January 11, 2011

Time To Make Hard Choices

A report from the CSM about Governor Brown's budget proposal is almost unremittingly positive, particularly given its rather dismal subject matter. It makes me distrust the objectivity of the reporter. The devil is in the details, but the big picture is this:
  • $12.5 billion in spending cuts
  • $12 billion in increased taxes, 
  • $1.9 billion in "other solutions"

"Other solutions" sounds a lot like "eliminate fraud, waste, and corruption," which generates my usual response of, "Wow! Why didn't anyone think to do that before?" I say that despite my firm conviction that there actually is a lot of fraud, waste, and corruption out there to eliminate. It's just a lot harder to do that than it looks.

Much of what we might call "fraud" or "waste" is really the result of gaming the system -- which is formally compliant with the law and therefore in something of a gray zone. For instance, is it "fraud" for a police officer, after having attained a full vesting of retirement, to claim a disability and leave the service with full salary intact, and thereby getting both an ongoing salary and an ongoing pension? Would it change your perception of this maneuver if the disability has been a real, lingering issue (police work is quite hard on the lumbar spine, after all) and the officer has tolerated it for her career and then uses it strategically in this fashion? There's a fair amount of this sort of "double-dipping" going on, or so I'm told. Is this "fraud, waste, or corruption"? We want to call it that, but at the same time, the rules permit it. Do we want to begrudge our police officers a comfortable retirement after years of public service? Does closing this loophole really deny them that?

Later this morning, I'll go to court to do evictions. There, I will no doubt encounter more people who have spent all or nearly all of their lives deriving income solely from government entitlement and anti-poverty programs. I am not so conservative as to think that such programs should be abolished or to lose sight of the fact that there are people who use them as they were originally intended -- as helping hands up the economic ladder rather than as the economic foundation of a life.

But I am also not so liberal as to think that the programs are not being abused and that someone who is participating in those programs is automatically entitled to my sympathy and compassion -- and therefore my money. Many of them come to court dressed in better clothes than I wear (other than my suits) and drive better cars than I do. I'll eventually get around to fleshing out my "three classes, three wealths" idea, but suffice to say for write now, I write of people who are affluent members of the Third Class -- the people who know how to work the system and maximize their governmental benefits. Are they engaged in "fraud, waste, and corruption"?

I have lots of questions like these, but not really any answers, because I've been so frustrated by the institutionalized corruption that pervades California's government to the point that these sort of behaviors are not only tolerated but, as a functional matter, encouraged. It's been this way for so long it's hard to imagine it being otherwise and harder to imagine how the system could change. And even if I labor my imagination in this way, I cannot make it labor so hard as to think that a Democratic governor, no matter how pragmatic he may be, will convince a Legislature dominated by Democrats to do anything meaningful about this.

The other critique I have of the budget proposal, at least as writ large, is its functional parity between tax increases and spending cuts. This may be a political calculation on the Governor's part, intended to sell at least the basic concept of an austerity budget. But as I've pointed out previously, California's real problem -- despite all the economic stumbling blocks we've faced since mid-2008 -- is not one of insufficient revenue. While we aren't at the top of revenue per-capita among the various states, we're near the top. The problem is not that there isn't a tremendous amount of money coming in to the state government's coffers.

The problem is that the law commits such a large amount of money to be spent that even the generous revenues California earns cannot meet those commitments. This is what must change. And as I've said before, it's going to suck.

The good (if unpleasant) news is that the rubber does seem to finally be hitting the road. If the Monitor is to be believed, at least the Governor has really taken to heart the idea that it is long past time for business as usual to continue, that hard, unpopular choices must be made, and made this year.

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