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A Trick to Play on California Political Ads

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Opinion: A Trick to Play on Political Ads

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Jerry Brown pauses as he delivers remarks after he was sworn in as the 39th governor of California by California on Jan. 3, 2011.

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If you watch TV ads and listen to radio ads during this election season in California, you might wonder at all the agreement. Everybody who is running, and every measure on the ballot, sees the same problem in California: "the politicians."

So you'll see all kinds of measures denounce "the politicians." Molly Munger's Prop 38 deserves your support, she says, because "politicians" won't be able to touch the money raised by her temporary income tax increases. Prop 30's supporters insist their money too is guaranteed for education. Prop 31 is all about putting budget restrictions on the politicians. Prop 35 is about getting tough on human trafficking because the politicians in the legislature wouldn't do it.

This anti-politician rhetoric seems routine and boilerplate at this point. But it shouldn't be. Indeed, blasting "the politicians" is misleading the public about what's really wrong with California.

And what's really wrong is that "the politicians" can't do much at all -- because voters and others have so limited their power. The state's complicated budget rules and long constitution leave little room for discretion. As a result, "the politicians" handle very little money and make very few decisions about it. Instead, most decisions are already made by the messy sea of formulas, many approved by voters, who lock in spending. Since these formulas don't fit together, the state has constant budget problems. But there isn't a whole lot "the politicians" can do about this

What would fix this problem? Simply put: giving "the politicians" more power to touch money, balance interests and make tradeoffs. With the freedom to operate, the politicians would be able to make changes, adapt to different levels of revenue and get closer to balancing budget.

So when you hear "the politicians" denounced in an ad, try to replace those words -- "the politicians" -- with a different two-word phrase -- "human beings." Because that's what the ad is really saying. Politicians are the humans who can use their judgment and discretion and make decisions for you. When you take power away from "the politicians," you're taking it away from human beings -- and giving it all the formulas and rules in California that have morphed into a runaway machine.

In other words, you're choosing to be governed by the machine, not by humans.

Maybe you prefer the machine. But you shouldn't. Humans have flaws, but they also are flexible, and can fix mistakes. California's machine of formulas and algorithms, on the other hand, cannot fix itself.

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