Monday, April 28, 2014

Rainy Days in California

It is to the great shame of the California Democratic Party that Jerry Brown does not have to campaign for re-election during the primary season.  Our governor instead coasts to re-election against unviable Republican candidates, and is therefore never held to account by progressives who face a choice between Brown’s conservatism and that of a GOP candidate who is even worse.

But although he might not begin campaigning until the end of the summer, Jerry Brown seems to have found his theme and his cause for his re-election bid.  From the day he entered the gubernatorial race in 2010, his mantra has been “fiscal responsibility” at whatever cost, and that shows no sign of changing.

That mantra explains the devastating cuts he made to all levels of the education sector.  It explains his efforts to bend the noble ideal of an education to the grubby demands of an immoral market.  It explains his victimisation of the poor, the weak, the young, and the elderly when he made harsh cuts to the social welfare net in the middle of a recession which already had many Californians on their knees.  And it explains his efforts to shutter public spaces, whether libraries or parks. 

It also explains Brown’s willingness to roll back the regulations that protect communities from the potentially-terrible impacts of practises like fracking (enforcing regulations costs money).  And it explains his refusal to back Democrats’ efforts to restore funding to the public sphere during those fleeting months when they held supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate.  The one thing Brown’s mantra does not explain is his categorical refusal to shoulder responsibility and tackle the underlying democratic deficit which makes raising revenue to reinvest in our society virtually impossible.  That can only be explained by laziness or political cowardice.

But what his mantra does explain is why Jerry Brown is doing the rounds of the television and radio stations defending his record on addressing economic inequality, explaining, “We’re taking many steps.  I’m sure there’ll be many more”.  Some of those “steps” including granting a pittance back to schools and universities after decades of divestment, not something exactly guaranteed to change the fact that after those decades of divestment from schools and social welfare one quarter of California’s children live in poverty.  I could not fathom a more devastating indictment of a society’s priorities.

But Brown’s response to his critics is emblematic of his consistent refusal to address simmering problems: he passed the buck by arguing that because there are global factors in play he can’t do much about it; and he used his signature cynicism to suggest that Californians might need to accept inequality, breezily saying, “You don’t get the good without some of the bad”.

To bolster his reputation for “fiscal responsibility” during election season, Brown will be campaigning for a rainy-day fund for the state.  And in a sign that he hasn’t learned anything about the process that makes California ungovernable absent one-party rule (and that’s assuming there’s consensus within the party that has the ability to override the undemocratic supermajorities in place), Brown wants the rainy day fund written into the state’s constitution, elongating what is already amongst the world’s longest and most unwieldy constitutional document and which introduces a paralysing degree of inflexibility into our politics.

The principle behind a rainy-day fund makes sense.  In good times you save for the bad times.  But because California can’t support its public sphere in good times, let alone bad, the creation of a rainy day would wind up leading to some out-of-touch priorities.  Until we actively invest in the present, there will not be any good times for the state—or at least for most Californians who do not benefit from the “recovery” that has bolstered the fortunes of the wealthy while leaving the poor and middle class behind.  Under Brown’s plan, this year California surpasses the threshold which would require the state to make a contribution to a rainy-day fund.

But the idea that a polity in our impoverished state—straining schools, underfunded universities, slashed social services, weakened welfare, and pulverised public institutions—should be taking funds desperately needed today and setting them aside for the future instead of reinvesting for the present is mind-bogglingly irresponsible.  One sign of its irresponsibility is the backing it has received from GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, whose economic fundamentalism was responsible for the warped bank bailouts and golden parachutes at the height of the recession.

If the Governor is serious about combating economic inequality, instead of de-funding the public sphere and then putting money aside in the middle of an economic thunderstorm which has yet to abate for many Californians, he should be harnessing the spectacular—and spectacularly poorly distributed—wealth of the state to invest in its citizens. 

Representatives of two progressive groups made this point very well in a recent op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper in the city representative of the state’s new, tuned-out elite who are increasingly abandoning the city’s fabled progressivism for a cold, cynical, self-interested libertarianism (not that there’s any other kind). 

“With state revenues on the rise and Gov. Jerry Brown cruising to re-election”, the advocates wrote, “you would think that his call for a special session this week would be to reverse billions in draconian cuts made during our decade of disinvestment”.

“Instead”, they argue, rightly, that “Gov. Brown has only created a platform to amplify his out-of-touch, ‘live-within-your-means’ scolding of California’s working poor, seniors, and children.  Instead of prioritizing a path to raise permanent revenue that could restore $20 billion in cuts to K-12 education and community colleges, $3.7 billion to Medi-Cal, $4.6 billion to Social Security assistance and $1.6 billion in child care program cuts since 2008, he has decided to focus on the next rainy day.  We’ve got news for the governor: It’s still raining!”

Brown’s emphasis on fiscal probity rather than the moral responsibility that we have as Californians to each other in times of hardship as well as of plenty is sad, not only because it represents his inability to understand the gravity of the challenges our state faces.  But also because, as he cruises to re-election, unchallenged except by yapping fundamentalists, his misplaced priorities will continue to punish Californians, diminish our civic sphere, and reduce our capacity to create a good, fair, and equal society. 

The Governor is fond of classical illusions, but seems unaware that he resembles less some classical sage in the agora of his “new California” than an addled Nero, fiddling to some orchestra only he can hear atop a social and economic tinderbox.  The story the Governor is writing for California has all the makings of a tragedy, and Californians should demand better. 

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