Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jann Reed for Senate

“The problem with Prop 30 and Prop 38 is that they’re not looking at the structural problems with how education is funded in Sacramento.  It’s a big band-aid.  Certainly it’s a band-aid that will help the school system for a matter of years, but I’m afraid that what’s going to happen if we pass these initiatives is that Californians will once again—the California Legislature will once again turn away from public education and not address the structural problems and our funding mechanism until we are in another crisis”.

A statement of the blindingly obvious on the one hand, but not something that you hear from most members of the California legislature, or from many of the candidates running for office across our state in this election year when the future of our public education system—from early childhood education on up to the University of California—is on the line.  Which is why, as a left-winger who is generally suspicious of candidates who describe themselves as a-political or moderate, I’m impressed with Jann Reed, who is running for aState Senate seat in Northern California. 

Reed clearly gets what Republicans don’t—that a well-funded public education system is key to our state’s social cohesion and economic prosperity.  And she’s willing to say what Democrats won’t—that Governor Jerry Brown’s ballot initiative, Prop 30, is just an effort to kick the can down the road and put off until another day the underlying discussion that we urgently need to have about our communal priorities and the mangled, labyrinthine political structure through which we negotiate those priorities. 

Any voice prepared to discuss rational reform—in the long-term the only way out of our current cycle of decline—is welcome in Sacramento, particularly if it were to be supplanting one as feeble and mis-directed as that of Jim Nielsen, State Assemblyman and Reed’s primary challenger for the Senate seat.  A voice like Reed’s would be all the more welcome given that she is interested in the issue of education, something which, because of its centrality to our economy, our budget, and the fibre of our society, is also at the heart of our politics.  The positive effects of “getting education right” would spiral outwards into the criminal justice, employment, technology and innovation, and economic spheres. 

I don’t know what Reed’s particular take on the issue of rational reform would be—for all Californians, the best place to start for some well-written insight into the issue is Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It—but the fact that she is willing to broach the issue bodes well.  Neither Republicans nor Democrats have shown any enthusiasm for taking steps to spark a public conversation about making our state’s future more manageable, so let’s give someone who is able to make the correct diagnosis about our state’s ills, and willing to speak the name of that ill aloud, a chance to represent the North State in the California Senate.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jim Nielsen: Dead-Weight on the North State

The Redding Record Searchlight’s endorsement of Jim Nielsen, the Republican vying for the vacant 4th Senate District seat, reads a little weirdly, but that’s perhaps to be expected when an editorial board goes through the contortions of getting behind a candidate so irrationally rigid and ideologically inflexible that I suspect he eats his dinner and watches television standing up, supervised by Grover Norquist.

“He is also a great choice [for the District]”.

“He’s too slick by half as a political operator”.

“A skilled and experienced legislator in an age when term limits have made such a thing all too rare ... His knowledge of the budget, which the state will continue struggling to balance, is vital”.

“The Republicans take grief—often deserved—as the party of ‘No’, but Nielsen’s one of those at the table working to solve problems.  (That said, if the question’s taxes, the answer’s still ‘No’.)”

I’m getting whiplash, but let’s start with that last premise (for the record, most of the Searchlight’s GOP endorsements read this way—“He’s nuts, but vote ‘im in!”).  First let’s accept, as most people do, that the manifestation of California’s democratic disease is a troubling gap between our ambitions and our willingness to pay for those ambitions, which in turn manifests itself in the form of a gap between revenue and spending.  You therefore need to either be prepared to obliterate our public sphere—together with the schools, universities, libraries, parks, welfare support, etc which comprises that sphere, or else raise some revenue, somehow.  So what good is it if someone like Nielsen is sitting around the table, like some annoying child, shrieking “No” anytime the adults broach a balanced, serious approach to our state’s problem?  How are you working towards a solution if you’re advocating the former approach but blaming the other party for it in a way calculated to bring the whole political process to a standstill?

That any politician would sign a pledge that they will never, ever, come what may, vote for a tax increase, is irresponsible.  No Democrat, to my knowledge, has signed a pledge that they will never cut taxes.  This, if right-wingers were correct in their assessment of the motivation behind progressive politics (that progressives “like” taxes), would be the default position.  But it’s not.  Nielsen, like his GOP colleagues, signs these pledges and oaths which show far greater reverence for his GOP handlers than for his constituents.  And he’s proud of it, trumpeting his fealty to Norquist and Co at every opportunity.

The Searchlight trumpets Nielsen’s “knowledge of the budget”, but the Assemblyman has come up with some truly bizarre statements about the source of our state’s problems.  The editorial board cites Nielsen’s “passion” and “dedication”, but neither of those attributes is any good if you approach problems with a closed mind, an inflexible thought process, and asking all the wrong questions. 

Don’t believe me?  Look at Nielsen on the issues (the quotes are from his website).

Jobs.  “I believe that the only way to restore our economy and create jobs in the North State is to get Sacramento out of the way”.  I look around the North State, and I don’t see state or federal government making significant investments, and that’s a problem rather than a bonus.  Sure, there are regulations, but you can’t blame environmental laws for our historically downtrodden condition.  If I don’t see state government making investments, neither do I see the ascendant Republican Party with any serious plan for bringing investment to the area.  The absence of taxes and regulation will not lead to economic growth in our region.  It will require investment, and at least some measure of the social infrastructure which supports investment.

Taxes.  “I oppose new taxes, period!”  Even, Mr Nielsen, if those taxes are on the wealthy and go to keeping K-12 education free and high-quality, or to subsidising public higher education, access to which is increasingly a requirement for social mobility, or to social programs for the out of work, the elderly, the poor, or the sick?  Why would you oppose new taxes in good times, when investment in education and technology could drive our economy, and why would you oppose new taxes on those who are doing just fine in these economically difficult times when investment could provide uplift for the majority who are struggling? 

Law and Order.  “I absolutely oppose any early release programs that dump un-rehabilitated, unsupervised criminals in our rural communities”.  What Nielsen doesn’t say is that our expanding prison population, about which he is so enthusiastic, requires spending.  Rehabilitation programs require spending.  Three strikes require spending.  The approach to justice which is keen on locking up criminals but not so enthusiastic about keeping people from engaging in criminal activity requires massive expenditure.  Prevention, focussing on social inequalities and societal ills, would be the best long-term savings for this growing sector of our budget (one which cuts away at funding for our schools and universities), but Nielsen is dead-set against comparatively minor short-term spending for seriously large long-term gains.

The “regulatory nightmare”.  Nielsen favours an unconstructively adversarial relationship with state agencies, attacking them as the “enemy” of citizens instead of finding common cause.  His refusal to see the rational impetus behind regulations he finds offensive precludes him making any headway so long as his party remains marginalised by its fundamentalist economics and hostility towards diversity in the state.  He might know a lot about water and agriculture, but his approach to the problem assures his irrelevance.  We don’t need an irrelevant representative. 

In a move typifying his party’s hypocrisy, Nielsen favours a “real, permanent border fence [to stop] drug traffickers, terrorists and others hell-bent on violating our laws”.  So freedom of movement, the freedom to work, the freedom of the market don’t extend to California’s economy.  Nielsen’s conflation of individuals coming to find work in California with “terrorists” and “drug traffickers” is insulting, disingenuous, and characteristic of his party’s treacherous tryst with more openly xenophobic and racist elements in our society, and he should be ashamed. 

It’s hard to reach any conclusion, after reading through Nielsen’s positions on issues of great importance to our state, and examining his party’s record in state government, that he’s anything other than another blowhard, driven by a basically grim view of society and by the oaths and pledges he’s signed to the Republican Party’s corporate paymasters.  His radical views will keep him on the sidelines and assure that the North State remains voiceless in Sacramento.  But his fundamentalism, and his party’s cynical manipulation of undemocratic supermajority requirements (which allows them to entrap the state in a destructive downward cycle) mean that we will continue to pay the price for Nielsen’s petty politics, his conflation of homeowner protection with corporate welfare in his embrace of an unaltered Prop 13, his commitment to dismembering our public sphere, and his marginalisation of our region.

Nielsen’s opponents will have an uphill battle against his formidable funding machine and the demographics which have traditionally favoured right-wing Republicans.  One candidate running for the seat, Jann Reed is, on the basis of her campaign website, taking sensible positions on a range of issues.  Her independent bid would also allow the North State a voice on the most critical question facing our state, one on which Jim Nielsen is devastatingly silent: political reform.  California’s governing structure is broken, but few politicians from either party are willing to condone the kind of democratic restructuring which would erode their power and patronage networks. 

An independent candidate, who also happens to believe in the value of education, the importance of investment for job growth, and the need for a rational budget discussion, could make a contribution to the debate in a way that Nielsen cannot and will not.  I would be interested to see what Reed has to say on the question, and wish her well in her campaign to provide rational representation to the North State, which would be a welcome change from what Nielsen and his colleagues have given us.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Birthers, Deniers, and Our Future

I’d never met a Birther before.  Sure, I’d seen Donald Trump’s hair dancing around on television as the entertainer foamed at the mouth, made offensive racial insinuations about the President and his origins, and made a fool of himself by pretending that he would run for office.  And I’d heard the leading lights of the Republican Party play the game, ranging from outright questioning of the President’s American-ness to the even more sleazy “Well, I guess I’ll take him at his word”.  Nonetheless, I somehow didn’t believe that there were real people out there prepared to trade in such insinuations.

But while whiling away my last hours in Nairobi back in August before my late-night flight to Heathrow over a cup of tea on the YMCA terrace, I overheard a striking conversation.  A group of American missionaries were sitting with their Kenyan guide at a nearby table, and the topic of President Obama’s Kenyan origins came up.  The missionaries, clearly not Obama fans, were discussing how the President was un-American.  The rather perplexed Kenyan mentioned that hadn’t the President shown the country his birth certificate—proof never requested of any other President in the country’s history. 

Entirely undeterred, the missionaries explained that the birth certificate was forged, as were the announcements in Hawai’ian newspapers, all in anticipation of the sleeper candidate’s run for office, having been born in Kenya and trained in Indonesia.  Now looking a little uncomfortable, the Kenyan asked the missionaries what proof would satisfy them that the President had, in fact, been born in the United States.  “His grades”, one replied.  “No”, another countered, “they were faked, too”.  After a moment’s debate, they concluded, to the consternation of their host, that there was nothing that could convince them that the President was not a foreigner. 

Reeling, I ordered another cup of tea and some mandazi to help me process this insight.  I momentarily contemplated missing the flight which would take me back to a country in which this application of (il)logic is becoming increasingly mainstream.

For this conceptual approach to the President’s origins by a frighteningly-large number of deluded, paranoid, racist lunatics also encapsulates the nation’s approach to climate change. 

Doug LaMalfa, running for Congress in Northern California, declared in a recent debate, “I believe climate change happens every three months.  We’re experiencing one right now.  It’s called autumn”.  This places LaMalfa squarely in the mainstream of a party increasingly populated by science deniers and social and economic fundamentalists, people who would be more at home hob-nobbing with the wackier of the Islamists their neoconservative wing likes to condemn than with reasonable opinion in the world we inhabit.

Was LaMalfa’s calculated embrace of ignorance decried roundly after the debate?  No.  Instead, a rebuke in the Redding Record Searchlight was met by a chorus of climate deniers.  A sampling of what passes for logic. 

RecordStr8: “What if scientists are wrong?”  “This has far transcended science, like the preposterously false fairty tale of Evolution that you’d have to be a Neanderthal to really, truly, actually believe”. 

Valmak: “[Climate change] is not currently predictable and nothing man is able to do is going to change a thing!” 

Poorfarmer: “Consensus on flaky theories and most importantly COERCIVE abuse against those that oppose them is NOT science, it’s criminal negligence.  REAL scientists dissenting against this nonsense are being overshadowed by a biased media wishing it is all ture and coercive leftists wanting to control how you live”. 

Midwest_Cents: “The world’s climate may be changing, BUT stating it is ‘man made’ is far from established fact!  Differing opinions abound...” 

Dumb_Plumber: “There is clearly no antidote to the mental disorder of MMCC (man made climate change) ... California’s enviro-Nazis closer resemble a room full of monkeys with Kazoos trying to play Mozart, than any realistic movement o change the climate”.  

Truthwins: “The problem is the science this whole idea is based on is from computer models that has so many variables that it becomes worthless”. 

It’s not often that I’d agree with Mitt Romney, but while I don’t think that any President should allow the military to run their international affairs, I do think he should listen to his generals.  He, and others, should listen to the generals when they suggest that climate change poses a national security threat to our nation.  Mitt Romney’s current position on climate change is that he acknowledges its existence but refuses to do anything about it.  He wants to drown the issue in study after study until one of them yields the right answer—that we can ignore the problem and go on with our lives.  I’m not sure whether or not this is worse than outright denial—it’s certainly more dishonest (and therefore in keeping with Romney’s character). 

In the foreign policy Presidential debate, Mitt Romney rightly noted that we can’t kill our way out of our national security dilemmas (but he still wants more battleships).  It’s a pity he and his party can’t take this advice, and shift the focus away from threats of our own making (and the self-inflicted wounds that resort from his party’s shameless warmongering) to the much larger and more difficult threat posed by climate change.  But they are convinced—whether by their ideology, their wilful ignorance, or the strange and twisted logic they increasingly apply to social, economic, and scientific problems facing our nation—that they can ignore the big problems and focus instead on the critical issues of “legitimate rape”, the President’s birth-place, welfare for the wealthy, corporate personhood, and the dismantling of our public sphere.

The future looks bleak.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dear California, Please Pass Prop 30

Dear California,

Please pass Proposition 30 on November 6.

If you haven’t consulted your ballot yet, this is the measure proposed by the Governor which raises revenue through a combination of increases to income and sales taxes.  The measure promises that resulting revenues will be directed primarily to K-12 education, with community colleges receiving a much smaller cut.  But the ramifications of passing or not passing Proposition 30 neither begin nor end with K-12 and CCC funding.  In providing funding to some sectors of our education sphere, Prop 30 will avert drastic cuts to higher education and stave off a range of as yet uncertain impacts on our classrooms.  It will also send a signal to our representatives that we prioritise our institutions of learning, and value the social and economic work that they do in our community.

This is an appeal based not just on your status as a voter, but on a member of one of our state’s branches of government.  After all, the dozen or so measures that have been on Californians ballots this year will likely have a far greater impact on our state’s future than will the bills passed by our increasingly-disempowered legislature.  As constitutional amendments, many of these initiatives will make policy which is beyond the reach of the traditional branches of government.  Our legislature and Governor have essentially lost the ability to raise revenue, and can only make cuts—cuts which fall in large measure on those who are too young to have a voice in our affairs, those who are too sick to care for themselves, and those who—through systemic inequality, a lack of an opportunity to build up economic reserves, or pure bad luck—are too economically insecure to provide fully for themselves.  Voters alone retain the power—in a multi-party system in our state—to raise revenue, making us a full-fledged branch of state government.  Consequently, when we vote, we are taking responsibility for caring for these members of our society.

You will hear all sorts of things about Prop 30, and probably already have during this lengthy election season.

The increasingly powerful no-tax lobby will say all sorts of things about this measure, many of them nonsensical or incoherent, where not outright immoral.  But the crux of their argument is that schools could do more with less, that universities should be steadily privatised, that Californians should be like customers when they access state services—paying at the door, those who are poorer getting a product of lower quality, and those who cannot afford the service in question being turned away altogether.  They are saying ‘no’ to the idea of collective investment.  They are repudiating the notion that if all of us invest in schools and universities, we all benefit from a well-rounded citizenry, a well-educated workforce, and a well-funded public research apparatus. 

They are making a rather shallow, unpleasant appeal to short-term self-interest, greed, and the idea that if one generation has already drawn a series of benefits from the public purse, it doesn’t need to put anything back into the collective pot.

Reform purists—and I lean this way on many days of the week—might say that Prop 30 is so incomplete as to be disastrous.  That it is a short-term fix, that it introduces an undesirable inflexibility with its apportionment of funds, that it isn’t as effective as it could have been, that ballot-box budgeting in general is dangerously destabilising.  They would argue for rational, overarching reform, to allow us to have a more reasonable and effective conversation about how to evaluate our priorities and fund our institutions.  And in my view they’re right about each and every one of these particulars.  But the fact is, at this point, it’s about self-preservation.  It’s about halting a very dangerous process so that if we can, hopefully very soon, embrace rational reform, it will be in aid of achieving something...so that there will be something left to protect, to debate, to maintain. 

You might hear people on the political left make a similar argument.  That Prop 30 does nothing to address a system which makes a virtue and a necessity of economic inequality.  They, too, will be correct.  But a failure to act on Prop 30 will do too much material damage to too many lives and fortunes of too many Californians to turn it into an opportunity to make a point.

Let me give you my perspective.

I’m a University of California student, and have been one way or another for over eight years.  I’ve spent about 22 years in California’s public education sphere, teach students at UC, study under wonderful UC faculty, and spend time with a writing program in middle and high school classrooms.  When I entered UC as an undergraduate, students were paying about half of what they are now.  Departments were better-funded, course offerings were more extensive, finishing an undergraduate degree in four years was a more realistic proposition, and UC aspired to provide a well-rounded education to its students.  Much of this has changed, and students would face a 20% increase in their fees should Prop 30 fail and the Governor be forced to plunder its coffers to make up for the budget shortfall.  Campuses would be sent reeling in an effort to make up for a $375 million shortfall.

The UC Regents, hardly a group of radical leftists, have come out in favour of Prop 30.  Schools across the state feel similarly given that they will be facing a $6 billion shortfall.  Teachers would likely be laid-off, programs would be cut, support staff dismissed, and school days might be cut. 

Critics argue that small class sizes don’t matter (ignoring the fact that many of the early problems in California stem from the way in which the cap on class size was implemented by Governor Pete Wilson—overnight without training qualified teachers to fill the new spots).  But no one who has spent a moment in a classroom can say with a straight face that a teacher can educate a class of 35-40 students as well as he or she can a class of 20.  Our state’s classrooms, a testament to California’s diversity and the challenges that accompany this diversity, are filled with students of wildly divergent abilities, from deeply different economic backgrounds, many of them speaking English as a second language.  Students learn in very different ways, respond to different pressures, and need to be challenged and aided accordingly.  Some students have parents who are firmly in their corners, while others lead home lives shockingly bereft of the comforts we might associate with our family lives.  This takes work, and no teacher can adequately address these issues in an overflowing classroom.

Many high school students struggle because of their home lives, because of their school work, because they are bullied, or simply because they are going through what is traditionally a difficult and tumultuous stage of life.  They will be looking for people to turn to, and if they go to the school counselling office, they will increasingly find an empty chair.

It is our hope—and our state’s need (A Portrait of California estimates that by 2025 “the state will have 1 million fewer college graduates than the labour market will demand, resulting in reduced productivity, tax revenues, and incomes”, 124)—that many students will aspire to attend college.  And sadly, when many of those with the ability, but without the family or other social support networks needed to make sense of admissions and aid processes, to weigh their options and consider whether it’s worth it, look for a career or academic guide at their high school, there too they will find a closed-up office. 

For many students, school provides the best structure and stimulus in their lives, and after-school programs and extracurricular activities will be their best chance of coming into their own as young adults.  But if Prop 30 fails to pass, they will find these programs shuttered and these outlets foreclosed.  Even before the latest shrinkage in educational funding, California averaged 90 staff per every 1,000 students in our schools.  In Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida—all states with comparable demographic complexity—the respective averages were 137, 132, 125, and 117.  For all the talk of wastage in staff, supposedly model states like Texas have 18 more teachers (66.8 vs 48), 1.4 more administrators (1.8 vs .4), 4.8 more principals (7 vs 2.2), 1.2 more guidance counsellors (2.3 vs 1.1), and .9 more librarians (1.1 vs .2) per thousand students than California (A Portrait of California (95).

It’s much the same at universities.  UC and CSU campuses are big places, cities in miniature, some of their student populations numbering over 30,000.  This environment, with its guidelines and requirements, can be daunting, as can large class sizes (their expansion fuelled by decades of your disinvestment from these institutions).  Many of my students work, some of them multiple jobs (giving the lie to the malicious rumours that the ill-informed spread about lazy, leeching students), while carrying heavy unit loads in a very rigorous and fairly unforgiving academic setting.  They too rely on support staff whose numbers are being thinned by relentless cuts to our budget.  World class research universities have to explain to their faculty, postdocs, and graduate students that budget cuts mandate shorter library hours.  There is, I think, a sense at these institutions that we’re coming quickly to the end of an era if we don’t do something soon.

So California, when you pick up your ballot and decide whether to vote for Prop 30, please think about more than your short-term interest.  Think about why schools, colleges, and universities are important.

If you are or ever have had a child at school or a student at university, you should understand why Prop 30 matters.  If you’ve ever known a teacher who made you treasure reading or writing or thinking, a school employee who put out a little extra effort to make your experience there better, a professor who fired your imagination, you should get what the stakes are here.  If you’ve ever been a teacher or known a teacher, and therefore understand that the work done in classrooms is infinitely more complicated and meaningful than teaching students to pass scantron exams, you’ll understand why less is not more.

But California, if you pass Prop 30, don’t let the matter end there.  Because it won’t be enough.  In recognition of the fact that the initiative represents an imperfect approach to a very, very big problem, don’t take your eye off the ball.  Don’t disengage from state politics, from the democracy to which Californians demanded access a century ago and through which we have since exercised a great deal of power without taking much responsibility for the collective consequences of our actions. 

The Governor, the most politically opportunistic, socially irresponsible, and executively inept individual to ever lead California, ducked responsibility during his campaign, in office, and in presenting this choice to Californians.  He wrote a series of damaging trigger cuts into the budget rather than tackle the problem at its root.  So if we indulge him in playing along with his false choice to save our state, we need to demand more of him in the next two years, and I suggest that we, as citizens, devise a trigger of our own: if we don’t see some leadership from Jerry Brown, and an effort to address our state’s structural and systemic ills, we implement a trigger recall.

But please, Californian, don’t let your cynicism about a politician, your contempt for our broken process, or your frustration with our economic circumstances drive your approach to the big issues encapsulated in Proposition 30.  Instead, step up and play the part that we wrote for ourselves in demanding direct democracy—vote to arrest our decline, to halt disinvestment in the institutions which shape our social and economic futures, and support Prop 30.