North state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen has a logic problem. He also has an honesty problem. And these aren’t just issues for Nielsen: they are at the heart of our state’s troubles.
Nielsen, who is now running for a vacant state Senate seat in northern California, recently sent out an extraordinarily hypocritical message to supporters attacking Democrats for passing a budget full of cuts to education. Nielsen deliberately ignored the fact that the Democrats had no option given Nielsen’s own party’s unthinking, reflexive opposition to taxes, and its veto power over the budget (in theory the budget may now be passed with a simple majority, but in practise this can only happen if the budget contains cuts). Never mind that the Democrats hold a legislative majority and the governorship in California—in the state’s broken political structure, which empowers the minority party, every budget is a Republican budget.
But amidst Nielsen’s stream of hypocrisy and illogic, he used an interesting sleight of hand to attack legislation which would have closed a tax loophole for out-of-state businesses and directed ensuing revenues toward university tuition relief. The bill, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Perez, has its problems: like many similar measures it mandates how particular revenue must be spent, tying the state’s finances in further knots and removing the discretionary power that the legislature needs to reclaim in California. But those weren’t the grounds along which Nielsen chose to attack the measure.
First off, the legislation deals with the tax question which means, whatever its merits and whatever the condition of the state, Nielsen isn’t going to touch it or even think about it. Because, like all Republican Party legislators in the state, he’s sworn fealty to Howard Jarvis and Grover Norquist and their progeny, conveniently forgetting that he was elected to serve Californians. He’s signed petitions and taken oaths, and foresworn the use of his grey cells, making him a member of the most sorry and useless species of politician—the kind that willingly turns itself into a rubber-stamp, a voting machine that has no interest in circumstance, contingency, or the material conditions of its electors, only in hewing to a fundamentalist economic program.
Nielsen is, of course, proud of this unthinking inflexibility, and his website trumpets a glowing endorsement from Jon Coupal, President of Howard Jarvis’ anti-tax and anti-public investment group, which acts as the right-wing’s ideological thought-police, shepherding increasingly drone-like legislators down the garden path.
But in attacking the closure of tax loopholes, Nielsen did something interesting and dishonest in its own way: in characterising the tax as one on “job creators”, he implicitly carved out a separate category of citizenship. He’s endorsing the game of brinkmanship that some, though not by any means all, businesses have chosen to play: that they put their own interests first and threaten the state whenever it tries to pursue policies that are in the wide public rather than any narrow private interest.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s critical that businesses create jobs, and it’s great that most of them do, and it’s even better when they’re doing so in California, but I find it funny that Nielsen uses the phrase “job creators” rather than “taxpayers”, “citizens”, or “Californians”. Neither owning a business nor creating jobs exempts anyone from the civic responsibilities that most of us—bloviating fundamentalists like Nielsen aside—think are still important. Working in business doesn’t abstract people from the community or elevate their interests above the collective work which creates the conditions for their business to function and provides the market for whatever goods and services they offer. Our very interconnectedness is all the more reason for us to invest in the institutions and infrastructure which promote the public good and provide a framework for a more just and equal society.
Weakening K-12 education, eviscerating the state’s research universities, and undercutting the lives of the state’s most economically-marginal citizens is not good for business. Chronic uncertainty stemming from a never-ending budget circus, an inflexible political climate, and a deteriorating civic and physical infrastructure isn’t good for business either. And yet these are the policies being pushed and the conditions being created by Nielsen and his party. That’s not good for California.