This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nordstrom Civilization on a Wal-Mart Budget

            If they made me dictator of California tomorrow, I’d have the state budget whipped into shape by spring break. Odds are you wouldn’t like the way I did it, but that would be your problem.
            Of course, this being California, you don’t have to worry about a dictator doing something you don’t like. You don’t even have to worry too much about your elected officials doing something you don’t like because it’s really easy to put an initiative on the ballot and let the people make the decision themselves.
            Which is one of the ways we got into this mess. The best assessment of California under the initiative process comes from David Brooks of the New York Times. When you let the people vote on everything, he said, they spend like socialists and tax like libertarians.
            There’s not much evidence that people in California want substantively less government. Given a chance to vote for better schools, clean water, parks, tougher sentencing laws, and more prisons, they consistently say yes.
            Given a chance to vote for the taxes to pay for these things, reality avoidance kicks in. Almost no one knows what it costs to run a school or a prison, so it’s easy to imagine that it’s less than it is. Then it’s a short step to rationalizing a no vote on any specific tax on the grounds that government ought to cut waste, get its house in order, and live within its means.
            Easy to say but hard to do. To begin with, government, like business, is ruled by a wide-ranging set of contracts and laws that can’t just be tossed aside in the name of so-called efficiency. As your dictator, I could ignore the ones I didn’t like, but in a democracy that particular aircraft carrier takes a long time to turn. Nor is there a line item called “waste” in any public budget I’ve ever seen.
            Waste is for the most part in the eye of the beholder. Very little of it is the sort of documentable inefficiency that everyone can agree on. Most of the so-called “waste” in public budgets is what you don’t think public funds should be spent on, but I do. It’s a political judgment, not a managerial one.
            California now has a near-total disconnect between what we want and what we want to spend. The initiative process lets the people micromanage the governmental process without ever having to look at the complete picture. We put all sorts of handcuffs on our legislators, then complain that they aren’t showing enough dexterity in getting the job done.
            It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1972, when California government was actually working pretty well, I remember being sent, as a young reporter, to a school board meeting. The board had passed a budget and had just received a report from the county on the assessed valuation of property in the school district.
            Administrators had done the arithmetic and recommended that the board set a tax rate that, based on the valuation, would raise the money needed to cover the budget. After a few minutes of discussion, the board did so and moved on to the next item.
            There was no public vote on the tax rate. The assumption at the time, which now seems quaint, was that the board members had been chosen in fair elections to run the district; that they should be allowed to do so; and that if they screw up, they can be held accountable by the people at the next election. The question today is who holds the people accountable when we screw up?