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The Golden State
Yes, despite what mineralogists say, gold can rust

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
October 4, 2009

The Guardian had a news article yesterday entitled, “Is California America's first failed state?” The piece didn't attempt to sugar coat the way things stand here in the Golden State. “California is currently cutting healthcare, slashing the "Healthy Families" programme that helped an estimated one million of its poorest children. Los Angeles now has a poverty rate of 20%. Other cities across the state, such as Fresno and Modesto, have jobless rates that rival Detroit's. In order to pass its state budget, California's government has had to agree to a deal that cuts billions of dollars from education and sacks 60,000 state employees. Some teachers have launched a hunger strike in protest. California's education system has become so poor so quickly that it is now effectively failing its future workforce. The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California's schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation. Its government-issued bonds have been ranked just above 'junk'.”

Despite this, the tone of the article is somewhat hopeful, citing California's leadership in the new green economy, and the possibility that a constitutional convention might break the legislative gridlock that has all but destroyed the state's ability to govern itself. Whether this optimism is warranted, of course, is far more problematical.

Part of the problem is that about 40% of the voters in this state worked long and hard to bring this catastrophe about. Going back to the days of Jarvis and Gramm in the 1970s, the Republican party has had an ongoing “tax revolt”, the goals of which were to reduce taxes, shift more taxes from the rich to the middle class, and, in the unforgettable phrase of Grover Norquist, “make government small enough that you can drown it in the bathtub.”

Well, mission accomplished, Grover. Prop 13 was only the first of the tax changes that gave the wealthy huge tax breaks at the expense of everyone else. The Republicans managed to get through a constitutional amendment that required a supermajority of 67% for any “revenue enhancing” bill. As a result, a bill could have the support of all 80 of the assemblymen, and 26 of the 40 senators, and fail because it didn't have 67% in both houses. Since even now when they are widely hated and despised, Republicans can manage to get one third of the seats in one house or the other, that means they had an effective stranglehold, not just on “revenue enhancing” legislation, but on the annual budget. The results, year after year, were grotesque scenes of a large majority of the legislators trying to find something, anything, that would placate Republicans who basically wanted the entire process to fail, and would often get one Republican to cave, ending the impasse, but only after costing the state additional billions in lowered credit rating and late payment on bills. Remember, these guys don't want to just put government in its place: they want to drown it in the bathtub. When they did lose, they usually drove the weak link out of office in the next election.

A lot of their philosophy stemmed from pure selfishness: the government was for little people. They didn't need it. If you can afford security guards and private firefighting outfits (yes, there are such things in California) then why pay to have everyone protected? If workers are poor, it is because they lack any drive, and thus deserve to be poor. But they can't unionize—that would be cheating. Real workers take on major corporations, man-to-man! One on one, baby, just you against WalMart! Now that's a fair fight! Not to vilify WalMart; while they certainly still have their faults, they have recognized that the Republican ideology has the effect of driving the state at a brick wall at 80 miles an hour and have broken ranks, demanding a public option in health care and a higher minimum wage for employees.

Other companies have been leaving California, not because the tax burden is so high (it's actually among the lowest in the country) but because the infrastructure is so badly damaged. With poor or no public transportation, employees must drive to work in increasingly older cars and over more and more potholes. Californians are rapidly becoming less educated as the public school system collapses, and sicker because there is no public health system at all. And a lot of businesses who once saw the residents of the Golden State as their best customers are learning, to their chagrin, that people who don't have money can't buy stuff. California at one point was one sixth of the entire American economy. If it collapses, America isn't very far behind.

At best, California will end up pretty much like India, with a thin scum of ultra wealthy floating uneasily on a heaving sea of tens of millions of people living in poverty. They will face the fact that few areas in the state will be safe to travel without an armed guard, and that there will be huge population pressure (high birthrates occur in countries where people are convinced that they need to have lots of kids in hopes that enough will survive to take care of them in their old age), crime, and pollution. Los Angeles will be as blighted and despoiled as Bombay, or New Delhi. Government's only role will be to defend the rich from the millions and millions of people whose birthright they stole.

At worst, it will be another Somalia. Or Afghanistan.

This is the social miracle of Republicanism, taken to its logical end. They deny people a voice in government and aid of any sort, arguing they should be self reliant, then take away the very tools the people need, such as representative government, the right to sue (that would be “tort reform,” better known as “legal shielding of irresponsible corporations”) and right to unionize.

The sad thing is that the sixty-five percent of Californians who are acting in good faith and understand that a clean, efficient, modern society comes with a price tag have been trying to overcome the depredations of the I-Me-Mine GOP. A lot of state services and projects are funded through bonds in the state initiative process, usually employed after it became clear it could never get the required supermajority in both houses in Sacramento.

But that actually added to the problem, because while the initiatives provided much-needed funding for education, roads, prisons, and public transportation, they were also inflexible. It would mandate X amount each year, and thus set the state in a trap where nearly 70% of the budget was mandatory spending, meaning that if revenues dipped, say from a major recession, all the cuts had to come in the 30% of the budget that was “discretionary”. That meant most social services, including the vestigial public health and welfare. In other words, the people most vulnerable in an economic downturn are the most hard-hit.

The next primary election, Spring of 2010, is the last chance California has to use the initiative process to strike down the super majority requirement and make state government functional again. I'm not sure California will make it that long, let alone to the November 2010 election.

The poverty rate in California is exploding, reaching 50% in some of the counties that depend on Agriculture or are rural (logging, tourism). At least five million Californians don't have medical coverage, or any form of dentistry available. State maintenance crews are becoming a rare sight, and roads are deteriorating even faster. Nearly a third of the mortgages in the state are either defaulted, or “under water” and likely to be defaulted on.

Worse, the level of utter destitution, where people are literally living by begging or foraging dumpsters for food, is beginning to climb as unemployment and welfare begin to dry up. With unemployment officially at 12% (and unofficially around 20%) there are no jobs for these people, there is no safety net, and there is no hope.

That is a fantastically dangerous position for a first world state to find itself in.

Riots are the least of my worries. Riots tend to be limited in scope, and burn themselves out rapidly, due mostly to their self-destructive nature. The last large bout of riots was in South Central, and the LAPD basically dealt with them by running away and hiding. They stopped after a few days, for the simple reason that it's hard to strike a blow for justice when the only targets in sight are your own friends and neighbors.

Insurrection and revolution are in the state's future if it doesn't change its course. Make no mistake: these are horrible alternatives. The American example notwithstanding, most revolutions end badly. Think France in 1789, or Spain in 1936. It's just not a sign of valor or love of freedom; it's a sign of desperation and need for simple justice.

California is teetering on the edge of an abyss. It's not too late at this point, but if action isn't taken soon to end the Republican experiment in small ineffectual government, California faces either the repressive anarchy of no government at all, or the tyranny of a police state devoted to serving the rich rather than the people.

Time is running out.

Posted: October 8, 2009

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