Guest Opinion: Californians must save themselves | September 10, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 10, 2010

Guest Opinion: Californians must save themselves

by Scott Carlson

Walk around pleasant Palo Alto and you may not know that California has had a nervous breakdown

But around the state the symptoms are there: perennial budget "crises"; suffering public schools; aging infrastructure; overflowing prisons.

California has never been far from crisis, but this time feels different say Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their new book, "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It" (University of California Press).

What makes this crisis seem different is that "at the heart of (this) civic moment is the fear that California lacks even a language, and an understanding, equal to its calamity."

But their under 200-page book offers just that: to their children and to "other vexed parents ... a narrative and a language to understand California's crisis; a set of ideas to meet it; and our optimism that, if not our children, then some other sons and daughters of California will rise to the moment."

California's government has never quite worked, Mathews and Paul contend. But we've always had a kind of luck — a steady inflow of people and cycles of wealth creation, so that "by the time anyone bothered to suggest how to fix the state, [it] had become a larger, newer, and richer state."

But that luck is about to change. Our population will still grow, but primarily by the maternity ward, not in-migration. If "trends hold, by the year 2040 a majority of California's middle-aged citizens will be native to their state."

In other words, "California must find some way to govern itself, because, for the first time, Californians must save themselves."

To explain our calamity, Mathews and Paul begin broadly: We have three systems of government operating on two contradictory principles. They are: (1) a Legislature sometimes operating by majority rule; (2) a Legislature required by a "constitutional web of rules" to operate by supermajority (two-thirds) on the most "polarized" subjects — taxes and spending; and (3) an initiative process ("Propositions") operating by majority rule to override the supermajority principle. The result is "political schizophrenia." It's not that our government isn't working — it's that it can't.

There's no simple answer to how we got into this mess, but a key cause has been our famous Proposition 13, which in 1978 gave us the "two-thirds rule" for the Legislature (and local governments) to increase revenue. This, combined with a flood of other propositions, has undermined the Legislature's ability to decide our biggest issues.

The result is a vicious "cycle of contempt" — the public sees the Legislature as ineffective so it passes more and more propositions, which in turn make the Legislature even more ineffective. As a former state senator described it: We tie the hands of legislators then complain that they're acting as if their hands are tied, so we punish them by tying their hands tighter.

Proposition 13's greatest damage might have been to local governments — gutting their taxing and spending authority and shifting power to Sacramento, an irony that conservative opponents of "big government" came to accept only because they hated taxes even more.

This defies common-sense principles of government: the duty to run a program should be assigned to the proper level of government, and with the duty should come the revenue needed to run it.

Yet another irony was Proposition 13's role in growing the now-outsized influence of public-employee unions: centralizing power in Sacramento gave the unions convenient "one-stop shopping" for lobbying and negotiating.

But Proposition 13 remains a sacred cow. Conservatives cry "Murder!" at proposals to change it, ending any conversation. Yet Proposition 13 was many things: a uniform property-tax rate; a cap on assessment increases; a ban on real-estate transfer taxes.

Mathews and Paul believe that "It is possible to have the best of Prop. 13 — the insurance policy to keep inflation from driving up property taxes beyond homeowners' ability to pay — while changing the ... system that has weakened local control" and shackled the Legislature.

What is the fix? On the ballot this fall will be more initiatives, some of them an attempt at reform. They would tinker with the budget process and grant local governments more control over local money. But these, Mathews and Paul think, would do little to change our government's three-headed system of contradictions.

What's really needed is structural, systemic reform, what they call a "Great Unwinding."

True structural reform would integrate our three systems into one that is responsive to voters and clearly accountable for results. This would include changing the way we choose a legislature: rather than winner-take-all elections in single-member districts, we could have a proportional representation system that would be much more responsive to voter choice (See

Rather than gridlock-causing supermajority rules for budget and tax decisions, we could have a system that "allows for risk taking and prompt governance." And in place of an initiative process that recklessly circumvents the Legislature, we could have a redesigned one that still preserves citizen "say" and puts pressure on legislators. (See,0,6083414.story).

Obviously, all of this is a very heavy lift.

And probably the only way to do it is through a constitutional convention, which is another discussion. Early this year the Bay Area Council's push for a convention went far but ran out of steam (money). For the moment the convention "movement" is leaderless, but there are people and groups around the state ready to band together for another push.

Some may think this is quixotic tilting at windmills. But doing nothing is not an option — Palo Alto and California won't be lucky forever. As Carey McWilliams wrote, California needs citizens who can "see beyond its mountains [and] realize that, as with all good things, there comes a time when the gold runs out."

Scott Carlson is a freelance writer who lives in Palo Alto's Lincolnville (Lincoln-Melville) neighborhood with his wife and two children. He can be e-mailed at


Posted by Ano Nymous, a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm

We could have saved ourselves 30 years ago, by:
1) Kicking and keeping out the illegals, and
2) Refusing to pay people to have an infinite number of babies on our dime.

Posted by illegal?, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 11, 2010 at 1:04 am

hmmm? let's see. europeans "discovered" the america native americans dwelled in. the question is who is the true illegal? now that's debatable.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2010 at 3:08 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Southgate, what is, is. The game goes on from here. Before Europeans arrived here, land ownership was already up for grabs. If you insist on a redeal of every hand, no game gets played.

Posted by Cynic, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 11, 2010 at 5:34 am

Not too late, we can still turn this Titanic. But, we won't. Too many uninformed voters. I have turned into a cynic.

For example, I am betting Jerry Brown wins this election. He has a "D" after his name and folks are too foolish to vote for anything other than a "D". They won't see his history, and who he is, and what he did before to California. They are presented with a STARK reality, no guessing, no reason to know anything other than the truth..and still they will vote for him because he has a "D" after his name and, maybe a few will even go so far as to think "Well, he has more experience" ...( without looking at what kind and what the results were)

And therein lies the problem. People simply don't think.

Posted by Scott Carlson, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 11, 2010 at 9:44 am

While I'm more optimistic--a necessity, I think--than "Cynic" about the long-term future, I may be as cynical as s/he is about the election for governor. That is, our legislative/structural problems are such that it is largely irrelevant who the governor is. Either one will likely "fail"--i.e., not achieve any meaningful change in the way the state is being governed. My hope is that a larger number of people begin having a conversation on the terms Mathews and Paul are presenting; on their merits or not.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Sep 11, 2010 at 11:14 am

stephen levy is a registered user.


Thanks for bringing the book to Town Square attention.

Here is a link to the book and some of the key ideas.

Web Link

A couple of the interesting ideas in the book are 1( instant runoff voting and 2) requiring funding whenever we pass a state bond just as we do for local Palo Alto bonds.

The idea behind instant runoff voting is that your second and third choices can count. A voter ranks all of the candidates. When votes are counted the last place finisher is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed to other candidates in his/her order of preference, This continues until one candidate has 50% of the vote.

This has two benefits. First a voter can vote Libertarian or Green and know that their second place vote will count. Second, candidates have to court Libertarian and Green voters, conservatives and liberals because their second place votes will count.

The benefits of tying funding to state bond elections are 1) you will get better decision making (think about water bonds or high speed rail for example) and 2) gradually the state budget spending on debt service will decline as bonds will be funded, if passed, by new dedicated funding.

Posted by Erik, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2010 at 11:58 am

I shall read the book. I must say, though, that it sounds like a vehicle to make it even easier to raise taxes and add additional anti-business regulations. I think we will need to hit rock bottom before we stop demanding more state spending. State spending is not "free".

T.J. Rodgers, of Cypress Semiconductors, is on record saying that he has been partially forced out of California, due to over regulation and taxation issues. Such decisions constitute a very big hit to our economy.

Our bond rating is the worst of all the states. We continue to pass bond issues (like high speed rail), because they sound good or green or just. It may well be that the bond market will determine our future, and impose discipline on us.

In the meantime, California will pay its bills by issuing IOUs...until the banks refuse to take them, anymore.

Posted by Cynic, a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Erik, I didn't even want to get into what you mentioned, but I agree. The usual 'blame Prop 13' malarkey in this opinion piece, in order to put in a place a way to raise taxes even more on one of the most, if not most, taxed States in the USA. I turned off with that starting point. Never a mention that we spend 30% more per student, in real dollars, now than we did pre-Prop 13, nor a mention of the tremendous social shifts ( single moms, 2 parent working families, children of non-English speaking parent(s), more kids per TAX-PAYING capita than any State in the nation, education standard shifts) that have had a tremendous impact on our education, bringing us from first to 49th in the nation.

I actually think there is something to the Proposition position. I used to be for them, but have seen them blossom into a way for our legislatures to avoid responsibility.

I am a cynic though. I think there is no way we are going to vote in the people needed to cut our spending, the only way to save this ship.Far too many entrenched takers in the system. Democracy works only until the 6 lions can vote to eat the 4 sheep, then it goes belly up of starvation.

We have an entitled, entrenched class of people, from welfare to prisons ( yes, I said prisons, where the average health care bill is over $40,000 per year, and a court of ours said that we had to pay yet more), to government employee unions that are collapsing California, and I am now far too cynical to believe that anyone will be able to push back..they are the majority now in California, especially as taxpayers take flight.

As for the "instant run-off" thanks. That leads to transferring my vote to another person. Far too easy to play games with that. No interest at all. No thanks. Too lottery like. No. One vote, one person..not 'oh well, that one didn't win, so go ahead and use my vote for the next one up".

No thanks.

Too bad, because I happen to think there is actually something to the

As for the

Posted by Erik, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2010 at 4:12 pm

"Democracy works only until the 6 lions can vote to eat the 4 sheep, then it goes belly up of starvation."

Cynic, hadn't heard that one before, but it tends to describe our current state of affairs of state. However, it cannot continue, because perpetual motion machines do not exit. Real money is only a reflection of productivity; motion is the reflection of energy. Neither production, nor energy can be created by fiat.

California will not go away, but it will hit bottom in terms of its economy and politics. Out of the ashes will arise a new order constrained by reality.

Posted by Cynic, a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Thanks Eric. It is just a more graphic way of saying what Thatcher said, something like "Socialism works until you run out of other peoples' money".

I agree with you. Something will break. People don't but systems do.

Posted by Erik, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2010 at 4:57 pm


Thatcher may very well be a model for California. However it will take some more suffering before we wake up to that notion. Probably 15% unemployment and banks rejecting IOUs in mass.

Posted by Saddened, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2010 at 4:58 pm

The use of the Initiative to pass legislation has become the most devastating hit on the Legislature's ability to govern. Uninformed people vote for something that sounds good, whether it's green or helps a worthy small group.

This commits money from the General Fund and leaves less for parks, highways, medical needs, etc.

A good idea to pass power to the voters has gone sadly awry with vested interests such as unions or business lobbies taking over.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2010 at 12:35 am

>> "Socialism works until you run out of other peoples' money".

Just like Capitalism works until you have a bunch of corrupt monopolies that drain the country of its money through lots of debt traps and tricks.

If we are going to solve our problems maybe a great step forward would be to ban these kinds of useless statements, and start collecting some data, and getting some ideas. Ideas besides constantly vilifying Liberals.

We have created a market for crime and greed, and that is exactly what we have more and more of now.

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