When Jerry Brown was elected governor for a third time in 2010, there was widespread hope that he would repair the stateâ€™s crumbling and dysfunctional political edifice. But instead of becoming a Californian Mikhail Gorbachev, he has turned out to be something more resembling Konstantin Chernenko or Yuri Andropov, an aged hegemon desperately trying to save a dying system.
As with the old party bosses in Russia, Brownâ€™s distinct lack of courage has only worsened Californiaâ€™s lurch toward fiscal and economic disaster. Yet as the budget woes worsen, other Californians, including some Democrats, are beginning to recognize the need for perestroika in the Golden State. This was most evident in the overwhelming vote last week in two key cities, San Diego and San Jose, to reform public employee pensions, a huge reversal after decades of ever more expansive public union power in the state.
Californiaâ€™s â€œprogressiveâ€ approach has been enshrined in what is essentially a one-party state that is almost Soviet in its rigidity and inability to adapt to changing conditions. With conservatives, most businesses and taxpayer advocates marginalized, California politics has become the plaything of three powerful interest groups: public-sector unions, the Bay Area/Silicon Valley elite and the greens. Their agendas, largely unrestrained by serious opposition, have brought this great state to its knees.
Californiaâ€™s ruling troika has been melded by a combination of self-interest and a common ideology. Their ruling tenets center on support for an ever more intrusive, and expensive, state apparatus; the need to turn California into an Ecotopian green state; and a shared belief that the â€œgeniusâ€ of Silicon Valley can pay for all of this.
Now this world view is foundering on the rocks of economic reality. The Soviet Union armed itself to the teeth and sent cosmonauts into space while the public waited on line for toothpaste and sausages. Similarly, Californians suffer from a combination of high taxes and intrusive regulation coupled with a miserable education system â€” the stateâ€™s students now rank 47th in science achievement â€” and a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure.
The current recession has been particularly severe, continuing at a more acute level than in most states, including places like Florida and Arizona, which also suffered greatly from the housing bust. California now has the third highest unemployment rate in the U.S., beating out only its co-dependent evil twin Nevada and Rhode Island. At the same time, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California study, inequality in the devoutly â€œprogressiveâ€ state has been growing much faster than in the rest of the country.
The most auspicious sign of grassroots support for perestroika was last weekâ€™s smack down of public employee unions in San Jose and San Diego. For the first time in recent memory, the unions suffered a humiliating defeat â€” the measures passed by a margin greater than two to one â€” as voters endorsed deep reform of the pension burdens bringing these cities to the brink of bankruptcy. Backed by its Democratic mayor, Chuck Reed, San Joseâ€™s measure B aims to reduce pension benefits for both future and current hires. Unsurprisingly, the public employee have threatened to sue.
This may precipitate what could become the California equivalent of a prairie fire. Like San Jose and San Diego, many other California cities are on the verge of bankruptcy. Union-dominated Los Angeles could be the next big domino to fall, according to the cityâ€™s own chief administrative office, and has been forced to boost its bonded indebtedness and cut back on critical infrastructure spending to stave off the inevitable.
As services drop and taxes rise â€” Californiaâ€™s already are among the nationâ€™s highest â€” voters increasingly realize that one of the main problems is over-generous pensions for public sector workers. This is reflected in the sad reality that the state consistently competes with Illinois for the worst bond rating in the country. Most recently, the state upped its deficit estimate to $16 billion from a $9.2 billion estimate made just in January.
Brown could have used this mounting crisis to reveal his inner Gorbachev. But instead, he has so far chosen a classic Chernenko-Andropov muddle. He proposed a mild pension reform but could not persuade his own party â€” aware that vengeful the unions will be around long after the old man is gone â€” to consider it…