Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

California Needs a New Beginning

As we were being bussed from our airplane halfway around LAX to customs and immigration, I overheard someone who had recently sojourned in Club Med carp about the poor facilities. He complained that the airport was overcrowded and dilapidated. Shaking his head, he said he did not understand why they did not just build a brand new airport somewhere out in the desert.

I wanted to tell him the simple reason: because he would never vote for it. (I did not. I was still on vacation.) I wanted to explain that it is not a question of whether "they" will build it, but whether "we" will build it. And to the extent that race, age, wealth, and general demeanor are indicators, I would have bet money that the man was a conservative with one overriding political position: no more taxes.

But in a way, I cannot blame him too much. The conservatives concerns about big government in California are not exactly baseless. In just five years, from 1996-97 to 2001-02, the California state budget rose from $60 billion to $100 billion--a staggering 66% increase. Meanwhile California's GDP during the same period rose from $1.0 trillion to $1.3 trillion--an impressive yet lesser 30% increase. (By comparison, the GDP for the rest of the US rose from about $7.3 to $9 trillion, or about 23%.)

At the same time, the resident California state population rose from 32.0 to 34.5 million--a comparatively paltry 8%. So Californians did very well during this boom period, especially the rich, upon whom the state budget largely depends, and they grumbled only a little as state spending increased from about 6% to 7.5% of the state GDP. The coffers were flush and Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis kept the good times rolling.

Thus when the power crisis, the accounting scandals, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and 9/11 all came down in 2001, it was like a series of sledgehammer blows to the state government. Federal dollars for California had also reached an all-time high in 2001, so the comparative coldness of the Bush administration to California's needs compared to the Clinton administration was yet another blow. This cumulative catastrophe exposed the horrendous failure of stewardship on the part of politicians in Sacramento, of all stripes during the boom years. In the 1990s the state government developed expensive tastes yet did not invest in the infrastructure which, in the 1950s and 1960s, had laid the foundation for this phenomenal growth. Instead they blew the money on bloated promises and bloated prisons.

It is little wonder that many are so fed up with Sacramento that they do not want to send them another dime. We have discussed California's woes at length, and we all agree that there are at least three major structural problems: the out-of-control initiative system that mandated much of the rapid growth of spending during the 1990s, the term limits that led to a state legislature dominated by amateurs and extremists, and the 2/3 requirement to pass the state budget that made it nearly impossible for the polarized legislature to cope with the multiple sledgehammer blows. Even Arnold failed to do anything but pile on more debt.

Kevin Starr's wonderful history of California (see the previous post) shows that California has faced such crises before and managed to work through them. Californians answered the explosion of the Gold Rush with its first convention, and answered the financial panics and economic depression of the 1870s with its second convention. We need a third convention now. If our leaders in Sacramento will not call one, the counties and municipal governments should make and end run around them and organize a convention of their own.

I think only a new beginning can possibly give people like that complaining traveler any trust in their government again. We need more than a new airport--we need a new beginning. Incrementalism is not a solution anymore. California's unique history--from its vast rearrangement of water resources to its astonishing public university system--shows that the state government here can really make a difference. As Californians like to say, we are in many ways a nation-state. It is time now for a little revolution.


Raised By Republicans said...

"Shaking his head, he said he did not understand why they did not just build a brand new airport somewhere out in the desert. I wanted to tell him the simple reason: because he would never vote for it."

Two comments on this. First, isn't that was Burbank Airport and Ontario Airport are supposed be? Second, not only would he be unlikely to vote to build an LAX sized airport out there - would he want to travel all the way to the Inland Empire to catch a flight?

As for the constitutional convention, I couldn't agree more.

As for the spending priorities. What are the big budget offenders? What are the biggest things that suck up state spending? Lord knows education in struggling as are police and fire protection and other supposedly locally funded services that depend heavily on the state in the Post Prop 13 world. So if it's not going to infrastructure, what's sucking up all the money? Prisons?

USwest said...

PRISONS, RBR. 10% of the state budget, or around $14 bil a year go to the state's 33 prisons. We spend a similar amount of the UC and CSU system. That works out to $49K per prisoner per year. That's more than many average Californians bring home in salary.

The 3 strikes law, which I have referred to in the past, has bloated the system. There are just over 41K people serving under 3 strikes. This was passed under the "get tough on crime" era under Gray Davis. Then there are drugs. We've had a prison building boom in this state and yet all of the prisons are over crowded and rehab programs are underfunded. Result: 70% recidivism rate.

The two most powerful unions in the state are prison guards and teachers in that order. There has been a lack of political will to get around those guys,

Raised By Republicans said...

That's what I remembered. Thanks for confirming that for me US West.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The problem with a revolution is that, to play on Marx, we have no one to overthrow but ourselves.

We must begin by overthrowing the libertarian/Reaganesque palaver that states that we can have prosperity without sacrifice for the common weal - that the market will magically create and distribute wealth appropriately to our values, so that we can have something for nothing, like this man who wanted an airport.

The history of California shows that progress is made when enormous reserves of private energy are coordinated with big public initiatives.