Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge
by Abraham F. Lowenthal
Stanford University Press, 2009, 240 pp., $60
California Crackup: How Reform Broke
the Golden State and How We Can Fix It
by Joe Matthews & Mark Paul
University of California Press, 2010, 240 pp., $50
Why is it that California’s political and fiscal problems all too often find the national media spotlight? Reading recent press accounts, for example, one might assume that California’s current fiscal problems are bigger and more deeply rooted than those of any other state; the hard facts about its comparative debt-to-state GDP ratio or degree of pension underfunding show otherwise. Perhaps Californians themselves are partly to blame for this overexposure, or maybe it’s Hollywood’s fault. Whatever the reason, we Californians seem to revel in our uniqueness, no matter how dubious some of its manifestations look to the rest of the nation and the world. We love news about ourselves, and we want everyone else to take an interest, too.
This can be an unhealthy conceit. The frequently flawed perception of super-sized problems begets demands for super-sized solutions, forever pushing California toward the frontiers of reform. Californians are more willing than citizens in other states to embark on political experiments, but these experiments sometimes breed new forms of institutional dysfunction. Because Californians do not mind being different, and because the state’s user-friendly initiative system can make almost any reformer’s wish come true, Californians regularly opt for the boldest solutions even when simpler fixes might do, and might do even better.
The belief in Californian exceptionalism and residents’ fondness for direct democracy explain a great deal about the core political pattern that has emerged in the state in recent years. Is too much partisanship a problem? Then let’s conjure a bipartisan redistricting commission through a strange amalgam of college application essays, voir dire and lottery selection processes. While we’re at it, let’s replace party primaries with a rarely used and not well understood top-two run-off system. The legislature can’t seem to pass a budget on time? Why not let the people make fiscal decisions by popular initiatives, and at the same time impose the most severe term limits in the country—even though no one can explain what term limits have to do with budget processes? Don’t like the mess that all of the above has created over the past three decades? No problem: We’ll just convene a constitutional convention, chosen by lottery, that explicitly excludes anyone with political knowledge or experience to ensure that delegates are not biased by their interests. You cannot get much more Jeffersonian than that—or much sillier.
Put simply, California is much too quick to look to institutional solutions for what are essentially political problems. The result is the perpetual mess that forms the raw material for two recent books: Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge by Abraham Lowenthal, and California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, by Joe Matthews and Mark Paul. Lowenthal’s is an erudite book (sixty pages of footnotes for a text of 146 pages) whose main message is that California is too insular—that it has not changed fast enough or wisely enough to keep pace with a globalizing world. Matthews and Paul, on the other hand, are both more entertaining and keep closer to home in their concerns and recommendations. Taken together, the books pretty much surround the key issues, even if they don’t provide solutions for them all.
Lowenthal, a scholar of Latin America by first trade, focuses his analysis on a single, simple point: California is already fully immersed in global economic and demographic forces and so needs to fully embrace and nurture its cosmopolitan fate by adopting appropriate policies. His first chapters invoke some of the themes in Carey McWilliams’s classic work, California: The Great Exception (1999), an extended encomium to California’s uniqueness. California, Lowenthal reminds the reader, is “larger in area than Japan, Germany or the United Kingdom”, “more populous than Canada, Chile or Peru”, and has a GDP greater than all of Africa. Its agricultural sector almost outproduces the next two largest farming states combined. It is the leader in “knowledge-based economic sectors” and the “country’s main gateway for imports” and immigration. And “for the past thirty years”, it has been “at the cutting edge of a national trend toward growing international engagement.”
So what’s the problem? California, Lowenthal claims, “still lacks the strategies and politics to understand and respond to its international challenges and opportunities. . . . Californians have not yet adopted a global mind set.” Instead, the state has
dismantled its international trade and investment promotion programs, California newspapers have cut back on reporting international events and the state’s dialogues with Mexico have atrophied. California has diminished its limited capacity to identify and promote its international interests just as the realities of globalization and its impacts are intensifying.
To get the state speeding forward on the right cosmopolitan track, Lowenthal recommends that California undertake a number of steps, among them promoting sustainable growth, expanding international trade, ensuring the state’s access to international sources of energy, better protecting intellectual property, mitigating the adverse consequences of international exposure, and fostering stronger cultural and educational ties overseas. He also favors comprehensive immigration reform.
These recommendations may sound to you more like prescriptions for Federal rather than state government, but that is actually the point. In the minds of my fellow Californians, California is de facto a separate nation and should act like one. Lowenthal’s view also coincides with an increasingly popular international narrative of “thinking globally and acting locally”, a logic that has contributed to a resurgence of regionalism in Italy and Great Britain and—perhaps to the surprise of non-Californian Americans—has had some real policy purchase out here in the Golden State. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, signed a greenhouse gas bill for California in 2006 and entered into environmental pacts with a number of countries even as the U.S. Federal government has struggled with the basic concept of global warming and has proved unable to pass a cap-and-trade bill of any sort whatsoever. Schwarzenegger was subject to some criticism on the merits of the bill, but no one tried to rap his knuckles for getting out of his lane as far as state and Federal government prerogatives were concerned.
While I sympathize with much of what Lowenthal advocates, he tends to understate several problems. To begin with, it really is hard for a state by itself to exert effective control over international matters. Border regulation is ultimately a national responsibility, as it should be. When states try to handle such issues on their own, they are prone to engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies that make things worse for everyone in the long run.1 Moreover, the most recent demographic trends have nationalized the visibility of immigration problems, making it more clearly than ever a national issue. The real story of the past decade has been the spread of Latino and Asian immigrants into other parts of the country, not so much their continued growth in California. That is yet another reason that national immigration policy cannot be set by any one state or be an amalgamation of separate state policies. Nor, for similar reasons, can trade policy be determined by a single state, even one as large as California.
Lowenthal also underplays the divided opinions and likely opposition within California to his cosmopolitan vision. While the Golden State has generally embraced its demographic diversity, there have been persistent tensions over immigration. These are illustrated by controversial ballot measures dealing with services to illegal immigrants and bilingual education. Let’s remember, too, that the Minutemen thrive along the border between San Diego and Mexico. Clearly, greater openness to globalization will create both winners and losers in California, just as it does in the rest of the country. It’s not clear that California has better solutions to the political problems it creates than any other U.S. state.
If Lowenthal’s book illustrates the tradition of California’s distinctiveness (some might say hubris), Matthews’s and Paul’s California Crackup reveals California’s democracy paradox: namely, that sometimes attempts to improve democracy paradoxically diminish it.
California Crackup belongs to a growing genre of diagnoses by journalists and academics of California’s problems since the late 1970s.2 Indeed, Matthews and Paul self-consciously build off these efforts, presenting perhaps the most entertaining account to date (rivaled only by Peter Schrag’s Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future). The historical chapters are particularly well done, giving a lively narrative of California’s constitutional beginnings and the contradictory forces that have shaped the state ever since. One interesting takeaway from the early chapters is that California got off to a very shaky start. Whereas the Federal government benefited from the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, modern California was established by a considerably less enlightened, oddball collection of 19th-century populists and Kearneyites. Imagine a convention of Sarah Palins trying to design a state structure, and you get the basic idea.
The story Matthews and Paul convey tracks closely with the conventional wisdom that has evolved over three decades since the resurgence of direct democracy in the 1970s, capped by the passage of Prop 13, which limited property taxes and imposed supermajority rules for certain tax increases. Stymied by supermajority rules, the legislature often fails to act in a timely or meaningful way when economic times are bad, and makes poor decisions with respect to taxes and expenditures when state coffers are flush with revenues. The initiative industry, capitalizing on public frustration, then swings into gear and places measures on the ballot using paid signature gatherers, further constraining the legislature’s capacity to act. These initiatives mandate certain expenditures, earmark taxes to specific programs, impose caps on spending and the like. These constraints, naturally enough, reinforce the cycle of legislative failure and lead to further overcorrection-by-initiative, creating a downward spiral of institutional failure.
The hardest part of undertaking a political analysis of California is not diagnosing the state’s distinctive dysfunctions; it’s prescribing viable solutions for them. As many before them have done, Mathews and Paul recommend a lengthy laundry list of reforms: rainy day funds, greater transparency and pay-go rules for the budget; proportional representation; a unicameral legislature; elimination of extra executive offices; a clearer sorting of state and local responsibilities; and more.
Having made similar recommendations myself 15 years ago in conjunction with a short-lived Constitutional Revision Commission, the following criticism of Matthews and Paul amounts to self-criticism as well. In essence it is this: The temptation to be comprehensive stems from the instinct that, since any single reform can be undermined by other features of the status quo, the logical response is to deal with all problems at once. The logic seems sound, but in reality this impulse can be counterproductive in several ways.
First, tying a bundle of reforms together can unite the opposition into a strange-bedfellows coalition whose members all object to one particular change or another, thus lessening the chances that any one of them can be passed. Comprehensive approaches also often fail to clearly establish the priority of the various reforms, or their overall consistency, making the whole package look more like a list of demands that a coherent proposal.
To their credit, Matthews and Paul do argue, as others have, that the root of most political dysfunction in California is the direct democracy system. Easy to use and now supported by a highly professionalized industry, the popular initiative removes all Madisonian constraints on majority will. Consequently, public frustration finds an easy outlet in initiative measures. Conceived at different times by individuals with varied goals, these popular initiatives have embedded an accumulation of incoherent structural changes and inflexible policies into the state constitution. While the problems California faces are not as distinctive as Californians like to think, the decision-making method used to confront them is so novel as to create problems where there were none before.
The initiative reforms Matthews and Paul propose have the support of many academics: give the legislature more capacity to amend and respond to ballot measures; require supermajority votes for measures that impose supermajority requirements or alter the basic structure of government; and impose pay-go rules on measures that seek to mandate expenditures. But bear in mind that after several decades of widespread recognition that the initiative system needs repair, there’s been no progress at all on this front. Despite its manifest dysfunctionality, the initiative process remains very popular. “Hybrid democracy”, as it is sometimes called, is here to stay in California.
A few years ago, I would have had no qualms about endorsing any and all of the ideas proffered in California Crackup. But as I observed similar fiscal and policy crises across the Federal government and in comparably large states with very different government structures (New York, for example) my thinking began to change. I wonder now whether our instinct to look to institutional fixes for fundamentally political problems might be misguided, or at least indulged too often. Political engineering has traditionally had a strong allure in America, thanks in part to the rationalism of the Founding Fathers—and James Madison in particular. Madison himself and neo-Madisonians like Robert Dahl have understood that political culture also plays an important role in a stable and thriving democracy—a lesson that has been reinforced lately by the failed attempts to transpose, or impose, democratic institutions on non-Western cultures.
The United States thankfully does not lack the cultural attributes needed for a democracy to thrive, but a milder variation of this theme is that democratic institutions cannot always resolve underlying policy disagreements. Social choice theory has taught us that when policy preferences are sufficiently fractured, neither a majority solution nor a solution artificially manufactured by counting rules will avail. In short, sometimes there is no satisfactory collective choice, and rigging the rules to get out of a policy stalemate only lessens the legitimacy of the government itself.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to unravel opinions about policy and process in America. Opinions among partisans about the filibuster, for example, tend to track with whose party is in power—good when in the minority and bad if not. Similarly, a majority vote on taxes resonates with California’s Democrats, who are assured of being in control of the legislative branch, but makes no sense to Republicans who are unlikely to gain that power anytime soon. Sometimes moving in and out of power has the effect of creating a sturdier bipartisan consensus about procedures, but in California’s case the Republicans’ perpetual minority status works against the formation of this consensus. It is very hard to move California’s political reform discussion to higher ground because the consequences of proposed changes are so easy to anticipate. Such discussions ultimately stall out for the same reason that policies do: Political engineering cannot overcome the lack of an underlying ideological and policy consensus.
There is yet another reason to doubt the efficacy of political engineering, whether the design belongs to Matthews and Paul or to any other: the growing cult of what may be called non-expertise. As the biases of technical advice become clearer, thanks in part to a more adversarial information environment, the focus on impartiality in political design has intensified. For some, that means looking to apply judicial norms of conflict of interest in traditionally political arenas of government. California’s new redistricting commission, for instance, has very strict conflict-of-interest norms for its staff and members, virtually eliminating anyone who has ever participated in government beyond the simple act of casting a ballot.
For others, it means governance by lottery and random selection. Last year, an influential business group seriously considered a constitutional convention proposal that would have randomly selected hundreds of citizens to deliberate on a new constitution for California. If the oddballs of the 19th century did not do enough to make the state’s governance difficult, the idea that a new collection of the not necessarily willing or able would fix it was, to put it charitably, not well thought out. (Fortunately, Californians backed away from this particular ledge.)
In the end, there are periods in the life of any democracy when action must await consensus. The higher the threshold for consensus, the more patient a democratic government has to be. The rush to change rules when politics seems broken is analogous to oversteering and braking when driving on ice. You’re very liable to drive right off the road. Perhaps the best solution for California is to focus more on its politics and less on its political processes. We need to stop fooling ourselves that gimmickry can ever trump the bargaining and compromises inherent in democratic government. Special effects work in Hollywood. They don’t do nearly as well in Sacramento.
1See Jim Kolbe, “The Arizona Factor”, The American Interest (November/December 2010).
2See Bruce E. Cain and Roger Noll, eds., Constitutional Reform in California (UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 1995).