains relevant, and is perhaps most insulting inasmuch as it is a further demonstration, if such were needed, of the extent to which UC leadership is impervious to experience and immune to even the most elementary teachings of those two savants, Cause and Effect.  UCOP is effectively declaiming the usefulness of the expression of political dissatisfaction.  In so doing it is asking us to content ourselves with its own pathetic efforts at advocacy, which have recently been converted into a full-scale effort towards privatisation.  It is a ringing endorsement of apathy and a clarion call to unconscionable silence. 

Wiener’s final quote from the e-mail is illuminating: “Maintain a low profile by avoiding demonstration areas [...and avoid] discussions of the issues at hand”.  What a truly wretched injunction to our beleaguered community.  At a time when we need inspired leadership and activism alongside impassioned commitment and discussion, UC leadership is doing its best to neuter the system’s approach to its plight.  This is just one more example of how the head-in-the-sand, apolitical approach to the threat posed by massive state disinvestment isn’t only not working, but actively seeks to hamstring more thoughtful, realistic and committed efforts to address the problems facing the University of California.

The cadre of administrators who have wormed their way into system wide and campus administrations are either reprehensibly out of touch or else actively working to stymie efforts to preserve UC’s public character.  The future of UC depends not on the political passivity that they endorse, but rather on critically engaging those interests and forces which are eroding our ability to fund and care for the public institutions which are engines of political change, social innovation, and economic equity in our state.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's All Greek to the Governor

Vintage Brown: wielding Aristotle against a testy Chamber of Commerce crowd, California’s Governor promised, “The second [act] is when the tension, the protagonist is under pressure, can he get out of the box he’s in.  That’s always in Act Two.  All right, you wait.  We’re going to get to Act Three very soon”. 

Oh boy.  I can’t wait.  Because so far, tension and pressure barely begin to describe my feelings at Brown’s laceration of our public sphere.  If the Governor had spent half the time he invests in procuring tangential references in planning a tax measure in 2010, or had embraced the kind of political reform that would introduce an element of reason to our politics, the state might be in a better place.  As it is, I really don’t understand the Governor, whose determination to savage schools, universities, and care for the most economically marginal in the state isn’t in the least checked by the knowledge that he’ll be dismantling the generations’ worth of work that was required for the construction of California’s public sphere—our society, no less.

There’s something almost Oedipal (there’s a classical reference for the Governor to chew on in his spare time) about Brown’s buzz-saw wielding, given his father’s centrality to creating California as the vibrant, civic-minded, future-oriented society as it still exists in the mind of many people around the world. 

Those of us who are disappointed with Brown will face a dilemma of principle when we cast our votes in November.  On the one hand, the Governor’s tax measure is both socially and imaginatively stunted, grossly inadequate to the task of mending Californians’ decades-in-the-making series of acts of spectacular self-mutilation.  It also comprises the kind of quick-fix that might do one of two contradictory things (neither of them boding well for the state): a) kill off the possibility of any such emergency measures in the future once people realise how sorry of a band-aid it is; b) encourage future governors to resort to ballot-box budgeting with the same blatancy that has characterised Brown’s buck-passage.

On the other hand, if the measure were to fail, Brown is promising to inflict an even more vicious punishment upon those without the votes, the economic means, the social capital, or the political wherewithal to defend themselves against death by a thousand cuts.  Our universities and schools would be further battered, and support for the sick, the elderly, the young and those who have been cast aside by our already Spartan social services will be further diminished.  So the Governor has sceptics trapped between the knowledge that a vote for the budget will encourage future gubernatorial hostage-takers, and the promise of the spectacular social violence that the oath-taking, pledge-signing corporate lackeys in the Republican Party are promising to commit. 

So when I hold my nose and vote for his measure, it will not really be a choice—our political market is just as ‘free’ as our financial one.  As always, the party prepared to abdicate responsibility and to commit indiscriminate aggression against our society wins...in the short term at least. 

What budget sceptics have to hope is that Brown’s temporary measure will buy time for the Democratic Party, progressive interests, and that segment of the state’s business population which is not bent on joining the Republican Party in signing its social suicide pact combine to push a more rational version of reform. 

LA Times columnist George Skelton and his colleague at the Sacramento Bee, Dan Walters (I hear that there’s a vacancy at the helm of California’s newest political joke, the Moderate Party, and Walters and Skelton would be the perfect ticket), are two critics of Brown’s short-termism.  But Skelton’s valid criticism (that the state is overly dependent on volatile upper-end incomes, and should begin fiddling with Prop 13) is marred by his tendency to swerve into self-parody. 

Sure, I think that Brown opted for this particular tax cocktail because it promised to sell well in the polls.  But that doesn’t mean that the wealthy shouldn’t be paying a greater share—whether in income, property, or business taxes.  Skelton takes a typically simple-minded approach to the state’s dilemma, and concludes that Brown had better get his kicks at the rich in quickly, “before they flee the state”.  Skelton on Brown is a bit redundant: his favourite phrase, one which he repeats over and over and over again, is “soak the rich”.  This is how he characterises Brown’s tax measure, this is how he caricatures progressive politics, and this is how he defines any move to distribute access to wealth and resources more equitably. 

Before he and others continue whining about the impending exodus of over-taxed Californians, they should find some serious evidence to demonstrate that it is high taxes per se that are driving people out.  Because I suspect that our steadily declining schools, our ever more pricey universities, and our generally diminished public sphere might have something to do with people looking beyond California’s borders to rediscover a quality of life which is increasingly being lost. 

Our political process is apparently all Greek to the Governor...at least that’s the conclusion I have to draw from his fumbling efforts.  But the high caste of political columnists should develop a more reasoned critique of the Governor’s budget, one which doesn’t insist on cutting basic services and putting more and more of the burden on the vulnerable while those at the top are still exploiting loopholes and taking home sums that are far more than necessary to live a decent life.

Skelton is right to focus on the details of tax policy: broadening the base and lowering the burden is a method of executing policy.  But tax policy, like other elements of our politics, should be required to adhere to a moral framework, and that framework should prioritise the well-being of the many above the profit of the few.  Meaning that we should not allow ourselves to be held captive by the threat of an exodus of financiers or wealthy businesspeople.  We’ve long been held hostage by wealthy interests, and now our own Governor is playing the same game with California’s public sphere.  What we need is to rework our political structure to make it function along more rational and democratic lines.  But it looks like we’ll have to wait until after November. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Apocalypse Impending?

After Kampala, Lusaka feels like a ghost town, the orderly, tree-lined, manicured streets comparatively devoid of people and, more happily, of the chaos that characterises Uganda’s capital.  Lusaka resembles nothing so much as a series of suburbs without a city.  Neighbourhoods in town bear a resemblance to what I imagine many an Orange County suburb would look like if nobody did any maintenance for several years.

And in California, we might be on the verge of discovering for ourselves what happens when we endorse long-term and systematic neglect of our infrastructure, our public sector, and our social provisions.  Because as things stand, the combination of the state’s bizarre supermajority requirements, the mangled tax structure, and the public indifference has completely inhibited our ability to plan for the long term, to envision any kind of investment in institutions which promote social welfare, or to even have a meaningful conversation about our state’s priorities.

Faced with a formidable budget deficit, the democratic deficit which results from our structural political dysfunction mandates round after round of cuts.  The political rhetoric of the Republican Party, which is assuming the character of a fundamentalist, oath-taking, pledge-signing cult, has persuaded a growing number of Californians that being “against taxes” is a rational philosophical stance.  It is this incredible stupidity which explains the willingness of lower- and middle-income Californians to vote against tax measures.  More often than not, these measures are focussed primarily on the wealthy, and would result in a higher educational standard, more affordable universities, and better social services all around—all things from which the lower- and middle-classes stand to benefit considerably given their inability to resort to the private sector which services the needs of the affluent. 

The conversation surrounding high speed rail is a perfect example of the bizarre manner of thinking that has possessed our politics.  It has come to revolve almost entirely around the short-term bottom line, with no consideration given to the long-term benefits of reducing road and air traffic or to the revitalisation it could bring to parts of the state.  It is an illustration of the extent to which our government and society quite literally no longer have the capacity to undertake large-scale projects of either an infrastructural or social character. 

By now, even Democrats in California have largely resigned themselves to cuts—cuts which are falling heavily on medical and social services for the poor, accessibility of public spaces,  the provision of early childhood education, California Community Colleges, California State Universities, and the University of California campuses, and which will shortly be hitting K-12 education state-wide.  Instead of taking aim at Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative behind the state’s gridlock, Jerry Brown is using exactly the same kinds of short-term fixes he told us he’d be too savvy to resort to.  In so doing he is steadfastly ignoring the democratic deficit.  He is legitimising the very process which plagues our state, and getting himself off the hook by telling people that austerity is the only path. 

The band-aid approach and the gradual erosion of our public sector will perhaps soften the blow that is coming from disinvestment.  But sooner or later our already-creaky social framework will exhibit signs of rot and neglect where not outright dismantlement.  As the conditions in and rigour of schools decline, as our universities serve ever smaller and continuously more exclusive segments of our population, as the evisceration of social services leads to even more obscene levels of inequality, our society will grow more dangerously polarised. 

The greed and lack of collective responsibility which increasingly characterises our approach to politics will spawn a society in which people have even less in common with one another and therefore less reason to look kindly upon collective investments which bear universal fruits which lead in turn to widespread social and economic uplift.  We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend that we’re not on the long-term road to some kind of social ruin. 

Because it’s no coincidence that there are people benefiting from the political misrule that seems to have Sacramento in its iron grip.  The situation is not by any means anarchic, although that might be the state which best describes the budgetary politics which have in recent years usurped political morality as the benchmark for rationalising economic policy.  Rather, it is one directed towards the welfare of particular social and economic interests: the people who can afford the neglect of public schools thanks to their ability to send their children off to private schools; the people who benefit from corporate loopholes or the state’s refusal to tax oil companies; the people who decline to pay their employees decent wages or take the welfare of those employees into consideration when designing their business plans.  This is not, whatever the Republican Party tells us, about the well-being of Jane and Joe Public.

The fact that a small but influential number of people benefit from the chaos in California gives the lie to the Republican Party’s attempt to elide the interests of their corporate handlers with the public good.  Rand Paul, one of the up-and-coming leaders of the lunatic brigade in the Republican Party, once declared: “There are no rich, there are no poor, there are no middle class.  We are all interconnected in the economy”.  Aside from being a sterling example of the breathtaking stupidity which characterises the Party in the twenty-first century, this remark is illustrative of the thinking which beguiles people into acting against their interest.  Of course, we’re all interconnected.  But we’re connected in the sense that there are people who benefit from others’ misfortunes.  We’re linked inasmuch as there are people who suffer needlessly when others gain all out of proportion to their need.

It is the nature of this interconnection which we need to understand and think about.  We should be wary indeed of allowing the persistence of a structure of government which mandates cuts to the services which sustain the quality of life of a majority of our people.  We should expect more of our political leadership than that they condone greed and implement socially-destructive cuts simply because the alternatives would require more thought and risk on their part. 

California is heading for the rocks, in a more serious way that most of us have dared contemplate.  Jerry Brown’s current charade is insulting and dangerous, as is the general pretence that we can continue to disinvest without feeling serious consequences.  We need political leadership that shows some spine and some responsibility, and which doesn’t continually pass the buck to voters.  And we need citizens who think beyond the next pay check, and who don’t shrink from the task of imagining and sustaining a fair society which prizes the realisation of equality over admiring the successes of a few from afar.  We all need to step up to the challenge, and to do so soon, before we begin living the consequences more fully.