We’ve all been told, at different points in our lives, that the easy way is not always the best, the most honest, or the smartest way of going about something. But the easy road is the one down which California Forward, a technocratic ‘reform’ group in the Golden State, is walking. The group has latched onto the notion of political reform as a way out of California’s dysfunctionality, but the substance and style of the reform they are promoting—utterly piecemeal, finding its form for the moment in the ill-judged Proposition 31—doesn’t tackle California’s growing democratic deficit.
California Forward and supporters of Prop 31 are wrong with their diagnosis, blaming “partisan gridlock” and “fiscal quagmire”, which are symptoms of a failed structure rather than the causes of our democratic deficit. Gridlock wouldn’t occur if we lived in a functional democracy that actually empowered representatives along majoritarian lines, and the fiscal quagmire is the result of a broken structure rather than “indiscipline”. These dilatory reformers’ effort to describe the problem is flailing and unfocussed, bespeaking a lack of discipline in their thinking and an absence of moral priorities in their efforts at reform. Instead of addressing Prop 13 and minority rule, instead of tackling the archaic electoral system that we share with the rest of the country, instead of seeking to relieve or rework our dangerously overloaded constitution, and instead of seeing reform as something that needs doing comprehensively, California Forward and Prop 31 are content to tinker aimlessly around the edges.
In his 1949 homage to the Golden State (California: The Great Exception. Greenwood Press, Westport), Carey McWilliams quoted California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, who remarked that “the state of our government is still more unprecedented and alarming. We are in fact without government—a commercial, civilized, and wealthy people, without law, order, or system”. He might have been writing about our state in the early twenty-first century, and California’s broken governance system is something that needs to be tackled seriously, not in piecemeal fashion.
In seeking to explain itself, California Forward falls dismally short. One moment they write that “fiscal systems do not ensure that priorities get funded or that programs become more efficient and effective”, and the next they make the state’s “fiscal process” the centrepiece of their solution. In one breath they note the ephemerality and contingency associated with isolated instances of successful devolution, and in the next suggest that these are useful models.
This is not thoughtful reform. It is neither rational nor intelligent. The fact that it is difficult to work out just what drives proponents of California Forward illustrates part of their problem—they have neither moral nor ideological motivation.
Take their opening statement: “We want a government that’s small enough to listen, big enough to tackle real problems, smart enough to spend our money wisely, and honest enough to be held accountable for results. We need your help”.
Sounds straightforward and sensible enough, right? Well, until you actually begin to think about it. What does the size of government have to do with its ability to listen? That simply doesn’t follow logically. David Lilienthal, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority believed, after all, that you could connect a growing government with the people by decentralising the implementation of centralised authority, and by developing a thorough method of consultation. Size, in other words, doesn’t have much to do with the “listening capacity” of government.
And then there’s the question of a government which is “smart enough to spend our money wisely”. What constitutes that “wisdom” is currently the billion-dollar question in California. The economic fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who’ve dutifully signed away their discretionary powers to the unelected thought-police of their party—Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, Howard Jarvis—and foresworn the use of their grey cells, will tell you that government is incapable of spending so much as a cent wisely. That no social, educational, environmental or energy policy which requires government input is worthy of spending because the very institution of government is constitutionally (that’s a small ‘C’) incapable of doing anything right. This is a manifestly idiotic position, but one held most fervently by a disturbing number of people.
Others amongst us believe that increased spending on education—to achieve the reduction of class-sizes, to maintain good school libraries, counselling services, and to make higher education more affordable—is a public good. So one person’s “wise spending” is another person’s “waste”. What we do not need are a series of ill-defined, amorphous goals, but rather a rationalised democracy, which California Forward, in the form of Prop 31, does nothing to promote.
How do they propose to achieve “good government”, one of their many ill-defined aims? By empowering the Governor to declare what amounts to a fiscal state of emergency, and therein make cuts wherever he or she wishes, unchecked unless the legislature manages to amass a two-thirds vote in opposition—a virtual impossibility. “Good governance” is thus tied to fiscal rather than social rectitude, to a financial view of morality rather than a human one. Why not, one might ask the scions of conventional wisdom at California Forward, not permit the Governor to declare a social emergency and empower the chief executive to do what is necessary to shore up the fortunes of our state’s most vulnerable, to protect the livelihoods of our citizens, and to ensure the well-being of our population? Not only is Prop 31’s proposal undemocratic in its effort to bypass the legislature—it’s also misdirected, mistakenly equating fiscal health with social well-being.
You can see more of this mental myopia in their call for “pay as you go” budgeting. This sounds good in theory until you think back to the analogy so often applied to government budgeting by fiscally-obsessed conservatives: that which equates the family to the household. Families and individuals, we should remember, can go into debt, can borrow, have some measure of fiscal flexibility. If this is the case, surely the State of California, the household in which we are all family members, should have some wriggle room? Sure, the state should be much more cautious about how much it spends (and incidentally it should have more control over revenue), but a blanket measure of the sort proposed by Prop 31 would only tie its hands and further incapacitate state government.
These lazy reformers will very likely have the support of California Governor Jerry Brown in their ambition to revert to an Elysian localism. They mean to turn the provision of social services into a kind of local market, abandoning the promise of equality embedded in universalism for a decentralised framework. While the devolution of power and responsibility sounds all right, it has, of course, the effect of empowering each community only according to its pre-existing circumstances. It is a recipe for stasis if not for the promotion of inequality, given our already socially and economically Balkanised state.
The elites at California Forward can barely get through a sentence without contradicting themselves. “We’re different from other efforts to reform our state”, they write, “because we believe in the importance of working together and understand that only robust public discussion and the creation of broad coalitions can move solutions forward”. That’s a platitude followed by hypocrisy. For whom, after all, is opposed to “working together”? And how, at the end of the day, can California Forward reconcile its supposed commitment to a “robust public discussion” with the sweeping discretionary powers it would grant to our state’s chief executive
For technocrats who’ve emerged from the caste of top-end managers, these people don’t have the faintest grasp of how to set goals. What is a “disciplined and performance-focussed fiscal system”? Performance as defined by whom? Discipline with what end in mind? How would they define a “structure that delivers results and accountability”? What results, decided by whom? Accountable to whom?
We do, however, know a little bit about what supporters of California Forward and Prop 31 favour. They favour rigged elections, something they’ve already institutionalised through Prop 14. They favour a vapid “centrism” which talks itself in endless circles, steadfastly declining to grasp the nettle of ideological coherence—something necessary to the formulation of successful policy. They favour campaign disclosure, but no checks on the flow of money into politics. The one area where they have no specific proposals to speak of is in the realm of reinvigorating our democracy...perhaps because so many of their other efforts will have precisely the opposite effect.
Ultimately, California Forward and Prop 31 shy away from making any moral calls. They use every meaningless buzzword in the book, but have absolutely nothing to say about the kind of state they’re trying to build.
The thinking of California Forward is inconsistent, inadequate, inattentive, and unimaginative. Their solutions are undemocratic, off-base, unfocussed, and potentially destructive. California Forward is seeking to drain our politics of ideology—its life blood. Its supporters are mistakenly obsessed with our fiscal system, and consequently neglect our more serious democratic deficit, seeking to fill the chasm between theory and practise with a bucketful of clichés. They do not represent thoughtful reform, they are not up to the job of tackling California’s ills, and voters should reject Prop 31 to send a signal that we are ready for a truly substantive conversation about righting our listing ship of state.