California: Failed State

Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Ephesians 4:26

I do my best to follow the biblical injunctions of the Christian New Testament, but when it comes to the state of California and letting the sun go down on my anger, I am, in that and other regards, a failed disciple.

How could any rational, thoughtful, informed person be anything other than angry at the condition of California government? How could it come to this? How could the most populous and wealthiest state in the union by every standard of comparison, from natural beauty to intellectual property, be reduced to such pathetic circumstances? (If we were a nation we would be the seventh wealthiest in the world.)

How, in the name of whatever deity you invoke, or none, how could this happen?

Let me in the order of culpability count the ways:

1) Citizens
2) Arnold Schwarzenegger
3) State Legislature
4) Business
5) Unions

When Governor Gray Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger was elected as his successor there was palpable relief that the dismal days of Davis were over and hope that the Golden State would enter a new age. Having once before entrusted the governance of California to an actor without great consequences (some people reasoned), why not try again?

Schwarzenegger was overwhelmingly elected for one reason, and one alone: he was a movie star. His personal story, a uniquely American story (Austrian born or not), was compelling narrative. And we the citizens being the saps we are fell it for it. We actually thought an actor known as the "Terminator" could terminate our problems. What idiocy!

In the beginning of Schwarzenegger's reign there was great excitement because he, unlike Ronald Reagan, was at the top of the movie fame game (when Reagan was elected he was known primarily as the TV host of "Death Valley Days"). Schwarzenegger was the center of adulation; everyone, whether state legislator or fawning Rotarian, seemingly wanted his or her picture taken with Arnold. Not least in the adulatory line was the media, many of whom promptly forgot Peter Finely Dunne's admonition on the calling of their profession, "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Looking back I find it amazing how many otherwise truly smart people, including not a few Democrats, signed on to the Schwarzenegger "mystique." Duped by his fame into thinking he could set straight the Golden State.

In a 43-year run I've gotten a few things right about politics, but I was ingloriously wrong about Schwarzenegger. Before his election I told inquiring friends in other places he stood no chance. I was in error about that but right in believing he would fail as governor -- and fail he has!

But, out of a sense of Christian charity and fidelity to truth telling, it would be wrong to blame Arnold and only Arnold for what's happened. This is a collective failure, and next in line for justifiable blame, after you and me and Arnold, is the State Legislature.

Before the people of this state voted in term limits, another act of monumental stupidity, California actually had extraordinarily able legislative leaders -- Jesse Unruh, Bob Monagan, Leo McCarthy, and Willie Brown in the assembly (and San Diego's own Jim Mills in the state senate). From 1961 to 1995, a 34-year stretch, the state assembly had four speakers. In the past 14 years we've had six, not one of whom I would count as memorable. (Karen Bass, the current "speaker" attempted to raise Assembly staff salaries while the state's budget was being slashed. I mean, seriously, by what means of conjectural logic did she think that would slide go by unnoticed?)

The only thing term limits gets you is bad government. You end up, as end up we have, with neither continuity of governance nor institutional memory. In the absence of strong legislative leadership, which term limits deny, you get government by permanent bureaucrats and lobbyists.

As long as we permit term limits, do not think change will come to Sacramento. It won't -- and we will continue to unravel.

But, since I'm a liberal Kennedy Democrat, you may not trust what I say about the evils of term limits. So maybe you will accept the wisdom of one of conservatism's patron saints, George Will, who wisely said, "We have term limits. It's called the ballot box." That's right, the ballot box! What is there about that you don't understand?

Next, in the descending order of culpability, is the business "community."

There are remarkable business leaders in this state. Men and women of vision and competence, from Silicon Valley to San Diego -- individuals who have created wealth and jobs, while demonstrating extraordinary philanthropy, but many of whom have evidence a marked distaste, if not a deep disdain, for government itself. Yes, they have legitimately sought to protect their interests by bankrolling candidates and hiring lobbyists, but they have done so out of a protective mindset rather than a deep commitment to good governance.

It is this scorn for the process of governance that damns the business community. They have this seemingly fatal idea, that what works in business works in government. No, they are vastly different animals (as eBay founder and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman may or may not discover).

That notwithstanding, men and women of accomplishment in the business world have an obligation to involve themselves in helping California find a way out of our chaotic and perilous state. Business must embrace what it otherwise seeks to avoid -- the lending of expertise and involvement in the affairs of state.

Lastly, in the blame game, are the unions.

Oh, how some people love attacking unions, including Blue Dog Democrats (I will here spare them public indignity by the citation of their names). It's shameful, really, the idea it's acceptable to lay California's collective ills at the door of union shops. Puleez!

For every union offense against the welfare of society there have been multitudes by business; for every rapacious act by union officials against the general welfare there have been acts beyond number by many in the business community.

But unions are not blameless. They have in many instances overreached. It is immoral to be paid more in retirement than while working, and if this state cannot adjust the giveaways and stop early retirement, California's fiscal future is doomed. The law may not permit the state's bankruptcy, but it will in every other way be bankrupt!

Well, that's the indictment. How do we fix our sorry state?

There are four critical steps that must be taken:

1) The repeal of Proposition 13.
2) The repeal of term limits.
3) The repeal of the two/thirds vote requirement.
4) The repeal of the initiative system.

Do I actually believe such sweeping changes can be accomplished? I do, but only when politicians, business and union leaders, start telling the truth about the dire circumstances of our state (it is infinitely worse than they admit). For it will take truth telling to awaken that element within our somnolent population, those who desperately need to be told they can no longer avoid the consequences of what's happening around them -- for they are about to enter a world of hurt.

If that is done, if truth telling becomes the moral dedication of our leaders, and We The People begin to take seriously our sacred franchise as voters, and proceed to act, not in the expediency of the moment, but in the long term interest of California, then, and only then, can we rightfully reclaim our standing as the greatest American state.

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