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How Progressives Can Save California…And the Nation

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Californa State Flag

Conor Friedersdorf has a great editorial over at the Atlantic on California’s political and economic situation. As a Democrat (mostly because I’m too lazy to change my registration to Independent) and as someone who PEW described in a study as a liberal, I agree with most of what he wrote about California. Yet, for all that I enjoy Freidersdorf’s editorials, I think he fails because of his libertarian bent and his understanding of history.

As a few examples of why I agree with Friedersdorf’s editorial, I submit these examples:

Regarding the citizen approved non-partisan redistricting committee, I was absolutely outraged by Democratic party attempts to con, manipulate and impede the independent redistricting committee. It was wrong, immoral and highly unethical. I gather from later news reports that it failed; at least I hope so. No seat should be safe for a party or a legislator through redistricting. All people, regardless of partisan or political views, need to be represented fairly.

Moreover, I voted for Prop 5 and thus against the 3-strikes law for the reasons Freidserdorf stated: its economically wasteful as well as unreasonably harsh. Even Superior Court Judges have stated that the 3-strikes law forces penalties, in terms of prison sentences, that are excessive considering the crimes. But California’s prison system was mostly sold off private prison corporations. Thus, private profit motives nearly preclude any sensible changes like rehab, community monitoring, and ankle bracelet monitors for drug and minor infractions. If California enacted the same kind of reform that Texas did to save money, our prison costs would drop dramatically while leaving plenty of room in our prison system for hardened criminals. I have a few thoughts on them as well: like required real, prison fiscally sustaining work, job training and education rather than inmates spending time weight lifting and body building. For example…and this is my bias…ditch the gyms and create sustainable food gardens.

As for the pension funds, I’d like to see state employees given salaries comparable to private industry for that specific job and then have the employees make defined contributions to CALPers. I’d recommend, too, that CALPers investigate/study pulling the funds out of Wall St. firms to create it’s own investment bank where it loaned money to businesses and bought state infrastructure bonds for a reasonable return, a la ND’s state bank.

If state employees no longer need taxpayer funds, as a result of employee only investments and a CALPers investment bank, then taxpayers would be off the hook for employee pension funds, which would make CALPers and state employees more responsible for their own retirement management.

I also believe state workers should not receive retirement benefits until they meet the Social Security retirement age. My brother, who worked really hard and rarely had a day off for the State as a Budget Analyst, retired at 50 with a really good retirement pension as well as a large payout for all the accumulative vacation time he never took. He’s not worked a day since he retired because he didn’t have to…and he’s living quite comfortably as are all retired state workers who retired long before Social Security retirement ages. That’s absurd.

California’s public employee retirement benefits should match the Social Security retirement age. Another point of my agreement with Friedersdorf is teacher tenure. I hate it.

I had a couple of those bad teachers who ended up being a wasting my time and taught me nothing. I’d scrape tenure altogether along with the entire Civil Service System. Both systems exist because of outdated and disproved social psychology thinking from many decades ago (the 30s or 40s?) in which it was believed that if employees didn’t have to worry about being fired, they would do a better job. We now that is wrong.

The fear of being fired provides the additional incentive to work harder and be more productive while complete protection encourages laziness.

California should lead the nation in determining best practices based on recent research, private industry models and what are the best incentives for employees. Research is needed and should be done but in the short term both tenure and Civil Service guarantees should be eliminated. No more working hard until tenure or civil service employment guarantees occur to then become lazy workers as my mother discovered amongst many of her coworkers after she went to work for the State. All workers should be held to private industry best practices standards. Period.

Where is disagree with Friedersdorf are those areas which he exhibits a seemingly youthful naiveté.

Unlike Friedersdorf, I unfortunately don’t have much faith in California Republicans either to deal with California’s real problems of fiscal solvency and rebuilding the state back to the vibrant, thriving state I remember it being when my family returned to CA in 1959.

Admittedly, the state’s proposition ability has made fiscal constraint and budgeting sense much harder, allowing emotional appeals on spending while leading citizens to believe there is no financial penalty to that spending. In the very same election year, I’ve seen propositions approved by citizens that both increased spending while at the same time demanding higher restraints on taxes.

Californians, like the rest of nation over the last 30 some years, came to believe that spending and taxes were disconnected; deficits didn’t matter and a magical belief in growth (i.e., dynamic scoring) would solve all fiscal problems.

Does any company determine its spending based upon what might happen in a year or three or five years? No, they take a hard look at their market and, if they’re smart, make a strategic decision on where to spend their money. They don’t make fiscal decisions based on magical market predictions, which is exactly what Republicans across the country, and most specifically in Congress, now demand. Dynamic scoring, which the GOP pushes, is a lie based on an unproven economic myth of unknown growth. Yes, budgeting for an entire year is hard to do when no one knows what the future will bring which is why the most accurate numbers and predictions must be available.

That is why the California proposition system must to be reformed to bring some reality to it. Overall, the idea that you can get something for nothing, based on magical growth numbers, has caused much of the state’s fiscal problems. And very liberal Democrats have added to this fantasy along with their Republican fellows who said tax cuts were all that was needed to fix the state’s fiscal woes. Hidden accounts or lock boxed accounts no longer make any fiscal sense. Our Legislature must be free, regardless of voter propositions, to make economically fiscal sense of all money flowing into the state and end those that no longer are fiscally appropriate or feasible or necessary.

Right now, I’m praying the State’s Democratic majority will become more fiscally responsible and demand real, true accounting and be willing to say to the citizens that if voters want more spending, it’s going to mean higher taxes. But I don’t have much hope.

As a result of term limits, few if any legislators understand the budget or the budget process which means that few if any candidates understand the budget and all the hidden accounts. As has been noted in numerous news accounts, legislators now rely upon bureaucrats and lobbyists to teach them about the budget and often to write budget legislation. Our California legislators no longer have the knowledge they need to perform their job, and just about the time they begin to understand it, they’re termed limited out for another neophyte. Nevertheless, California citizens seem to getting that message…slowly.

As studies have begun to show, Californians are beginning to realize that our enormous number of propositions and gerrymandered districts caused legislative problems that have accumulated over the last 30 some years which led our state’s fiscal problems.

But California will never be able to resolve its fiscal problems until the state – and by extension the entire country – ends its reliance on special interest election funding, whether that funding comes from teacher and prison guard unions or from corporations or from other groups whose ideology has been totally debunked by mainstream economics. Citizens United and the whole notion of SuperPacs and lobbying dollars for all special interest groups must be overturned and made illegal.

TR described in his autobiography how a system of campaign financing, which closely resembles that which now exists, corrupted the political system during his early political career and before. He described it quite eloquently in his autobiography and showed examples of how it corrupted the public good. Right now, we are right back to where TR looked onto the political system and saw massive corruption on both sides of the political aisle. Nothing can be accomplished to reform our political process nationally or within California until well-funded special interests are barred from elections and lobbying.

Perhaps Freidersdorf fails to understand the special interest money that historically has led to the state’s fiscal dysfunction, but I’m old enough to have learned the history of it…and it ain’t pretty regardless of whichever side of the aisle you choose.

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