Will We Follow California Into the Abyss?
I'm not sure exactly where Mark Leibovich got the idea that the budget crisis and political turmoil currently wracking California is funny. But he's managed to write an 8,000-word article on the half-dozen candidates vying for the office that includes lots of jokes but literally no details on how any one of them proposes to solve the state's fiscal paralysis. None. Zero.
There's an occasional tendency to treat California's politics like a joke. And we Californians, I admit, bear some responsibility for that. The recall election was a fiasco. The reality of Gov. Schwarzenegger hasn't made it seem any less like a prank. But Sacramento is not Hollywood. Hollywood is where interesting things happen to fake people. Sacramento is where important things happen to real people. And it needs to be covered as such.
Whatever its entertainment value, California is the largest state in the union. Almost one-in-seven Americans call it home. And a lot of them are suffering now and, absent a fix, more will be suffering soon. Not joke-suffering. Not buddy-comedy suffering. Really suffering. Schools will close. Children will lose their health care. Families will lose their homes. The state will stop helping the mentally ill afford the medicine that lets them live normal lives. The budget cuts will cause 60,000 public employees to lose their jobs.
And as goes California, so might well go the nation. Harold Meyerson has been prosecuting the short-term version of this argument: "Because California is so much larger than any other state, and its unemployment rate among the nation's highest, the collapse of its capacity to spend will counteract some of the effect of the federal stimulus and retard the nation's recovery." But I'd add in the long-term version: The pathologies that have led California to the brink exist in our larger political culture as well.
California is not gripped by a simple economic crisis. It is paralyzed by a political crisis. It is saddled with a legislature that is structurally incapable of taking swift action in response to hard problems. The fundamental ingredients of the gridlock are polarized parties and a requirement of a two-thirds majority for major tax and budget initiatives. The minority sees political salvation in the failure of the majority, and thus the state. The majority is unable to muscle a policy response through on its lonesome. And so there is nothing. Only crisis.
Our Congress is slightly better off. Major initiatives need a mere three-fifths in the Senate. The budget reconciliation process makes tax and budget policies subject to a simple majority vote. But real health-care reform, which analysts on both sides of the aisle say could trigger a fiscal meltdown, requires 60 votes. And no one thinks they can get 60 votes for the sort of hard decisions likely to bring costs under control. The same goes for climate change. And no one disputes that a fiscal crisis is coming -- that current policy spends much, much more money than it raises -- and that our Congress is not fixing that imbalance.
The lesson of California is not that California is weird. It is that you cannot trust a broken political process to fix itself in a moment of crisis. You cannot assume some secret storehouse of responsibility that legislators prefer not to tap but can always access in a moment of emergency. Historically, America responds to California in two very different, but quite predictable, ways: It laughs at the Golden State. And it follows it.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli.
July 6, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
Categories: California , Government
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