Saturday, September 1, 2012

Running Against California


One could be forgiven for thinking, listening to Mitt Romney and Chris Christie, that the Republican Party is running a campaign against the state of California rather than Obama.  Mitt Romney, who hates California so much that he owns a mansion in La Jolla, piped up to say that “at some point America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy, or like California”.  The notoriously cerebral Sarah Palin remarked, “When I think about the direction our country is rapidly drifting in, I can’t help but look at California as a cautionary tale.  The Golden State once boasted the entrepreneurial innovation of Silicon Valley—the American creative engine”.  All of this, it seems, has been ruined by high speed rail, enviro-fascists, a poor real estate market, and a “hostile” government. 

Chris Christie, the GOP’s favourite blowhard, called California Governor Jerry Brown an “old retread” and whined that “we’ve just given California away to the public sector unions, to the masters of huge spending and huge government”.  The comparisons to Greece have been debunked thoroughly elsewhere as “one of the most common, and most facile journalistic takes on California’s governing crisis”.  The next most immediate common inaccuracy amongst the GOP commentators is to label Brown a “tax and spend liberal”, when in fact Brown has traditionally had as little time for intelligent public investment as he has for tackling the source of the state’s dysfunction.  In this last Christie was right, because Brown’s tax measure is nothing more than a stopgap. 

But blaming “tax and spend” liberals in general doesn’t work either, and shows just how far removed from reality the GOP is.  Whether you think higher taxes in the state would be a good thing or not, you have to admit that Jerry Brown doesn’t have the power to raise taxes.  In this respect, he stands in a very different place to his predecessor from his first term, the sainted Ronald Reagan.  In addition to signing the largest tax increase in the state’s history, Reagan established the nation’s most liberal and far-reaching abortion law, signed some enviro-fascist clean air legislation, and doubled state spending.  [I suspect the reason that convention watchers got stuck with Clint Eastwood instead of the Reagan hologram was that Saint Ronnie might have had some harsh words for the twenty-first century GOP.]

But the big point about the GOP’s analysis is that it ignores the structural nature of California’s dysfunctionality.  I’m not sure whether their misdiagnosis means that the party isn’t even up to the elementary task of examining cause and effect, or whether it’s a matter of artifice.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that the GOP doesn’t want to take too close a look at California’s democratic deficit, because they bear an overly large share of the responsibility for our broken politics.

It was, after all, their hero, Howard Jarvis, who launched Prop 13, promising California’s voters that they could have their cake and eat it; that they could, as Peter Schrag has put it, turn themselves into the state’s newest policy makers, but without the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for the power newly vested in themselves.  The “something for nothing” rationale behind Prop 13 (that we can live the dream without paying for it) is, depending on whether you take the Republican Party at their word or by their actions, either a very un-Republican thing to promise or the quintessentially Republican thing to do.  In cutting property taxes by over 50%, capping the rates of those taxes, constraining property reappraisal, treating corporate interests the same as homeowners, and instituting a supermajority requirement, Prop 13 not only put a huge hole in the state’s revenues and removed discretionary power from state government, it forced the centralisation of power and authority (not a very Republican-sounding policy either). 

In so doing Prop 13 broke state government, as narrated by Mark Paul and Joe Mathews in their book California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It and by Peter Schrag in his own account, California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment.  The defining feature of most governments is their ability to make calls about revenue and spending, to cut or spend strategically, based on a set of commonly-held priorities.  Prop 13 basically took taxes off the table, ensuring that in the long run, in a state growing both demographically and in complexity, there would come a very severe reckoning.

We’re there, and for people who were around in 1978 it must feel like déjà vu.  Same governor, his head still in the sand.  Same rabid, anti-tax fundamentalists, yammering away.  Same conflicted public, wanting to live the good life, but not so keen on paying for it.

It’s hard to say whether the conglomeration of right-wing interests that pushed Prop 13 planned things this way, but for a party interested in killing off public-institutions be de-funding them, in redistributing wealth upwards, in eviscerating the idea that we all benefit either materially or morally from living in an more equal society, things couldn’t have turned out better.

The GOP became so extreme in California that it marginalised itself numerically.  But its enduring appeal to a set of base, anti-communitarian, selfish instincts ensures that it remains on the map.  And because its project is destructive rather than constructive, its veto—conferred by supermajority rules—is all that it needs.  It has hamstrung our state government, gutted our public institutions, and is in the process of grinding down our public sphere—one school, one university, one state park, one social provision, one idealistic measure, and one community at a time. 

California’s problems are not that it is run by “tax and spend liberals”—said liberals can’t even raise taxes.  It’s that it has tied itself in knots, weighted itself down with a set of constitutional requirements so tangled that Houdini couldn’t escape them, and thrown itself into a pool of water.  The wounds are entirely self-inflicted, and although nobody comes away without blood on their hands—from voters, to public sector unions, to the Democratic Party—the shackles were fitted and locked by the Republican Party and its allies. 

So what the Republicans are doing, with characteristic bravado, is running against the state which, more than anywhere else in the country, is their creation.  Their brainchild.  Their Frankenstein.  The laboratory in which they’re trying out their methods (sabotage and brinkmanship) and their policies (disinvestment and privatisation) on a population of credulous guinea-pigs.  I suppose we should feel honoured to be the subject of such a radical, revolutionary experiment.  But it’s really just going to cause a lot of people a lot of pain.

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