Sunday, September 9, 2012

Think Long: Rigging, Not Reforming


The interesting thing about California’s elite reformist group, Think Long, is that when examining their proposals, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.  There is, after all, plenty to think about in their proposals for reform which are, by turns, undemocratic (an unelected Citizens Council comprised of people who look a lot like, well, Think Long-ites), unworkable (addressing California’s crisis without touching Prop 13), and opaque (to get Californians interested in their politics, so long as their interest doesn’t infringe on the ability of Think Long-ites to run the state). 

But the far larger issue than the merits of individual proposals made by Think Long is the set of assumptions under which it’s operating, and the way it thinks both about government and the question of reform.  Small-D democratic reform as envisioned by its intelligent advocates in California is about freeing up the political process.  Reform should be designed to enable people to make choices more honestly and democratically, unconstrained by the morass of constitutional requirements which voters don’t know exist and lawmakers seldom understand.  Reform should be about creating a fair system which empowers voters to make serious, coherent choices which will have predictable effects within a rational system.

Think Long is designed to achieve none of these things.  It’s about rigging a system rather than reforming it.  For, having rigged our elections through the travesty that was Prop 14, Think Long and its technocratic fellow travellers are now going about rigging our politics as a whole.  Rather than making the big calls about reforming the system, Think Long is primarily interested in replacing one status quo with another. 

Joe Mathews penned an illuminating article in which he described how “the Think Long committee considered altering Prop 13 and its property tax measures, but the topic was too difficult.  The more conservative Think Long members pushed for a flatter system, with lower rates on income.  The liberals wanted more revenues for state services starved by a decade of cuts ... The committee considered a wide range of proposals, and heard from conservatives and liberals.  Among the more striking early proposals were a three-rate system that would raise taxes on all income levels (up to 15 percent for income above $300,000), and the development of a smartphone app to help Californians determine their tax levels”.

I’m going to blame people who inhabit the Think Long universe for any dental problems I develop, because reading that passage makes me grind my teeth in utter despair.  The source of California’s ills does not lie in one tax level as opposed to another.  And the solution most is most certainly not to reify a new set of specific tax measures.  Like other piecemeal reformers, Think Long-ites are approaching California’s conundrum by identifying the kind of economy that looks good from their elite vantage-point and then trying to institutionalise a set of specific tax and reform measures in the state to create that world without considering the long-term effects. 

It’s unclear to me whether Think Long-ites would like to somehow make their set of proposals a latter-day Prop 13, putting yet another set of manacles on our politics, or whether what they have in mind is simply another short-term fix to tide us by until the Think Long royalty deigns to descend again from Olympus, or Mount Tamalpais, or whatever elevated sphere they inhabit to give us our marching orders for the next few years.  This approach is arrogant, undemocratic, and misses the point, which is that California’s deficit is a democratic rather than an economic one, and that it is precisely through removing discretionary power from our elected leaders, muddying the waters around responsibility for making policy, and transforming solutions which might make sense at a given time to address a given condition into holy writ (or at least the word of Howard Jarvis which, in the Book of the economic fundamentalists in the Republican Party amounts to the same thing).  That is the approach which brought us to our twenty-first century precipice. 

What is clear is that what they are attempting is rigging rather than reforming.  The committee expresses great admiration for “decisive and unified leadership” in China, perhaps hoping that their Citizens’ Council will come to resemble that notoriously democratic institution that is the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee.  They seem to be under the misapprehension that decisiveness means changing the rules until they’ll generate the outcome that you desire, rather than creating a system designed to discern and realise, in the best way possible, the desires of a majority of citizens.  “Good governance”, rather than “democracy”, is the priority for Think Long, which identifies “efficient delivery of services to the public by a fiscally responsible government” as the ideal scenario.  Forgive me if I sound paranoid, but that makes the public sound a little like a dog being thrown a bone. 

Think Long might praise “politics conducted in a spirit of pragmatism”, but all of their measures are designed to such the politics out of decision-making, and place it back in a pristine, minimalist, air-conditioned corporate boardroom, the twenty-first equivalent of the smoke-filled room from which progressives prised our politics in the last century, only to have it captured by the manoeuvres of successive special interests who have tied our politics into increasingly complicated knots. 

That Think Long-ites aren’t even up to tackling Prop 13 demonstrates both their character and their lack of conviction.  Tackling a serious problem like Prop 13 would bring them out of the shadows into a real political fight, and they want none of that.  That would mean debating in public, coming face-to-face with the fundamentalists, engaging the voters, and taking part in other aspects of that maddeningly necessary circus the rest of us call democracy, but which is so anathema to these technocrats.  For a look at what real democratic reform might look like, read (all together now!) Joe Mathews’ and Mark Paul’s tract, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. 

So someone else will have to lead the real charge to arrest our expanding democratic deficit, driven by Prop 13 and similar ills.  Prop 13 violates the central premise of democratic government.  That trans-Atlantic radical of the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine, wrote that “every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it”.  Prop 13 makes a mockery of such a premise and seeks to elevate a tax structure favourable to the wealthy into a matter of constitutional importance to the level of serious matters about rights and freedoms, instead of making it a matter for each legislature and each generation to establish in the course of their normal duties. 

This is what Think Long doesn’t seem to grasp: it’s the form as well as the substance which is the problem in California today, and while the way to change the latter is to alter the former, that alteration must bring us more closely to democratic ideals rather than leaning towards some unholy compromise which would see us governed by councils and commissions who assume that they know best and that their interests (Think Long’s membership includes Willie Brown, Condoleeza Rice, and George Schultz, not exactly representatives of the working class) are those of the rest of society.  The best we can do is devise a system which is democratic, and to hope that, in the absence of generations of accumulated constraints and restrictions, and in a rational political structure that allows for the expression and representation of diverse viewpoints, people will make some good choices. 

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