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Why California is such a mess


It's not uncommon to hear people argue that California faces a political crisis more than an economic crisis, but a recent conversation with a smart observer of Golden State politics really drove the point home. California requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to raise revenues or pass a budget. Imagine, my friend said, where America's economy would be today if Barack Obama had needed 67 votes for the stimulus, and for his budget, and for the financial interventions. Imagine how effective Obama would look if he needed seven Senate Republicans to pass health-care reform and cap and trade.

People don't like to think of it this way, and the press certainly doesn't like to report it this way, but the structure and level of polarization in the American political system are a lot more important than individual leadership. Just ask the Governator.

Photo credit: By Giuseppe Cacace/ Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 8:19 AM ET
Categories:  California  
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Next: How Medicare and Medicaid helped health-care reform


"why california is such a mess.."

please do not be calling california a mess.
correction...the political process here may be a mess...but california still is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

just a little while ago, at five in the morning, a big and graceful coyote was looking in my window, and the ancient sycamore grove nearby is filled with gloriously colored leaves by a glassy creek that runs from the mountains to the sea.
and of this, i am certain....the weather in heaven, yesterday, could have been no more perfect than the weather here in california. the days have been perfect.

california is still a treasure trove of beauty.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

California is in such terrible shape largely because for the last thirty years or so it has been getting back 75 cents of every dollar of federal taxes it pays while states like Alabama get back $1.30.

Great that our federal tax structure doesn't compensate for cost of living isn't it? An 80k income in rural Michigan or Kentucky buys you a nice lifestyle. In L.A. you’re a pauper. Doesn't seem right to me.

The relationship of California to lower-cost-of-living states is much like that of the U.S. to China, except that California doesn't have the option to devalue it's currency. IMHO this makes California reasonably likely to default.

Posted by: nklein1553 | December 1, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

No offense to your observer, but that isn't exactly a giant revelation.

Posted by: emmas | December 1, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Nobody's being forced at gunpoint to live in California. If cost of living is a big deal, there are cheaper places.

Posted by: tl_houston | December 1, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

On the other hand, bad leadership makes the problem worse. California was able to limp from budget crisis to budget crisis because the leadership was interested in making everything work. Arnold is interested in Hollywood and how he looks in the polls, so has spent his time grandstanding instead of working with the legislature.

Posted by: Alexander-S | December 1, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Heaven forfend the pols should have to control spending! Profligacy is the default Klein mode (its promise is never questioned) and the little people who want to hold onto their own money are in the way of progress!

Posted by: msoja | December 1, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

so let me get this straight, msoja: the issue in california isn't structural, it isn't competing priorities, it isn't expenditure by ballot initiative - it's that the "little people" think their taxes are too high? or what?

your comment makes no sense at all, which, admittedly, is typical.

Posted by: howard16 | December 1, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

According to the Tax Foundation, the state and local tax burden in California is about 108% of the national average. Higher than average but hardly exceptional.

Posted by: tl_houston | December 1, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

howard16 - Last I heard, more people were leaving the state than moving to it. You 'splain it however you think best, but I doubt it has to with "structural issues", which is a lovely euphemism about nothing.

Posted by: msoja | December 1, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I completely agree that California's political system is dysfunctional, but its citizens are also pretty irresponsible and selfish. Apart from the voters who keep voting themselves more services and facilities, there is a generation of rich people, tech entrepreneurs and entertainment industry people, who benefited from the previous generation's generosity in creating a world class public school and university system.

But when it came time for them to continue to support the system, all of a sudden no one wanted to pay for "other people's children." The cyberselfish want to keep everything for themselves and use cheaper foreign labor rather than pay to educate California's current residents. Pete Wilson lowered taxes when things looked good and he was running for President. Gray Davis was vilified for raising the car tax a couple of hundred dollars as things sloweed down. Schwarzenegger cruised to victory on that vilification, promptly cancelled the car tax increase and dug a financial hole from which he and the state have never recovered. Plus he won't set an example of paying a fair tax rate because he too measures his worth only in financial terms.

So the people by majority vote choose more services and facilities and the rich and the GOPers won't support the taxes to pay for them. It is a real mess.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 1, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Romney passed HCR in Massachussets with a nearly unanimous vote in the legislature. If a 2/3rd majority had been required it wouldn't have mattered.

Obama badly misread the Republicans. This led to a flawed bipartisan plan with no bipartisan support. It will be a political and a policy disaster. It's too late to make improvements. He should scotch the plan and come up with something much more modest that will win broad support.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

*Heaven forfend the pols should have to control spending! *

If, as a condition of spending, you have to raise taxes to cover the cost, then people are going to be very reluctant to spend. If, on the other hand, you can't raise taxes but can borrow money or engage in various little accounting gimmicks to kick the can further down the road, then politicians will be happy to sign off on more spending.

In California, it is very, very, very hard to raise taxes. On the other hand, it is comparatively less difficult to spend money. Under these conditions, which do you think will be more likely to happen?

also, msoja, it would help if you weren't such a solipsist: YOU might choose your place of residence based on lowest possible tax burden, but not everyone else is thinking that way and it might help if you started to think about WHY people make the choices they make rather than blithely assuming that they all hold the same pathologies that you do.

Posted by: constans | December 1, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

*He should scotch the plan and come up with something much more modest that will win broad support.*

What makes you think Republicans would support any of his plans? Republicans know -- and they are right -- that any health care victories Obama scores will be followed with plans for more reforms, since the administration will be buoyed by their own success.

There were no plans that could ever attract support from Republicans, because it is not in their political interest to do so. Likewise, California Republicans have no political interest in averting a budget crisis.

Posted by: constans | December 1, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

This post should have mentioned that taxes and fees in CA are already among the highest in the nation, and our current budget crisis has already seen several waves of tax/fee increases. I'm not sure that more increases would be a net positive for the State, as many more people and businesses would opt to leave (I'm planning my own departure at the moment).

Posted by: slantedview | December 1, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse
California state and local tax burden has fluctuated between 10% and 10.8% of income since 1980. It's not like it just suddenly went off the charts. It's still lower than pre-Prop 13.

Posted by: tl_houston | December 1, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse
California state and local tax burden has fluctuated between 10% and 10.8% of income since 1980. It's not like it just suddenly went off the charts. It's still lower than pre-Prop 13.

Posted by: tl_houston | December 1, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Ezra's and many of the commentors' focus on political structure rather than policy is maddening. If California were not already a higher tax state than the average state, I honestly believe legislators would pass a tax increase if it was well structured. They don't because they rightly fear that by increasing taxes even further outside the American mean, it will further drive the wealthy and the middle class out of the state toward lower cost/tax states, leaving a relatively poorer citizenry behind.

California is a victim of an incorrect ideology that basically said we can absorb anybody and everybody from everywhere in the world and still be rich. California is amazingly overextended and it was a cultural arrogance which led it to this overextention.

Posted by: lancediverson | December 1, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

msoja, happily, in the internet age, we don't have to rely on what you've heard: we can, you know, look things up! for example, want to know about state-by-state in and out migration? go here:

and when you do, you'll discover that yes, there has been an outflow in CA, but it is as nothing as compared to the outflow from LA or Alaska, whose taxes are considerably lower.

more to the point, just to pick a small example, long and ago and far away, some people in California thought their property taxes were too high and prop 13 passed, but you know what? even during the years when those property taxes were "too high," there was a net inflow into california.

in short, insofar as you have a theory (people move away from higher taxes), there's no actual empirical support for it.

as for structural: sheesh, if you don't understand structural issues are a meaningful category (take away the filibuster, for example, and health-care reform is already passed and on obama's desk, but you apparently think referencing that isn't a structural issue but, instead, a fancy way of saying nothin'), then what are you doing here rather than taking some remedial education classes somewhere?

Posted by: howard16 | December 1, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

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