Thursday, May 9, 2013

California Democrats Embrace Fundamentalism of "Fiscal Responsibility" at their Peril

There has been some confusion since last November, when Democrats won supermajorities in both the California Senate and Assembly, as to whether they would try to do anything with that hard-won authority to govern (Republicans, thanks to undemocratic supermajority rules, had basically set the state on a course for self-destruction from the sidelines).

John Perez, the Speaker of the Assembly, provided to date the most definitive answer to that question in an interview with Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton.  As quoted by Skelton, Perez had the following to say: “It shouldn’t--but it may--surprise folks that Democrats with our supermajority will be looking to build on the fiscal responsibility that we’ve shown in the last couple of years”.  

I assume that the fiscal responsibility to which Perez refers was the sadistic game of brinkmanship that California Governor Jerry Brown and Democrats played with voters in the years leading up to the 2012 vote on Prop 30 (which amounted to using a band-aid--or baling wire, to quote our fumbling Governor--to shore up a collapsing building).  That effort involved laying waste to our state’s public sphere, the sector which serves as a floor, an admittedly-flawed equaliser, and the foremost provider of institutional support for most Californians.

Brown and the Democrats decided that to convince voters to apply this useless band-aid, they had to first take a wrecking ball to our schools, universities, and other public institutions and spaces.  For years, goaded by serially-irresponsible Republicans, they hammered away at the public institutions which provide a foundation and framework for California’s children and students.  They undermined the social welfare structure which provides a bulwark for citizens in hard times--hard times which were exacerbated by the soaring costs of higher education, the declining quality of K-12 education, and the virtual evaporation of early childhood education.  

These developments occurred with breathtaking speed thanks to the serial irresponsibility of our political class, their cynical actions undertaken in the name of “fiscal responsibility”, a panacea that Perez now expects to absolve he and his colleagues of any number of sins against their community.

“We don’t”, Perez told Skelton, “have endless amounts of money”.  Strictly speaking, that’s true.  But it is also true that this very wealthy state can leverage basically whatever (however much ultimately finite) amount of money it chooses to, through its legislators.  It is party political, rather than moral mathematics which are driving Perez’ calculations to continue to starve our public sphere of funds, again in the name of “fiscal responsibility”.  

California’s Republican Party has long been the party of economic zealotry and fundamentalism, placing the sanctity of their hollow ideology above the welfare of the public.  But today, under the stewardship of our inept Governor, Jerry Brown, and the likes of Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Democrats are of their own volition in danger of adopting the same immoral creed.

A further example of their expediency can be found in Perez’ proposal for a new rainy day fund, a proposal roundly mocked by Mark Paul (co-author with Joe Mathews of the must-read California Crackup) as “a joke”, a convincing conclusion given that the state would need to see some unseasonable sunny weather before it could contemplate putting money aside unless it simply wants to rob from already-eroded institutions in the service of a pointless political gesture.  

But the Speaker pushed ahead with his insane logic, explaining to Skelton that “the best time to do this [push for the rainy day fund] is right now, in proximity to our worst economic crisis.  The memory is recent enough that we can act smart enough and not replicate the mistakes of our past”.  

This ignores the painfully obvious point that many people are still reeling from this economic crisis--a crisis which was exacerbated at a personal level for many people by the failure of public institutions to be able to support them at their darkest hour--and that failing to repair the damage done to our society risks making things worse for a great many people.  

Perez also plans to aim another blow at our long-beleaguered public education system.  What seems at face value a gesture of generosity to that system--tuition relief for poorer students funded by loopholes closed by Prop 39--actually serves to further undermine the system, putting Perez into cahoots with the most destructive members of the GOP caucus in what threatens to be a stunningly powerful anti-public legislative consensus.

What makes an institution or a good public--like education, for example--is that it is available free at the cost of use to members of the public because it has been supported by collective contributions by all members of that same public, contributions which are commensurate with individuals’ abilities to give.  The moment that a system of higher education based on this model is replaced by what amounts to differential systems of tuition based on income--a uniform tuition level being made differential by an entrenched scholarship system--it ceases to be public.

In some respects, Perez’ scholarship scheme is a practical solution to a difficult problem.  But for those of us who think that the integrity of public institutions is important, his ‘solution’ winds up entrenching a mentality of distinction in an education institution which has to this point prided itself on regarding all those who enter its hallowed walls equally.  Not only does it introduce greater inequity into our university system, it lets the public off the hook.  To this point, the public has played a significant if reprehensibly-diminishing role in funding public higher education.  The more legislators and the Governor rely on a balkanised system of decentralised funding, the more they chip away at the link between our finest and most globally-envied institution, and the public which should support and in turn be served by that institution.  

In short, it appears that politically-empowered but morally-neutered Democrats are suddenly in danger of replacing the numerically-marginalised but ideologically-ascendant right wing of the Republican Party as the most significant threat to California’s future and to the well-being of its citizens.  I suggest that Perez and his colleagues find a set of vertebrae to share out between one another in a hurry, lest the goodwill that empowered them hemorrhage as quickly as the public institutions they are puncturing with their ill-advised expediency.  

Democrats should understand that “fiscal responsibility” at the expense of California’s public and citizenry is not going to fly.

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