Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Election Apathy Bodes Poorly for California

The election last week was devoid of passion in Mendocino County. There were no California state-level offices at stake, no state-wide propositions, nothing to stir up the voters except perhaps Proposition A, which would have rezoned an industrial site in Ukiah to mixed use with the emphasis on retail. The corporation that would have benefited from the rezoning spent a lot of money lying to the voters, but the Proposition went down in flames anyway.

The ridiculously poor governance of California was evident at the poling station. The extremely expensive computer scanning machine that briefly counted ballots after the state govenment forced the county to buy it was used - as a box. I suspect taxpayers paid about $15,000 for that box.

The Veterans Hall, now owned by the county, is of limited use these days because the county inspector decided its kitchen was non-conforming. Rules for exhaust hoods have changed. Bringing it up to code would cost about $35,000. The county does not have the money, so the kitchen can't be used.

California's government is among the most corrupt in the world. Karzai of Afghanistan looks like Mr. Clean compared to any California governor of the last 50 years. The difference is in the details. Californians may be famous for fornicating, but their human waste material disappears down flush toilets. Our political corruption is similarly disguised, but it is vast in its quantities and it poisons the political landscape. One can argue that it is not corruption because it is legal. The corrupt state legislature made it legal. It is legal to lobby, it is legal to give campaign contributions, it is legal to ask for laws to be passed. And there is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying for laws to be passed.

It is the laws that are passed, as opposed to the laws that are not passed, that mark the corruption.

Doing anything in California has becaome ridiculously expensive. Legitimate concerns like safety are turned into cash cows for the construction industry, lawyers, and politicians. Ordinary, hard working people could not afford houses because of the spider-web of laws making every house an order of magnitude more expensive than is necessary. Unable to afford houses, the snakes that run the real estate and credit agencies came up with the brilliant scheme of lending money to people who should have been buying one-room shacks on 1/8th acre lots to buy McMansions instead. As you know, that scheme backfired even on the real estate and banking industries.

I could write a book on how money for our public schools is misspent. Mostly that is not due to bad decision making in the school districts, but to bad law writing and bureaucratic administration in Sacramento.

I am an environmentalist, but the environmental laws (national and California) are a nightmare. A law should tell you whether you can do something or not. Either you can build a factory, retail complex, or housing development, or you can't. Instead we have a system of zoning, EIR (environmental impact reports), citizen lawsuits, and appeals courts that sucks the life out of business without actually protecting the environment. It is a good example of the Gruel of Law: small players can't afford the red tape, but the big players not only can cut right through it, they can generate more of it for their oponents.

I don't see a path to basic reforms in California. At this point we need a new Constitition and new legal codes. But if we try that from where we are standing now, the same special interests and their lawyers and political operatives will be off to another round of bad lawmaking.

Some of my friends believe we need to start with campaign finance reform. Clean up political contributions. I am not against that, but I know how black markets work. Just because unsavory lobbying and campaign-contributions for favors is legal now does not mean that outlawing them will make them go away. Black markets always arise when their is a desire to trade and a law that prohibits it.

Perhaps we should think like Alexander Hamilton. As much as I hate the guy, we might borrow his one big idea: you can only minimize corruption by making it work against itself.

The Green Party talks about social justice and the environment. I think they should talk about governance more. The Green Party officially favors small, locally based businesses (which could include worker or consumer-owned businesses). It wants those businesses to be environmentally friendly, of course. What that means to me is that the powers of Sacramento should be cut back in a major way. Let the counties and communities make most of the decisions. Let them tax as they like and spend as they like. State-level government should only come into play when there are matters that need to be coordinated between the counties.

The same is true of the Federal government. We don't need better federal law. We need the feds out of our hair. We don't need laws written by idiots from Mississippi to govern us. We came to California to get away from those folks.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

California Green Party Proposals

The Green Party of California is considering adding a plank to its platform outlining proposed State of California reforms. While the Green Party is powerless except, in a few cases, at local levels, it does illustrate the kind of thinking people are doing about the mess called Government in this state. The failed budget process has been at the front of the news, and much of the Green proposal addresses budget issues.

The Green Party is proposing a "pay-as-we-go" system, meaning no more bond issues. Bonds are a way of borrowing money. Fees for placing them, and interest, greatly add to the cost of projects funded by the bonds. One reason there is so little money for necessities this year is that so much money is being used to make payments on bonds from the past. Bonds are often passed using the initiative/referendum process. Voters don't think about how an individual bond impacts the budget. They tend to vote for things they think are necessary or nice, like prisons, hospitals, and transportation projects. Bonds, if not abolished entirely, need to be part of a central budgeting process that does not over-estimate future taxpayer revenues.

A unicameral legislature of 360 members is proposed. I like the idea of a unicameral legislature with enough members to keep the number of consituents per member manageable. The Green Party proposal wants only 8 geographic regions. Within each region it proposes 45 members, half (23?) elected by by geographic district and half (22?) elected by proportional representation among political parties. This would pretty much assure that the Green Party would get some seats in the legislature. It sounds complicated, but it is a system similar to that used in most nations in Europe (and around the globe); voters get used to it quickly. It helps ensure that minority views get represented.

The Green Party would allow budgets to be passed by a 55% majority. In the short run this would let the tax-and-steal Democrats to run wild, but at least budgets could be balanced and passed in a timely manner.

A reserve fund would be established so that as the economy, and taxes collected, fluctuated, the state's annual budget could remain on an even keel. This has been proposed by many reformers.

The proposal also calls for "an extra 10% tax on state lottery winners." I find this to be a ridiculous way to raise small sums of money. The lottery already has an effective tax rate of over 50%, when you consider what the state gets in lottery receipts versus what it pays out to winners. Then the winners get to pay both state and federal income tax.

The Green Party wants to stop building prisons. I agree; we have a rate of incarceration that looks more like Stalin's gulag than like a healthy democracy. We may never be able to close our prisons, but we do need to use better methods to discourage crime. Young people need better guidance, and we need to make honest work more attractive than criminal methods of fund raising. More important, California needs to stop acting like every time someone has a little fun, a crime has been committed. Behavior should be treated as criminal only when someone is hurt.

The focus of law enforcement and the courts should be on career criminals and criminal organizations, including those operating under the mask of legal corporations.


Green Party of California site
my Green Party pages at IIIPublishing.com

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Democracy Under Pressure

Democracy is one of those words that can have a very broad meaning. To what ever extent you believe the state of California is a democracy, you should be aware that the ongoing economic crisis is putting severe burdens on "rule by the people."

Some would say that California is, in fact, a republic, not a democracy. See my America, Republic or Democracy? for an introduction to this topic for the United States. Most of the arguments apply to the state of California as well.

We certainly have very few elected officials compared to the size of the population (37 million). There are only 80 members of the California State Assembly and 40 members of the California State Senate. In most of the states of the United States there are far fewer voters in a district for a state legislative seat than there are for a member of the United States House of Representatives. But in California the Assembly districts are only lightly smaller than U.S. House seats (California has 53 Representatives in Congress). Each California State Senate seat represents almost 900,000 people and is larger than a congressional district.

That means only tiny percentage of people in the district have any meaningful access to their representatives. Which in turn means that interest-group lobbies rule. The most powerful lobbies in the state represent corporations, often ones that do business in the state but are headquartered in other states. Sometimes they are foreign (non-U.S.) multinational corporations. Other powerful lobbies include state employees unions and professionals like lawyers.

You might think with a small ruling political class, what government lacked in democratic representation would be made up in efficiency and unity of purpose. But the government of California is probably as inefficient as any on earth. It can't make decisions, unless it is making bad ones.

Blessed with natural resources, including a window on the economically important Pacific Ocean rim, and a talented people of diverse backgrounds, California has prospered despite the state government, not because of it.

The only thing our legislators are good at is blaming someone else for their incompetence. Generally speaking, those associated with the Democratic Party and those associated with the Republican Party cast the blame at each other at election time. That way few voters look closely at the legislative record of their own representatives.

If California were split into 2, 3 or 4 states, each state might be small enough to reform and govern itself. If California split from the United States, we might divide it up into 20 or so regions each with a population larger than many of the current united states.

A more likely solution would be up to the people themselves. They could create California-based political parties that made California issues the decisive factors in state elections. Most citizens can only devote so much time to paying attention to politics. Naturally, they pay attention to big-issue national politics: war and peace, and which Congressmen are cheating on their wives. So they vote for members of the California State Assembly and State Senate based on party identifications that have little to do with governing California.

Throw the rascals out should be the rallying cry for Californians in the 2010 elections. But the usual will happen: the power of incumbents is so great that none, or very few, will fail to be re-elected unless they are term-limited out. And when there is a term-limit reached, the party machines will have some hack ready to step in and play at politics the same as the old hack. The donors seldom change, just the political faces that their money buys.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

California on the Ropes

California is on the ropes. It is being hit harder than most states by the current recession. Its government is paralyzed. No one is steering; the ship of state has run aground.

Unraveling a disaster of this magnitude is going to be a lot harder than avoiding it in the first place would have been. After the budget crisis of 2001-2002, the government of California should have taken steps to build up a surplus during the relatively good years of 2003-2007. It should have made fundamental reforms in the way budgets are created. Instead it feasted on tax dollars blown in by the housing bubble.

The electorate should bear part of the blame for electing those who have been in the legislature lately. Mostly, though, the electorate has mainly be manipulated by the two major party political machines. The machines determine who will have the money to win their primaries. All most all of California's elections are basically won in the primary of the dominant political party in that district; the lines of the district are drawn to ensure that almost no incumbent that runs loses his or her seat. And even competent politicians are term limited out of the Assembly in just six yeas.

Even if better politicians were elected, they might be dazed and confused by the current budget system.

There is no central budgeting authority that makes sure budgets are balanced in the sense that in good years there is a surplus that can be used as a cushion in bad years. Nor is there an authority that makes sure public spending is balanced between the various needs of the people of California. The state Senate is not a central authority; nor is the state Assembly. The governor actually has little power over budgets except the power of persuasion. Nor is there any bureaucracy that keeps things in order so that politicians can do what they do best, posture and swill whatever lobbyists lay before them.

Every session of the legislature is a feeding frenzy. This is fought around a skeleton of laws enshrined in the state Constitution that determine where much taxpayer money can go. Can't get the legislature to throw you a bone? Sponsor a referendum. Bond measures are passed willy-nilly because voters consider each measure in and of itself, with little regard to how the bonds affect the state budget. Bonds take decades to pay off and effectively treble the cost of any project, once you include interest payments.

I think it is fair to argue about whether any specific tax in California is too high or too low, but I agree with those who think that taken as a whole, California taxes (with federal and local taxes) are about as much as a people can reasonably bear. When the economy revives there will be more tax revenue

I would also tend to agree that California's tax structure is ridiculously unfair. Two people living in houses of similar real value may be paying taxes that are an order of magnitude different. Some businesses pay little or no taxes, when businesses that are equally profitable pay much higher taxes. The Board of Equalization seems to be all about inequality these days.

The people of California have to look at the whole picture and come to a consensus about what a good budget process would look like. Once that is known, they need to elect politicians who will put it in place.

Perhaps what California needs is a California political party that is centrist in nature. It could put a damper on politicians who love to spend other peoples' money and don't mind raising taxes. And on those who won't allow taxes to be raised, but who in actuality also love to spend other peoples' money on their pet bureaucracies, or provide tax breaks for their friendly corporate sponsors. Those two groups of politicians have caused the current crisis, and they correspond fairly closely to the two major political parties.

Even if a centrist party were started today, it would take a while to implement. Be prepared for a couple of unpleasant years in California. It won't be the government that pulls us out of this mess. It will be the creative citizens who put their shoulders to the wheel and revive the economy with their sweat. While most unemployed citizens just bumble around, happy to get unemployment benefits while waiting for their next set of instructions.

Here are three suggestions for immediate use:

Have a ten year moratorium on new statewide bond issues. Don't make it a law; organize the citizens to vote down every bond for ten years.

Let 25% of state prisoners out of prison on early parole. That is the quickest way to cut the budget. They are going to get out eventually anyway, which is a risk society has decided to take. If they violate parole, they go back in. So the downside is not nearly as bad as bankrupting the state of California would be.

Create a state-owned credit union that is strictly for creating mortgages for residences. Loan only to those who have substantial downs, but keep interest rates on the loans as low as possible. Get the housing market stabilized, and the tax base will be stabilized. That will buy time to make the fundamental changes that are necessary for survival in the 21st century.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome to the California Democracy Blog

As I write this the State of California is estimated to comprise nearly 37 million persons. The first census of the United States of America, taken in 1790, showed the population was under 4 million persons.

In theory a democracy is rule of the people. What does it mean to say that 37 million Californians rule themselves? Do we rule ourselves?

In reality the government of California (including the federal governance component) is in trouble. This goes beyond the current budget crisis, the economic problems of 2008, and the problems that typically confront even the best of governments.

The California Democracy Blog will focus on questions about the democratic governance of California. How democratic is our republican form of government? Is the current state of misgovernment caused by too much democracy or too little? What structural changes could be made to improve the government of California?

An earlier, discontinued version of this blog was started by the organization California Center for Community Democracy, with me (William Meyers) as Web master. I expect to write the vast majority of entries, but may also post writings by other commentators. Of course you are welcome to add your comments to the posts at the site.