Thursday, August 07, 2003

Recalls, Stupidity and Terminators.

As has been widely reported, those crazy folks in California have decided to recall their Democrat governor Gray Davis. Recalling is a Californian constitutional oddity, introduced in 1911, under which any citizen may raise a petition to dismiss the governor. If enough people sign up, there has to be a vote - effectively a referendum - on whether or not to sack him. Or her. This, though, is where it gets silly. A successful recall obviously requires the election of a new governor. But for some insane reason, this vote takes place simultaneously with the recall vote and on the same ballot. Which brings about the possibility that the governor might get 49.9% of the vote in his favour, but be recalled - and then be replaced by the candidate with the biggest share of the second vote. But that might only mean - say - 20%. Wibble. Aside from the obvious absurdity of the process, there has been a lot of stereotypical Cali weirdness going on - when one of the leading candidates is an Austrian ham actor best known for his role as a killer robot and another (Arianna Huffington, whose name sounds like a joke to start with) is a British-educated Greek, as well as a wealthy pornographer runnign under the banner of "Smut peddlers for the truth!", a woman whose career has been built on putting up billboards with her face on them (Angelyne) and God knows what other hucksters, self publicists, extremists, cash grabbers, even the LA Times has to confess that California is living up to its reputation for producing more nuts than any other state of the Union. (Link)

"The New York Times, Newsweek and National Public Radio have all called this state and its inhabitants crazy in recent weeks. ABC anchor Peter Jennings routinely refers to "the craziness in California," and CNN stories carry the graphic, "California's Crazy Recall." Californians, after many generations of practice, are usually inured to insults from the jealous throngs who don't get to live here. But the recall-sparked crescendo of craziness has landed with unsettling force because so many of California's own residents have been throwing around the C-word."


But what's madder than the vanity circus gathering about the recall is the reason why all this happened to start with. Like all the US states except for Vermont, California is bound by its constitution to balance its budget every year. A Keynesian might consider this pretty mad anyway. But it's something California finds very difficult to achieve. (Don't we all!) The reasons are fairly simple to understand. For a start, the state infrastructure built in the 40s and 60s is ageing all at once (block obsolescence). Then, the federal government has cut its spending on things like education that it shares with the states. To keep the public schools going, Sacramento has to copper up. But it's the political/mental aspect that's really serious. California was the first state to have a "tax revolt" back in the 1980s. That is to say, pace Paul Krugman below, that the political culture lost the link between tax and services. This is where another Californian peculiarity comes in - citizen-initiated referenda. Any group of citizens can, if they get enough signatures, put a "proposition" on the ballot paper. If it gets a majority in favour, it's the law. In the 1980s one of these was passed to abolish property taxes, as the price of real estate soared. This, as well as the post-cold war defence cuts, brought about the 1991 budget crisis. More recently, another proposition mandated the state to restore the education funding lost due to the abolition of property taxes. Riiight.

The upshot is that, when Governor Davis proposed his budget this year, that the Republicans went ape because it contained higher taxes. They blocked it in the state senate and settled in for a long struggle. Once the crisis had built up, they launched the recall petition. What they aren't too keen on saying is that now, the recall underway, they have quietly agreed to that same budget. Otherwise the state would no longer have been able to pay its employees.
Ordnung muß sein, naturally. But it's hardly honest.

What's the Ranter's Take-Home Political Sermon for Today, then? Firstly, that tax deficiency is a dangerous illness and can be very hard to shift. Secondly, and more importantly, that direct democracy in central government is a bad idea. Everywhere that has devices like Cali's recalls and propositions or Austria's volksbegehrens tends to find that it's a tiresome charter for extremists, the self-interested, whingers and the obsessive. It may seem a fine idea to let the citizenry propose legislation, but just look at the results - and the people who support it. (The CIR campaign in Australia was riddled with gun nuts, racists and fascists.) The problem was first formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. He argued that true democracy must be direct - and that only a community small enough for "the people" to be gathered easily could therefore remain a true democracy.

That doesn't mean, of course, that communities bigger than a city state (Rousseau's ideal) can't be democratic. It means that they can't be purely democratic in his sense of the word. That is to say, they have to move from direct democracy to representative democracy as the matters at hand get further from the citizen. Otherwise we have the Californian problem - direct democracy without responsibility.

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