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. 

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