California – working as designed?

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?


4 Responses to “California – working as designed?”

  1. Rick Says:

    It’s working as designed, but the design sucks! 🙂 The biggest problem is that the public initiative system, once a good idea, has gotten way out of hand. When inexpert voters are in charge of approving items one by one, they don’t consider the overall design and state of the system. They just vote for whatever sounds good, never really bothering about the overall consequences. Particularly egregious are bond measures which the public often view as “it’s not a tax so it’s free, right?” items. Of course that’s not the case.

    (By the way, have you ever tried reading the California constitution? What an ungainly mess this process has caused it to become.)

    I think we should try changing to a parliamentary system. As a former Briton, what do you think? I think this state would enjoy voting for a greater variety of parties. I would like to have our own Monster Looney party. Or how about something like the new Violets party in Germany. Lots of possibilities here if we have the daring to just try. Nothing in the US constitution states that any state need follow the federal model.

  2. Scott Locklin Says:

    Pretty classic crisis in democratic government, i would say. That’s why the original nation restricted the vote to people who own the place, and then, they had to elect representatives rather than voting directly as a further safety feature.

    John Adams: Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

    Thomas Jefferson: A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.

    Thomas Jefferson: The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.

  3. erehweb Says:

    Rick and Scott – thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure if the problem is with initiatives / direct democracy itself, or with the California electorate. I can imagine initiatives working well with a more libertarian-minded population – low taxes, no growth restrictions, very business-friendly, low welfare, ending up something like AZ or NV. I can also imagine a more aggressively redistributionist society, ending up something like Sweden or Huey Long’s Louisiana, soaking the fat boys and spreading it thin. But California seems to want the high-speed rail without the gas tax. I wonder if this wouldn’t end up being a problem no matter what system of government we had.

    A parliamentary system would be an interesting change, though I think it would have to be combined with some form of proportional representation to get a wider range of parties. But the UK parliamentary system is running into a lot of trouble now. It also seems that Californians want to be able to vote left for the legislature, but right for the governor. A parliamentary system might impose some consistency in the process, which might be unwelcome to the voters.

  4. erehweb Says:

    I think the California mindset is illustrated by Randy Newman’s “The World Isn’t Fair”

    Unlike other less-enlightened people, “we care that the world still isn’t fair”, but we’re not about to give up our mansions on the hill any time soon.

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