Direct Democracy Fail

One meme that seems to have made its way into the various national election post-mortems is that California escaped the Democratic bloodbath; that, in spite of the failure of Prop 19, we remain so staunchly liberal that we are replacing the Governator with Governor Moonbeam.  

Really, though, what analysts forget is that the California electorate doesn’t need to express its populist anger by sweeping out incumbents every two years.  California already has a robust populist system: its ballot initiatives.  And, judging by the passage or failure of various initiatives, this deep blue state isn’t that different from most of the rest of the country.

By now, every marginally sentient American knows that California’s budget is a giant, gaping mess.  A large part of this is owing to the warped initiative system, including one proposition which required a two-thirds majority to pass any state budgets.  People didn’t like taxes!  People wanted bipartisanship!  Demanding a supermajority would impose moderation and restraint upon those feckless politicians!  So there was a supermajority, and then there was gridlock.  Terminal, student-loans-on-hold, public-employees-on-furlough, creditors-sent-IOUs gridlock.  Ah, but California operates on principles of direct democracy: again, to the ballot box!  Amend!  Amend!

Proposition 25 amended the state constitution to pass budgets by a simple majority, as it is in most states and, as has become apparent, as is necessary for the government to function at its most basic level.  Most citizens were on board, but corporate opposition was vociferous: budgets include taxes!  Prop 25 included language, affirmed by the courts, to leave in place the 2/3 supermajority requirement for tax increases.  But that wasn’t enough to placate people!  No, we also had to pass Proposition 26 — which extends the two-thirds requirement beyond taxes to fees, surcharges, or any other method of raising revenue (at-cost transactional charges for services rendered are still allowed, so at least we don’t expect the government to provide services with zero money whatsoever).  

Moreover, even the failure of Prop 19, the marijuana legalization initiative, is instructive.  The state has a huge hole in its budget, spends more than anyone else on incarceration, and has decriminalized marijuana altogether.  Medical marijuana is a farce, in which doctors hand out prescriptions like candy to anyone who wanders in with enough money to pay a small fee.  A legalized tax-and-regulate scheme would have created revenue where instead there has only been expenditure.  Sure, it’s a little bit left-of-center, but it’s not like pot isn’t already a normalized part of California culture.  Nonetheless, the measure failed — and it failed in, of all places, Humboldt County, home to the world’s finest ganja fields, where legalization would stand to do the most good.  The revenue Humboldt would gain from legal pot would go a long way to improve services and infrastructure in this remote and ill-served county.  Whyever would Humboldtians disapprove?

Well, many of the good folks of Humboldt County are not too ideologically distant from Tea Partiers, in that they like money (which many individual growers have in vast amounts, even as their public monies run dry), like guns, and hate government.  The idea of regulated pot is anathema.

Similarly, the Tea Party talks a good game about fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets.  They might go for something like Proposition 25 — as long as it came alongside a Proposition 26, that is, a guarantee that a budget will never be balanced on the back of actual revenue.  Nope; far better to slash taxes, cut public jobs to save money, get upset about a poor economy, and claim that the best cure to rampant unemployment is more tax cuts.  No vicious cycle there.  Nope.

The great premise of trickle-down economics is that wealth is inherently job-creating; that capital necessarily operates as an investment vehicle.  The idea of government-loathing rebels growing illicit marijuana fields up in Humboldt, hoarding guns and hundreds of thousands of dollars in miniature empire, doesn’t really figure into classic Reaganomics.  But in a way, it’s a perfect Tea Party end game: libertarian to a fault, and totally destructive to an actual society.

Kevin Drum has more on California here and here.

0 thoughts on “Direct Democracy Fail”

Leave a Reply