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The Golden State’s War on Itself


Democracy and Power 114:  The Power Players
Who actually controls the force of government?   The politicians and interest groups control the American political process.  As stated, the politician seeks power.  Special interest groups – big business, small business, unionseducation, seniors, and a multitude of others - seek favors: tax breaks, subsidies, exclusive legislation, etc.  Interest groups give enormous money to political campaigns, and receive gigantic benefits in return.

The Golden State’s War on Itself
How politicians turned the California Dream into a nightmare

Joel Kotkin in the City Journal chronicles California’s switch from investing in education and roads to mandating environmental regulations and funding a mammoth public employee bureaucracy. 

…  During the second half of the twentieth century, the state shifted from an older progressivism, which emphasized infrastructure investment and business growth, to a newer version, which views the private sector much the way the Huns viewed a city—as something to be sacked and plundered. The result is two separate California realities: a lucrative one for the wealthy and for government workers, who are largely insulated from economic decline; and a grim one for the private-sector middle and working classes, who are fleeing the state.

According to Kotkin the old progressives were bipartisan, pro business and champions for the middle class.  Earl Warren (R) and Pat Brown (D) governed by expanding higher education, developing water projects and building roads.  The middle class thrived, becoming better educated and prosperous.  This was changed by the coalition of public employees, environmental groups and minorities demanding government spend on social services.  The public-employee unions became the dominant political force and Jerry Brown became their governor.  He supported the environmental crusade, and stopped building roads and reduced spending on higher education.

Kotkin writes:   According to the unions, public funds should be spent on inflating workers’ salaries and pensions—or else on expanding social services, often provided by public employees—and not on infrastructure or higher education, which is why Brown famously opposed new freeway construction and water projects and even tried to rein in the state’s university system.

With the public employee unions controlling the legislators and legislation, California has enacted punitive taxes and anti-business regulations.  Consequently, union members and the very skilled enjoyed the good life for which California was formerly known.  Meanwhile, businesses and middle income workers have exited the state for better opportunities searching for their good life elsewhere.  Kotkin explains:

In short, the economy created by the new progressives can pay off only those at the peak of the employment pyramid—top researchers, CEOs, entertainment honchos, highly skilled engineers and programmers.

For these lucky earners, a low-growth or negative-growth economy works just fine, so long as stock prices rise. For their public-employee allies, the same is true, so long as pensions remain inviolate. Global-warming legislation may drive down employment in warehouses and factories, but if it’s couched in rhetoric about saving the planet, these elites can even feel good about it.

How did the change occur?  Where was the countervailing political force to the public employee unions and the green movement? 

The Power and Democracy Lesson: 

Democracy and Power 102:  Voters are rationally ignorant.

Tragically, the vast majority of the voters are rationally ignorant of most government actions.  The vast majority of the public is ignorant of bills, legislation, regulations and taxes that will ultimately affect their lives. 

The general public is working hard to make a living, raising a family and improving their community. The individual voter does not have the time to know all the transactions of government.  It is impossible to stay abreast of all the government actions.

Thus in the last 30 years, middle class Californians worked, raised families and were good members of their communities.  At the same time, public employee unions and environmental groups camped out at the State Capitol and elected, lobbied and achieved legislation favorable to them and their cause.

James Madison in the Federalist Papers feared the coalition of special interest groups – then called factions: By a faction (interest group), I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Today, California is bankrupt, and thousands of people are fleeing to jurisdiction with laws offering better opportunities.