After Mad Cow, Swear Off (Political) Red Meat

Californians may be thinking twice about consuming beef after a Central Valley cow was found to have mad cow disease.

Your blogger is no scientist, so I can’t tell you the risks of your ground round. But I can tell you that Californians in general need to cut down on their red meat. The political kind.

We’re drunk on rhetoric that explains our problems as somebody else’s fault, especially if that someone else is easy to dislike – a politician or an interest group on the opposite side from our party.

So here are five bits of red meat to avoid:

1. The will of the people is being obstructed by… whomever or whatever.

You hear a lot about what the people want and don’t want, especially in high ballot initiative season.

The people supposedly want better schools and higher taxes, supporters of initiatives to raise taxes for schools will say. But the same polls show that voters don’t want to pay the new taxes themselves.

California has enshrined in its constitution (and in hard-to-change initiative law) the will of Californians, taken as snapshots in elections over 100 years. And that’s a big reason why the state is such a mess. The people’s wants and desires are at odds, and so our governing system is at war with itself.

2. Those terrible legislators are refusing to be tough on spending.

This would make sense if the state legislature was governed by a majority that could be held accountable on the polls. But fiscal matters in California require supermajorities. There’s no shortage of people in the legislature who are willing to make tough decisions, but there’s no real agreement on what those decisions should be. You could elect the toughest people in the state into the body, and you’d have the same problem.

3. Those terrible Republicans are refusing to give on taxes.

Again, the problem isn’t Republicans, who are perfectly within their rights (and within sound economic policy in weak economic times) to oppose taxes. The problem is that they are in the minority and the California system allows them to block decisionmaking on taxes.

4. Those terrible public employee unions are blocking cuts, pension reform, the will of the voters, etc.

Public employees can be myopic in wanting money and benefits without paying for them – but in this, they are just like California voters. Many public unions in the state have made concessions in recent years – on pensions, on wages. It’s likely that they’ll be forced to make many more. And yes, they have outsized power – often because the voters have granted them that, by backing ballot initiatives that give unions (and many other interests) special protections for favored funding in the budget.

5. Those terrible rich people refuse to pay any more.

That may be about to change, with polling strong for higher taxes on the rich (even among many with high incomes). But in this, the rich are no different than the rest of us. In polls, we say that we are happy for someone else to pay more taxes.

Demanding more from those who have more makes sense. But in California, it ought to be part of tax and budget changes that saves money for rainy days and reduces volatility, by shifting taxing power from the state government (which relies on volatile income taxes) to local governments (which rely on property and other less volatile taxes).

Remember: before you rail against others, take a look in the mirror and recognize the problem. You.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010). 

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