Thursday, October 18, 2012

Living LaMalfa's Legacy

Doug LaMalfa (R) is a State Senator and former State Assemblyman who is running to replace outgoing Republican, Wally Herger, in Congress.  He is being challenged by Democrat Jim Reed.  LaMalfa might face a different array of issues at the federal level should North State voters choose him to represent them in Washington, D.C.  But the fact remains that he has a legacy in state government, and that legacy points to the way that he will operate—in conjunction with his party—in Congress.

I’d argue that LaMalfa’s greatest legacy from his days in California politics is not any particular vote on any particular issue that he has cast, but rather on his approach to government.  It is an approach characterised by an outlandish regard for the instruments of the thing he calls the “free market”, a total disregard for the collective good, and a bizarrely debilitating obsession with taxation and the deficit.

But let’s back up.  California, as we all know, is the perpetual punching-bag for much of the rest of the nation.  Sometimes our detractors are suffering from California-envy.  After all, five of the top ten and six of the top twelve public universities in the nation are located in California, as is the nation’s largest system of public higher education.  We have nice weather, and depending on where you live you can surf and snowboard in the same day.  We are home to the seats of the technological and entertainment industries.  But these days, we’re more likely to be targeted for our dysfunctionality.  We are a state in which voters comprise one branch of government, a branch which refuses to speak to the executive and legislative branches, and declines to take responsibility for its actions.  There is a wild imbalance between our desires and our revenue.  Our constitution is a mile long, and our state capitol has become a byword for deadlock.

While neither of the two parties which dominate politics in California has clean hands, I refuse to subscribe to the notion that they are equally responsible for our state’s plight.  Why not?  Examine the record, rhetoric, and ideology of LaMalfa and his colleagues in state government, and I believe that you will see that, far from being the liberal aberration that much of the nation thinks us to be, California is actually the GOP model, the place where the Republican Party has been able to put into practise what it preaches across the nation.  We are their guinea pig, their Frankenstein-ian creation, and the results aren’t pretty.

This is un-intuitive, given that Republicans comprise a minority—and a pretty small one—in state government.  But the fact is, the state GOP has found a powerful niche in its numerical shrinkage. 

So what is the ideology to which LaMalfa and his colleagues subscribe, and which they have been forcing by stealth (that is, without ever having to acknowledge or defend them because they are implemented by default) on the state? 

First, there is the rabid anti-tax stance.  The Republican Party, I think it’s safe to say, approaches taxes in a different way than probably any other party in history.  Traditionally, taxes are a means to an end, but for the Republican Party, during the years when LaMalfa has served in Sacramento, taxes have become an end in and of themselves.  This irrational approach to taxes encapsulates what social scientist Philip Selznick referred to as the “tyranny of means and the impotence of ends”.  The means, Selznick wrote, “tyrannise when the commitments they build up divert us from our true objectives”. 

This has become, by accident or design, the outcome of the Republican Party’s fundamentalist approach to politics.  Taxes are usually a way to implement our ambitions.  Most sensible political conversations begin with a debate about what we would like our society to look like and how we would like to get it there.  Historically, when we’ve agreed that, for example, well-funded higher education constitutes a social good—because of the work it does in closing economic gaps, because of its contributions to technological, moral, social and scientific developments, because of the civic grounding it provides for young Californians, because of its contributions to our state’s economy—we then wouldn’t have such a big problem deciding how to fund it.  But today it’s impossible to have that debate about what our society should look like because we know that a block of our legislators have signed a pledge and taken an oath forswearing the use of their grey cells and prohibiting them from making investments—any investments—in our state.

I don’t understand ideological opposition to taxes.  It’s stupid.  Taxes are a tool.  A citizen of a functioning democracy, particularly a representative, being fundamentally opposed to taxes would be like a farmer looking at his tractor and saying, “I’m fundamentally opposed to this tractor!”.  And yet this is what Doug LaMalfa and his colleagues say.  The result is a paralysed political system, crippled by an overburdened constitution, incapacitated by an unaccountable initiative structure (in which few of the initiatives we vote on originate from the concerns of citizens as opposed to corporate or other interests), and hamstrung by a very undemocratic politics. 

At the heart of this is Proposition 13, something that LaMalfa and his colleagues support hook, line and sinker.  Proposition 13 consisted of one generation effectively saying, “We’ve taken what we want from this place we call home, we’ve reaped the benefits of collective investment, and now we don’t feel like contributing any further so that future generations can enjoy similar benefits”.  LaMalfa and his party pretend that Prop 13 was about providing relief for homeowners.  It did so, but in doing so, it conflated homeowners with corporate property-owners.  It instituted minority rule in our state (rule which has allowed Republicans to force disinvestment through the back door).  And, by enshrining these measures in the constitution, it allowed one generation of voters to constrain the futures of later generations of Californians, something Thomas Paine called “governing from beyond the grave...the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies”. 

The other Republican Party obsession—one shared by Doug LaMalfa—is the deficit.  Deficit and debt, they suggest, is the absolute worst threat to our society, our nation, our state, and our way of life.  It is, they tell us, of paramount importance, and its wholesale and immediate reduction must take priority over every other facet of our lives.  There is truth in the claim that a deficit signals something about our politics, and that we should do better at managing it.  But it is also true that the deficit remains something we can manage.  And if we lived in a functional political system—in which our legislators had true discretionary power and in which voters hadn’t made some existing revenue and all prospective revenue adjustments off-limits—we could do a lot better at reducing it.

And there is something that scares me a heck of a lot more than the deficit.  That is a society which sacrifices, in the name of fiscal health, the welfare, security, health, and future of its people.  A society which disinvests from early childhood education, K-12 education, higher education, social welfare, environmental health (which translates into human health), technology, science, and public infrastructure.  A society which prizes political purity (something Doug “One of Us!” LaMalfa trumpets wherever he goes) more than the welfare of its citizens.

I am much more frightened at the prospect of a society which has lost its capacity to define its social and economic goals and has relinquished its ability to act on those goals.

Republicans call the deficit insane.  But what’s wackier at the end of the day?  The idea that we can take on some short-term debt for long-term collective ambitions and welfare?  Or opposition to “taxes” from first principle?  Or the notion that corporations—that is, an agglomeration of economic interests—can and should be treated exactly the same as living, breathing humans, who have emotional desires and material needs? 

We need to transition away from this insanity.  And I can think of no better way to do so than by sending Doug LaMalfa back to his rice farm—so that he can enjoy on a full-time basis the public support and subsidies that he would like to deny to the rest of us—and electing Jim Reed to Congress. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! Thoughtful, insightful and I couldn't have said it better myself!

    I was a senior in high school when Prop 13 passed and I watched as my band director had to mothball the school's instruments. It was a sad, sad day for us.

    All of those people who scream about raising taxes also complain about crumbling infrastructure, bad schools, the disintegration of society and "those awful homeless people everywhere." They are too stupid to see that THEY have voted for this!