Californians Are Sinking Themselves

An inflexible right wing is allowing the Golden State to drown in debt. But it's not alone

The world's
eighth-largest economy has just gone belly-up. When midnight tolled on
Tuesday night with legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger still
deadlocked over how to resolve the state's staggering $24 billion
budget shortfall, California became unable to pay its bills. The state
will have to begin issuing IOUs to its creditors as early as Thursday.
It is the worst budget crisis in the state's modern history.

There is an unreal, almost dreamlike quality about this
moment. Dreadful things are about to happen: Hundreds of thousands of
children will lose their healthcare. Five thousand state workers will
be laid off. Massive cuts will decimate education at every level.
Social services will be slashed. Two hundred and twenty-nine parks, out
of a total of 280, will be shut down. Even some of the state's
landmarks may go on the auction block to raise money.

Yet as their state prepares to go over the cliff,
California's citizens seem weirdly oblivious, or resigned, or numb.
Like inhabitants of a corrupt third-world country who have utterly lost
faith in their government and in politics itself, or ostriches sticking
their heads in the sand, Californians are behaving as if the whole
thing is out of their control. Or even that it isn't happening at all.

Californians are not directly responsible for the state's
budget debacle. They are not the legislators who are so ideologically
polarized that on Tuesday they could not even agree on an emergency
partial budget fix that would have saved the state $5 billion. But in a
larger sense, Californians are indeed responsible for today's crisis.
The cumulative weight of their decisions, over decades, and their
inability to reach consensus on the fundamental issue of what
government should do and who should pay for it, are squarely
responsible for the historic mess this unruly nation-state finds itself
in today.

It is a truism that California is a national bellwether. From John Muir's
founding of the Sierra Club to Prop. 13, the 1978 tax revolt, from
Mario Savio to Ronald Reagan, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley,
California has time and again proven itself to be a national and global
trendsetter. The least American of places, a piratical exception to
East Coast gentility on the far end of the continent, it is also the
most American of places, with its brilliant, selfish and wanton
extremities mirroring the oldest and still-unresolved contradictions of
the American spirit. As Kevin Starr, dean of California historians,
writes in his superb 2003 book, "California: A History," California has
"long since become one of the prisms through which the American people,
for better or worse, could glimpse their future." And right now, what
they see isn't pretty.

The immediate source of California's financial problems is
a lethal combination of ideology and rules. It is deeply politically
divided, and its governmental mechanisms are completely broken. Bay
Area leftists stare at Orange County conservatives across an
unbridgeable abyss; a large and potent group of anti-government
libertarians faces off against an equally powerful group of pro-tax,
proactive government liberals. If California, like most states,
required only a simple majority to pass its budget, the disagreements
between these camps could be worked out; after all, the Democrats
control the Legislature. But California requires a two-thirds majority,
which gives the GOP, now dominated by anti-government, anti-tax
ideologues, veto power over the process. The result is deadlock.

Compounding this problem is California's notorious
initiative process, which allows voters to bypass the Legislature and
place initiatives directly on the ballot simply by gathering enough
signatures. The initiative process was originally passed by voters in
1911 to circumvent the power of the oligarchic railroad trusts by
restoring direct democracy. And it still offers citizens a chance to
take control of important issues. But it has gone out of control,
abused by powerful interests who hire people to collect signatures and
ram through bills that no ordinary citizen can be expected to
comprehend. By sidelining elected officials, it achieves the worst of
both worlds: It gives ordinary citizens, who lack requisite expertise,
institutional memory and accountability, too much power, and then
forces legislators to clean up their mess -- except that because of
ideological gridlock and the supermajority requirement, they can't.

A classic example is the 1994 "three strikes" initiative,
which mandated harsh prison sentences for repeat offenders. The bill
was cathartic for citizens who wanted to get tough on crime, but it had
serious budgetary consequences. As a result of the initiative and other
tough crime laws, California's prison population has increased 82
percent over the last 20 years. State institutions now house a
mind-boggling 170,000 prisoners. Corrections costs California $13
billion a year -- a fivefold increase since 1994, and more than the
state spends on higher education. Former Gov. Gray Davis gave the
powerful prison guards union a 30 percent pay raise from 2003 to 2008.

But the most momentous initiative was Prop. 13, which
slashed property taxes. By voting for Prop. 13, while not demanding a
reduction in public services, Californians were in effect saying they
wanted to have it all: low taxes and social services, subsidized public education, infrastructure and the other things provided by government.

This was, in effect, a mass outbreak of cognitive
dissonance, an up-yours delivered to government with the public's left
hand, while its right hand reached out for Sacramento's largesse. Now,
31 years later, the bill has finally come due. There is no free lunch.
If you want good roads, parks, decent schools (California's schools,
once the best in the nation, are now among the worst) and adequate
social services, you have to pay for them.

For some reason, Californians have never come to grips
with this fact. Some citizens who voted for Prop. 13 and other anti-tax
measures are hard-line right-wingers who are ideologically opposed to
government and don't care if state programs die. They are the soul
mates of the current Republicans in the Legislature, who see the
current crisis as a golden opportunity to get rid of government
programs they have opposed for years. But they are the minority. Polls
show that most Californians are more centrist. They are not absolutely
opposed to taxes or government programs. They want compromises that
work. The tragedy of California is that its political system no longer
speaks for them. The center has not held. It no longer exists. It is a
self-reinforcing problem: The more the public perceives politicians as
ineffectual, the more it dismisses politics altogether.

As historian Starr points out in his new book, "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963,"
this was not always the case. During what now looks like a Golden Age,
moderate Republicans and Democrats worked together to get things done.
Republican Govs. Goodwin Knight and Earl Warren and Democratic Gov. Pat
Brown were masters of the art of the possible, reaching across the
aisle to hammer out effective legislation. Even Reagan was more
pragmatic than later GOP myth-makers claim. As governor, Reagan pushed
through the largest tax increase in the state's history to pay for
government services. It was during these years, Starr points out, that
the infrastructure that allowed California to grow was built -- an
infrastructure Californians are still living off today.

What happened? Why did the center fail? Why has
California, a place famous for giving birth to cutting-edge ideas that
changed the world, proved humiliatingly unable to manage its own
affairs? Why can't California do politics as well as it does
technology, biotech, movies, music and social justice movements?

Beyond the state's dysfunctional system, the short answer
is the rise of the hard-right GOP. Pushed far to the right by
ideologues like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist and their
ilk, California Republican lawmakers have staked out an absolutist line
against taxes that makes governance nearly impossible. Lawmakers who
believe and act on Reagan's famous line that "government is not the
solution to our problems, government is the problem," are walking
oxymorons. Why expect anti-government Republican legislators to resolve
a budget crisis when that crisis will result in their goal: the
destruction of government? The floundering Governator may not be an
extremist, but he remains in thrall to the members of his party who are.

But Californians themselves, of all political stripes --
or, more likely and significantly, none -- also are responsible. The
fact remains that self-centered California has yet to come to terms
with what it is. This is a state that was built with government
programs, financed by massive federal military and aerospace spending
and state funding of local projects, and yet still has not decided what
it thinks about the New Deal, or government itself. Of course, those
opposed to government tend to be on the right. But the fact that many
leftists, chasing the chimera of perfection, disdain the world of
practical politics is also damaging.

Will California be able to pull itself out of its current
hole? Certainly it has done so in the past. Its history is nothing if
not a tale of reversals and unexpected triumphs. It will no doubt
muddle through. But in the long run, to overcome its structural
problems, it must transform some of its most cherished values. Without
abandoning its individualism, utopianism and radicalism, it must learn
how to use them in the world -- with all the compromises that requires.
Like an aging starlet, the Golden State is clinging desperately to its
glorious youth. But it is past time for it to grow up.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Salon