I Go on a Road Trip to Sacramento

MARCH 8, 2011


Last week I started work on CalWatchDog.com as the new managing editor, a promotion from reporter and analyst. I’ll still be doing a lot of reporting and analyzing, as well as new editing and other tasks.

I’ll be working here full-time. And what a great time it is to be writing about California! It’s a state I love and have reported on since 1987, when I came out here to write editorials for The Orange County Register. That’s where I met our editor-in-chief, Steven Greenhut, when he came to the Register as an editorial writer in 1998, where a quickly became a columnist and later deputy editorial page editor.

Both of us long have warned that the state and local governments — and the federal government, for that matter — were driving us off a fiscal cliff. You just can’t expect a happy ending when you keep increasing government-workers’ pay and benefits, while spiking their pensions, as you bloat government budgets and impose the highest tax burden in the nation.

“There is nothing free except the grace of God,” says Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl character in the remake of “True Grit” by my favorite contemporary directors, the Coen Bros.

A similar saying, secular version, is the libertarian, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” — often abbreviated TANSTAAFL. It was popularized by the free-market economist Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate; and by Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” which would make a great Coen Bros. flick.

Let’s throw in some more quotations: What goes around, comes around. It’s Karma. You can’t fool mother nature.

Or the Stranger in the Coen Bros.’ “The Big Lebowski”: “Sometimes you eat the bar; and sometimes, why, the bar, he eats you.” (“Bar” is a cowboy Sam Elliott’s pronunciation of “bear.”)

However you look at it, there are limits in life. And modern governments passed those limits long ago. Now, inevitably, there is a time of belt-tightening, of down-sizing.

Sacramento Road Trip

I live in Orange County and will be reporting on events down here in Southern California, as well as using my contacts in Sacramento and flying up there every month or so. Last Friday, the Pacific Research Institute, our parent foundation, flew me up to Sacramento. There I met with Steven and our Sacramento reporter, Katy Grimes, to plan CalWatchDog.com’s future.

I also met with PRI’s CFO and Vice President Karen H. Chreston, Director of Research Jason Clemens and Editorial Director Lloyd Billingsly. Along with PRI’s President and CEO, Sally Pipes, they’re some of the folks who make PRI the top think tank on California.

For lunch, Steven, Katy, Jason and I walked down to a restaurant on K Street, the “main drag” of Sacramento. K Street is a microcosm of what’s wrong with government in California. Although there are a few nice stores and restaurants, about a third of storefronts are empty, beggars stagger around in large numbers and muggings are frequent.

My hosts told me that K Street has been the recipient of copious redevelopment money, courtesy of the state Legislature whose activities are the city’s main “business” — and paid for, of course, by the taxpayers.

The city also has a light-rail system that runs down K Street. As in most other places in America, this slices through the city and makes folks reluctant to cross the tracks. Instead of encouraging people to stroll around the area, shopping and dining and schmoozing, it corrals them into corners.

These government-imposed “improvements” in fact short-circuit the natural development of local business, as determined by consumer preferences in the market. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that rationalist, government-forced “planning” destroys cities by paving over the natural evolution of a city over time.

Here’s the question: If the state government can’t even prevent its own city from having a slum right downtown, its own actions making everything worse, by what right does it dictate anything to us?

It’s like how the U.S. government dictates education policy, to a minute level, over every public school in America, yet its own Washington, D.C. public schools always score among the worst on test scores.

On to the Capitol

Steven, Katy and I later walked over to the Capitol, where we went through the security screening, which is about the level airports were before 9/11. One of my sayings is that any government that makes you go through screening is too big and should be downsized. (A topic for another day.)

Inside, we walked by Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, which still has in front of it a bronze bear statue put there by departed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most people in the Capitol had departed for a weekend in their home districts to consult with their special interests — excuse me, constituents — on how to proceed in closing the $25 billion budget deficit.

We talked with some Republican staffers who were betting on whether some kind of budget deal will be crafted this week by Gov. Brown and the Legislature. That would mean five Republicans would have to sell out and join the vote to put the governor’s $12 billion tax increase on a June ballot. I didn’t bet, but said I thought it would happen.

I figure that most people realize the voters likely will vote nay to any tax increase. So the whole thing would be forgotten after June. The Republican legislators who joined Brown would then be able to say they got something for their effort — such as a weak budget “limitation” measure — while taxes didn’t go up.

In any case, that means the next months will be the most interesting in recent memory. And we’ve had some highly interesting years here in California, as the once Golden State becomes more tarnished and crumbles into the sea. We’ll have a lot to write about here on CalWatchDog.com.

So, y’all keep checking us out. If you want, leave some comments after the articles, or shoot us an email.

Like the book on which it was based, the Coens’ “True Grit” begins with a quotation from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when none pursueth.”

At CalWatchDog.com, we’ll be pursuing.

John Seiler is CalWatchDog.com’s managing editor. His email: [email protected].

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