Monday, May 25, 2009

California Apocalypse


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The people of California — or at least 24 percent of its eligible voters — sent a nihilistic message on Tuesday, May 19, when they voted down five measures that, for all their complexity and stopgap nature, were desperately needed to stanch the bleeding of red ink from California’s state budget. Not everybody who voted down the slate of ballot measures necessary to implement a desperately negotiated budget deal between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and party leaders in the legislature did so to send a message against all proposals for new taxes. But that’s the message that got sent, and it’s the message the governor and the legislative Republicans who, thanks to the California constitution’s two-thirds vote requirement to pass a stage budget, hold the balance of power are going to implement.

“The people told Sacramento, ‘Go and do your work yourself. Don’t come to us with your problems,’” Schwarzenegger told reporters in Washington. D.C. — where he’d gone for a photo-op with President Obama on pollution controls on cars — when the word that the initiatives had lost big came through. “So now we have to recognize that and move forward and make all the changes through [spending] cuts.”

Those are words California’s Republicans — or at least the far-Right contingent that has dominated their party for the last two generations — have been waiting to hear for 43 years, ever since they elected Ronald Reagan governor in 1966. They have been on a long trek to convert California from a generous welfare state (first begun in the 1940’s by another Republican who prided himself on being able to cross party lines, then-Governor Earl Warren) into a Libertarian utopia in which government gets out of the business of taking care of the poor and working people, and devotes all its efforts to facilitating wealth creation by the private sector and punishing crime.

Well before Grover Norquist of the American Tax Reform Association coined the phrase “starve the beast,” meaning to cut taxes to such an extent that government could no longer afford the education, health care and social welfare programs Norquist and his arch-conservative confrères abhorred on ideological grounds, California’s Right was already pursuing that strategy. From the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 — which not only slashed California’s property taxes but undercut the ability of local governments to raise money on their own and thereby transformed them into permanent mendicants on the state’s dole — to the successful recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 and his replacement with Schwarzenegger, whose fulfillment of his campaign pledge to cut vehicle registration fees created California’s current budget deficit almost by itself — California’s Right has systematically fought to make the state financially broke and unable to fund much of anything.

It’s taken them a long time, but now they’ve got their wish. Among the proposals Schwarzenegger is going to make to the legislature is abolition of the CalWorks state welfare program, which serves more than 500,000 poor families with children; abolition of the Healthy Families program to fund health-care coverage for 928,000 children; phasing out the CalGrants program of student aid to 77,000 new students per year; cutting $600 million from state universities and $750 million from state prisons, most of that from programs to rehabilitate inmates; cutting K-12 education funding by $5.3 billion over the next 13 months; eliminating a $96 million program to help 35,000 people with AIDS and HIV buy medications; dismantling the state’s office that evaluates the health risks of chemicals in consumer products and the environment; eliminating 11,000 government jobs; and ultimately slashing the state’s general-fund budget to three-fourths of its current size, from $95.5 billion to $71.5 billion.

The final step in the fulfillment of the Right-wing Libertarian dream of California came about with some surprising allies. The Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) and most other public employee unions opposed the ballot measures even though their defeat will cost tens of thousands of their members their jobs. They did so in the delusion that somehow the defeat of these initiatives would create a political climate for more far-reaching and progressive tax increases; instead, of course, the opposite has happened, as any rational observer of California politics would have been able to conclude before the election. At the Activist San Diego meeting the day before the election, virtually everyone in this nominally progressive organization was committed to voting no on the slate of ballot measures — and one person there said people needed to vote no to “send them a message,” the kind of nihilistic B.S. I’m used to hearing from talk-radio devotees and other Right-wingers, not from ordinarily thoughtful progressives concerned about protecting and expanding the welfare state.

California’s political crisis has been a long time coming, and the culprits get mentioned in just about every article about it: the insane two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget, which gives the minority party all of the power and none of the responsibility; the draconian term limits passed into law in the 1990’s, which force legislators out of their jobs just when they’ve begun to learn them; the rotten redistricting plans which protect incumbents and favor the election of extremists from both parties over moderates; a state tax system that relies too heavily on income taxes and other levies that fluctuate dramatically with the health of the overall economy; and the voters themselves, who not only keep sending these contradictory “messages” to their elected officials — don’t cut our services and don’t raise our taxes — but pass ballot measures which put great chunks of the state budget out of the hands of the legislature and require spending on the initiative sponsors’ pet programs whether that’s the wisest use of the state’s resources or not.

The basic problem with California’s fiscal politics is that everyone involved is behaving like a spoiled child. Democrats and liberals regard their pet programs as sacrosanct and feel that a simple common-sense measure like a “rainy-day fund,” to bank larger-than-anticipated revenues from economic boom times to have a reserve left over for busts, is somehow an imposition on their tax-and-spend goals. Republicans and conservatives not only use their legislative veto power to forbid tax increases but to demand tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations — as they did, successfully, in the most recent budget negotiations. (Before this year’s budget deal, the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians paid 7.4 percent of their income in taxes, while the poorest Californians — those earning $20,000 or less per year — paid 10.2 percent. After the deal, the share of the wealthiest went up to 7.8 percent — but the share of the poorest went up to 11.1 percent.)

The spoiled babies in California include the voters themselves. They keep voting to expand state services and against new taxes. They’ve been given several chances to lower the 2/3 threshold for passing a budget and to ease the draconian term limits on legislators — and they’ve turned down every one of them. With their votes on the ballot measures last Tuesday, the voters have answered the question posed by former California legislative leader John Burton — “People are going to have to figure out: Do they want schools, do they want roads, do they want public safety, do they want to take care of the less fortunate?” — with a resounding “NO!”

That “NO” will continue to resound throughout the nation. As President Obama leads the rest of the United States in a profoundly different direction — towards more government spending, reversal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, more regulation and more direct government stimulus of the economy — California will become a laboratory experiment in the Right-wing alternative: evisceration of the public sector; massive cutbacks in education, health care and other social programs; ultimately, perhaps, the dismantling of almost all government agencies and their replacement by private contractors delivering inferior services and paying lower wages. What’s likely to come of this, based on the experiences of other countries where it’s been tried — usually at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its notorious “structural adjustment programs” imposed on countries that, like California, borrowed far more than they can ever hope to repay — is permanent mass poverty, economic un-development and reducing the people to a state of dependent hopelessness.

California has become a squabbling classroom of spoiled brats without a teacher to keep them in line and actually get them to learn something. The political system has almost totally failed to generate anything remotely resembling leadership. The money to sustain the state’s current level of spending simply does not exist. Every avenue for additional revenue is closed — tax increases are a political impossibility; the giant Wall Street financial institutions (which President Obama is racking up trillions of dollars in unpayable future debt to keep whole and prevent them from suffering from their mistakes — though that’s a subject for another editorial) no longer trust California’s ability to pay back the loans it’s already taken out; and the federal government has made it clear that they’re not willing to guarantee California’s loans or do anything else to bail out the state.

What California really needs, quite frankly, is a benevolent dictator: someone who can lay down the law to its reality-oblivious electorate and squabbling politicians and interest groups and impose the hard choices of budget-balancing and revenue-raising by decree. That may seem impossible in a part of a nation whose federal constitution guarantees each state “a republican form of government” — a privilege Californians have relentlessly abused — but there’s an institution that actually has the power to impose something like it on this fractious, ungovernable state.

It’s called federal bankruptcy court. Though there’s no exact precedent because no U.S. state has ever actually declared bankruptcy, judging from the Chapter 11 reorganizations of large private corporations, a bankruptcy judge has virtually unlimited power to void union contracts, order asset sales and do whatever he or she feels is necessary to get the bankrupt corporation on track to pay its creditors and restore itself to economic health. The California political system has proven itself utterly incapable of governing this state in anything approaching a responsible manner — and the electorate, rather than providing a solution, have themselves been part of the problem. Maybe what is needed is a tough bankruptcy judge who, being a federal appointee and therefore assured of lifetime tenure, will be able to impose the necessary solutions on a political system unable to come up with them itself without having to worry about the voters throwing another destructive temper tantrum like they did on May 19.