Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Prop 30—Yes, But; or, Recalling the Anti-Governor

I generally try to avoid evils, even the so-called necessary ones.  But Prop 30 is proving to be one of those which require a temporary embrace to avert an impending social catastrophe.  The initiative in question was placed on the ballot by California’s Incredible Prevaricating Governor, Jerry Brown, with an aim to raising revenue over the short term in the state to hold the state together, as the Governor once said, “with baling wire and scotch tape”. 


Brown himself presided over a mess of a budget which was based on his dishonest revenue forecasts, and which contained a series of “trigger cuts” which will go into action if Prop 30 fails to pass.  Schools, public safety, and higher education will all be bludgeoned by brutal cuts if voters don’t put on the band-aid, and it is for this reason only that Prop 30 deserves our support.  For Brown’s cuts, put into the budget to make him look tough rather than on any policy merit, will undercut both those who are most vulnerable in our society, but will continue the evisceration of the institutions that drive innovation, employment, and the reduction of inequality in our state.

As inadequate as Prop 30 (which imposes small hikes in sales tax and tax increases on upper incomes) might be, it is necessary to avert the dangerous slide that our state is taking.  The Republican Party, through its embrace of Prop 13 and its pledge-oriented governance from the sidelines via minority rule, started the avalanche that is threatening to bury our public sphere.  Theirs is an ideological project, and not the ‘good-governance/financial solvency’ endeavour that they attempt to embrace, and if they are allowed to drive our public sphere over the brink, it will be hard to make that climb back up.

But the fact remains that Prop 30, despite its short-term necessity, is the fix of all fixes, with a terrifyingly brief horizon, meaning that in a few years we’ll be having this conversation all over again.  Like Governor Brown, its political progenitor, the measure embraces the pretence that having a one-time fiddle with tax rates constitutes serious engagement with California’s political paralysis. 

In spite of his wise-man, been-there-done-that image, Governor Brown thinks in four-year cycles.  And his handling of California’s democratic deficit, which manifests itself as an economic crisis, has been deplorable and amateurish. 

During his campaign he took the same kind of pledge that he abhors in the Republican Party fundamentalists who snuffle around the Assembly and Senate.  He conspicuously failed to embrace any substantive solution to our broken politics, wasted the opportunity to campaign on a solution to our stagnation, and deliberately avoided the question of reform.  Upon taking office, he squandered the better part of a year negotiating with Republicans who have oathed themselves to Grover Norquist and Howard Jarvis at the expense of their constituents, when anyone who has read a newspaper in the past decade could have warned him of the futility of such negotiations. 

Brown then misdiagnosed California’s ills and proceeded to ram a series of draconian cuts down the state’s throat, exacerbating socioeconomic inequality, fuelling uncertainty, and generally punishing those least able to stand on their own feet.  Instead of asking Californians to step up and address the root of our ills—the dysfunctional nature of our polity—he is threatening more cuts and pretending that we can return to the glory days by stumbling along from election to election, initiative to imitative.  This is a man with no vision, no sense of mission and, perhaps most reprehensibly, no sense of responsibility.

For this reason, we need to put the Governor on notice.  If we pass Prop 30 in November, it should be with the expectation that within a couple of months of the election Governor Brown will articulate a systemic overhaul of our polity.  This overhaul should be detailed, and ought to contain both a timeframe and a plan of action, things to which the Governor has been notoriously unwilling to commit during his lengthy tenures in office—tenures most striking for their lack of productivity.  And if he fails to come forward with a serious plan for the political reform which is necessary if we are to regain the status of a functioning society, the Governor should be recalled.

I don’t think that the ability to recall a state executive is something which should be wielded casually.  I don’t think that it is something which should be invoked because some subset of people does not like the policies of a democratically-elected executive.  If we went down that road, it might be easier to elect a new Governor every year, so inconsistent, ill-informed, and un-engaged is California’s electorate. 

I do, however, think that a recall is eminently appropriate when we are faced with a Governor who flat out refuses to do his job—that is, to Govern.

This failure to govern is the defining feature of Brown’s governorship and of his unholy political strategy.  In a breathtaking act of social and political irresponsibility, Brown pledged himself to devolve decision-making and budgeting to voters.  California’s democracy is pretty hands-on (and the way in which it is hands-on is a problem), but Brown is taking things to dangerous extremes.  His failure to take any initiative is in no way balanced by his presentation to voters of an unsustainable future juxtaposed with an apocalyptic one.  He should not be forgiven for ignoring California’s structural crisis, particularly when it is clear that he knows that this structure is the problem.

The powers of the California Governor are limited, but the holder of that office should nonetheless exercise leadership.  And taking pledges, twiddling thumbs, refusing to campaign, and flat-out refusing to contemplate serious reform (it would be hard, Brown whines) do not constitute leadership.

Worse still, Brown’s approach to the budget morass (which is a symptom rather than the disease itself) is based on a dangerous game of social brinkmanship.  He is driven neither by the fundamentalist zeal of the Republican Party and its allies nor by any kind of compassion or ideal of what our state’s society should look like.  Commentators might bemoan the absence of “non-partisan” politicians, but Brown’s serial irresponsibility and flippant approach to deadly serious problems which need to be addressed through the execution of coherent agendas gives the state and the nation a preview of what a Capitol full of such people would look like. 

At a moment of supreme crisis, Brown passed the buck.  He certainly doesn’t deserve another chance, but if his initiative succeeds we should offer him one.  But the caveat to that opportunity should be unforgiving, and the Governor should understand that his days of fiddling, misrepresentation, and prevarication are over. 

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