The Politics of Outrage

On Friday, May 1, 2009, the following was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, under the headline “Formulas for Dysfunction: On the Effects of Direct Democracy.” At the time, I suppose, it was technically an OpEd, not a blog post, but my republishing it in this space magically transforms it into a blog post. That’s just one of the wonders of redefinition possible online.

Of course, feeling the need to define its category before posting it under the heading “Previous Blogs” also betrays the mild discomfort of a longtime print journalist dipping his toes into the blogosphere.

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For decades the voters of California have been freezing their peeves of the moment into constitutional permanence. Now the state’s voters are asked to solve the ensuing budgetary mess by once again creating a rigid, permanent constitutional fix for a transient fiscal crisis. Before Proposition 1A becomes yet another failed experiment in the politics of outrage, we should examine the dynamic that has brought us to our current fiscal impasse.

Among the primary culprits in restricting our ability to respond to extraordinary economic pressures are three constitutional mandates approved by the voters long ago that have placed legislators in a straitjacket as they try to resolve the pressure of extraordinary spending burdens and plummeting revenues brought on by the current depression.

The three measures most directly tying legislators’ hands are Proposition 13, which permanently distorts our tax base; the three-strikes initiative, which promotes unsustainable growth in our expensive prison system; and the two-thirds budget vote requirement that restricts legislators’ ability to respond to the other two pressures. Let’s review them briefly:

Proposition 13, a 1978 measure that was billed as the “homeowners’ tax revolt,” has ironically shifted more of the tax burden from businesses to homeowners. Its rigid formula for property assessment and taxation capped property taxes by an arbitrary numerical formula; starved many local services such as fire departments, police, schools and libraries; and generally tied revenue allocation into such knots that legislators and local officials had to raid other kitties to fund functions once financed by property taxes.

It also set a two-thirds vote requirement for legislative and local tax increases. Over the years, it has perpetuated – and even worsened – inequities among neighboring property owners and helped fuel a sense of

It’s a budgetary cure in the same sense that drinking a morning eye-opener will fix an alcoholic hangover.

the irrational burdens of taxation.

The three-strikes mandate, passed by voters in 1994, took many criminal sanctions out of the hands of judges and other professionals and subjected the nuanced art of sentencing to – once again – rigid arithmetic formulas that fail to reflect the gravity of the crime, the degree of individual culpability or the possibility of human change or rehabilitation. As a result, California has become one of the global capitals of lifetime incarceration, resulting in an ever-more-bloated prison system of increasingly geriatric (hence inordinately expensive), unthreatening prisoners.

The two-thirds budget vote mandate (with origins in Proposition 1 in 1933, during the mother of all depressions), combined with a polarized political system, has forced legislators to achieve virtual unanimity to resolve complicated budget problems. Politics and

governance are, above all, the arts of compromise and coalition-building. The two-thirds vote requirement and partisan ideological purity, whether on taxes or on spending, have made compromise and coalition-building next to impossible.

Certainly other factors contributed to our current fiscal stalemate – including the loss of institutional memory and personal working relationships in Sacramento caused by yet another voter mandate, term limits (Proposition 140, passed in 1990). But what the three constitutional measures emphasized here have in common are their profound effect on the governance of this large state and their inflexible, permanent dictates driven by transitory voter outrage that was stoked by political opportunists.

One-size-fits-all formulas virtually never solve the problems they were designed to, and they create unforeseen problems that restrict the options available to future generations confronting changed circumstances. But the simplistic political messages that gave birth to such measures endow them with an almost religious validity that insulates them from future revision as unforeseen circumstances demand.

So how are we asked to solve such dislocations in our body politic in 2009? With yet another arbitrary solution imposed on future generations: Proposition 1A, which creates a rigid budgetary process embedded, yet again, in the concrete of arithmetic benchmarks. It’s a budgetary cure in the same sense that drinking a morning eye-opener will fix an alcoholic hangover.

It is certainly understandable that beleaguered Californians, with falling incomes, uncertain employment status and heavy housing burdens, would be fearful for the future. It is fear that drives the politics of outrage. “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Before we react out of anger and fear to endorse permanent mandates for our descendants – mandates dreamed up under midnight deadline pressure by legislators who were incapable of coalitions and compromises – let’s vote to amend or repeal the previous arbitrary, voter-approved solutions that got us into this mess: our ungainly prison system, our dysfunctional political process and our rigid tax structure.

1 Comment so far

  1. James on February 16th, 2010

    You have a wrong slant on what is happening they threaten to cut teachers and firemen etc knowing they have a strong union but people do not want essential services cut. They can easily cut a lot of the office workers and managers at every level and lower the salaries back to where they belong. Used to be they traded lower wages for security in the govt. jobs now they have high wages and basically can’t get fired. We need to cut the size of government and not provide as many services.

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