Sunday, January 23, 2011

California: Democracy in Form

After writing about Representative Mike Thompson's bill to allow commercial development of conservation easements, I was reflecting on how formal our democracy is when it comes to the elections in his California district. We have not had a meaningful election as long as I can remember. Every cycle the incumbent collects some $2 million in campaign funds mostly from the timber industry, the wine industry, the public-funded construction industry, and public-serice employee unions.

Mike Thompson is registered in the Democratic Party, as are a majority of the voters in the district. Republicans form a distinct minority; the second largest group in the district are unaffiliated ("decline to state" in California parlance). Mike (who is a likeable and shrewd guy) has never had meaninful opposition in a primary since his first election. This is despite there being lot of leftish Democrats in the district, including a number of Democrats in the hierarchy who are more in touch with voter sentiments in the district. As to the Republicans, they nominate someone to run every time (as do the Greens and Libertarians), but they aren't going to waste good money in a district where they will get clobbered on election day just the same.

Aside from the bias towards rich people's problems, in many ways Mike's voting record is reflective of an largly apathetic electorate. On abortion Mike is pro-choice. He is for the environment unless it gets in the way of a winery or development. He is againt the war when standing in front of Democrats, but always votes for funding the war. It is hard to imagine us getting a new Representative before he dies or voluntarilly retires.

In a dictatorship maintaining this poor of a standard of government would require silencing critics like me. But I can criticize Mike all I want. Worst case scenario, if a lot of people listen to me about a particular issue, Mike will back track, voters will calm down, and it would soon be business as usual.

From what I hear from around California, this scenario is the rule, not the exception. There are a smaller number of Republicans with safe seats than there are Democrats, which reflects the overall liberal culture of California. It can't even be said that the liberalism is entirely symbolic.

It is sad that a mere $2,000,000 can buy a seat in the House of Representatives that controls a multi-trillion dollar economy. I suspect the rich would give more if they could do it legally. A favorable estate tax rate, or capital gains rate, is worth a lot more to even a mid-level capitalist than a mere $2 million. At $2000 per person, it only takes 1000 donors to raise $2 million dollars.

In effect about 1000 people participate in running the California 1st congressional district. That is called an oligarchy, not a democracy. I would think that would be a ball park figure for the typical seat in Congress. With 435 seats in the House, that means there are less than one-half million people who get to meaningfully participate in the decision making at the national level.

But maybe what is wrong is that ordinary people don't give enough to the opposition. At a more affordable $100 giving level, 20,000 people should be able to band together to buy a seat in Congress. But they would have to band together and agree on what they want for their money. Which is harder than getting some agreement out of 1000 donors.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

California Budget Woes Show Flaws in Democracy

On November 2, 2010 California voters went to the polls. They chose Jerry Brown to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor. For the most part they sent the same gang back to the State Assembly and Senate, barring only those who were forced out by term limits. Well-greased political machines made sure that when their guys (or gals) were term-limited out, an indistinguishable candidate was selected to continue to represent their interests in exactly the same way.

After so many reforms being enacted in California, it is fair to ask: what is the point? Nothing stops The Blob of self-interest, it just oozes around what ever new barriers or weapons are used against it.

But there is a barrier The Blob cannot overcome: the limits on California state spending. Oh, it tries. It tries to increase taxes, and some times it succeeds. But there is only so much economy out there. Raise personal or business taxes and people only have so much they can spend, especially given they have to pay federal taxes in addition to state taxes. True, at the high end, rich Californians and giant corporations that operate in the state may still have some juice left to squeeze out. But then there is the major goal of the Blob: squeezing the juice out of the middle class, so that the rich need bleed out only token juice.

Now Jerry Brown is delivering the bad news: his budget is going to cut services, and public sector jobs and salaries, even further back than Arnold's did. This is not Jerry's fault. He is trying to deal with reality. Just like Arnold was.

The reality is that in good years the screaming Mimi's, from MediCal recipients to public service unions to corporations that profiteer on government contracts, always want more. They get it, too, then try to hold onto it during recessions.

California's economy will grow again, especially once housing starts to sell again and new housing construction resumes, but 2011 will be a tough year. Silicon Valley is already prospering and paid more taxes in 2010 than it did in 2009, but much of the tax base depends on real estate taxes and the construction industry. Real estate tax revenues may continue to decline in 2011 and even 2012 as people get their residences re-assessed.

People and businesses can take only so much squeezing. A wise government would find ways to encourage business activity in California without compromising the environment or exploiting workers. Democracy, unfortunately, works (to the extent it works) by allowing the dividing lines to be set by the pushing and pulling of interest groups. The rich are few in number, but can deploy a lot of money to choose the politicians they want. Generally speaking, only candidates backed by the rich, or by public sector unions, can win political primaries. Most of us are not rich and not in public sector unions, so we get shafted. In fact the current system means 90% of the voters are disenfranchised before the general election is held.

Public funding of campaigns could help break up this unfair scenario, but attempts to enact that have been consistently blocked.

Which leaves only remote possibilities to break the deadlock. A political party, currently a third party, could organize the 90% to vote for their interests. Organizing voters without already having political power to begin with, however, is no easy task. Or independent political machines could emerge in each Assembly district, led by individuals rather than political machines. Proposition 14 made that possible, at least in theory.