Is California Governorable?


Last night I attended a panel discussion entitled "Is California Governable?," featuring the governors who have befouled Sacramento for most of my life—Jerry "Gov. Moonbeam" Brown, George "The Duke" Deukmejian, Pete "They Keep Coming" Wilson, and Singapore Gray Davis. Brown was Huffingtonesque (though more entertaining than his ex-girlfriend), wrapping spacy paleo-leftism in a faux-centrist package. Deukmejian was Rotarian and mostly comatose, except when talking about how we should tax the hell out of gambling. Wilson got off the biggest laugh lines (when someone in the crowd hissed at him for supporting "paycheck protection," he expressed concern that they were leaking), but came off like a pinch-faced sourpuss, shaking his head theatrically in both disagreement and assent, and complaining at length that voters were too stupid to do much except choose whatever the television instructed them to. Davis, as usual, was an ass-covering robot.

I realize I may just have a bad attitude, but my non-bad-attitude fellow attendees came to a similar conclusion—that it was almost shocking how three ex-politicians (Brown's still mayor of Oakland, and running for state Attorney General) immediately launched into the most dreary of stump-like recitations of their party lines, offering precious little insight into the governance of a fascinating state, and quickly settling into the tired old battle lines of corporations vs. unions. I came away thinking that the rest of the country is damned lucky that none of these guys managed to worm their way into the White House. And that—shudder—maybe the current clown is the best governor we've had in decades.


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  1. I think that the politicians you watched might be victims of their parties own past success. Market dominance often leads to sclerosis in both individuals and institutions of all kinds. Look at American car makers in the 70’s or even arguably Microsoft today.

    Successful political parties create so many vested special interest constituencies that they can no longer innovate for fear of alienating those constituencies. Policy becomes set in stone and gets repeated by rote. The more dominate the party, the worse the paralysis becomes.

    Only the party out of power can really afford to take the risk of innovation. I am not a keen student of Californian politics but I image that if the Democrats there actually lose their iron grip on power, they will loosen up some.

  2. Shannon Love,

    Brilliant analysis! You are absolutely correct. It goes to the heart of why competition is such a valuable component of free market capitalism. I hope that you post more (you used to write, but then you went on a hiatus. I’m glad you’re back).

  3. I haven’t been keeping up with the details of what the Governor’s been up to, but every time I see him on the news, there’s some state bureaucrat denouncing him, with a bunch of state employees in the background angrily swinging signs and banners. Their sign and banners seem to say that they’re angry about budget cuts. …It usually looks like a union rally, or maybe a strike.

    I see a lot of television commercials here in LA suggesting that we should be angry at the Governor because he’s cutting the budget.

    …and I’m left with none too folksy impression that anyone who makes state workers angrily denounce budget cuts can’t possibly be all bad.

    P.S. Was that a swipe at Linda Ronstadt?

  4. Tom — No; Arianna used to date Jerry. Though I fear Brown is more entertaining than Ronstandt these days, too.

  5. Shannon’s comment is why we need a system conducive to more than 2 parties.

    Of course, 2 is better than 1 (which is another way of saying that Saddam was much worse 😉

  6. More importantly, is it Governatorable?

  7. Shannon,

    I disagree. When one party is so overwhelmingly dominant, it splits into factions.

    Massachusetts is governed by four factions – in order of power: liberal Democrats, conservative/centrist Democrats, Republicans, and leftist Democrats.

    This is after a recent realignment – up until a year ago, the order was conservative/centrist Democrats, Republicans, liberal Democrats, and leftist Democrats.

    These divisions play themselves out in contested primaries, which result is subtle changes in the make up of the legislature.

  8. Are any retired politicians fountains of new ideas and fresh thinking? It seems a little like complaining about not finding fresh fruit in the compost pile.

  9. I don’t think the union stuff is that outdates. Public sector unions have pretty much broken California’s governement.

  10. I don’t think the union stuff is that outdated. Public sector unions have pretty much broken California’s governement.

    Apologies if this is double-posted.

  11. maybe the current clown is the best governor we’ve had in decades.

    “Twice nothing is still nothing.” – Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones in “The Trouble With Tribbles”

  12. Good point, Trotsky. (No pun intended)

    So how have the public sector unions broke the government?
    Yea, It must be all those gold-bricking firefighters, policemen and nurses dragging us down?

  13. joe:

    What are the policy differences between the liberal Dems and the leftist Dems in Beantown?

  14. well, jack, it sorta is. Prison guards are the worst, though, and the service union is no picnic.

    And “gold-bricking” isn’t the right term. It’s not that they’re lazy. It’s that they’ve convinced their lackeys in the state government to grant them extravagant pensions that are driving every level of government bankrupt. For example, they use a formula to get your pension, and there’s no limit to the pension. So if you work for the state for long enough, you can retire and get, say 105% percent of your annual salary as a pension.

    Then there are the policy things. Suffice to say, the prison guards and teachers don’t always have the best interests of taxpayers in mind.

    These things aren’t the unions fault, but they are the fault of the lawmakers, mostly Dems, who bend over and grab their ankles for the unions.

  15. jason:

    I think joe is talking about the so-called Kennedy democrats, people who toe the party line on just about every issue except gay marriage and porn. They’re mostly social conservatives who want the gov’t to nanny them in all aspects of their lives.

  16. joe, tell us about that excellent low tax rate you have there in Massachusetts.

  17. Well, the server ate my response, jack, but the gist was, public-sector unions are driving every level of government in california bankrupt with extravagant pensions, sometimes more than 100% of the worker’s last salary.

  18. The biggest reason for having turnover in which party governs is that it both refreshes the talent pool in the administrative and support jobs, and (more importantly) that it cuts way down on the corruption.

    Your one-party states, such as Massachusetts, or towns (such as Chicago) are also your most corrupt. One of the unwritten rules of factions within a party is that they don’t upset the gravy train for each other.

  19. …and complaining at length that voters were too stupid to do much except choose whatever the television instructed them to.

    As Pete Wilson was dumb enough to sign off on California’s energy “deregulation” he really shouldn’t be lobbing such thoughts in anyone’s direction.

  20. So how have the public sector unions broke the government?

    See: New York City, circa 1975.

  21. Oops, wrong hat.

  22. Douglas Fletcher,

    Massachusetts ranks in the middle of pack for tax burden as a share of the economy. We’ve got a 5% sales tax and a 5% income tax. In this case ASSUME only makes an ass of u.


    I’ll respond in shorthand. Leftist Democrats are like Ralph Nader, or Julia Butterfly. Liberal Democrats are like Ted Kennedy or Barney Frank. Centrist/conservative Democrats are like Congressman John Lynch, or like the antiabortion UAW members in Michigan.

  23. RC, I’m not sure I buy the assertion that corruption correlates with partisan dominance. The most corrupt states I can think of: Rhode Island, solidly Democrat. New Jersey, mostly Democrat, but was just as corrupt when it was a swing state. Nevada, swing state. Lousiana, swing state.

  24. Shannon,
    You statement doesn’t explain why the Republicans are so bad in California too. Pete Wilson didn’t govern during a time of Republican ascendancy in California. One would think that they would have good ideas to try to rise back in power (the people of California are sick of the Dems, too), but instead they’re a circular firing squad.

  25. joe,

    Massachusetts ranks in the middle of pack for tax burden as a share of the economy.

    Which means comparatively little from the perspective of an individual (I note that you don’t mention property taxes either). Do you own a home? Where do you live in a state? What’s your income? What is the source of that income?

  26. joe,

    BTW, Boston is as I recall in the top ten when it comes to tax rates. Bridgeport, CN consistently remains the worst.

  27. Mo (and Shannon),
    It was my understanding that the reason the GOP stays in the Wilderness in CA is that its party base is extremely conservative–like Deep South, Orange County, Democratic-parody conservative. Therefore, the candidates and policy positions that the GOP run on in elections are easily demonized by the Democratic incumbent (sorry, I meant candidate), and it’s a cake walk for the Dems to stay in power.

  28. First, I’m talking about California now, not historical examples.
    Public sector employees include both state and county workers. The pension plans vary depending on what type of job you’re talking about. I don’t know the details of every pension plan, but most of them aren’t anywhere near the 105% you’re talking about.
    As far as the prison guards union – they had the backing of the prison industrial complex so it’s no surprise they were able to get big raises.
    Prisons have become big business.

  29. joe,

    I think there is a consensus that one party dominance leads to corruption but perhaps that is just one of those things everybody assumes is true because no one has really ever studied it.

    However, I think the real issue in California is not corruption per se but rather innovation and flexibility in government. California’s government today definitely lacks those attributes. During the period of 1930-1970 California spit out innovations right and left. After the mid-70’s they began to freeze solid.

    I think the runaway success of the far Left in the 70’s created powerful constituencies who so strongly resist change that it paralyzes the government. Ordinary individuals with diffused interest cannot seem to influence the legislative process via normal means. Only extraordinary measures like referendums seem capable of shaking up the system.

    Success breeds failure in many cases because people develop a fetishistic attachment to the actions that made them successful. When the point of diminishing returns is reached, or conditions change, they can’t adapt. I think the Democrats in California are to locked into the public workers unions and the far Left cultural warriors to be able to innovate.

  30. Haklyut,

    The rankings I’ve seen put Massachusetts residents in the middle of the pack – fairly high in absolute terms, but middling as a % of income (we’re a fairly high-income state). But I don’t recall if local property taxes were included in any of the studies, or just state and local taxes.

    But once again, the high property taxes paid by people in eastern Massachusetts reflect higher land values, not higher rates. New Hampshire has much higher property tax rates.

  31. In other words, Haklyut, I think your 4:01 post should have read “tax bills” not “tax rates.”

    We have high taxes per individual, but moderate taxes as a % of income – and much of the high cost per individual is the result of the progressive federal income tax. Our state income tax, ironically, is flat.

  32. Nevada is one of the four most corrupt governments? Well, it only meets for 4 months every 2 years, so it can’t do too much damage. The local governments (the Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Council, mainly), which are in session all year are much more to worry about than the State government in Carson City. We didn’t have the circus of legislators fleeing to California to stymie the redistricting plan, or a huge election brouhaha in November 2000.

  33. Shannon,
    Then why the lack of innovation on the part of the Republicans? As Daniel said, they’re far to the right of the electorate. An electorate yearning for new and better leadership. The reason the Democrats are dominating is that as incompetent and lacking of ideas they are, the Republicans are far worse. Seriously, they couldn’t find someone better than Simon to go against Grey Davis. How bad is a party that can’t come up with a candidate more compelling than Grey Davis?

    It’s worse than a party that can’t come up with a better candidate than Cruz Bustamente.

  34. “Pete Wilson didn’t govern during a time of Republican ascendancy in California.”

    Indeed, Pete managed to lose the same election that swept in the Newt Revolution.

  35. joe,

    New Hampshire has much higher property tax rates.

    That depends on the community.

    And again, one’s tax rate depends on a whole lot of factors not mentioned by you (particularly the source of the income).

  36. Pete Wilson is the reason there was no Republican ascension in California, but he did manage to squeak out a victory in ’94 over the Democrat Kathleen Brown — speaking of the political compost heap.

  37. Sorry for the threadjack, but some of us regular posters from the Connecticut-New York-New Jersey area are talking about meeting somewhere in Manhattan on some weekend, to drink, talk about how much better the world would be if we ran it, and see how TOTALLY wrong we were when we imagined what the others looked like. I’ve got a few regulars signed up already.

    So drop me an e-mail if you’re interested, and after a couple of days, when I know who all’s going, we can work out the when and where.

  38. Mo –

    Wilson picked up his bad habits in San Diego, which is the Republican party’s answer to Seattle. Or California’s answer to Ohio, whichever you prefer. He doesn’t have the skills to run in a competitive election, but he managed to win many elections against extreme left kooks. If you follow SD, it’s in bad shape, and it’s the Wilson machine that got it there.

  39. Joe: Louisiana is actually getting a bit better, corruption-wise (I’m from New Orleans). I think a large part of the corruption occurs because before about twenty years ago, it was almost literally impossible for a Republican to win office, especially in New Orleans itself. Even if you were a diehard conservative you registered as a Democrat, because the only way to influence the election was to vote in the Democratic primary-the Democratic victory in the general election was a foregone conclusion.

    Incidentally, this is also part of the reason that we have the messed up primary system (for those who don’t know, we no longer have primaries; all the candidates run in the first round election, and if no one gets 50%, there’s a runoff between the top two. As far as I know, we’re the only state in the Union that does all its elections this way). Some Democrats got so sick of having to win two elections-the primary and then the general election-while the Republican candidate tended to be unopposed in the primary because no one cared that they changed the rules to make the Republicans go through the same first-round process they did.

    The rest of our corruption probably comes from the fact that we’re one of the few states with serious racial politics going on. The New Orleans schoolboard is sad: the three blacks will vote one way, the three whites vote the other way, and the Hispanic is the swing vote. It’s really, really depressing.

  40. >Your one-party states, such as Massachusetts, or
    >towns (such as Chicago) are also your most corrupt.

    True, but there’s one common thread in all of them: they’re run by Democrats. If somebody can point to a Republican-led state or city that displays half the corruption of, say, Chicago or Philadelphia, I’d like to hear about it.

  41. Bob,

  42. Mo

    Florida has been controlled by Republicans for less than 8 of the last 130 years or so.

    The Democrats were perfectly content with all of the things that they are bitching about now when they ran things (as they still do in most counties, where most political power is really concentated).

    Sorry, I know you were kidding.

  43. Massachusetts actually ranks pretty low on corruption scales.

    And Nevada isn’t a one party state at all.

  44. Again joe, what about Nevada state government is corrupt? The last legislature’s big issue was keeping property tax amounts from matching the huge run-up in property “values.” The previous legislature’s big issues were University professors (officially executive branch employees) serving in the legislature and a proposed 0.25% gross-receipts tax backed by the gaming industry in Las Vegas. The former turned into a non-issue and the latter failed.

  45. “If somebody can point to a Republican-led state or city that displays half the corruption of, say, Chicago or Philadelphia, I’d like to hear about it.”

    Well, I could point to Chicago under Big Bill Thompson or Philadelphia under *its* Republican machine (it was a GOP city until the 1950s). Or more recently the Margiotta machine in Nassau County, New York. However, those will probably be dismissed as ancient history.

    So how about Ohio?

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