Solving California’s Budget Crisis – The Challenges of Direct Democracy

I love California, despite its gloomy financial future, increasingly harsh and nonsensical criminal justice policies, and proclivity to literal ground shaking.  Given that California is in an increasingly dire budget situation that seems to be going nowhere given intractable Sacramento politics, I’d like to weigh in from the admittedly privileged position of having a job where I don’t have to get reelected.

Tradeoffs are necessary, but no one wants to talk about them

I am taking a night class at a community college and am paying what I consider to be a total bargain price for a 4 unit class.  In fact, the price of my textbook was almost twice as much as my class.  A couple months ago, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed girl about 18 years old made an announcement encouraging us to go to Sacramento to protest education cuts.  My reaction made me feel, well, old.  I remember being in middle school full of self-righteousness and indignation that anyone could eat meat, but the first thing I thought when this girl made her announcement was, “Then what do we cut?”  I believe public education is one of the most important publicly funded services in this country, but, to oversimplify the matter, we either have to raise taxes, cut spending, or both.  (I for one would be happy to pay more for my class to increase overall revenues if some of those revenues were earmarked for students with demonstrated financial need.)  We can’t responsibly continue to operate with a huge and growing deficit.  So, if we don’t make any cuts to public education, what do we cut instead?  I don’t know because I don’t have access to the state’s detailed budget, but I do know that conversations focused solely on what not to cut seem pointless to me.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if community groups were organizing to develop proposals to balance the CA budget instead of working in issue silos saying don’t cut this and don’t cut that?  There ARE things to cut and of course, realistically, we probably have to extend tax increases and maybe even, gasp, raise additional taxes if we care about maintaining things like public education, roads, police departments, hospital services, etc.

Myopic-ness and Utilitarianism

Call me, gasp, a socialist, but I generally support utilitarian policies, policies that do the most for California citizens as a whole, treating each one as equally worthy, even if it means that I pay taxes to provide services to people that are not me.  This isn’t because I’m particularly generous, but because I am selfish.  My life is demonstrably better when other people struggle less because they are then more self-sufficient, less likely to resort to illicit behavior to survive, and because it burdens my soul when I think about people unable to access basic things like food, shelter, basic healthcare, and education.  But maybe this is the issue – maybe Californians as a whole aren’t utilitarian and only care about the issues they think impact them directly, but that view, though common, is myopic.  Unless you live on a deserted island, the decreased welfare of our neediest citizens will have an impact on everyone’s lives.  However, because of our lovely-in-theory, insane-in-practice proposition system, our legislators are faced with many proposition created limitations on balancing the budget.

What now?

I’ve been spending increasing amounts of time imagining what California will look like with the proposed cuts to education, child welfare, and juvenile justice programs and I can’t imagine that Californians will let that happen.  However, Republicans are completely unwilling to let Californians vote on tax extensions and Californians probably won’t vote for tax increases even though they’ll support tax extensions.  A VERY little part of me wants to see all those cuts happen so people will have no choice but to realize how interconnected our welfare is, but I also think people are extremely talented at self-delusion.  So, what next?  I have no idea, but I do know that my work and the people I work with will be seriously impacted by massive cuts.

I know this post is a little more serious than usual, but I’m headed to Italy for two weeks, so you can look forward to some carefree food-centered posts soon.


One Response to Solving California’s Budget Crisis – The Challenges of Direct Democracy

  1. It’s like I’m psychic! Check out the Economist article “A lesson in mediocrity. California’s schools show how direct democracy can destroy accountability.”

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