Commentary: State of Denial

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Protester-Prison-Spending

One of my chief complaints about the management of the budget deficit in the City of Davis was the state of denial the former city manager was in, and thus by extension the rest of the city, most particularly city employees and to some extent the broader community.

As we look to a new city manager, we must keep in mind the fact that, just because things are not as bad here as elsewhere does not mean we are not on the brink.  The brink being looking down the barrel of huge increases in the cost of pensions and retiree insurance, based on huge and growing unfunded liabilities.

By the same token, it seems that some in this community are in denial about the crisis that public education faces, despite more than ten million in cuts to our local school district over the last four fiscal years.  In part this is due to the willingness of the public to not only support three separate parcel taxes since 2007, but also because the Davis Schools Foundation, a private organization has also been able to raise millions.

We have not felt the pain that other districts have had to feel who do not enjoy the local support that meant even a $200 a year parcel tax in the middle of a string of parcel taxes received the requisite two-thirds threshold for passage.

It is easy to forget what the world outside of our bastion of educational enlightenment looks like.

But we do not have to look far, just go across the causeway to see scores of protesters arrested, as the teachers attempted to lean on state legislators in an effort to extend current tax raises.

Reports the Bee on Tuesday, “Although law enforcement officials said the crowds were generally peaceful, they arrested about 65 protesters after warning them to leave the Capitol rotunda after the building closed at 6 p.m. They were charged with misdemeanor trespassing.”

“We’re not just here to lobby. We’re here to raise some hell,” Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, said as the arrests began.

As David Sanchez, the head of the state’s teacher’s association writes in the Sacramento Bee this morning, “The thousands of educators, parents, and working families protesting this week in Sacramento and throughout the state recognize something that some lawmakers are in denial about: California is in a state of emergency.”

It may be easy to dismiss his words as self-serving, but he’s not altogether wrong either.

He writes, “Years of papering over budget shortfalls, an unfair and unreliable tax revenue system, and billions in cuts to state and local services have pushed our state to the brink of disaster.

As he points out, nowhere has been hit harder than public schools.  Over the last three years, educational spending for K-12 and higher education have been slashed by $20 billion, or $3000 per student.  School years have been shortened, which means decreased instructional time for students. 

Writes Mr. Sanchez, “Class sizes have soared, vital programs have been cut or eliminated, and 40,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians and support staff have been laid off. University of California and California State University tuition fees have skyrocketed, and many students now find themselves priced out of a college education.”

These are all facts.  The question is what to do about these facts.  At this point he recommends that the state pass extensions to the tax increases from a few years ago that are about to expire.

He puts the blame clearly, “Republican lawmakers are prepared to cause even more damage by gutting state revenue further with an immediate tax cut.”

Writes Mr. Sanchez, “The governor negotiated in good faith with lawmakers to put the tax extensions to a vote of the people, but as news reports surfaced that a deal was close, some Republicans hijacked the process and added a 10-page list of their own special- interest demands, including some that would have increased the deficit, showing either they know nothing about successful negotiations, or they were never serious in the first place.”

Oh, I can see it now, some readers’ complaints that this amounts to more blaming the Republicans.

Truth is, Republicans are to blame, but they are not the only ones to blame. 

The Republicans have been the primary obstructionists to the process.  They have refused to negotiate in good faith.  They are the problem here, and they are not the solution.

The Democrats have done their part in creating phony balanced budgets in the past, rather than force a true crisis that could make the system change. 

However, the real culprit here is the system that diffuses responsibility and prevents electoral success from equating to governing success.

The more I see the California Government at work, the more it is clear that we need to revamp the system.  We need to allow the majority to rule and the minority to try to score brownie points with the voters so they can be the next majority.

For those who fear that this is a Democratic state that will always elect Democrats, that is partly true.  But it is still an anti-tax state that will support tax cuts and punish those who will increase taxes or fees. 

The bottom line is that we are in denial, our system of government does not work, will not work, and cannot work anymore.  We need to move forward and allow the majority to govern and have faith that the voters will keep the excesses of one party or another in line.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 thoughts on “Commentary: State of Denial”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    What makes you think if a simple majority rules in regard to the budget, the system will get any better? My guess is things will be just as bad or worse. Frankly, I think CA may be ungovernable bc it is too big a state with too many disparate needs/views. I could not believe it when voters approved high speed rail just as we were heading into the worst economic recession we’ve had since the Great Depression. To some extent, I think the voters themselves are in denial – against raising taxes and against cutting services. You cannot have it both ways…

  2. Observer

    True, voters can’t have it both ways and haven’t come to that realization yet. What a simple majority vote for the budget WOULD do is make it clear who is responsible for what. A Democratic budget would raise taxes to a point where there would be a backlash, as there was in 1978 on Prop 13, and eventually an equilibrium would come into being as exists in most other states.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]A Democratic budget would raise taxes to a point where there would be a backlash, as there was in 1978 on Prop 13, and eventually an equilibrium would come into being as exists in most other states.[/quote]

    Or we could end up in a worse fiscal mess than we are in right now…

  4. Frankly

    Voters will always vote to have it both ways. That is why we have a representative government. Elected leaders are supposed to make the difficult decisions looking at the big picture and long view…. they are not supposed to blow with the winds of popular opinion.

    The root causes of our inability to govern ourselves stems from:

    1. Media influence in the political process; the mixing of the serious business of politics with pop culture and the ability of politicians to become famous and grow wealth from the media attention.

    2. The former attracting the wrong type of candidates and allowing the wrong type of candidates to win elections.

    3. Voter complacency in this… their tendency to elect pop stars and people disconnected from the average normal American lifestyle. These voters continue to demonstrate their inability to recognize, accept, elect or respect leaders that can and will make difficult and unpopular decisions that are necessary and justified in consideration of a long-term strategy for survival and improvement.

    Politics should never be a career, and career politicians should be rejected at every level of government. Government should be by the people and for the people… that is real people… people that are part of the regular social and economic fabric of the country. Californians elected Brown not Whitman. There is your state of denial.

  5. wdf1

    JB: [i]1. Media influence in the political process; the mixing of the serious business of politics with pop culture and the ability of politicians to become famous and grow wealth from the media attention.[/i]

    My take on this is that much of the media tends to like a black and white conflict. It makes for more appealing watching for viewers. It’s also a narrative that is easier for voters who don’t have time or tolerance for nuance. But it doesn’t create a good environment for reasonable compromise. This is a theme that Jon Stewart frequently raises. I don’t see compromise as a bad thing; it is often better than gridlock.

  6. Frankly

    wdf1: I agree, but I see it as being more far-reaching and damaging. We live in a complex world and certainly most people do not have time to become experts in all political issues.

    The root of the problem from my perspective is the lack of journalistic integrity, the blending of entertainment and “news”, the use of bias sound bites rather than objectivity based on in-depth analysis and reporting, the practice of opinion being infused into every story or report, the media (old and new) being infiltrated by political power brokers recognizing the ability to use it for political gain, or using the topic of politics to grow and audience that serves them for economic gain (e.g., Michael Moore).

    I think we need to revisit the First Amendment and define “press”. We may need to legislate some greater rules to combat the corrosive and destructive power of the modern media… something our framers could have never imagined becoming this large of a problem.
    Many scream for greater regulations to prevent oil companies from damaging the environment. I see more political and social damage done by media companies, and think it is time we start asking ourselves what should be done about it.

    I think we need a media/journalism standard code of practice and ethics that is enforced. Like the NBA, we need to slap the players and coaches with a fine when they break the rules. If your show is political satire, or biased, then it should be labeled so like a pack of cigarettes. And like cigarettes, we should educate users of the potential damage. Otherwise if you want to be recognized as an objective and unbiased news source, then you should be regularly audited based on a standard book of rules… like GAAP for the news media.

  7. Frankly

    Antitrust actions won’t help solve of a lack of journalistic integrity, and “fairness” is too subjective to be useful. I would prefer something similar to GAAP “generally accepted accounting principles” for the news media.

    Here is a list to start with that comes from the Society of Professional Journalist as a code of ethics:

    [quote]Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

    Journalists should:

    — Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
    — Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
    — Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
    — Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
    — Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
    — Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
    — Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
    — Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

    Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

    Journalists should:
    —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
    — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
    — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
    — Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
    — Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
    — Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
    — Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.[/quote]

  8. wdf1

    JB: [i]Politics should never be a career, and career politicians should be rejected at every level of government. Government should be by the people and for the people… that is real people… people that are part of the regular social and economic fabric of the country. Californians elected Brown not Whitman. There is your state of denial.[/i]

    Are you satisfied with how Schwarzenegger ran things? He clearly wasn’t/isn’t a career politician.

  9. Frankly

    wdf1: I wrote “Government should be by the people and for the people… that is real people… people that are part of the regular social and economic fabric of the country.”

    I guess in so far as Schwarzenegger was an average citizen, his performance met my expectations. I would prefer we exclude actors except maybe those that are either sufficiently retired from the profession or lacking in name recognition.

    I think Meg Whitman was/is and example of a much better choice for governor than was Jerry Brown … governor moonbeam redux.

    If we need career politician to run our government, then this is evidence that we need to reform our government.

  10. wdf1

    JB: [i]If we need career politician to run our government, then this is evidence that we need to reform our government.[/i]

    We’ve had term limits in the California legislature since 1990. I can’t see that the state has necessarily benefitted. As soon as a new rep. begins to figure out how things work, time’s up. I suspect reps become a little bit more preoccupied with finding their next situation rather than figuring out how to solve problems.

  11. David M. Greenwald

    “What makes you think if a simple majority rules in regard to the budget, the system will get any better? “

    I don’t know if things will get better. I know the current system does not work. I think it is time to do something different. If that doesn’t work, we can go back to the drawing board.

  12. medwoman

    JB

    Do you honestly believe that Meg Whitman, whose vast personal wealth, provided her with the opportunity to essentially attempt to buy the governorship is really closer to “the real people…People that are part of the regular social and economic fabric of the country than Jerry Brown, who throughout his life has chosen to live as a “real person.” Or maybe I am missing your definition of ” real people”.

  13. Frankly

    medwoman: Brown is a professional politician born into a family of professional politicians. He graduated with his law degree in 1964 and was elected Secretary of State in 1970. So, I guess you can give him six years of “real people” experience. Whitman certainly came from well-to-do origins, but spent her entire adult life after earning her MBA from Harvard working her way up the corporate ladder.

    My point was/is that our government is supposed to be by the people and for the people. Professional, career politicians are insiders and lack adequate perspective for life outside their bubble of increasing, self-serving legal and governance complexity.

    Considering the principle of humans pursuing their self interest; attorneys’ self interest is served by the growth and complexities of law. Career politicians too are served by this… they benefit from the concern of voters that an inexperienced politician cannot be effective. Complexity equals job security for attorneys and career politicians.

    However, a CEO of a private-sector business has experience pursuing the opposite of this… constantly eliminating complexity and increasing efficiency in order to maximize profit (a primary measure of success).

    We need much less of what a Brown offers, and much more of what a Whitman offers. The design of our representative democracy was specifically to prevent career politicians… who become the antithesis of “real” people in my opinion.

    Interesting and ironic… new studies on commitment, engagement, creativity and productivity in the workplace has resulted in the theory of eight years. The principle is that many people become less capable in their role after doing the same thing for eight years. Progressive companies have started to require executives and senior staff to consider this in their career planning. For example, I am familiar with one large company in the Sacramento area that is considering making this a requirement for all executives and management… rotating jobs every 8-10 years. Corporate governance is also being challenged similarly. The financial market collapse that led to the Great Recession has been blamed on a number of things including corporate boards lacking enough fresh and outside perspective.

    When we start hearing the argument that we need to elect only experienced politicians, this is an indication that we need to do the exact opposite.

  14. medwoman

    JB

    I wonder if you want your neurosurgical or cardiovascular surgery done by someone with less that eight years of experience? For either specialty, it takes more than eight years hands on just to get there.
    My point is not that to compare politics with neurosurgery, but to point out that not all systems will work best on the corporate model.
    It seems to me that governments mission like that of medicine is,or should be very different from the corporate goal of maximization
    of profit and that perhaps those most successful at that goal will not be most successful at a significantly different goal. I think that herein lies the problem. Americans are very nearly evenly split in what we consider the appropriate role and scope of government to be, and therefore cannot agree on who should be doing the governing.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    Interesting discussion –
    1) I totally agree with the idea that there needs to be journalistic standards the news media is held to. I think the media has completely departed from ethics into the realm of almost pure entertainment – 60 second sound bites, signifying nothing. I literally do not believe anything I read or hear in the news these days. The news media, in my mind, has zero credibility. Even keeping up with multiple news sources doesn’t necessarily help even remotely getting at the truth. Most “news” is essentially “spin” bought and paid from by some special interest group…
    2) The reason the “right” people are not running for political office is bc it costs too much to run a campaign, and the effort to run for office is so arduous and nasty, only the thick skinned, less than ethical, super wealthy are willing to go through this baptism of fire. The average Joe just doesn’t care to run for political office now bc the process has become so expensive and so ugly. Look at the number of moderates at the federal level who have left office bc the U.S. Congressional atmosphere has become so devisive and poisonous.
    3) Term limits have not proved to be a very good idea. Just about the time when a representative learns the ropes and works his/her way up to important committee assignments, they are termed out. We end up losing experienced people who know what the heck is going on, to be replaced by neophytes who must start from scratch to learn the ropes all over again.

  16. medwoman

    ERM

    1) Agree with your assessment about the descent from news into entertainment. Not sure how one could enact “journalistic standards”.
    Who would you see enforcing such standards and how would you avoid abridging freedom of speech ?
    2) I am not so sure that “the average Joe”should be running for office. our world has become much more complex than it was at the tome of
    our country’s founding. I think there is simply too much to master to pretend that “common sense” is adequate for public office.
    3) Agree completely with your point about lack of experience.being a detriment and would like to add that constant turn over also prevents individuals from building the kind of camaraderie and personal relationships that help them work together collaboratively to solve problems instead of entrenching behind personal ideologies.

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