Entire state government is broken

by Anthony Pignataro | April 8, 2010 3:22 pm

APRIL 9, 2010

“Democracy,” H.L. Mencken told us, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

I was thinking of this little slice of Mencken wisdom while reading an unintentionally hilarious April 7  LA Times blog post. “California’s budget problems not solvable this year, analysts say” was the headline, and it included a number of quotes from various officials and budget specialists. All of them agreed that our great state’s budget situation are really, Really, REALLY severe.

“It’s not going to get taken care this year,” Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said during an April 6 Assembly budget hearing. “[P]robably not even next year.”

There’s no question Taylor is correct. California is currently running a $20-plus billion budget deficit and has amassed nearly half a trillion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities.

In fact, things are so bad that there’s been a spate of stories in big mainstream papers and magazines lately asking whether states like California are in such dire financial straits that they could just up and default like one of those debt-addled European nations we keep hearing about. “California, New York and other states are showing many of the same signs of debt overload that recently took Greece to the brink – budgets that will not balance, accounting that masks debt, the use of derivatives to plug holes, and armies of retired public workers who are counting on benefits that proving harder and harder to pay,” reported The New York Times on March 29.

But apparently left out of the Assembly hearing discussion was the idea that the situation facing California – and many other states – isn’t a “problem” at all like shoddy earthquake retrofits or missing regulatory data that can be “solved” through bipartisan legislation and teamwork but is actually a natural outgrowth of the very bipartisanship that buttresses our democratic process.

Political scientist Theodore Lowi called it “interest group liberalism.” It’s the idea that modern American government works by bringing all of society’s various factions (so-called “interest groups”) together under one Capitol dome, where through compromise, log-rolling and strong-arming the “iron triangle” of legislators, administrators and lobbyists write laws that attempt to appeal to all sides and agendas.

Interest group liberalism – which despite its name accurate characterizes both the Democratic and Republican parties – has held sway over American politics since the New Deal. The advantage to this system, if you can call it that, is that theoretically everyone gets a seat at the proverbial table. Pretty much everyone falls into one interest group or another, so their respective lobbyists and representatives gather in the hearing rooms and legislative offices and debate all sides of issues, resulting in the passage of laws that have the widest possible appeal.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. More extreme interests get diluted when poured into governing coalitions, and consensus legislation ends up as a kind of lowest common denominator, satisfying few. That’s how we got stuff like the anti-greenhouse gas legislation AB32, 3 percent at 50 pension plans and No Cussing Week, measures which very likely do either nothing at all or more harm than good, but they’re also quite popular with the public as a whole. Vox populi, vox dei – The voice of the People is the voice of God.

But as Mencken pointed out, what the people want is not always what they need. Interest group liberalism embraces compromise, not planning.

There is “no substance,” Lowi wrote of interest group liberalism. “Neither is there procedure. There is only process… Liberalism replaces planning with bargaining.”

California voters want low taxes, clean air, generous government employee pensions, modern classrooms, effective teachers, safe streets, efficient roads, well-maintained parks and affordable health care. And our entire government is set up to deliver all of those things, regardless of whether our state can afford them.

 -Anthony Pignataro

Source URL: https://calwatchdog.com/2010/04/08/new-entire-state-government-is-broken/