Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The California Myth, or, When Paul Drank Jerry's Kool-Aid

Over the week-end, Paul Krugman took to the pages of the New York Times to debunk what he referred to as the “death-by-liberalism” myth that the right in America has tried to perpetuate based on the state of affairs in the Golden State.  As Krugman put it, “California isn’t a state in which liberals have run wild; it’s a state where a liberal majority has been effectively hamstrung by a fanatical conservative minority that, thanks to supermajority rules, has been able to block effective policy making”. 

Krugman’s analysis is correct.  Until the Democrats captured legislative supermajorities last year, they had no control over the fundamentals of state governance given the ability of Republicans to control the state’s purse strings, something I wrote about in the context of the “GOP in decline” narrative and the irritating tendency of national Republicans to run against their own Frankenstein-like creation in California.  

But then Krugman misses the point.  He went on to write that Jerry Brown is now “free to push an agenda of tax hikes and infrastructure spending that sounds remarkably like the kind of thing California used to do before the rise of the radical right”.  Now I understand that Krugman might not be the most devoted California-watcher, but surely he’s been around long enough to understand who it is he’s talking about. 

Jerry Brown, after all, is the man who implemented the devastating and on-going austerity program under which California and its public institutions are suffering.  Jerry Brown was the man whose refusal to govern led to the passage of Prop 13 in the first place.  Jerry Brown was the man who actively repudiated his father’s commitment to infrastructure-construction and institution-building, who warned the state in the ‘70s that the future would be a smaller, less ambitious, meaner place—a reality his bunging helped to underwrite.  Jerry Brown is the man who warned Assembly and Senate Democrats off tax increases, and who sold Prop 30 as a “fix” when it was nothing more than a band-aid.

Brown’s big “comeback” was a version of the brinkmanship gamble made by Obama with Congressional Republicans.  Brown, who plays the political game like few others around, succeeded in his efforts to force Californians to blanch when they looked over the precipice, whereas Obama failed miserably, suggesting that the Governor knows his audience better than the President.  The problem is that there was no payoff for Californians’ support of Prop 30.

Nothing changed with the Democratic supermajorities—supermajorities which could well prove incredibly fleeting.  The supermajority rules have not been suspended.  Austerity has not been rolled back.  Our broken state government has not been repaired.  We have not embraced structural reform.  Once hamstrung by the GOP’s real power, Democrats are now hamstrung by the possibility of a GOP comeback and the paucity of their own ambitions in government. 

If, as Krugman suggests, California is “still the place where the future happens first”, we’re in for a wild ride.  Because there are two myths in Krugman’s article.  One of them, which he’s trying to debunk, is the idea that California has been suffering from progressive misrule, when in fact the state has been run along fundamentalist right-wing lines for years thanks to Prop 13.  The second is the myth that he is perpetuating by suggesting that California has made some kind of progressive comeback, when the reality is that the state continues to suffer: from a failure to invest in its public institutions, from a crippling austerity program, from the reactionary politics of its Governor, the cowardice of its legislature, and the hostile indifference of its citizens.

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