I’m not totally sure how it happened, but I care too much about politics now. Don’t talk to me about politics in person – I may get too heated about it. Online, in writing, it’s easier to let things go, not have the last word. It’s a little more tense in person.
I think what happened is I started to realize that policy matters. Tens of thousands of people die unnecessarily every year in this country because of health care policy. It has caused specific issues for immediate members of my family. CA roads suck because of policy (did you know plans for fixing the 101-152 interchange have been ongoing for 20 years?). If I stay in California, my children will likely be in crowded, underfunded classrooms. Policy matters. And so I care. All it does, though, is raise my blood pressure, because I can’t change policy, and I’ve found that I can never convince anyone about anything either. Everyone’s made up their minds. So it’s just an exercise in frustration.
California politics in particular frustrates me to no end. I don’t think people realize how dire our state’s condition is. There’s a non-trivial chance that California will go bankrupt in the next few years. I would actually call it likely. And the consequences of that are pretty grim. Everything that sucks about California will get worse, and be more expensive to boot, since it will cost the state more to borrow. In all honesty, one of the reasons I haven’t bought a house is because I’m not sure I want to stick around here long-term. It’s that bad. That’s why I keep saying I’m going to move to Portland.
Everyone is to blame. The unions (whom I generally dislike) have forced the state into long-term pension promises that are completely unsustainable. These alone would force the state into bankruptcy someday, just as they did with, e.g. Bethlehem Steel and GM. State Republicans’ refusal to ever raise taxes has hastened the rate at which state services have declined, and it’s only going to get worse. Meg Whitman is a Republican candidate for governor, and she promises to slash taxes. Umm. The state faces massive budget shortfalls; reducing revenue will help address this how? Even Reagan, who cut taxes in 1981, raised taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars 4 separate times when faced with reduced revenues, in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986. I actually hope we get another Republican governor – it will almost certainly bring about the inevitable state bankruptcy sooner.
And worst of all are the state voters. The problem with voters is that they are, collectively, stupid. And the state grants them too much power through all the voter initiatives and propositions. I’m not saying that politicians can’t be dumb. They may also be corrupt. But you can vote a dumb or corrupt politician out of office. You can’t vote out the electorate. So granting them so much policy power virtually guarantees a terrible result. I’d say empirically, that’s what we’ve seen.
When I say dumb, I mean that voters consistently vote for both more services and lower taxes. These are, of course, completely at odds. But look at the pattern of passed propositions and that’s contributed a lot to this mess. For example, many propositions have been passed that force the state to give a certain percentage to a certain cause. For example, Proposition 98 requires the state to spend a certain percentage on education. (It was, incidentally, a response to the deleterious effects of Prop 13 – a bad proposition following another bad one.) Sounds good, right? Who isn’t for education? But it, like other similar propositions, don’t say where this funding should come from. So our state law is littered with spending requirements, but no explicit funding sources. That’s why, in this interactive budget balancer I posted a while back, nearly every budget cut is listed as being possibly illegal. Required spending with no sources of funding is a recipe for disaster, and that’s what happens when you give policy-making power to voters.
This is just one example of the fundamental problem with politics in California: many things that are good and work well in politics are reversed in California. It’s good (or at least better) for professional legislators to write policy and voters to hold them accountable. In California, legislators actively ask voters to make policy. And it doesn’t work.
Proposition 8, the initiative to constitutionally ban gay marriage, is another example. To me, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on; that this was decided by vote is the reverse of how it should have proceeded. The beauty of the U.S. federal system of checks and balances is that the legislative body makes policy decisions based on majority rule, as a democracy should, but you have an independent judicial body that protects rights, guaranteeing that the majority can’t just trample over the rights of the minority. Legislation should proceed by majority rule, the judiciary should settle matters of rights. Prop 8 turned that on its head, settling an issue of rights by majority rule. I don’t know how the current court case will pan out, but the courts is where matters like these should be settled.
Another example: as I stated, in a democracy, when it comes to decisions, the majority should rule. It’s only fair. In California, to a large degree, the reverse happens – the minority holds the majority hostage. This is largely due to Proposition 13, which required all tax increases in the state to be passed by a 67% margin in the legislature. That’s an absurdly high threshold for a simple tax increase. Effectively, that means state Republicans, the minority party, can hold the budget hostage, and they do every single year. I get and respect that they’re against taxes. But others, in fact, most Californians, don’t share their stance, and this not being an issue of rights, the most fair thing is for the majority to have their way, even if you think it’s stupid. It’s simply the most fair system. And this doesn’t happen in California. I’m sure Republicans are happy about it, but there’s no way you can defend their power over the budget as democratically fair. The 67% threshold is even more galling when you consider that Proposition 13 itself didn’t pass by 67%. Practically, it gives minority unfair power over the majority.
Another example: gerrymandering. The principle of a representative democracy is that voters choose their leaders. In California, it’s reversed. Gerrymandering is a problem all over the country, but because the state legislature sets voting districts, California legislators effectively choose their voters, guaranteeing non-competitive districts that are each majority Republican or Democrat. This map shows California districts; some are ridiculous, in particular districts 23, 38 and 46. There may be no ideal solution to this problem, but almost any reasonable solution is better, and if given the choice between the status quo and something better, we should choose what’s better.
There are other examples where California does he reverse of what works best, but you get the point. The state is completely screwed up. And it’s largely the result of a bad political system. Which sucks. And I see no solution to it. Which is why we’re probably going to move someday. To Portland.
Actually, I do think there’s a solution, but it will never happen. Regardless, here’s how I think we can fix the state:
- Cancel all state pensions. This will never happen, even if we go bankrupt. But pensions are financially unsustainable – to promise to pay someone after they retire as long as they live just doesn’t work. The numbers are dire for CALPERS (the state pension fund), as its solvency is based on growth projections that are wildly implausible. Pensions are all but dead in the private sector; they shouldn’t exist in the public sector either. If unions insist on having them, the state should just give a lump sum to the unions themselves, so the total cost is known, and force the unions to manage pension funds themselves with the explicit agreement that the state isn’t on the hook if they go under.
- Limit voter initiatives and propositions. Because voters are dumb.
- Repeal Proposition 13. Another impossibility; Prop 13 is known as the 3rd rail of California politics. At the very least, we should eliminate the 67% voting threshold (for democratic fairness and to reduce legislative gridlock) and exclude commercial property from Prop 13. Prop 13 limits property tax increases to 2% a year unless property is sold or developed. I think it’s largely unfair, but what’s worse is that it includes commercial property. That gives commercial property owners a perverse incentive to not sell or improve under-performing commercial property. I can understand the desire for people to not lose their homes due to escalating property tax bills they can’t afford. But under-performing business should fail and be replaced by better ones. It’s the free-market principle of efficiently allocating capital. Excluding commercial property from Prop 13 will simultaneously raise tax revenue and more efficiently allocate commercial land. We should do it.
- Redistrict using an independent body. Really, have anyone but the legislature in charge of it. Even if it’s not perfect, it is better than the system we have. And more competitive districts will lead to more moderate candidates that should be more willing to work together.
- Eliminate the bicameral legislature. There’s virtually no benefit to having a Senate and Assembly over having a single body, and it just adds gridlock to the process. Gridlock costs money. I hate wasting money.
- Eliminate L.A.. Really, would anyone mind? Can you think of anything good that has come out of L.A? Besides Whitney High and maybe The Getty. They don’t even have an NFL team. Useless land. Eliminate.