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Will We Follow California Into the Abyss?

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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  California , Government  
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Next: The Five Most Important Pieces of Health-Care Reform That Aren't the Public Plan

Comments

"Read my lips. No New Taxes!" GHW Bush, who raised taxes and was abandoned by his party. See: Grover Norquist and the No Tax Pledge.

This is killing us. Absolutely killing us.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | July 6, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

The liberals in charge have spent and committed the peoples' money on non-citizens with healthcare, housing and other expensive programs. Why not just go to Mexico and spend it there? Why wait until they come here illegally?

California is arguably one of the highest taxed places to live in the country and there comes a limit to what the people are willing to agree to. I think they have reached that breaking point.

When your legislature is unresponsive, then you starve the beast.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | July 6, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

We will if Obama signs a health reform bill w/ a publci option and the global warming bill.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 6, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

"And it follows it."

Can you give some examples? If you look at the immigration challenges California has faced, it looks like a leading indicator. But some (me, for instance) might argue that the severity of the political and economic crisis California encountered with regard to immigration has not been equaled in most other states (even here in Texas). Same could be said for the housing market.

So could you flesh out the second half of "historically" a bit?

Posted by: dganchor2002 | July 6, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

California needs to fix itself.

Every other state has dealt with the harsh blow of a horrible economy. Successfully and not so much.

Californians are so proud of the ballot initiative system that helped it get into this mess. Why don't they use it now to try to fix the mess they are in?

Posted by: JERiv | July 6, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

apres moi, la termination!

Posted by: bdballard | July 6, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

This is just a classic case of voters wanting both higher spending and less taxes. And that can go along for a while- but after a point you either have to raise taxes or lower spending. If there are systematic barriers to raising taxes then the only possible response is to either work to eliminate the systematic barrier or to just lower spending. California democrats have simply been digging the hole deeper even when it was clear there was no way out.

Go ahead and let the Federal Government be the lender of last resort for California but do it at painful rates. The government can be a safety net but it should HURT to hit the safety net. But even with loans I don't see where the California politicians are ready to make the tough decisions necessary to balance the budget. Painful decisions will only occur when the alternative is even worse.

Posted by: spotatl | July 6, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Govt Solvency is always and everywhere a political phenomenon.

Posted by: DonthelibertarianDemocrat | July 6, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

We absolutely do need to fix our property tax issue in California. Those of us who bought houses before Prop 13 now pay way too little. But I doubt you will see us lining up to push our legislature to fix that particularly problem. It's probably too much to ask for a people's movement to increase our taxes.
What is tragic about California's budget is that so much of it is so hard to cut. 1/3 of Medicaid spending is for long term care (old peole in nursing homes mainly) and 2/3 of the beneficiaries of Medicaid are elderly or disabled. So the dilemma of what to cut is truly a difficult one. Roads, parks, schools and health care. Not exactly frivolous stuff.
The article Ezra mentions is a bit jokey, but I must say that Jerry Brown looks better and better, mainly because he's been there and knows what the job entails. That's more than you can say about anyone else running, with their high flown rhetoric about the California "dream." Which, by the way, is not much of a dream for many, many Californians.

Posted by: LindaB1 | July 6, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Commenter PoliticalPragmatist hits one of the nails on the head. The completely inflexible anti-tax position of the California GOP is killing the state. While the Democrats in the Assembly and Senate propose deep cuts in programs they would rather save, the GOP won't give one inch on taxes, so it's impossible to come to a reasonable agreement. This anti-tax inflexibility is one of the similarities shared with the national GOP.

Alas, the GOP forgets that Saint Ronald Reagan raised taxes many times, including as governor of California. If only they would follow the pragmatic Saint Ronnie and bend a little to get through this year's crisis. (Reagan biographer Lou Cannon had a good piece on Reagan's big 1967 tax increase as governor: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/sunday/commentary/la-op-cannon15-2008jun15,0,2184735.story

As a long-time California resident, from what I can tell, Californians are hating the proposition system more and more each year. Too many propositions don't belong on the ballot, too many are seemingly good ideas but are filled with poison pills and giveaways.

Posted by: meander510 | July 7, 2009 1:07 AM | Report abuse

"As a long-time California resident, from what I can tell, Californians are hating the proposition system more and more each year."

Yeah, as a really liberal state, ya' can't have all the "little people" putting in their two cents. Who needs democracy anyways?

Posted by: ElViajero1 | July 7, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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