Open up your Golden Gate…

by Eric on November 7, 2012

Californians gave their 55 electoral votes to Barack Obama – of course; the networks called it the instant the Golden State’s polls closed. But more importantly, the state routinely derided as ungovernable1 has got its best chance of governance in generations.Proposition 30 passed. The tax increases thereby instituted will save public services, especially the public schools and universities, from dire immediate cuts, which is why the Regents of the University of California endorsed it.

Big money went to oppose 30 – big money from mysterious Arizona outfits and from the Munger siblings. But it passed anyway. Which means Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor who backed the proposition, has a little fight in him yet.

It also means the Democrats in the state legislature have a good argument to build a new budget for public services properly funded by taxes. After all, if the voters are willing to tax themselves, who are the legislators to say no? And they can finally do it – they have a supermajority.

More than one of every eight Americans lives in California. Its habits ought to be no afterthought. But it’s three hours behind and full of hippies, so the national pundit class scarcely attends to it. Today is not the day to hold up California as an example of how American political institutions fail; it’s a warning about what an electorate can do if political institutions refuse to function – hand power to the party that promises good policy.

1The New Yorker, The Economist, MSNBC; a web search will find you many others.



chrismealy 11.07.12 at 5:34 pm

Maybe California will now finally defeat the flame retardant lobby.


Don A in Pennsyltucky 11.07.12 at 5:39 pm

An electorate can do more in theory than it can in a nation filled with gerrymandered congressional districts that reward party loyalty.


bob mcmanus 11.07.12 at 6:00 pm

Congratulations to California. A few of the many very pleasing outcomes last night.

In fact, though 2006 was nice, this might be the favorite election of my lifetime.


etv13 11.07.12 at 6:06 pm

“Jerry Brown . . . has a little fight in him yet.” I heard Jerry Brown on Larry Mantle a couple of weeks ago, talking up Prop 30 with such passion, I thought, “Hey, I voted for the guy! Good for me!”


christian_h 11.07.12 at 6:08 pm

The CA results do make me quite happy. But you know, no more excuses now. If the CA Dems blow this chance, or rather choose to use it to further privatize education (as I fully expect they will do) and so forth, can we finally get over supporting them? And please let’s not give them a grace period to do the right thing on their own volition. All-out pressure, now. Thanks. And to be clear, I’d be ecstatic to eat my words. Please remind me, I’ll happily admit I was wrong if that should prove the case.


Chris Marcil 11.07.12 at 6:28 pm

And Proposition 32, which would have basically ended unions’ ability to contribute to political campaigns, also lost. And 64% of LA County voters approved a sales tax hike for mass transit, although it needed two-thirds, unfortunately. But I predict that they’ll be back once they build out some of these other lines and people start seeing how useful it is.

All in all, a good day.


Minivet 11.07.12 at 6:39 pm

On NBC last night, Brian Williams was interviewing Jerry Brown, asked him about 30, and they put up a graphic for 38 because they didn’t know the difference. (At the time, 30 was getting 48%, and 38 25%.) Brian Williams didn’t realize this, citing the 25% figure, and Brown had to correct him.


Substance McGravitas 11.07.12 at 6:44 pm

christian_h 11.07.12 at 6:08 pm

That wasn’t long.


christian_h 11.07.12 at 6:48 pm

Oh no! A distinct lack of enthusiasm, how awful. You know what also wasn’t long? The Democratic Assembly leaders stating they certainly didn’t plan to raise any taxes. But feel free to bask in the glow and condescend towards those who fail to see the halo.


Substance McGravitas 11.07.12 at 7:03 pm


mud man 11.07.12 at 7:09 pm

mysterious Arizona outfits

Somebody here mentioned Mike Davis. I was just reading how the railroad companies used their government bonus money to buy out the LA rancheros, who were impoverished by the crash of the cattle-hide economy in a prolonged drought. The barons bought quite a lot for very little, prices being what they were.

Same problem today. All that cash, and nothing to buy?


christian_h 11.07.12 at 7:12 pm

Ok sorry Substance. To repeat, I am actually happy with a lot of the results, just saying let’s make them count :)


Brett 11.07.12 at 7:16 pm

I like their new Open Primary system, too. It’s a good way to make sure that the general election doesn’t just become pointless in a district that’s leans heavily conservative or liberal. Plus, if there’s a situation where the candidates are both from one party or another, it could encourage them to branch out to new voters.


Charles Peterson 11.07.12 at 7:27 pm

San Francisco may have more tea partiers than hippies. And the ratio increases from there. California is no where near as left as is popularly claimed. Brad DeLong–a neoliberal–is far left by California standards. Jerry Brown was an enthusiastic implementer of Prop 13, and friend of Jarvis, though he had run a different tax measure back then. But you can only have slightly less of the mass insanity that is movement conservatism and do a lot better than elsewhere. Still, California has many flaws that it has accumulated since Pat Brown, lest we forget. Great article about the California Master Plan–essetially free education for all, and the very best for those who merited it–that was lost when Reagan became Governor in 1966.

But I have another idea also. Does an outcome rely only on the unknown. Is the firm prediction that California would go for Obama make the votes of Californians meaningless? In now way! The knowns are as important as the unknowns in assigning any kind of value except uncertainty.


Shane 11.07.12 at 7:40 pm

I think christian_h is right about the no grace period. Let November be a month to set the tone of the governments you elected. Slack off when they’re moving threw right way.


Jeff R. 11.07.12 at 8:14 pm

Note that Tennessee has accomplished more or less the same: supermajorities in both houses plus the governorship, but for the Republican side. Comparing their fortunes over the next two years may be an interesting natural experiment…


Aulus Gellius 11.07.12 at 9:12 pm

Shane@15: November?! The grace period shouldn’t even last long enough for new electees to take office?


Watson Ladd 11.08.12 at 12:08 am

@Brett: Remember “Vote the Lizard, not the Wizard!”? Jungle primaries have a way of making things weird.


Tom Allen 11.08.12 at 12:43 am

Aulus@17: Lobbyists don’t take the lame duck session off and wait until after the swearing in. Why should we?


StevenAttewell 11.08.12 at 1:03 am

Democrats now have 2/3ds in the state legislature. Better and better.


mario 11.08.12 at 4:23 pm

Charles Peterson @14

DeLong is in no way shape or form a leftist for California. He’s a center-leftist in American national politics. California politics looks different from the rest of the country, but that’s true of all the larger states–Texas politics look far different as well, and don’t track to national political discourses. And the comment about SF possibly having more tea partiers than hippies is pretty absurd–not that there are many hippies around anymore, but really? There’s only a “possibility” of this in the same statistical non-zero possibility chance that the sun turns into a fire-breathing dragon tomorrow.


Lord 11.08.12 at 4:38 pm

It may also show the way forward by having elections between the two largest vote getters in the primaries, the finals becoming primary runnoffs in effect. This election had a few Democrat versus Democrat and Republican versus Republican races which should moderate the parties at the same time it makes them more competitive. Republicans losing their minority blocking position is probably the best thing that could have happened to them as they no longer have to vote as a block and the loss of their position means they will have to change if they want any power in the future. They have relied on closed primaries to preserve extreme positions and its blocking position as a crutch to avoid change.


mario 11.08.12 at 4:40 pm

The “California is ungovernable” discourse in American national –but not, notably, Californian–media has for the past 20 years been mediating a conversation about social democracy in the U.S. If you’ve ever lived in California and then anywhere else in the U.S.–but especially midwestern cities and states–one of the incredible things about California is how *competent* the state bureaucracy actually is. Public works projects happen much faster, and are better constructed, than many or most other places. As much as I hate it, Caltrans is incredibly good at what they do–and this type of thing tends to get taken for granted in media accounts.

I think it’s important to situate “California is ungovernable”–which has *never* been true in any recognizable sense–in the broader political discussion about American political life. For all its issues and faults, California is the closest thing that the U.S. has to European-style social democracy. It has strong state-provided social services, such as a very robust state OSHA program, relatively pro-worker wage-and-hour laws, and a massively successful (if declining) public university system–which provides far more to state public life than in other states with premier universities, such as Massachusetts, where such are privatized. It has politically active unions like the CTA and CNA on the winning side. It has strong environmental protections and lots of public lands and public trusts. It has a broadly politically empowered populus in its major cities; and so forth.

This isn’t to say that California is perfect, by any means. But it is to say that reiterating the discourses without situating them in those broader conversations often tends to legitimize a discourse that implies that social democracy is “ungovernable” and neoliberalism is a neutral, invisibile, natural state of affairs.


C.Olivas 11.13.12 at 7:00 pm

California is broke!!! What the heck are you guys raving about?!?


Mike in Burbank 11.13.12 at 8:58 pm

Unfortunately the reality on the ground here in the Los Angeles area is not as rosy as Eric would have you belileve.

Take unemployment. In Los Angeles County, the official rate is >10%, the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is about 15%. I personally know people who have been out of full-time work for years and get by with occasionally temp work.

Manufacturing here has been declining for decades. Even TV and film production, our signature local industry, is increasingly being done far from LA. In my entertainment industry union which represents behind-the-camera craftspeople and technicians, the unemployment rate today is over 50%. Most of my union brethren are hired by the day and work intermittently, if at all. Layoffs of white-collar people at entertainment companies are a regular event.

As Democrats have a monopoly on political power in Los Angeles City, County and California, you’d think they would help address the plight of working people here. They do not, and have not for decades. The local and state government response to our economic crisis has been more taxes, more regulations, higher prices for electric power, fuel, worker’s compensation, unemployment taxes and everything else. These policies threaten existing jobs and make it much harder for new employers to start up.

Occasionally, California offers targeted tax relief or subsidies, e.g. a few million dollars spread among favored TV/film producers for example. That’s good for them, but is unfair to taxpayers and low-profile business who suffer and get nothing.

Take taxes. The highest state tax rate below $250K income in California is 9.8%, and for a single person, that rate kicks in at about $40K income. But since the state and cities have such immense unproductive bureaucracies with gold-plated pensions and benefits, increasingly the state fails to provide first-world level functions like good public schools or criminal justice.

This week, the Los Angeles Police Chief is asking for a .5% increase to our 8.75% sales tax to keep police officers on the street. That’s the California government scam in a nutshell…bloated government witholding basic services to extort more from taxpaayers. Proposition 30, which just passed, did just this by theatening to shortchange public school kids unless taxes were raised.

Bottom line: If you work in government in California, you’ve had a pretty good run for a long time. For those of us who work in private industry and are fortunate enough to still have jobs, it’s a time of hardship, and the Democrat-public union-media combine only makes things worse.


David W. Nicholas 11.13.12 at 9:31 pm

I’ll confess I had to read the article itself over a couple of times, to make sure this wasn’t the Onion or something. But you’re serious, aren’t you? California has probably the worst budgetary problems in the country, but you think Prop 30 fixes the problem. After all, this time the legislature will wisely spend the money, after squandering it on everything in sight other than the essential stuff every time they got more money for the last 30 years. Yeah, they’ll spend it wisely, of course they will…

This state is burdened with so many “fiscal cliffs” that it’s astonishing. We’ve got a public sector union problem, a non-union public sector professional problem that’s as bad if not worse, regulators gone wild trying desperately to micromanage every business in the state, environmentalists determined to prevent any more development regardless of the purpose, and a select few Indian tribes getting hyper-wealthy by providing the few private sector citizens who still have disposable income with their circuses. The whole situation boggles the mind…

The public sector unions have a wonderful set-up. They get paid by the government, with your tax dollars, and they contribute some of that money (“voluntarily”) to their union, which in turn contributes it to the local Democrat who decides whether and if they get a raise this year. That Democrat, of course, if he gets into office (and these days he almost always does) negotiates with those unions on behalf of the public, but he doesn’t work for the public, he works for the union. If he doesn’t have the money to pay for the raise they want, all he has to do is figure out how to raise taxes, or “fees,” or “licenses” so that he has enough money. It’s not like the money is his own; he’s paying the union guys with someone else’s money, and some of it will return to his campaign as contributions so that he can stay in office and keep this up. Wonderful isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the professional people, the ones who are supervisors and directors, chiefs of police and fire, city managers and treasurers and so forth, are making the union guys look like pikers, though there are thankfully fewer of them. There’s a conservative guy who keeps track of how many municipal retirees there are from California who collect pensions in excess of $100,000/year. Last I looked the number had topped 15,000, with the winner being the retired city manager of Vernon, CA, who collects a pension slightly over $500,000 a year. The runner up is a woman who was in our state’s educational bureaucracy: she collects $360,000. Just after Brown was inaugurated, there was a threat of a lawsuit on behalf of UC professionals who would be eligible for pensions in excess of around $130,000 (we have 3 pension systems in our state, just to make things complicated; the UC system is the smallest of the 3) and it turned out that over 200 current employees would potentially be eligible when they retire for these pensions. Some of them were making over $400,000/year, but hadn’t retired yet. It’s also impossible to fire them: the state prison system discovered that one of its top physicians, who treats prisoners, isn’t competent to do so, so what did they do? Fire him? Of course not; instead we pay him $270,000/year to work in the prison mail room.

The idea that California is “ungovernable” has always turned on the issue of where the money comes from, and what it gets spent on. The state has for a long time now been willing to hand out goodies to anyone they think will “contribute” to the wonderful “progressive” cause in some meaningless fashion. Witness UC San Diego (in the middle of an era in which tuitions are skyrocketing) creating a new chancellor or president or whatever she is for “diversity” and giving her an enormous staff, along with a $250,000/year paycheck and very nice benefits (they’re paying her $60,000 to move from Chicago to San Diego; wouldn’t the weather alone mean she should be paying them?) . The problem isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, doing these things, it’s been paying for them. The last time the Democrats tried a broadly based “tax” increase (it was actually the car registration fee increase) Gray Davis got thrown out of office in the recall that elected Schwarzenegger. Arnie was elected on a platform of reforming the state’s finances, but of course the public employee unions are dead set against that, so they spent (literally) $100 Million trashing him from the day he entered office, and successfully defeated all his propositions. So what happened?

The state is slowly losing its private sector. Businesses leave the state every week. One former Irvine business owner said that when he moved to Colorado, the local politicians, unsolicited, asked if there was anything they could do for him. He said their counterparts in California only ever contacted him looking for campaign contributions, and that the breaking point for him was when a tax auditor showed up at his production facility (he makes high end lenses for microscopes and the like) wanting to itemize every piece of equipment in his facility, in order to increase his taxes. Now California doesn’t collect any tax revenue from him at all, or his workforce for that matter. We’re going to become a state where the wealthy are doctors, lawyers, a few celebrities, entertainers, and athletes, and bureaucrats. The problem has already explained itself; if you only tax wealthy people, what happens if they all leave or don’t make as much money? Then you’re screwed, because you have all these public employees who want their money.

So now we have a sales tax increase, and a further hit on “wealthy” people, and what happens? First thing, the county of Los Angeles (which just chased the porn industry out of the county with a new condom regulation; can I have the “job” of regulating them?) is already making plans to ask for anothe half cent in sales taxes, to pay for more mass transit. I read above one person’s comment that if they get the lines further here and there more people will start to ride it. I myself do ride public transit regularly, and frankly I’d be surprised if this commenter, or any other, has ridden MTA or anything else in Southern California. The buses are always dilapidated, often overcrowded, usually late, and incredibly slow. *No one* who has an option rides the bus in LA , it’s just not done. I’ll believe the economy’s improving when I stop seeing young, pretty women riding the bus. These days there’s usually at least one per trip, and in LA, that means that they don’t have a car, and they don’t know a guy who has a car, and is willing (or able to afford to) give them a ride somewhere. Public transit in LA is a bust, and always has been; if you raised the sales tax to 30% you *might* be able to get something done, but more likely the money would just disappear into some mystery hole, and they’d come back next year saying the increase wasn’t big enough.

I just read the comment above, about how “competent” the state bureaucracy is, and how quickly things get done out here. Caltrans just began repair work on one of the freeways damaged in the World Series quake (that was in ’89) a couple of years ago, and they aren’t done yet. Down here in LA, we’ve been fighting over extending the 710 freeway north for a couple of miles since I was in high school (more years ago than I care to mention). The 105 freeway (technically the Glenn Anderson Freeway, after a local congressman who put his name on everything, but no one calls it that) was a project of the mid-20th century when it started, and since it followed Century Blvd. across the city it was usually referred to as the Century Freeway; by the time it was finished, wags were referring to it as the 21st Century Freeway, because that was when it would be used. It’s the freeway in the movie Speed, because it was still closed when they filmed the movie and they could use it for filming easily, without blocking traffic. Oh, and when they finished it, it was immediately too small, and they can’t widen most of it as cheaply as they usually do, because they built it with enormous berms on either side to dampen the sound.

Yeah, really competent…we’re screwed…


Eric 11.13.12 at 9:33 pm

It also means the Democrats in the state legislature have a good argument to build a new budget for public services properly funded by taxes. After all, if the voters are willing to tax themselves, who are the legislators to say no?

…Today is not the day to hold up California as an example of how American political institutions fail; it’s a warning about what an electorate can do if political institutions refuse to function – hand power to the party that promises good policy.

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over 25 years. In that time, I’ve been involved with over a dozen successful and unsuccessful start-up companies. I’m constantly approached by entrepreneurs and investors looking for help — yet my advice to each and everyone of them now is: leave.

California may once again be a Progressive paradise. But all that will prove is that Progressivism is a prescription for bankruptcy. California’s voters aren’t “willing to tax themselves” — they bought the public-sector union/Democratic Party demagoguery hook, line and sinker and voted to tax someone else. No “good policies” are have been promised or even proposed, unless of course, “good policies” means spending someone else’s money to pander to the whims of upper middle class do-gooders, narcissistic trustifarians and addled show biz bigshots who keep looking for marginal issues to turn into moral crusades.

President Obama wishes he could be Huey Long. But it’s California Governor Jerry Brown who has finally won an enduring majority on Long’s principle that “If you’re not getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share.”

I’m leaving soon, and many people I know are seriously reconsidering their commitment to live and work in California. Capital and talent are very portable. I’ll still visit my California friends – I may even keep a condo in San Francisco. But I won’t be paying California taxes, and I won’t be starting any new businesses in California.

Over the next few years, I predict that California’s economic growth will continue to lag the national average. The state’s budget will continue in deficit. More taxes will be imposed. More productive businesses will find themselves subject to capricious regulations. The public sector payrolls will continue to grow, as will the welfare rolls. These are not side-effects of Progressive policies — they are intentional goals.

California is eating its seed corn. Good luck with that.


Mike 11.13.12 at 11:11 pm

I love the geography and Silicon Valley of the Golden State. But I’m taking my start-up (the 3rd I’ve started) somewhere else. The climate in San Francisco and CA is ridiculously anti-business and I’m tired of paying into a state that continues to invent new schemes to take money and squander it. I am not alone.


Substance McGravitas 11.13.12 at 11:16 pm

I am not alone.

You are a fake.


Unionista 11.13.12 at 11:53 pm

with Calif supermajority, shouldn’t a liberal utopia be just around the corner?


Ben Mc. 11.14.12 at 12:16 am

I am impressed that opposing points of view have been published. That speaks well of crooked timber.

Public union workers, all of them, top to bottom, have a better quality of life than just about any new small business owner. The comments here reflect some of the elements involved with this, but I simply ask for direct research on the part of the author of this blog post: please visit a local drycleaner, restaurant owner, and ask them about their lives. What they face day to day. What they suffer.

Most small businesses have months in which they earn nothing. They count on other months to make up for those times of loss. No take home pay, in fact often borrowing to make payroll. No paid holidays. Salesmen bothering them all day. “Non-profits” (even ones with six-figure execs) asking for donations, non stop. Worker and customer stresses. Never quite relaxing. Always something to do. Always more work to finish.

Let’s look at the cushy life of the public union worker. Paid holidays. Paid sick leave. Paid vacations. And… a pension for life, taking away the main stress that most private sector people feel, how they will survive in retirement. 9 to 5, with breaks, looong breaks and lunch hours. The good life. Ease.

But the thing is: the private sector worker and the private sector owner both would have a greater capacity to save for retirement or kids’ college, if only the public sector’s pension and benefits and pay and time off weren’t so overgenerous. Every dime out of the private pocket is a dime they can’t put into an IRA or other investment to survive later in life, or cover kids education. The good life for the public union worker directly means a worse life for the private sector.

In a word, looting. The public sector views small business as a pinata to whack until it is empty of the last particle of candy.


Mike 11.14.12 at 6:48 pm

@Substance McGravitas: I know you wish it were so, but, alas, I am not fake. If it makes you feel better, go right ahead and pretend that me, and people like me don’t really exist. “Ben Me” above definitely speaks for me.


Substance McGravitas 11.14.12 at 6:52 pm

I know you wish it were so

It’s so.


Harun 11.15.12 at 8:34 am

Its easy to create paradise when you don’t fund your pensions. Its much harder to keep it going once you have to pay for those promises.

I would like the author to explain how this paradise has taxes in the top 10 of all the states but produces educational results in the bottom 10?

Also, the state already cut spending on the social safety net for the poor to pay for the public sector employees high salaries and pensions. How very progressive of them to do that.


Ayn Rant 11.15.12 at 8:36 am

I’m embarrassed to admit I read this far into David W Nicholas’s ravings, but I got all the way to the point where he said,

“I’ll believe the economy’s improving when I stop seeing young, pretty women riding the bus. These days there’s usually at least one per trip, and in LA, that means that they don’t have a car, and they don’t know a guy who has a car, and is willing (or able to afford to) give them a ride somewhere.”

Woman on a bus? Must be unable to find a man!

Not quite as amusing was Ben Mc.’s line,

please visit a local drycleaner, restaurant owner, and ask them about their lives. What they face day to day. What they suffer.

What they suffer! Oh, the humanity!

Most small businesses have months in which they earn nothing. They count on other months to make up for those times of loss. No take home pay, in fact often borrowing to make payroll.

You had to borrow to make payroll? Oh noes! Somebody, call a waambulance!

Listen, Ben: having no monthly income is nothing to whine about when you have a chunk of equity to borrow against (or, if your life as a poor exploited business owner is so hard and sad, sell ). There are a lot of people out there with no income and no assets or credit, any one of whom has every right to smack you in the face.

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