Can a failed state be fixed?

berkeley by Bernt Rostad

Fixing California
[Via Cosmic Variance]

This past year has been a long, slow downward spiral for California into one of the worst financial crises in state history. Revised revenue projections in February led to huge slashes in funding for an array of programs from higher education to state parks, and a $25 billion budget shortfall looms next year. State employes and university (both Cal State and UC) employees have been furloughed, and UC tuition has gone up dramatically – 32% within a year. Protests at Berkeley, UCLA, and my own institution, UC Davis, led to dozens of arrests in November.

[I was amazed, the night of November 19, to see a helicopter with a powerful searchlight circling over the main administration building at UC Davis. The police, many from jurisdictions 20 miles away, had created a perimeter about 100 yards from the building, which was still occupied by students who were later arrested for trespass (and the campus police returned to find their tires slashed). The next week saw another protest, resulting in amnesty for those previously arrested…]

People are angry, and justifiably so. There are over 400,000 parents in the state who are getting a giant kick in the pants (myself among them – my daughter is at Berkeley). But who should we be angry at? Faculty? UC administration? The government in Sacramento? The global economy? What can we change that will truly fix the problems California faces?

One simple and direct idea has emerged, from a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, George Lakoff. He proposes the following 14-word amendment to the state constitution for the Nov. 2010 state ballot:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

With a million signatures, this proposition will be on the ballot next fall, and I am going to predict at this point that this will very likely be the case. If adopted, this would put an end to the 2/3 majority of the legislature required in California to enact any tax increase, and thereby end the present tyranny of the minority that hamstrings the state that I wrote about before.


Anyone who has been following California politics knows about the tyranny of the minority. And, as is often the case, what happens in California often is then seen on a national scale. Thus the tyranny of the minority in Washington.

Perhaps California will pull back from the ledge by passing this amendment. But I would not hold my breath. A very large group of people there apparently do want a failed state, one whose tax revenues can never meet its social obligations. They have been relying on cheap tax dodges for a long, long time.

I was in California when Proposition 13 passed. This not only lowered property taxes tremendously but also inserted the requirement for a 2/3rd majority on tax issues, not only at the state level but also at the level of local government. Not too surprisingly, many of the property tax provisions have greatly benefited corporations, which continue to pay a smaller percentage of the overall tax. Funny how the companies always make out well and the average citizen can not afford to send their child to state college.

The increases in tuition at its Universities may provide some financial relief for the poorer students in the form of financial aid, but it will do little to provide for middle class students. Instate tuition will rise from about $7000 in 2009 to about $10,000 in the fall of 2010. That is enough to wake up some people but what it really indicates is the increasing problem of attending college for middle-class families.

Perhaps letting the majority determine tax policy would be a good thing and this experimentation with minority control will fade away.

[Listening to: Hopelessly Human from the album “Point of Know Return” by Kansas]