California's Death Rattle

Suicide by union.

California.  Everything that America is, only much more so.  Extremes of poverty and wealth; legal immigrants who grabbed the American dream with all ten fingers and illegals who drag their third-world pestholes into America along with them; wide freeways everywhere as well as debilitating gridlock and potholes.

And, of course, political extremism and vitriol like that found nowhere else this side of Zimbabwe.

The Perils of One-Party Rule

The recent history of California politics sounds more like South America than a state once known as Golden.  For reasons disputed to this day, the California Republican party fell apart in the 1990s, leading to Democratic hegemony.

When extreme liberalism led to tremendous tax and regulatory increases under Gov. Gray Davis, combined with a botched electricity "deregulation" that put half the state in brownouts, an outraged electorate recalled the unlucky Mr. Davis.  To the rescue rode the famous action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, promising to run government with the same efficiency and dispatch that he brought to his movies.

What works in a Hollywood thriller, alas, does not work in the state capitol.  The Governator soon found that his star power was no match for union pressure and money; when everyone surrounding you is calling for more taxes, it can be hard to resist.

Union demands combined with the economic crisis have led to a staggering budget gap.  Rather than make cuts, the political establishment put forward a slate of propositions which, by various wheezes and dodges, would beg, borrow, and steal enough dough for the state workforce to survive unmolested.

It didn't work, the voters saw it for the scam it was.  We see that the California voters crushed the measures that their betters said were essential for survival of the government.  One after the other, all the agenda items went down to ignominious defeat - save the last, which forbids pay raises for legislators in years when the budget is not balanced.

Cue the usual voices of panic and grave concern for the services people depend on.

Schwarzenegger last week said 5,000 layoff notices would be sent to state employees, and spending cuts could fall hard on education. That stunned teachers whose school districts are already under financial pressure as their revenue shrinks.

"I'm actually a little bit nervous," said Ashley Hodge, 25, a teacher from Sonora, California. "We need supplies ... and the school is getting ready to do a second round of layoffs."

Why can't California get its act together?  The reason is as simple as a solution is unlikely - unionized state employees have figured out how to vote themselves benefits, and the best efforts of the voters over thirty years have proven utterly inadequate to stop them.

Feel the Pain

What happens when a family or business is in a financial crunch?  Management looks for places they can cut back which don't show.  A family might eat at home more and in restaurants less.  Everybody still eats; nobody goes hungry; but money is saved.

The restaurant, seeing that people are feeling tight, trims the extras.  Maybe a little less parsley on the plate; maybe several small pieces of meat instead of one big one.  The diners won't notice, but the accountant will.

When you use your imagination under pressure, almost everyone can save a good deal of money without causing real pain.

When government cuts back, though, the goal is the exact opposite.  If politicians don't dare jack up taxes as much as they'd like, does the Assistant Undersecretary for Secretarial Assistance get laid off?  Of course not!

Instead, parks close, libraries shut down, teachers get sacked, and students get crammed in like sardines.  Government cuts are made in the most painful possible way in those areas most visible to the taxpayer.

This serves two purposes: first, to make voters feel like "We're really trying to cut corners here!", and second, to make voters more willing to do what politicians wanted in the first place: pay more taxes.

"One thing we do know is the voters' wish list is a lot longer than the 'I'm willing to pay for it' list. People are going to have to rectify the two," state Treasurer Bill Lockyer said.

This is exactly wrong.  A look at the history of California referenda shows that the voter's wish list has not changed over many years.  Voters expect the same things from their government that they expected in the 1950s: good roads, safe streets, quality schools.

The problem is not that the voters want more today than they did then; the problem isn't that taxpayers aren't willing to pay for what they did then.

The problem is that the politicians aren't willing to spend tax money in the ways that voters want them to.

Me First!

Once upon a time, politicians loved building roads because they could get a fantastic photo-op at the ribbon cutting ceremony; if they were lucky, they might even get their name beside the highway.

This is still true in a few places; witness the vast number of highways in the middle of nowhere named after Sen. Robert Byrd.  At least occasionally, if only by happenstance, such infrastructure spending may prove beneficial.

In California, unfortunately, the political calculus is different.  Your average voter may want more and better roads and airports, but the environmentalist pressure groups that buy TV attack ads do not.  Far from wanting to show up at highway dedications, California politicians would prefer to run as far away from highways as possible; they are more likely to take credit for stopping a new road than for constructing one.

No, Californian legislators are much better off dumping money into new perks for the public-sector unions.  As the Wall Street Journal explains:

A labor negotiation in a corporation is a negotiation over how to divide the wealth that is created between stockholders and workers. Each side knows that if they drive too hard a bargain they risk killing the goose that lays golden eggs for both sides. Just ask General Motors and the United Auto Workers. But when, say, a school board sits down to negotiate with a teachers union or decide how many administrators are needed, the goose is the taxpayer. That's why public-service employees now often have much more generous benefits than their private-sector counterparts. And that's why the New York City public school system had an administrator-to-student ratio 10 times as high as the city's Catholic school system...

That's what's happened in California, only the taxpayers have had enough.

California voters have tried many times to force their tax dollars to be spent as they wish them to be.  Proposition 13 in 1978 amended the constitution to limit property tax rates; the politicians simply raised other taxes.  In 1988, voters passed Proposition 98, which required the state to spend minimum amounts on education whether the politicians wanted to or not.  This proposition is widely blamed for Californian budget problems, but it was actually a roar of frustration from voters who want government to spend their tax money on the things they want it spent on, not pet projects and perks.

Government Growth?  or Government Competence?

Many pundits have viewed Mr. Obama's election as a sign that the American people no longer feel, as Bill Clinton once said, "The era of big government is over."  For sure, some Obama voters expected him to help them out personally, as Peggy Joseph so famously put it.

Polls show, though, that regardless of today's Democratic hegemony, more people still believe government should be smaller than larger.

Leftist orators, and particularly Barack Obama himself, love to attack the straw man of the extreme libertarian who supposedly doesn't believe government should do much at all.  There may be a few survivalist types off in the wilds somewhere who feel that way, but all mainstream conservatives, to say nothing of the American people at large, are in agreement: there are certainly things that government ought to be doing.

The difference is, we believe the government ought to do them efficiently, effectively, and well.  The last thirty years of California politics is often viewed as suppressed voter anger against high taxes, and certainly there's a lot of that.  In reality, though, those California propositions reflect a desire, not to defund and destroy government, but to make it do its job properly - and nothing else.

The problem isn't that government has too little money.  It isn't that it shouldn't do anything at all, either.  It's simply that those things most Americans believe government should be doing - delivering justice to criminals, educating our children with useful academics, regulating the free market for honesty but not content - are precisely those things that our government leaders have no interest in doing.

Thirty years of failure amply prove that teachers unions and the politicians beholden to them have absolutely no concern for children's education; all that matters is keeping the maximum number of unionized employees paying union dues.  Voters want police on the beat and criminals in jail; instead, the politicians free criminals, refuse to deport criminal aliens, and hamper the police with politically-correct restrictions.

At the same time, government regulation has grown and grown until it is not possible to turn around without getting permission from a bureaucrat.  There is no issue too small, too insignificant, or too private to be free from the gimlet eye of aggressive legislators.  How is it even conceivable for a government to do anything well when it's trying to do everything?

What California needs is the infamous Chainsaw Al Dunlap, renowned for slashing his way through failing companies with layoffs left and right.  His belief was that many large but failing companies could become smaller but successful if they got rid of sidelines and concentrated on the core.  Although this technique didn't always create gold from dross, it succeeded more often than not - and it's hard to imagine that any layer of government wouldn't do a better job if it concentrated on only a handful of primary responsibilities.

Alas, cutting government is anathema to politicians, unions, and bureaucrats from top to bottom.  Less size equals less money equals less power - and power is what motivates the whole sorry lot.

The Beginning of the End

Now we find politicians, rather than cut back on useless bureaucracy and union featherbedding, putting a gun to the head of the taxpayer.  Literally:

The administration advised law enforcement officials that it was preparing plans to commute the sentences of 38,000 state prison inmates, including all illegal immigrants. [emphasis added]

Is it possible to imagine an action more sure to infuriate the American people who, despite the unified desire of our elites for amnesty and open-borders, continue in overwhelming numbers to oppose illegal immigration?  The criminals whose sentences are to be commuted are not those legendary law-abiding, hard-working illegals; these are illegals who not only came here against the law but also committed violent crimes against American citizens.

California's politicians and unions, by the proposed Propositions, in effect told the voters "Your money or your life!"  To their surprise, the voters folded their arms and said, "Open fire... if you dare."  Good for the voters! ... now what?

Meanwhile, wealthy and middle-class Californians continue to flee the state, leaving behind illegal immigrants and welfare mothers.

As goes California, so goes the nation.  Ouch.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
The Times wants the rest of us to pay for a California bailout on top of bailing out everything else. Why should yet another union get my money?

Golden State Bailout
The combination of California's size and its dysfunction means that Washington will have to intervene.
May 22, 2009 10:36 AM
Both illegal immigrants and welfare mothers could be highly beneficial members of society if we didn't pay them to be useless members of society. Who knows, maybe it'll turn out to solve illegal immigration and welfare in one fell swoop...

No I am not that sanguine, but its nice to hope some times.
May 23, 2009 2:24 PM
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