DON’T PANIC!

November 9, 2016

OK, So the election is [almost] over, and at a national level, there are a lot of folks (by the latest results a [small] plurality of the nation’s voters) who are feeling everything from glum to despondent to suicidal — and with some reason perhaps.  Our country remains very sharply divided based on race, religion, culture, education, and income.  Each of those carries with it a portion of each person’s worldview, and those worldviews are sharply divergent.  Perhaps even more to the point, it is increasingly difficult to see how one brings those divergent views together into any sort of consensus that can move us – the collective us in the largest sense of all of humanity – to come together and take effective action on the pressing problems that demand our attention.

Those problems are numerous; ranging from climate change to income and wealth maldistribution to hunger, disease, (sounds a little bit like the four horsemen), war, crime, poverty, etc.  In this country, we have people who believe that we need to open our gates to immigrants fleeing war, oppression and poverty and those who believe we need to tightly secure those gates against the risk of terrorists and criminals.  We have those who believe that we need to let the free market loose from government shackles and those who believe those shackles need to be tightened far more to avoid the risk of another financial debacle.  We have those who believe Obamacare has helped millions of people to improve their healthcare and those who believe it is taking many Americans on a road to ruin, both financial and physical.

While the Republicans have now take control of both the Presidency and the Congress, they have not erased those divisions.  All you need to do is look at the electoral map of the country state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city, and even neighborhood-by-neighborhood to realize that the country is and will probably remain, at least for a while, very divided against itself.

Some of the checks and balances in our constitution have now be come less effective, but they have not disappeared.  The Republicans may “control” Congress, but they remain divided internally, as demonstrated by the many party leaders who divorced themselves from Donald Trump’s candidacy.  Whether they can unite behind a legislative agenda remains to be seen, as does the long-term effect of whatever legislation they succeed in getting enacted.  The Supreme Court remains, at least for the moment, a deterrent to any proposal that is so radical that it would violate the Constitution’s basic principles.  While Trump will probably appoint a conservative justice, that will only restore the tenuous balance that has been maintained for quite a while.  Even if that balance shifts to the right, it would not be the first time.  Under Reagan, the Rehnquist Court undid many of the precedents the Warren Court had set.  It did not, however, destroy the country.  Set it back, perhaps, but not destroy it.

There’s also the view that U.S. politics tends to “pendulum” over time.  Every time there’s a move to the left, there’s a countervailing move to the right, which is, again, followed by a move to the left.  We can’t predict right now how a Trump administration will work (or not), but chances are that two years from now at least some voters will be unhappy enough to want to change direction again.  Especially if Trump and his Republican allies succeed in their plans for tax and federal budget cuts, we may see ourselves moving into a major recession, which is likely to sour many voters on leaving the Republicans in charge.

In short, as the title of this blog post suggests, it’s not time to panic and start looking for another country to emigrate to.  Besides, there are few issues that respect national boundaries any more.  The economy, disease, and, of course, climate change, don’t stop at national boundaries.  If the U.S. is heading into a minefield, the rest of the world is close behind – or in some cases in front of us.  We’re just as likely to affect the direction humanity takes here as somewhere else.

So, I guess my take-home message in this post is perhaps best stated by paraphrasing alternative radio newscaster “Scoop” Nisker’s closing comment in his news reports:  If you don’t like the news, go out and do something to change it; and that can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors, friends, and relatives about your disagreements.


The Revolution will not be Televised

March 17, 2016

According to the establishment media, Bernie Sanders’ campaign is done, kaput, finito.  There’s nothing left to do but have him pack up his bags and head off to Hillary’s coronation.  To this I say, “Not so fast.”  From the beginning, Bernie has been clear in saying that this is not about a Presidential campaign.  This is about starting a political revolution to take back the United States Government from the billionaires and special interests who now control it.

It goes almost without saying that revolutions are neither fast nor easy.  Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant or liars.  Even the U.S. Revolution, which was short in time-frame as revolutions go, took far longer than from 1776 to 1781, the time in which open declared warfare between the U.S. and Britain was happening.  The Boston Massacre, the first recognized bloodshed of the revolution, was in 1770.  The Townshend Acts, which gave rise to the revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” had been put in place two years earlier.

The Chinese Revolution, led by, among others, Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, lasted at least from 1934 (the Long March) to eventual military victory in 1949, but the Communist Party of China had actually begun in 1921.  In India, Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, but India did not gain its independence until 1950.  Other countries such as France and England have undergone repeated revolutions, each of which dramatically changed control of the country.

While Bernie may not be envisioning revolutionary troops storming the barricades of Washington DC, he is looking to ignite a mass movement on a scale not seen in this country since the New Deal of the 1930s.  A movement like that, while it may be catalyzed by an individual, will only have staying power if it can expand beyond any one person to become focused on a vision that is being pursued.

In Bernie’s case, that vision involves reversing many years of gradual domination of America’s political process by wealthy individuals and even wealthier corporations.  (One can argue that from its very beginning, the U.S. Government has been dominated by the well-to-do, but the proportion of people with control over the government has been greatly reduced with the rise of mega-corporations and a large billionaire class.)  It also involves reasserting the Rooseveltian ideal that Government exists to protect the interests of the common people, not the wealthy.

The establishment was shocked when Bernie’s campaign actually gained traction and began attracting not only large crowds, but lots and lots of small donations and volunteers, particularly among the youth of the country.  Not since Gene McCarthy’s “children’s crusade” of 1968 had there been such an outpouring of political activity from college campuses (as well as from the “millenials” not in college).  The combination of anger and idealism was something U.S. political parties were not used to.

Now, a combination of a series of primaries in conservative Southern states on “Super Tuesday,” followed by primaries in somewhat less conservative, but still not liberal, Midwestern states, has splashed cold water on those “feeling the Bern.”  The message the establishment news media are sending is, “It’s all over now.  Better give up on Bernie and get behind Hillary.”  If this is truly going to be a political revolution, the answer needs to be a resounding, “No Thanks!”

The Primaries and Caucuses are still important.  First, it’s not yet clear that Bernie can no longer win the nomination.  However, even if that were the case, convention delegates can still influence the party platform.   Even more importantly, it’s not just the presidency that’s at stake in November.  There are Congressional elections as well as elections for state legislatures and local offices.  All of these can be foci for demands that power return to the common people.  Even if Hillary, Trump, or someone else other than Bernie is elected president, a political revolution with staying power could begin to grab the reins of power away from the corporate elite that currently runs things.

The first thing to do, however, is to stop letting the corporate media brainwash us and control our minds.  As local radio newscaster Scoop Nisker  used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”


Why the Supreme Court Majority, in Misinterpreting the Second Amendment, has Violated the Canons of Statutory Construction

June 19, 2015

A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  U.S. Constitution, Amendment II [1791]

That’s the Second Amendment, one of ten included in James Madison’s proposed first thirteen amendments to the Constitution. Ten of those thirteen were fairly promptly ratified and became the “Bill of Rights”. They are rightfully thought of as a bulwark against the over-expansion of the strong central government that Hamilton had pushed for, and specifically protections for the individual against the power of the federal government (and, since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, against the power of state and local governments).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s current conservative majority has taken the Second Amendment in this context, and has focused on its second half, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In doing so, however, that majority has violated a central canon of statutory construction – that a statute (or constitutional provision) be interpreted to give meaning to every word of the statute.

The first half of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State,” can be seen as a preamble, or perhaps more precisely as a context for the second half. Another rule of statutory construction is that the words of a statute should not be read in isolation, but in context. Here, the context of the second half of the amendment is protecting “a well regulated militia” and its function of protecting “the security of a free State.”

In other words, the right to keep and bear arms is protected so that the people of the United States can continue to have “a well regulated militia”. Again, keeping the context in mind, in 1789 (or 1791) there was no standing federal army. An army was raised as the need arose. In the meantime, there were local and state militias – what we would now call paramilitary organizations, or perhaps militias as the term is used in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, in that context, the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms is not an individual right, but a right of the people as organized into militias. Further, those militias were intended to be, “well organized”. Indeed, that was supposed to be the central purpose of having the right to keep and bear arms. A militia needs training and discipline if it was going to function well to protect the security of a free State. (And again, this should be taken in the context of a document written ten years after a prolonged war against what was then the central government, and fought largely by local and state militias organized under General George Washington.)

Bringing those concepts into the 21st Century, the right to keep and bear arms does not protect an individual’s right to own and carry guns (or sabers, or hand grenades).  Rather, it protect the right of the people, organized into well regulated groups intended to protect the security of a free State.

What do such organized militias include? Well, obviously they include the National Guard, as state militias have come to be known, and their members. They also include state and local police forces, which are intended to “protect the security of a free State.” They could also include well regulated local, state or national groups organized to protect the security of a free State. Could that include so-called “self defense” groups? Maybe. Right-wing paramilitary groups? Questionable. Groups of gun-toting skinheads or neonazis? Probably not. The Ku Klux Klan? I don’t think so.  They certainly don’t include individual citizens who aren’t part of a “well organized militia”, and certainly not the millions of deranged individuals and criminals who now, thanks to the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, claim the right to keep and bear [and use?] arms.

Those on the Supreme Court (and I am thinking specifically of Justice Scalia) who strongly espouse strict constructionism and original intent in interpreting the Constitution, appear to have been lured by ideological predilections into straying from their self-chosen narrow path by broadening the meaning of the Second Amendment. Perhaps, in the context of the Charleston Massacre, it’s finally time they reconsider.


Strict Construction, Gun Violence, and the Second Amendment

January 10, 2011

The assassination of a federal judge and attempted assassination of a congresswoman, along with the killing of several “civilians”, once again brings to the fore the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment.  This is especially true now that the Supreme Court majority has applied so-called “strict constructionism” to find that the Second Amendment protects private gun ownership from almost all federal and state regulation.

Justice Scalia, one of the court’s more vocal advocates for strict constructionism, argues that the Constitution’s interpretation can’t change with the times.  According to him, if circumstances change, the answer  is to amend the Constitution accordingly.  By that standard, it appears the time is overdue to amend the Second Amendment.

Back when the Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, was written, the primary firearm was the flintlock musket, an inaccurate, short-range, and slow-to-load single-shot gun.  There were also handguns, but they were dueling pistols and the like — again inaccurate, single-shot, and clumsy to use.  Contrast that with the ten bullet clip-carrying semiautomatic pistol used by last Saturday’s assassin, or the Uzi or M-16 type assault weapons favored for gang violence, or, for that matter, the extremely accurate multi-shot high-powered rifle used to assassinate John F. Kennedy.  There’s no comparison.  Indeed, once could argue that they shouldn’t even be described by the same word, and that “arms” as used in the Second Amendment had an entirely different meaning than the guns, IEDs, and other weaponry available to conduct modern-day violence.  Nevertheless, Scalia, the NRA, Teapartiers and their ilk insist that the Second Amendment allows free rein to gun-toters. 

Given the results of last Saturday, and looking abroad to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where assassinations are becoming an almost daily occurrence, the question is, isn’t it time we amended the Second Amendment?  Sure, maybe a single-shot hunting rifle or a BB gun doesn’t need regulation, but an AK-47 or semiautomatic handgun is an entirely different story.

If people like Scalia are sincere in their assertion that the proper course of action when the Constitution no longer works well is to amend it, it’s time for him, and those like him, to get behind a movement to amend the Second Amendment to assure that the kinds of weapons that can cause mass-mayhem aren’t easily available to would-be assassins.

While we’re at it, it’s also long past due to take into account the changed nature of the media and of election campaigns.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of last year practically turned the U.S. political system over to corporate control.  We really do need an amendment to recognize that the nature of political campaigning has fundamentally changed.  Unregulated campaign spending might have been perfectly OK in the confines of the thirteen original states, where almost anyone could afford to run off a broadside and have it hand-distributed by volunteers.  In this era of TV and radio ads, mass-mailings, focus groups, and psychologically attuned campaign consultants, however, it is increasingly true that we have been trapped by the “golden rule” — Those who have the gold make the rules.  That certainly wasn’t what the writers of the First Amendment envisioned.  If it takes a Constitutional amendment to bring power back to the people, then we need to get started on that process.

One last thought on Scalia and his strict constructionism friends:  The writers of the Constitution were not gods.  They were men coming from divergent situations attempting to cobble together a working structure for a national  government.  The Constitution includes numerous compromises reached to accommodate the differing view of the powers-that-be in different colonies.  Those compromises, and the reasons behind them, have now been well-documented.  While some of the divergences continue to exist — e.g., between large population and small population states, between urban and rural states, others, such as those associated with slavery, have long-since vanished.  Further, we have, over time, come to realize that some of the Constitution’s structures and procedures were neither functional nor fair.  Some of the worst of these, such as having Senators chosen by state legislatures, have been corrected.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to accept the current Constitutional structures and procedures as God-given mandates carved in stone.  Indeed, after almost two and a quarter centuries, maybe it’s time to consider a new Constitutional Convention. … Just a thought.


Democratic Self-destruction

November 2, 2010

There will, of course, be pundits by the dozens attempting to dissect today’s election results.  Obviously, a large segment of the American public was not happy with the Democrats’ record over the past two years.  Obviously also, Obama’s mantra that the Republicans drove the economy into the ditch and now they’re complaining about us trying to pull it back out didn’t really wash (or, at least, not on a national level).  What went wrong? and can the Democrats do better over the next two years?

My personal opinion is that the Democrats’ majority in Congress was really a ticking time bomb that finally blew up today.  Ever since the 1992 election, Democrats have attempted to win over “red” states by running candidates who were slightly less conservative than their Republican opponents.  The tactic was at least somewhat successful, so the Democrats had, until today, nominally impressive majorities in both the House and Senate.  However, many of those nominally-Democratic seats were held by profoundly conservative people; people who had little use for the agenda of  more liberal Democrats, and voted at least as often with the Republicans, especially on key legislation.   As a result, given the unified opposition of the Republicans, Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership were forced to repeatedly water down their legislative initiatives in order to capture enough votes in their own party to get the legislation passed.

It is, to my mind, only poetic justice that some of the victims in today’s rout of the Democratic party were the very conservative Democrats who were most effective in obstructing Obama’s legislative agenda.  Democrats like Blanche Lincoln lost, even though  they fought against Obama at almost every turn, because why would conservative red state voters choose someone who looked like a Republican when they could, instead, vote for someone who was a Republican?

Of course, with the shift in the House majority, we’re going to have, as in 1948 with Harry Truman’s presidential campaign, a “do-nothing” Congress.  While the Republicans will control the House, they will probably not gain control of the Senate.  More importantly, the Democrats will have sufficient reliable votes in the Senate to maintain a filibuster and block Republican legislation.  Even more importantly still, Republicans will have nowhere near enough votes in the House or Senate to override the vetoes that Obama will almost certainly use against any conservative legislation the Republicans might happen to be able to push through.

If the Republicans were inclined to look for bipartisan “deals”, they might still be able to put through a watered-down Republican program, as happened during Clinton’s second term on issues such as welfare and tax reform.  However, the Republicans have themselves been pushed to the right by their Tea Party wing.  As a result, I would expect no compromises and that almost no substantive legislation will make it into law over the next two years.

At that point, what happens next will depend on what the effects of a stalled legislative agenda are, and who gets blamed for it.  If Obama is lucky, the legislation he pushed through in the last two years will have some positive effects, enough that people will start looking back on the 2008-2010 years as a time when some good things happened.  Meanwhile, if, as most economists seem to predict, the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums until 2012, Obama may be able to blame that stalled economy on the “do-nothing Congress” and run a re-election campaign based on letting Obama be Obama again by giving him the Congress he needs to do something.

If, on the other hand, the economy recovers without any further help, that may bolster the Republicans’ argument that government intervention was unnecessary and support a push to further “unleash” American capitalism by electing an anti-regulation president — dare I say, like Sarah Palin.  While I’m not an economist, I find it hard to believe that a rudderless American economy will do anything but bob around helplessly for the next two years while other countries with more effective legislative programs steam on ahead.  However, only time will tell.


We interrupt this election horserace …

October 24, 2010

With the pre-election brouhaha fast approaching a frenzy, here are a couple of articles that step back a little to look at the bigger picture.  The first, by Robert Reich (it was reprinted in today’s S.F. Chronicle), talks about something I’ve already addressed in this blog — how the wealthy are hijacking the American political system.

http://robertreich.org/post/1344561814

The second, in today’s New York Times, by The Nation contributing editor Ari Berman, talks about what might happen after the election, and how losing some of the Democrats in Congress might not be such a bad thing. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/opinion/24berman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

This is an interesting article because it suggests that the Democrats might profit from something the Republicans did during the Reagan years — doing some ideological “housecleaning”.  It notes that starting in 2005 [IMHO, actually well before then, going back to the Clinton years and the Democratic Leadership Conference] and led by DNC chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emmanuel, the Democrats attempted to recruit “competitive” candidates throughout the country, including the “red” states won by GW Bush.  In order to make sure their candidates were competitive, they looked for people who would fit with the red state terrain they’d be campaigning in.  As a result, Congress received an influx of so-called “blue dog” Democrats — Democrats who hewed to a center-right perspective and voted with the Republicans at least as often as with their fellow Democrats.  It was these blue dogs who watered down Obama’s healthcare reform and financial reform packages, who stymied global warming legislation, and who have contributed to having many Obama appointments stuck waiting for Congressional approval.  In short, the blue dogs have become almost as big an obstacle to the Democratic Congressional agenda as the Republicans.  Further, as Democrats, they hold leadership positions, allowing them to be more effective in their opposition than most Republicans.

While the Democrats will undoubtedly lose seats in both the House and Senate this November, a lot of those seats will be blue dog seats.  So, we’ll have Republicans instead of Republicans masquerading as Democrats.  That may not make a lot of difference.  In fact, as Berman points out, it may actually help the Democrats if it allows them to become more unified and pointed in their legislative program.  So, come November 3rd, before you start shouting that the sky has fallen, it may make sense to take a deep breath, wait a few months, and see how the new Congress shakes out.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be the Republicans’ turn to be saddled with some blue dogs?


The Curse of Ideological Rigidity

June 5, 2010

Much has been made of the red state-blue state division in U.S. politics, and more recently of the rise of “tea party” Republicans as a political force.  However, the seeds of much of our current political mess were sown back in the early 1960s by Barry Goldwater and his allies in the Republican party.  They insisted that ideological purity was essential to revitalizing the party.  In particular, they lambasted pragmatists like Eisenhower and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller for tarnishing what they considered to be the core conservative values of the party.

While Goldwater himself was blasted out of the water in the 1964 presidential election, giving the liberal but pragmatic Lyndon Johnson the most lopsided win (61% of the popular vote) since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency — a margin that no president since then has reached or exceeded — nevertheless his conservative ideology had taken hold within the party.  The failed Nixon presidency weakened the moderate wing of the party, and Gerald Ford’s decisive loss to Jimmy Carter was, for conservatives, more convincing evidence that Americans were tired of bland, centrist, Republicans.

The nomination, and then election, of Ronald Reagan, who had started out as a main-stream Democrat but shifted rightward politically as he grew older, completed the ideological victory of the right-wing within the Republican Party.  From that point onward, the battle within the Republican Party has only been between those who wanted to see a right-of-center government in coalition with conservative Democrats and those who insist that Republicans deserve and need to govern alone, based on an ideologically pure ultraconservative political philosophy.

The latter perspective is, perhaps ironically, best exemplified not by a presidential candidate or Congressional leader, but by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his trusty sidekick, Clarence Thomas.  These two justices have loudly proclaimed their adherence to “original intent”, the doctrine that the Constitution is to be interpreted based entirely on the “intent of the framers.”  This doctrine suffers from the flaw, common in statutory interpretation, that it’s almost never possible to discern a single unified intent in the actions of a legislative body made up of many individuals with differing interests.  A review of opinions written by the Scalia/Thomas wing shows, however, that they are guided, not by original intent, but a rigid right-wing ultraconservative ideology that wants to see a federal government with only extremely limited powers and controlled by a strong “imperial” president.

Ideological rigidity did not, of course, originate with Barry Goldwater.  Indeed, one can argue that it goes back at least as far as some of the harsh punishments for sinful behavior set forth in the Old Testament.  Indeed, a good case can be made that Jesus’ rejection of the traditional Jewish faith of his time stemmed at least as much from revulsion against that rigidity as it did from his rejection of the corruption of the Jewish officialdom of Roman era Palestine.

The Romans themselves also showed a strong streak of ideological rigidity.  One thinks of Cato the Elder, who, it is claimed, ended each speech he gave in the Roman senate with the same sentence, “Carthago delenda est!” [Carthage must be destroyed!]  The Catholic Church has also had its periodic bursts of ideological rigidity, perhaps the most notable being that demonstrated in the Spanish Inquisition.  More recently, the Jacobins, and most notably Robespierre, espoused an extreme ideology during the French Revolution, imprisoning and guillotining those whom they felt threatened the purity of the revolution.  In the Twentieth Century, ideological rigidity has had its adherents on both the left and the right, ranging from Lenin to Stalin to Hitler and Franco to Mao, especially in his later years when the cultural revolution was proclaimed.

One would think that the list of sordid adherents to ideological rigidity would have given this political approach a bad name.  One would be wrong.  Why is that?  I believe it is because ideological rigidity allows people to reach simple answers to complex and vexing questions, ranging from what to do about the federal deficit to what should the country’s stance be towards immigration.   Once one accepts a pure ideological approach to political issues, one need not spend one’s time poring over volumes of data and listening to the complicated explanations of experts.  As the saying goes, “Don’t bother me with evidence, I know THE TRUTH.”  In this, political ideologists have much in common with religious ideologists, and it seems to me far from coincidence that many Tea Party adherents are also adherents to fundamentalist evangelical sects.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers about how to deal with those who have succumbed to the siren call of ideological rigidity.  Perhaps the best one can hope for is that recent disasters such as the Great Recession and the gulf oil spill will cause some of the far-right’s current adherents to begin to question whether their leaders really do have all the answers, and wonder whether it might be worth turning their brains back on.


Columnist Dan Weintraub on the Special Election.

May 16, 2009

Here’s Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee’s latest take on the ballot measures.  Actually, he’s just recounting comments of a “friend” who’s voting no on all the measures.  Bottom line –sometimes you have to tear down a house before you can rebuild it.  I wonder what it’ll be like for Californians to live in the debris of a torn-down state for several years while we figure out how to build our new structure?

http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/story/1856206.html


The Insanity of the California Constitution

March 11, 2009

If you read through the California Constitution, you’d have to think California must be a state full of certified lunatics. (Of course, you’d also probably have to be a certified lunatic to read through the California Constitution. It’s about 35,000 word, it takes up five 500 page volumes of West’s California Codes.)

One of the reasons the Constitution is so large and ungainly is because it’s so easy to change it.  All it takes is to circulate an initiative petition and get 700,000 valid signatures on it, then win the statewide election with a bare majority of votes cast.  Granted, neither of these is the kind of thing you can do in a spare weekend with $50 and a few friends, but it’s no more than it takes to pass a simple statutory initiative.  There have been many, many constitutional amendments enacted through the initiative process. 

On the other hand, the California Constitution makes some actions very difficult to accomplish.  A budget may only be approved by a 2/3 vote of both houses of the legislature.  Likewise, under Proposition 13, a new state tax may only be adopted by a 2/3 vote of both houses.  Further, bonds and local taxes require a 2/3 vote of the electorate.

What this means is that rights established under the state constitutions, such as California’s right of privacy and California’s enhanced right of free speech, can be modified or abolished by initiative through a simple majority vote of the statewide electorate, while establishing a new tax or approving a bond requires a 2/3 majority vote.  Does this mean that Californians believe that money is more precious than human rights?  Apparently so.


A Modest Proposal to Solve California’s Budget Problem.

January 13, 2009

So, OK, most people are aware that California is facing a major budget deficit that, unless something is done, will most likely result in the state declaring bankruptcy some time within the next couple of months.  Faced with this problem, the governor and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been batting possible solutions back and forth for months, with virtually nothing to show for it.  About the only thing all the players have in common is the assertion that they are not the problem — it’s the other players that are messing things up.

Ironically, each side’s proposals — the governor’s and both sides of the legislature’s — would probably work as a budget.  The problem is that each one would cause results that are unacceptable to at least one of the other players.  There’s a simple solution to this problem — at least in principle:  divide the state in half and let each half design a budget to its liking.

This isn’t perhaps as far-fetched as it sounds at first hearing.  There has long been discussion about splitting California.  Not only are we by far the most populous state — meaning that we’re seriously underrepresented in the U.S. Senate — but we’re also tremendously diverse.  One look at a county-by-county electoral map for almost any recent controversial election shows that we’re a state that is already highly split politically.  In essence, we’re a Red State and Blue State locked together at Sacramento.

If those two “protostates” were split apart, each could, I’m sure, easily craft a budget that would hold together.  The Red State (let’s call it Fornia) would keep its taxes low and reduce government services to fit.  Sure, there’d be no healthcare, highways, or other public infrastructure and those less well-off would get screwed, but their situation would be no worse than that of residents in other red states like Mississippi.  The Blue State (obviously, it’s called Cali) would have considerably higher taxes, but also more government services.  Yes, some high-income residents and businesses might leave that state, but, again, states like Massachusetts and New York seem able to retain businesses and high-income residents in spite of having high taxes.  The important thing is that each state could quickly and easily reach an overall agreement on how to craft its budget.  As to how to make the split, it seems to me that two constitutional conventions could be called: one for Cali and one for Fornia.  Each county in California would vote by plebiscite on which convention its delegates would attend.  Fornia’s constitution would include provisions making it very hard to raise taxes.  Cali’s constitution, conversely, would provide stronger guarantees for economic rights such as heathcare and education.  Counties would then vote, again by plebiscite, on which state to join.  Admittedly, a county-by-county choice would be less than perfect.  Some counties are, in themselves, split between “red” and “blue” segments.  There could also be difficulties if “island” counties resulted.  The most obvious one I can see is that the area around Lake Tahoe often votes with the “blue” protostate, but it’s surrounded by “red” counties.  Still, I think some solution could be found.  (Here’s a map [Courtesy of the LA Times] of the breakdown of the 2008 presidential election results.  It will give you a feel for how California might split by county.)

Nov. 2008 California presidential election results, by county

Nov. 2008 California presidential election results, by county

There would, of course, be other messy details to be worked out as well.  One “biggie” would be the State Water Project.  A lot of its components would likely be in Fornia, but it serves LA and surrounding areas, which would almost certainly be in Cali.  The split would have to include protections for both sides and a long-term agreement on the future funding of what would become a two-state joint powers authority.  We already do this with other interstate issues such as Lake Tahoe and the Colorado River.

Perhaps a messier problem, politically, would be the change in the U.S. Senate.  Right now, California has two Democratic senators.  There’s little question that Fornia’s senators would both be Republican (unless one seat was won by a libertarian).  The current congressional leadership would be unlikely to accept that.  Perhaps a solution along the lines of the Missouri Compromise could be crafted.  For example, the California split could be coupled to giving D.C. statehood.  Then, both Democrats and Republican would get two extra senate seats.

Of course, this solution would not save California from the bankruptcy looming ahead, but it may be that the current financial crisis will do what hasn’t been possible so far, serve as a catalyst to cause the emergence of two new states.

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Addendum as of 5-23-09
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Here’s a link to another blog with a similar analysis, but suggesting splitting California into four states instead of two. 

http://www.breakingviews.com/2009/05/21/California%20break-up.aspx

I think there are a few problems with where he proposes to split things.  The North Coast counties (execept possibly Del Norte) fit better politically with the Bay Area than they do with the Central Valley, and LA probably fits better with the coastal counties up through San Luis Obispo than being isolated as its own state.  The basic idea, however — creating more politically homogenious population groupings  — is the same.


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