Saturday, September 18, 2010

California Crackup

I just finished reading Joe Mathews and Mark Paul's California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.

I'm not a policy expert, but I spent five years editing reports and briefings at the Public Policy Institute of California, so I've read more than my share of material on the state's economy, population, and governance. I can tell you that this book does a superb job of laying out the state's current political problems, explaining how they became so critical, and offering ideas for what they call a Great Unwinding.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that we voters (with timely help from various quarters) have done it to ourselves--all in the name of reform. Quoting Carey McWilliams on the state's "perilous remedies for present evils," Joe and Mark show how the use of statewide initiatives in particular has turned California governance into a Rube Goldberg contraption that not only doesn't work, but also can't work.

In some cases, even our elected officials don't know how to operate the contraption. Describing the absurdly complicated mechanisms of Prop 98, whose goal was to fortify K-12 school finances, Joe and Mark note, "The legislature simply could not govern what it could not understand."

And we voters, quite naturally, don't trust what we don't understand.
Angered by the complexities as well as the poor results of state government, we repeatedly try to solve budget problems (for example) with ballot initiatives. Almost inevitably, the unintended consequences make matters worse. Enshrining budget priorities in the state constitution is a prescription for failure, yet we try it time after time, expecting different results.

Many of the reforms (e.g., Prop 13) were supposed to establish budget "discipline." Joe and Mark explore the metaphor, comparing voters to dominatrices in an elaborate game of fiscal bondage. We flog our elected officials for failing to satisfy a score of criss-crossing, overlapping, and inconsistent mandates as well as make sensible policy decisions. And in addition to burdening the system with more complexity and myriad unintended consequences, these reforms frequently don't solve the narrow problems they were designed to address.

The remedies for getting out of this hole? First, stop digging. Give Sacramento the tools to do its job and then hold the parties responsible if they fail to deliver. Second, improve the representativeness of state government by shrinking districts and implementing proportional representation and instant-runoff voting. Third, make sure the tasks of government are handled at the appropriate level. One of the unintended consequences of previous reform efforts has been to concentrate control in Sacramento, which is often too far away from problems to solve them well.

I've followed Joe's and Mark's work for some time now. They're shrewd and witty observers of state politics, and both are extraordinarily adept at explaining California's problems clearly. But even their discussion requires a fair amount of focus and acumen to follow. This isn't a criticism of their book, but rather more support for their claim that the sheer complexity of our political problems far outstrips the average citizen's ability to grasp (much less solve) them. So maybe we should stop with the silver-bullet nonsense and get on with the Great Unwinding.

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