Friday, November 9, 2012

Throwing Down the Gauntlet to the Governor

In 1978, corporate and real estate interests dealt the state a terrible wound in the form of Prop 13.  Masquerading as populists, these representatives of the newly corporatized Republican Party, got a ballot measure passed which not only crippled the state’s ability to deal sensibly with property tax (Prop 13 conflated protection for homeowners with corporate welfare giveaways) but enshrined unworkable supermajority requirements and simultaneously centralised responsibility for governance in California while curtailing the ability of that centralised government to accomplish anything of note.


A real recipe for disaster, in other words, and one enabled by the shameless procrastination of one Governor Jerry Brown, who fiddled in Sacramento while the state burned with frustration.  Prop 13—and all the ills stemming from it which continue to plague our state—was a result of a leadership failure.

In 2012, the same Governor who presided over the train-wreck of an election in 1978, put a band-aid on the same gaping, festering injury which he helped to inflict in the first place, and would undoubtedly like to go on his merry way, pretending that he’s “fixed” things.  Prop 30, the Governor told Californians, who narrowly endorsed his measure for short-term tax increases earlier this week, will save our schools and universities.  It represents a “solution” to California’s problems.

The Governor went hiking on election day.  I would be the last person to begrudge him some fresh air, and in fact hope that exposure to the great outdoors brings some clarity to his thinking.  Because schools and colleges and universities are NOT any better off than they were on November 5.  Prop 30 did NOT improve anything.  It did exactly zero to address the dysfunction of our democracy, our democratic deficit, our overburdened and unworkable constitution, our mangled imitative system, or any of California’s other structural deficiencies which will continue to impoverish our public sphere and our public debate.

Tuition is still twice as high as it was less than a decade ago, at a time when job prospects for exiting students are lousy.  Universities still have to deal with the implications of decades of disinvestment, and the fallout from the devastating cuts of recent years which have left departments understaffed, libraries with pitifully shrunken hours, offices unmanned, and course offerings reduced.  Schools remain beleaguered, classrooms overpopulated, teachers overburdened, and support staff overstretched.  The early childhood education sphere, a field of education still coming into its own as people grow to appreciate its centrality to short- and long-term gains alike for children and our society, has been dramatically rolled back in recent years, state support reduced, the ranks of teachers decimated, accessibility severely circumscribed.

And the Governor wants to claim that Prop 30 represents a victory for education and his supporters rush to declare his genius.  Not so fast.

In a few years’ time, we’ll be having the same conversation.  If Jerry Brown remains Governor, he will, no doubt, renew his irresponsible pledge to only raise taxes through a vote of the people, and we’ll find ourselves having the same debate.  Only this time, we’ll have to explain why Brown lied in 2012 about the significance of Prop 30.  We’ll have to explain that no, he didn’t really mean it, it wasn’t really a fix.  We’ll have to explain to voters that this absurdly unwieldy ballot-box budgeting is the new normal under Governors who refuse to lead, who refuse, in fact to do their job—which is to Govern. 

So what, given the long-term damage he’s already inflicted on the state, could Jerry Brown do now to redeem himself?

Well, he could start by addressing California’s structural problems—those problems which will make a repeat of this farcical process necessary year after year.  He could talk about rational, comprehensive reform.  Reform to the central premise of Prop 13—the premise of “governing beyond the grave”, what Thomas Paine described as “the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies”.  Reform to a system of voting which has traditionally seen Democrats win over 50% but less than 60% of Californians votes across the state but capture nearly two-thirds of the seats (this year they broke the supermajority), and Republicans able, in spite of their minority status (a status exaggerated by single-member districts decided by a first-past-the-post system), able to govern by default because of the way that Prop 13 empowers minority parties.  Reform to the financing of elections which sees the voices of citizens buried by money, some of it flowing openly from unions, much of it cascading through dark money groups who we can’t even identify and who make a mockery of our democracy.  Reform to a system of government which has one set of rules for increasingly disempowered legislators and another set of rules for citizens who have come to comprise through the initiative system an unstructured branch of government which steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for its actions.  Reform to a system which allows the fetishisation of taxes and impoverishes our debate about the kind of society we would like to live in. 

These are the kinds of reforms that California urgently needs.  Jerry Brown has always shied away from making big decisions and tackling big problems, bleating and whining about how hard it is to do big things, and I worry that he will read the Democratic supermajorities and victory for Prop 30 as vindication of his misanthropic, Machiavellian, self-serving approach to government. 

But if he wants another term, and if he wants to go down in history as anything other than the man who—twice in 40 years—validated Californians’ penchant for self-indulgence with socially and economically catastrophic results, perhaps nothing less than the ultimate destruction of our public sphere, then he needs to get his act together.  He needs to behave like the Governor Californians thought they were election in 2010: one who eschews the smoke and mirror politics that Prop 30 represents, and instead is capable of diagnosing California’s ills honestly, and acting in a determined fashion to remedy those ills. 

It’s do-or-die, Reform-or-Bust.  Because we mustn’t operate under the illusion that our strained social fibre, our creaky education system, and our restive public can continue to function happily or productively under either the strain of illusory fixes or the fleeting panacea of the new Democratic supermajority.  We backed the Governor on Prop 30.  We sold it to our friends and family.  We talked about how it was inadequate but necessary.  Now it’s the Governor’s turn to get our backs and take the next step towards putting our state on a functional, democratic, and socially-responsible footing.

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