Archive for October, 2009

The New Gold Rush

October 25, 2009

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that a new California boom was surely just around the corner, maybe in gold.  Turns out I was more correct than I knew – the SF Chronicle claims “a new gold rush is in full gallop all over California“.

Californias’ dreaming

October 24, 2009

Every so often, there are proposals to split the state of California.  Some prefer a north-south split, while some want coast vs. inland, and a few would like San Francisco to be its own state.  It’s not surprising that there are proposals to split the state.  What is surprising is that none of them have yet succeeded, and that very few states have split (Maine from the geographically separated Mass., West Virginia from Virginia in the Civil War).

It’s comparatively easy to split a U.S. state – all you need is the approval of the state legislature and Congress.  Why might you want to?  Here’s a couple of reasons:

1) Suppose your state is pretty homogeneous politically.  Then you can double its senators by splitting, and gain at least 2 electoral votes.

2) On the other hand, suppose your state is roughly 50-50 with mostly Republicans in the North and Democrats in the South.  By splitting the state, politicians from both parties can gerrymander themselves into safe governorships and senate seats.

(1) is pretty dangerous, at least in theory.  A party in control of Congress and enough states could split its states as much as it liked.  Taken to an extreme, it could completely control the Senate and Presidency (where several mini-states would each get 3 electoral votes, outweighing any competition).  If we were computer scientists, we would say that the U.S. constitution was fatally broken.

In practice, we could probably rely on the states’ mutual suspicion to stop things getting out of hand, but proposals don’t even seem to make it to Congress.  Something seems to have gone terribly right with the system.  But what?  Does state pride limit any such movements?  Did the Civil War make splitting in general seem like a bad idea?  Or will it be the next play of the Republicans, similarly to how they used redistricting in Texas?  If we start to see a Citizens’ Committee for a South-East Dakota, watch out.

California – working as designed?

October 16, 2009

From the U.K. Observer on the left to National Affairs on the right, everyone says that California’s government is broken.  There are many suspects – Prop 13, wealthy people buying initiatives, overregulation, unions, business lobbyists, and, for all I know, there are still some people blaming the Union Pacific.
It’s hard to defend a system where the state has recently paid its bills in IOUs, but is it really broken, or is it working just as it should?  Consider this story:

Sigmund Freud is walking down the street, when he is accosted by a man in great distress who says – “Dr. Freud, I am plagued by horrible neuroses.  My life is unbearable.  If you can take me on as a patient and cure me I’ll be eternally grateful.  I’ll do anything!”  Freud calmly replies, “Please sir, there is no reason to be so melodramatic.  I will be satisfied with my usual fee of fifty krone per hour.”  The man pauses and says “But isn’t that rather expensive?”

Like the prospective patient, Californians would like government to do more, but they really don’t want to pay for it.  Many systems would force us to face up to this and make a choice.  But with initiatives we have a less judgmental form of government.  We can have our cake, eat it, sell bonds to buy more cake and ensure that it uses only local cruelty-free ingredients.  If we get sick of cake, we can mandate that 40% of the meal be in vegetables.  Everyone is happy, without needing to do any of those nasty things politicians sometimes talk about, like raising taxes or expanding offshore drilling.  And if things are still not perfect, we can always blame the legislature.

Some people think that a constitutional convention will “solve” matters, but why should people vote for such a convention or its proposed revisions when it might lead to taxes going up or services being cut?  If people wanted such things, they could vote for them now.  And if a convention did not lead to change in such matters, then what difference would it make?

You might object that eventually the bondholders will tire of California’s unique system, but we have a few tricks left up our sleeve.  While a state must have prison officers and prisons, it need not have prisoners, who only add to the expense of the system without providing any votes.  If we need more revenue, we can always legalize and tax marijuana or even heroin.  And do students really need textbooks and schools, when all knowledge can be found on Wikipedia, and you can get all the social interaction you need on Facebook?  Besides, another boom is surely just around the corner, in biotechnology, alternative energy, or virtual goods.  Or perhaps we could go back to gold – prices have been rising recently, and we can’t have used it all up the first time around, can we?