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Clueless July 21, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, politics.
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Last week, a coalition of civil rights organizations, students and parents filed a lawsuit charging California with an unconstitutional failure to provide adequate education for its K-12 students.

Meanwhile, the California Budget Project’s report on the state of our schools asserted that California’s school spending per pupil is near the bottom when compared to other states; it is last in school spending as a percentage of personal income;and  last in the number teachers, counselors, librarians, and administrators per student.

So what is Arnold Schwartzenegger’s solution. As reported by Peter Schrag:

A few days before, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had offered his contribution to improving the schools. As one way to streamline the state bureaucracy, he suggested, eliminate the post of the elected superintendent of schools. (Yes, it’s ironic, but it’s true).

“In California we elect a Superintendent of Public Instruction,” he said. “But why? We already have a Secretary of Education and a Board of Education. Why do we need a Superintendent of Education?”

That is it? That solves the problem of underfunding education?

As Schrag points out, Arnold is just not serious.

It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s antique, a staple of constitutional reformers for the past two decades. We have a stupid, convoluted system with an elected superintendent supposed to administrator policies established by a board appointed by the governor. And of course it’s the governor who, as much as anyone, controls the budget.

So the problem isn’t with the superintendant who has little independent power and little control over the budget.

Schwarzenegger does have a secretary of education – in fact he’s had many, too many to count, a revolving door of secretaries — but he hardly notices them. If there are any Throttlebottoms in his administration, the secretaries of education are among the leading candidates.

And Schrag goes on to shred California politicians for their negligence:

It’s hard to decide what’s most deplorable in this picture. Is it the additional hardships and disadvantages imposed on the state’s poorest kids, who have long been consigned to the poorest schools and, in a disproportionate number of cases, to the weakest teachers, and sometimes to no regular teachers at all?

Is it the fact that even the state’s white, middle-class students achieve lower scores on national tests than their peers in other states? Is it the fact that California’s college graduation rates are low in a nation whose own graduation rates have been steadily falling behind those of our economic competitors?

Or is it the short-sightedness of state policy where almost no one has the courage to point out that our overall tax burden compared to other states is about average, and  that contrary to myth, our great periods of economic growth coincided with higher taxes?

Of course Arnold is on his way out. What is Meg Whitman’s solution? More mass layoffs of public employees and further massive cuts to public services.

Yup. That will solve it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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Democracy vs. Plutocracy June 9, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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The battle for California Governor has now been joined. One way or the other we will be rid of the odious Schwartzenegger. But there is no guarantee the next Governor will be better.

As Robert Cruikshank wrote today:

Republicans will do what they are told by their corporate masters. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina won their primaries because they spent an enormous amount of money to tell Republicans that they should vote for CEOs because they’re smarter than everyone else and more likely to beat the Democrat this fall. That’s it. […]

Thus, the issue in California this fall will be clear. It is a battle between corporate wealth and democracy; between tax cuts for the wealthy or better schools and roads.

Jonathan Taplin is fed up with this:

In the good old days of Tamany Hall politics, an enterprising politician could buy a vote for a 50 cent beer. Meg Whitman’s 1,101,528 votes in the California Republican Governor Primary came at the cost of $77 per vote, most of the money coming from her own fortune.

So what is she willing to spend in the general election? $150 per vote?

This is either an obscene indulgence of a bored woman’s egomania or some kind of dystopian vision of the future of American politics in the post Citizen’s United era, where money really does equal speech.

I have a modest proposal. As a part of their obligation under the Federal Communications Act and in return for their free use of the nation’s airwaves, all broadcast stations should be obligated to give an equal number of free 1 minute advertising slots in the 30 days before a general election to the candidates of any party that garnered more than 10% of the vote in the previous election. This would apply to all statewide offices (Senator, Governor, etc).

Otherwise, any pretense that America is a democracy and not a plutocracy is a sham.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Terminator’s Budget May 27, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Arnold Schwartzenegger has long argued that California’s budget deficit requires that we decimate public education and immiserate the millions of people who depend on government services. Making up the revenue shortfall by modestly increasing taxes has always been off the table because higher taxes would make it difficult for businesses to hire more workers, thus prolonging our historically high unemployment rate.

This argument never made much sense. How does laying off thousands of teachers and state employees improve our unemployment rate? We now have some empirical evidence that the argument is nonsense.

This study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center shows what is wrong with the argument:

We estimate that the Governor’s proposed budget would result in a loss of 331,000 full-time equivalent jobs, increasing the unemployment rate by 1.8 percentage points. More than half of the jobs lost would be in the private sector. Because many of the jobs lost are part time, the actual number of Californians affected would be much greater. The number of jobs estimated to be lost is much greater than the entire employment growth for the state projected by the Legislative Analyst’s Office for 2011.

An alternative approach that mixed spending cuts with $5.4 billion in targeted revenue increases would save an estimated 244,000 jobs compared with the Governor’s proposal.

The greatest part of the job loss due to the Governor’s budget would result from cuts to major health and human service programs that bring in significant federal matching funds.

The argument that budget cuts and the lowest tax rates possible are the only way out of a recession has a degree of apriori plausibility.

But when the budget cuts entail significant job loss and restrain economic growth, the argument collapses. The proposed budget solutions from Democrats in the Assembly and Senate, including an end to corporate tax breaks, are a much better solution.

As Robert Cruickshank at Calitics argues:

The governor’s budget may have been designed to wedge the middle-class and the poor, but as this study indicates, the middle-class has every incentive to oppose these cuts as well. Any increase in unemployment will reverberate around the rest of the economy, leading to middle-class job losses and further cuts to schools and other things the middle class cares about.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

What Kind of Person Denies Essential Services to Millions To Save a Few Dollars? July 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy, politics.
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The California budget agreement has finally arrived and it is as bad as predicted—massive cuts to schools, higher education, social services, and local governments. The result will be millions of children without health care, an education system in accelerated collapse, disabled people kicked to the curb, and municipalities in bankruptcy. In short, every vulnerable person gets shafted.

All of this pain was made necessary because Governor Schwarzenegger and a small minority of Republican legislators have refused to modestly increase taxes to cover essential state services.  (Here is an account of proposed tax increases that would have avoided some of the cuts had they been enacted.)

The California economy will be hamstrung for years because of these shortsighted decisions. But economies can bounce back. The greater calamity may be moral decay and the collapse of the social trust on which society depends.

Progressives must develop a strategy to fix the state, but the first step is to get clear on what we are up against—and it is not a pretty sight. Moral catastrophes never are.

As has been well-documented, some of our budget woes stem from structural problems in the way government is managed. Proposition 13, the 2/3’s rule on budget matters, the power of lobbyists in Sacramento, a dysfunctional prison system, and government by ballot box have all contributed to the debacle.

But it is important to remember that these structural impediments to good government and the unconscionable cuts in the current budget represent decisions made by people—the politicians who promoted these policies and the voters who gave them their support. California’s budget debacle is not a force of nature or an accident. Some Californians, in and out of government, decided the health and welfare of millions of people could simply be ignored in order to avoid modest tax increases. That is a decision for which they must be held fully responsible. 

I have known many Republicans and conservatives over the years. And they don’t seem to be personally less compassionate or responsible than the rest of the population. In their personal lives, they seem to have the same moral emotions and moral focus the rest of us have.

But when it comes to public policy, all that compassion and responsibility dries up like a San Diego stream bed in August.

Hence the question the title poses. What kind of person denies essential services to millions to save a few dollars?

Of course the answer to that question is that they are in the grip of an ideology that makes them moral cripples.

It is worth unpacking this ideology.

Conservatives think that people are fully responsible for their lot in life. If you are successful it is because you deserve it and if you are not successful it is because you don’t. Thus, the vastly unequal distribution of goods in our society already reflects the morally optimal distribution. Any marginal increase in goods should go to the wealthy and marginal decreases in wealth are burdens that must be borne by the poor, the middle class, or the disabled. This is the only logic that could justify this budget.

These are strange beliefs to hold, especially with regard to children who presumably don’t deserve their lot in life. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that luck plays a large role in determining how well people do, and that it is impossible to make sound inferences about perfect strangers when explaining why someone is successful or unsuccessful. But if they are so unreasonable, why do these conservative ideas persist?

I suppose you could derive these “moral beliefs” from the basic principles of free-market fundamentalism. According to conservatives, an unregulated, minimally taxed  market tends toward equilibrium and will thus settle on a distribution of products and prices that is beneficial to everyone. By adding the above premises about what people deserve, conservatives enjoy a double dollop of self-esteem–the “screw the poor” policy is both “just” to individuals and best for society overall.

In addition, conservatives cling to the idea that raising taxes even a bit will plunge the economy back into recession. There is ample empirical evidence refuting this idea, and the theory of free-market fundamentalism has now been thoroughly discredited. Yet the ideas persist, immune to counter-example, within a sizable portion of the public.

But the important point here is that none of these judgments about economics or what people deserve explains why people would weigh such questionable premises more heavily than moral compunctions about the suffering of millions of disadvantaged people. In other words, even if recession economics requires low taxes, and poor and middle class people are less ambitious than the wealthy, it doesn’t follow that we should simply ignore the destructive social consequences of these budget cuts. What sort of value system allows you to discount human suffering in favor of some “theory” about economics or human nature?

In fact, most politicians and their supporters are not economists and are unlikely to hold firm beliefs about market equilibria or recession economics.

Thus, I suspect that underlying these beliefs about what people deserve is the (unconscious) belief that the unsuccessful are not only undeserving but evil—a kind of fifth column threatening the fabric of society with their indolence and incompetence. Social welfare only encourages their indolence, and public education is the Trojan horse that will give them access to positions in society. Thus, draconian budget cuts are good things—they cleanse the social body of vermin that threaten its health.

To believe such a thing is to be in the grip of a delusion so pervasive that it can be sustained only by unconscious motivations—deep resentments, pathological narcissism, an authoritarian need to control others through scapegoating, etc .

It is not nice to contemplate fellow Californians with such motives, but I am at a loss to find an alternative explanation for what the Governor and legislature have done.

Conservatism came to power in part based on promises to lower taxes while providing essential services through free market innovation. But its ability to capture the imagination of voters also depended on the perception that conservatism was a morally superior ideology. The values rhetoric for which conservatism is well-known provided moral cover for the questionable economic theories they advanced.

With this budget, the emptiness of that values rhetoric has once again been exposed just as their economic theories are in tatters. What is left is not merely naked self-interest but a self-interest bolstered by deep resentment, bigotry, and pathological indifference.

It is not obvious how that moral cancer can be put into remission though our future depends on it.

But they really are nice people. Really!

 Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

What If We Had an Election and Nobody Showed? May 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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California faces a budget debacle of historic proportions, so Ahhnold gave us an election he said would fix it. Voters turned out in historically paltry proportions to turn him down. From the Sacramento Bee:

Preliminary semi-official returns from the secretary of state’s office indicate that just 22.9 percent of California‘s registered voters cast ballots.

Conservatives are trying to spin the vote against Ahhnold as an expression of anger at his feeble tax increases. If 23% (many of whom were liberals who support higher taxes) is all the anger they can muster I don’t think politicians have much to fear from the anti-tax crowd.

No, the big yawn was spawned by the incoherence of this package of “reforms” and mistrust of the process that produced them.

I’m in the middle of grading final exams so I will let Marc Cooper speak for me:

I think it fair to assign the bulk of the blame to one Arnold Schwarzenegger. He came into office in 2003, promising to break up the boxes of government and to make a clean sweep of business-as-usual. He prematurely drove out of office a pay-to-play, uninspiring Democrat who had let the state debt burdgeon to a staggering  $38 billion.  Nice work, Arnold. Today that debt tops $70 billion. Teachers are being laid off. Police forces are being shrunk. Health care is being slashed. And much more mayhem is right around the corner…

Everyone with an IQ above room temp has known for a long time that there can be no long-term economic viability in California without a radical, that’s right, radical retooling of our tax base.  That means a scrapping of the onerous Prop 13 which, essentially, gives business and corporate interests a near free ride on already ridiculously low property taxes.

Arnold gave a lot of leeway on a lot of issues but he stubbornly stuck to his “no taxes” Republican mantra. At least until recently when, out of necessity, he began to approve a whole new tier of increased “fees.”

But it was all too little too late. Californians long ago grew bored by the annual budget deadlock in Sacramento. With new taxes needing a 2/3 super majority, the Repubs have just enough votes to gum up the works.  If Arnold had wanted to be remembered as an historic figure, instead of one more failed Governor, he would have shown the same courage on tax reform that he did on the environment he would have led the charge for change.

Instead, it was business as usual.

And now we will see if there is a shred of political courage left in Sacramento.

Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

California Sinking May 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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The ballot propositions being voted on in today’s election are likely to go down to defeat, according to latest polls, as well they should since they will not solve the budget deficit and will hamstring the state for years to come.

Even if they should pass, California is faced with at least a $15 billion dollar deficit.

Thus far, the only solution to the budget deficit offered by the clown show that is the Schwarzenegger Administration is draconian cuts to health, education, and social services.

In an economic crisis, budget cuts are the last thing we need. In a recession, consumers cut back on their buying and businesses cut back on production. As a result, the state has to encourage spending, so people can stay employed, businesses are encouraged to produce, and eventually grow buy hiring new workers. By contrast, state spending reductions that entail unemployment or underemployment for thousands of teachers and state workers reduces consumption and thus reduces production.

This is elementary economics and it is hard to fathom why Schwarzenegger and his Republican stooges in the legislature don’t get it.

What kind of response do we get from Republicans?  From Andrew Ross:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s latest grim budgets bring to mind assertions by opponents of Propositions 1A-1F that, in the words of gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.” Given that the state is facing a $21.3 billion hole, does not a $11.7 billion revenue drop count as a problem? …The three major sources of state revenue – income taxes, sales taxes and corporate taxes – fell by $12.4 billion, a 16.4 percent drop.

How is this not a “revenue problem”?

Schwarzenegger, since he has been in office, has constantly used the argument that business will avoid the state if taxes are raised. But what business will want to stay or relocate here when schools are decimated, college is unaffordable and inaccessible, and unemployment is skyrocketing?

In a recent letter to New York Governor David Patterson who is facing his own budget crisis, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents would help pull the state out of a recession more quickly by maximizing the total spending in the economy.

“Every dollar of state and local government spending enters the local economy right away, generating a greater economic impact,” he wrote.

“Raising taxes on high income households also will reduce spending, but by less than the amount of the tax increase since those with plenty of income typically spend only a fraction of their income,” he wrote.

Yet, raising taxes is not on the agenda.

Just as George W. Bush presided over the demise of the U.S., Schwarzenegger is presiding over the demise of the Golden State. I doubt that in 10 years anyone will want to live here.