Tuesday, July 31, 2012

California's Spending Problem or Jim Nielsen's Logic Problem?


Assemblyman Jim Nielsen took to the pages of Redding’s Record Searchlight at the week-end to recite what Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton once called “an old shop-worn mantra”, that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.  Nielsen pointed to the two as-not-yet-connected incidents at Parks and Recreation—the terrible vacation-time payments and the $54 million surplus that was only recently discovered.  Although hiding the surplus—if indeed this is what happened...it’s not impossible that it slipped between layers of bureaucracy—was reprehensible, there is something a little disingenuous in the hyperventilating condemnations issuing from Republican politicians.  After all, Parks and Recreation are only doing exactly what Republicans ostensibly think all institutions should do in the ‘free market’—hoarding money and dodging accountability.  Nielsen’s faux outrage over “the abuse of the sense of pride and love that Californians have for their state parks in an attempt to justify a tax increase” is absurd coming from a party that has as its central platform the privatisation of public spaces and the jettisoning of public responsibility for the maintenance of the entire public sphere.

That’s not Nielsen’s only inconsistency.  The Assemblyman performed a daring leap of logic that might have made even some of his colleagues balk when he suggested that the goings-on at Parks and Recreation are an example of California’s “over-regulated” state.  While I marvel at the nerve it takes to suggest that the remedy to insufficient oversight (the problem at Parks and Recreation) is less regulation, I honestly suspect that Nielsen was adhering to the old Gingrich rule which enjoined Republican politicians to throw in keywords and catch phrases into their every utterance...whether or not they make any sense. 

But, in the spirit of soothing Nielsen’s hysteria, let’s look at what he refers to as the “spending problem”.   Some of Nielsen’s claims about corruption might warrant exploration if he didn’t swerve so abruptly into conspiracy-theory territory, throwing out a series of unsubstantiated claims (“This” [the corruption in the parks service] is a long established, systematic practice in most all agencies”.  Evidence for such a serious accusation with such profound implications?  Nah, not Nielsen.) that smack more of general nastiness than of serious thought or study.

George Skelton pointed out that “as a proportion of Californians’ personal income, total state spending will be only slightly higher in the new budget than it was during Ronald Reagan’s final year as governor in 1974.  Spending out of the general fund—the state’s deficit-plagued main cash box—will be slightly lower than under Reagan”. 

Another problem with Nielsen’s approach is that “waste” is a matter of perspective.  Skelton pointed out the 20% cuts to the K-12 and community college sectors between 2008 and 2012.  To Nielsen and his party, much of our education spending is wasteful.  They believe that a teacher can operate as effectively in a class of 40 students as in one of 20.  And yet their policy is for the state to subsidise more affluent families to have their children privately educated, and to re-invent the wheel through the promotion of charter schools (I can’t think of more spectacular examples of “waste” than Republican Party education policy).

Skelton also reminded readers that “over a four year span, state funding was cut nearly $1 billion annually each at UC and Cal State”.  It’s no secret that Republican legislators view public universities as undeserving of adequate public funding, and view the education that the state’s prized public institutions provide as “elitist”.  The distaste is mutual, and the campus leadership at UC Berkeley is already doing its best to sever ties with the state.  When we lose the state’s flagship institution of higher education to the free market—where it will cater to only those who can afford rather than a broad and representative spectrum of Californians—we’ll have Nielsen and his colleagues to thank. 

State pensions are another favourite target of anti-waste Republicans, but like most of their efforts to cut from the budget, this one is disingenuous.  Pension contributions towards state employees constitute 2.4% of the general fund...hardly enough to make a difference to the overall budget picture even if a few tenths of a percent of that 2.4% could be considered wasteful. 

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that Nielsen (vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee...a scary though, that) can actually do his sums.  How would he go about running the state?  “Citizens”, Nielsen argued, “would be better served by a Legislature that would spend the majority of its time overseeing the agencies of government rather than introducing and voting on 7,000 bills to create more laws”.  The clue to Nielsen’s big mistake here is in the word ‘legislator’.  Legislators, by definition, legislate.  What exactly would a legislature that spent “the majority of its time overseeing the agencies of government rather than” legislating do?  What would be the point?  Nielsen sounds more confused than anything else, as he clearly doesn’t understand the duties of the respective arms of state government.  The point is, the payout at the park was actually discovered by a combination of internal audit and an investigation by California’s Attorney General—the branches in charge of doing the things Nielsen would like to spend his time doing are, in other words, doing their jobs just fine. 

Nielsen inveighs against the “superficial hearings, cursory analysis and votes on unnecessary laws”, ignoring the fact that these are the legislature’s opportunity to hold his hated “bureaucrats” to account when things go wrong.  Laws are unnecessary or necessary only in the eye of their beholder, and hearings need not be superficial if legislators put the effort into making them relevant.  Nielsen’s problem is that he is a member of a party that is playing a dangerous game in Sacramento—using the powers conferred upon it by our system of minority rule to throw a spanner into the works of our state politics and then pouting when it doesn’t get its way. 

Nielsen might be happy to transform himself into one of 120 bureaucratic gnomes in Sacramento, but most of us elect our legislators to govern, not to behave like a bunch of witless, automaton ciphers.  It seems that the best solution for all parties would be for Nielsen to resign and take up working as an accountant.  The Assemblyman could engage in his obsession for weeding out waste without having to deal with what he apparently regards as the pesky details of doing his job—that is, legislating.  The North State would drop one of the many dead weights it has managed to accumulate around its neck in the form of various knuckleheaded Republican legislators.  California would benefit accordingly.  On second thought, Nielsen’s facts about state spending are so far removed from reality that I don’t think he’d make a particularly good accountant. 

Skelton’s conclusion about the “tax and spend” mantra?  “Sacramento doesn’t have a spending problem.  Its problem is an outdated, roller-coaster tax system that doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay for what California demands and deserves”.  And I’d add to that, a Byzantine political system which makes a mockery of representative democracy given its empowerment of minority parties and the unreconciled imbalance between the powers that voters wield through initiatives and the responsibility they’re willing to take for their actions.  People like Jim Nielsen are all too willing to irresponsibly exploit this state of affairs for their party’s pet ideological agenda.  If he won’t resign to head back to accountant school, Nielsen could at least tear up the pledges and recant the oaths he’s taken to his party’s corporate handlers and get back to serving his real constituents—Californians, who happen to be facing some seriously difficult times at the moment, and deserve better than his ill-informed whining. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mitt Romney's World

Danny Boyle, the orchestrator of London’s Olympic opening ceremony, couldn’t have known it, but the segment of the show celebrating Britain’s National Health Service acted as a rousing “up yours” to cap off Mitt Romney’s humiliating turn in Britain.  Romney’s gaffes were blamed by aides on jet-lag.  It seems the candidate left his brain back state-side, and someone had to be despatched to get it (And what, I wonder, happens if Romney shows up to some summit meeting and behaves as he did in London?  The country would stand to lose more than the credibility that Romney left on the streets of London after being savaged by the Prime Minister, the Mayor, and the rabid British press).  Now, Romney is off to Israel to disprove what has been his campaign’s mantra for the past few weeks (that it doesn’t matter what “foreigners” think about America). 

Romney is having a full itinerary, meeting, amongst others, Netanyahu and Lieberman (presumably in their padded cells).  So far, Romney has been trotting out the standard attack on President Obama over Israel, saying that the “people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader off the free world”.  While it’s unclear whether any ideology rather than naked opportunism lies behind Romney’s foreign policy utterances, they are chillingly reminiscent of an approach to the world we toyed with for eight years in the not-so-distant past.  Put into practise, they will have seriously detrimental consequences, and we’ll be yearning for Mitt to run his mouth a la Olympics.

As per the general shallowness of the Presidential campaign, Obama himself engaged in another pathetic display of sycophancy, announcing further military aid towards a country that combines a keen sense of hubris with creeping paranoia and militarism—designed to wrong-foot Romney on the occasion of his visit to Israel.  Contrary to the right-wing fantasy, Obama is no opponent of Romney.  An article in the Jerusalem Post noted how spectacularly uninformed Romney’s criticisms of the Obama’s White House have become.  Indeed, in announcing the grant of weapons, Obama declared the U.S. commitment to Israel “unshakeable”.  This has, sadly, proven to be the case.  Our unconditional support for Israel has been shaken neither by the morally and diplomatically irresponsible machinations of that country’s government, nor by its violations of human rights on a massive scale in the Gaza strip, its targeting of unarmed activists, its government’s sabotaging of peace efforts, or its endless recalcitrance when it comes to negotiations. 

It’s been hard to determine where Romney stands along the spectrum of ‘traditional’ Republican foreign policy stances which range from realism (which endorses the arming of oppressive and undemocratic regimes and sacrifices our principles for short term national security gains—and more importantly for the profit margins of the arms industry), to neoconservatism (whose proponents dream of a vast and distinctly malevolent American Empire).  During the Republican primary, Romney largely confined himself to vacuous, populist and xenophobic rants against China—rants which, even by his standards, were reprehensibly devoid of serious, workable solutions.  But Romney’s backing of preventive war (an approach to foreign policy embraced by the Bush administration which empowers militarism, feeds paranoia, indulges in irresponsibility, and gambles with the lives of many, many people on a logically speculative and morally bankrupt strategic framework) is a sign that he is embracing the lunatic fringes of his party which see in Israel by turns a millennial force and an agent for the aggrandisement of U.S. power.

I don’t understand the chest-thumping, the endless reminders that “all options” (code for “war”) are on the table.  Of course they are.  Everyone knows that.  Even if a politician said—and meant, sincerely—that war was not an option, circumstances can change for the worse.  But every reference—made with shockingly immoral glee by those on the right—to the possibility of a war against Iran is a threat which undermines negotiations by leading the Iranian regime to think—perhaps quite rightly—that there are people in Israel and the United States who would like negotiations to fail.  Who might sabotage them.  Who enjoy the spectre of another war.  Romney and the Republicans can’t possibly believe both that the Iranian leadership consists of dangerous, mindless fanatics exclusively bent on the destruction of Israel on the one hand, and that threats can work on the other.  The two propositions are mutually exclusive, given that fanatics of the sort that Romney describes would be undeterred by the threat of military retaliation. 

The application of the most elementary logic escapes the man who believes that he is most qualified to direct the foreign policy of the United States, and the growing tendency of the radicals in the Republican Party to demonise those perceived as their enemies abroad (as at home) prevents them from looking at issues—nuclear power and/or weapons in Iran—from multiple perspectives, thereby ensuring that they are totally incapable of understanding motive and rationale, two basic components of conducting foreign policy.  Not only would Romney and his advisors’ conduct of foreign policy be ideologically dangerous; their very methodology, muddled as it is, is deeply flawed. 

Romney declared, of the U.S. and Israel, “We serve the same cause and we have the same enemies.  The security of Israel is a national security interest of the United States”, going on to add that “an enduring alliance is more than strategic; it’s a force for good in the world”.  Romney followed up his assertions with criticism of Obama’s approach, saying that “diplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel’s adversaries”. 

This way of thinking is dangerous and stupid.  Romney cannot credibly argue both that the United States has a vested security interest in Israel, and that the United States should give carte blanche to a country which has declared itself liable to fly off the handle, and which has a history of initiating and escalating unnecessary and perilous conflict in its region.  Countries have a tendency to make their own enemies, and we should not pledge ourselves to adopt Israel’s enemies as our own nor those of any other ally.  In fact, our alliance with Israel has been anything but a force for good in the world.  It has bred extremism, it has saddled the U.S. with the deplorable burden of defending human rights violations and mass murder of civilians, and it has prevented us from being serious about peacemaking. 

Romney’s point about public criticism is also telling.  Here is a man who emerged from the shadows of Bain Capital (shadows he still holds firmly over the nature and timing of his departure, as well as the manner of acquisition of wealth he practised there) to plot his presidential run.  He avoids scrutiny like the plague, evincing the same contempt for journalists that George W Bush demonstrated—a contempt which, put into practise as President, allowed Bush to lie to his nation and drag the country into two wars from which we have yet to extricate ourselves. 

Part of the problem with diplomacy, today and historically, is that it is carried out in secret, hidden from the eyes of a public who, though now citizens rather than subjects, are still treated with casual disdain by diplomats and warmongers who reassure us that they know best.  If diplomacy—and that includes criticism of countries which we consider to be our allies—was carried out in public, it would be subject to less abuse, and kept more honest. 

As wrongheaded as undemocratic secrecy is the business of unconditional support. Writing blank checks is bad diplomacy.  Bad for the United States, when we find ourselves defending the indefensible.  Bad for the Palestinians, who continue to live as colonised subjects.  And bad for Israel, because unconditional U.S. backing appears to suggest to the Israeli government that its standard behaviour is in any way sustainable.  Assisted suicide is not legal in most U.S. states, but our government is running just such a program in the Middle East.  It is worth reading the late historian Tony Judt’s searing appraisal of Israel’s conduct, conduct which he condemns as “a country which is fast losing touch with reality”, a sadly accurate description which can as readily be applied to the behaviour of the United States. 

Romney declared that Iran is “the most destabilising nation in the world”, citing the nation’s support for terrorists and its alleged efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.  But here lies the central problem with the current cross-party approach to foreign policy in the United States.  If support for despicable causes and repugnant regimes, together with the possession of vast stockpiles of weapons—the use of which could only end in the destruction of human life on a hitherto incomprehensible scale—and the support for the circulation of those weapons throughout the world are attributes of a “destabilising nation”, the United States remains the prime agent of destabilisation in the world today.

Only last week, the United States joined with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China to undermine a treaty on the arms trade.  This trade, worth about one trillion per year, remains unregulated and therefore unethical.  The merchants of death ply their trade (often with state support and encouragement) as indiscriminately as their wares will be used.  The trade in small arms, the manufacture of advanced weapons systems, the free market approach taken by governments with reference to the arms industry...all of these things result in the butchery of tens when not hundreds of thousands of people every year.  Sometimes for ideology, occasionally for religion, but mostly for power and profit (these latter two often bound inextricably up in the seemingly purer former causes of violence). 

The United States refuses to respect many international treaties, but then uses the same disrespect of such treaties by other nations as a cassus belli.  The United States wages war in something called the “national interest”.  But this national interest is never properly discussed beforehand.  Rather, a group of shoddy politicians send our soldiers off to war, giving us a new explanation for their deployment each week, and wrap themselves in the flag to avoid anything resembling accountability or culpability.  Old Glory has been used to cover all manner of sins.

And because we fight for this vague, unexplained thing called the “national interest”, other, more common versions of morality, go out the window.  We support authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia (regimes which participated in bribery over weapons sales in the UK, and then openly and successfully blackmailed the British government to silence subsequent investigations), Bahrain, and across Central Asia.  We’ve defended violent governments in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Philippines.  We’ve sold weapons (including poison gas) to dictators who were so bad that we later had to topple them. 

Our most formidable enemies are not in Iran, North Korea, or the mountains of South Asia.  Rather, they are the incapacitating self-doubts which lurk at the back of our minds, hamstring our critical thinking process, rendering us incapable of imagining a demilitarised world in which the United States makes peace rather than war.  Our enemies pace the Pentagon, abusing and misusing our intelligence services, transforming them from agencies geared towards the accrual of information to aid in making good policy into arms of a military industrial complex which has grown immeasurably in strength and influence since President Eisenhower’s initial warning.  Our enemies drift in and out of Congress and the Senate, using those two great political stages to show off their toughness, to win favour with the arms industry by defending unconscionable levels of arms spending, and to enrich donors by promoting weapons systems designed to kill, maim, and orphan people in their thousands—primarily in parts of the world that we will never see and can hardly manage to identify on a map. 

Mitt Romney, like Obama, will provide “more of the same” where our foreign policy is concerned.  But unlike Obama (whose militarism, I believe, is opportunistic rather than instinctive, and can therefore by blunted by circumstances or intelligently-applied pressure), Romney has surrounded himself by cultish proponents of a brutal form of imperialism, people who welcome and indeed seek out war, and who, unlike the President, don’t actually see anything problematic in the aggrandisement of power in a machine which fuses corporate wealth and profiteering with the most abusive and least responsive arm of the modern state.  The calculations of the neoconservatives proceed utterly unhindered by even the most elementary instruction of those two savants, Cause and Effect.  The regulation of the arms industry—indeed, the criminalisation of the trade—would do more for peace on our planet than any number of Bush’s “freedom wars”.  The introduction of the kind of ethics into our foreign policy that most of us seek to practise in our daily lives would do more to disarm our “enemies” than all the bombs, blockades, and bombast that currently comprise our sadly deficient “arsenal of democracy”.

It’s long overdue that we approach our foreign policy and our place in the world with a more critical eye.  And that eye should be first turned on Romney as he parades around the world, talking as though he’s never heard the words ‘Vietnam’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Guantanamo’, ‘Gaza’, or ‘Afghanistan’. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Innocent Abroad, or, Travels with Mitt

Having had a rough week back home (people keep asking about those pesky tax returns and about when exactly he retired from Bain Capital), Mitt Romney headed off to that peril-strewn place called Abroad.  As he boarded his plane, an aircraft crew member must have offered to stow one of Mitt’s oversized bags.  Mitt demurred, “Gee, that’s really nice of you, but I have my portable foot in here, and you never know when I might need it!”  This undoubtedly earned him a strange look, but hey, he’s made his billions, so who are we to question him?

It soon became clear why Mitt is never without his foot.  Before the plane even took off a staff member thoughtfully stuck it into his mouth for him when the underling in question spoke to the British press and noted that, unlike the incumbent in the White House (you know, the anti-colonial Kenyan who was trained in a fascist, socialist mosque by secularist tree-hugging environmentalists who hate America and our freedoms), Mitt has a great deal of respect for our “Anglo-Saxon heritage”.  This is what happens when campaigns don’t get to censor journalists...maybe both Romney and Obama should base their campaigns abroad. 

Mitt must have heaved a sigh of relief when his plane took off over the Atlantic, off to England, where he was set to meet with various British political big-wigs, primarily though not exclusively members of the Conservative Party.  Being that the leadership of the Conservative Party is in bed with the financial sector, Mitt should feel perfectly snug with these types.  Unfortunately, he had made the fatal mistake of opening his mouth again.

Mitt, as you might have heard (modesty not being his strong point), saved the Olympics in Salt Lake City, so he is an Authority on such things.  It is, therefore, not unnatural that he would be asked about the London Olympics.  Now, it’s widely known that the organisation of these Olympics has been an abject shambles, but when you go abroad as a Presidential candidate, you’re trying to make friends, not lose them.  You’re auditioning for the role of Diplomat in Chief.  Mitt, however, decided to give the Brits some straight-talk, and noted that “there are a few things that are disconcerting”, and then proceeded to list those things off.  Not since the Luftwaffe roared over London had the city been under such concerted attack!  Mitt as Diplomat would be like Sarah Palin as Conservationist, or George W Bush as Linguist.  Inexplicably, during the ensuing press conferences, not a single journalist asked Mitt how his shoe leather tasted.

The British political establishment was not, to put it mildly, impressed.  David Cameron, in rebuking Romney, noted that Romney’s Olympics had taken place in “the middle of nowhere”—a perhaps overly-charitable description of Salt Lake City.  Mitt was also assailed by Boris Johnson.  Yes, Boris Johnson.  You know you’re in trouble when your diplomatic skills are being called out by a man who appears to wear a mangy, white Persian cat on his head and speaks with a helicopter rotor going ‘round in his mouth.  I read somewhere that Mitt’s Minders are called the Mittness Protection Program, so irresistible is his foot’s attraction to the lower reaches of his throat. 

Next, Mitt met Ed.  Ed Miliband is the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, and therefore a somewhat important person (even if he’s not as important as Tony Blair still thinks he is—Mitt met Blair, too, who with John Boehner must keep the tanning bed industry in business).  But when Mitt met Ed, he couldn’t remember his name, and consequently referred him to “Mr. Leader”.  I thought CEOs were supposed to be good at remembering names?  It seems that when Mitt read the classic “How to Make Friends and Influence People”, he was holding the book upside-down (sound familiar?).  Or maybe, when he retired retroactively, he forgot all the tricks of the trade.

Next, Mitt held a press conference.  This is where he was supposed to apologise for insulting his hosts.  But CEOs don’t do contrition.  They flip.  They flop.  They refuse to release their tax returns.  And they deliver apologies-that-aren’t-apologies which would make their mothers cringe.  And then, Mitt being Mitt, he put his foot in his mouth one more time.  He did this by announcing that he’d been briefed by Sir John Sawers.  Never heard of him?  Not surprising.  He’s the head of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, which the Brits like to pretend no one else knows exists even if we all know that it’s in some big green and cream, pyramidal building on the Thames.

Sawers, who may or may not bear a striking resemblance to Judi Dench (how could we know?  The man’s been swaddled away since birth in preparation for this job and only comes out at night with a cloak and batman mask), is a secretive creature, and those who meet him are supposed to have their memories wiped after the fact, lest they reveal his whereabouts or actually learn anything useful.  Mitt, on the other hand, shouted to the world that he’d met Sawers, at which point the British press corps presumably put down their pens and hummed nervously. 

Mitt is like the suitor who insults his fiancĂ©e’s family, forgets her brother’s name, and then blabs about the crazy uncle in the attic who nobody’s supposed to mention. 

I can imagine Prince Phillip pacing the balcony at Buckingham Palace, shotguns in hand, and the Queen drawing a hand across her brow inside, grateful that Her Majesty doesn’t have to meet His Mittiness...yet. 

It’s a funny thing, watching Mitt interact with David Cameron.  Their parties used to be more or less in ideological synch, but today the Republican Party might find itself most mirrored in the Monster Raving Loony Party (for American readers, yes, that’s a real party; for British readers, yes, the Republican Party is for real, too--the world's a scary place, isn't it?).  There are interesting cultural differences between the two men, as well.  On the one hand, Cameron and his class have been running Britain for a thousand years give or take a couple.  Mitt, by comparison, is distinctly new money. 

But even breeding can’t quite make up for the power of the Presidency, or even of a potential presidency.  It’s always amusing to watch British politicians struggle with competing emotions when they’re around Presidents and potential Presidents.  They’re like dogs that can’t quite make up their mind whether they want to bark and act fierce to impress the rest of their pack, or run around in circles, so excited that Mitt’s Minders would have to try to shoo them away lest they wet themselves or lift a leg on Mitt’s trouser leg. 

At the end of the day, I suspect that Mitt doesn’t have much time for the Camerons and Osbournes and Johnsons and Cleggs of the world.  Mitt, after all, is the kind of guy who Gets Things Done.  He’s a Self Made Man (where being Self Made means that your dad was a politician and affluent businessman and you had to haul yourself up by your neatly-ironed trousers and shiny dress shoe straps).  He’s supremely self-confident, and is not going to be impressed by mocking Mandarins and Muppet-headed mayors.  I suspect that in Mitt’s human taxonomy, amateurish, indolent, titled, well-heeled gentry rank only just above liberal, Islamofascist, Kenyan, godless, freedom-stealing, Chicago communists.

Mitt ended his day in London to a chorus of dismay from the city’s inhabitants.  But if you listened carefully, you could just hear sketchwriters and cartoonists and comedians rubbing their hands together with barely-concealed glee.  ‘Shades of ‘W’’, they said.  You see, these people have been out in the cold since George W Bush winged his way blissfully back to Crawford, and even more strapped for material since Sarah Palin slunk back up to Alaska to maintain her lonely vigil against Vladmir Putin from the back porch of her house.  In the glare of a less subservient press, and out of his corporate bubble, Mitt’s sheen is looking a little dull.

-----

The Telegraph, for those interested, has compiled what amounts to a dossier of pure Mitt-loathing...makes for entertaining reading. 

California's GOP in Decline? Hardly


The New York Times recently turned its eye to the apparent plight of California’s Republican Party, suggesting, as commentators in California have been for years now, that the GOP is in terminal decline in the Golden State.  Their evidence is largely electoral, and the party’s abject failure to win any state-wide office in 2010 is the most widely-cited example of this supposed decline. 

Steve Schmidt, one of the GOP’s more discontented consultants, told the Times that “The institution of the California Republican Party...has effectively collapsed.  It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do.  It doesn’t register voters.  It doesn’t recruit candidates.  It doesn’t raise money.  The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics”.

Schmidt is obviously wrong in suggesting that the California GOP is somehow anomalous within the broader Republican tent in its McCarthyite witch-hunts, whether ideological, religious, or racial.  But I think he’s also off-base in his assessment of the GOP’s power in California. 

Because the implication that shrinking numerical support for the state GOP equates to the party wielding less influence is erroneous.  I don’t know when there’s ever been a period when Republicans exerted so much influence and control over California’s politics.  Nagourney, the Times article’s author, suggests that California “has become a national symbol of fiscal turmoil and dysfunction”.  That we are viewed in this way, and that our state has in fact become utterly un-governable, is a sign of the Republican Party’s great influence, not of its decline.  California’s failure is the GOP’s victory, and if the party was routed by the voters in 2010, the year was actually a great victory for the economic ideology behind the party.

What is happening in California today—the de-funding of schools and colleges, the shuttering of public spaces, the deregulation of industry, the creeping privatisation of our universities, the growth of economic inequality, the maintenance of loopholes for the wealthy and for corporations—is the implementation of the state Republican Party’s platform.

We elected a Democratic governor to office who has made austerity—that is, the Republicans’ primary political plank—his watchword where not his ideology.  Austerity, in the hands of people on a search and destroy mission in our state’s public sphere, is indiscriminate dynamiting masquerading as sober-minded accounting. 

This Democratic governor, instead of placing the welfare of the Californians first, embraced his erstwhile opponent Meg Whitman’s focus on the budget.  He has, in fact, managed a couple of balanced budgets.  But they’ve been balanced, fiscal conservatives and economic fundamentalists will be happy to know, at the express expense if not the outright butchery of schools, colleges, universities, and other public institutions which provide for the welfare of a broad spectrum of Californians.

Why does this occur?  Because the threshold for making decisions about revenue is so high that the Republicans exercise a veto over virtually any decision dealing with finance (one of Proposition 13’s many legacies).  If the party had an affirmative programme, this might still leave them out in the cold.  But because their ideology calls for the dismantling of the public sector, thereby defaulting power over labour, consumption, education, environmental protection, energy regulation, and the provision of social support and services to the private sector.  There might be things that the private sector is good at, but making calls about the welfare of the majority and self regulating are not amongst its virtues. 

The point is, however, that the Republican Party’s veto suits them very well.  Instead of registering voters, it registers itself with irresponsible corporate interests.  Instead of recruiting candidates it deploys paid-up fundamentalists.  Instead of raising money, it coasts on that of its paymasters. 

Nagourney quoted California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro as saying, “The Democrats are in a lot of trouble because they’ve had the governorship, the Assembly and the Senate, and the budget is way out of balance; unemployment is third-highest in the nation.  They don’t have any plans related to those problems, other than higher taxes...And the issues are coming our way because the biggest issues are budget and taxes”.

This is the point at which responsible journalism would involve the author of the article qualifying this combination of misstatement of fact and mangling of the argument by providing some information to readers.  The Democrats might have the numerical advantage in the Assembly and Senate, but through the unconscionable exercise of their undemocratic veto, the Republicans control both chambers.  Neither have the Republicans ever had a better ally in the Governor’s office than Jerry Brown, who has never been big on public investment. 

“Higher taxes”, as Del Beccaro well knows, don’t constitute a plan.  The plan involves setting standards, allocating resources, investing, and making calls about what policy changes are in the interest of California.  And yes, many of those things cost money, not surprisingly, given that our state is increasingly more populous and diverse, that our demographics are shifting, and our relationship with our environment changing.  But Del Beccaro and his witless oath-swearing, pledge-taking colleagues have deprived state government of the ability to invest in the state’s human capital.  They have denied state government the flexibility that should characterise its engagement with moral quandaries and demographic dilemmas. 

The Republicans are fond of calling high speed rail—our state’s lone effort to make some kind of investment which will aid our quest for sustainable living, generate employment, and promote the free movement of people and goods—“The Train to Nowhere”.  It’s characteristically catchy, typically disingenuous, and classically declensionist.  I’m worried that high speed rail will turn into an albatross around the state’s neck.  Not because there’s any inherent problem with the plan.  But because the Republican Party, with its immense influence and total immunity from culpability in our state’s bizarre political system, is hell-bent on making it one.  And this sums the state GOP up very well: the exercise of enormous power through dishonest means which exempt them from all responsibility.