Archive for the ‘California Economy’ Category



Calbuzz Classic: Mega Thanks From Your Turkeys

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Tom Meyer’s mandatory Thanksgiving turkey cartoon, featuring a big bird ogre whose cranium is festooned with hatchets, not only sheds a frightening bright light on the cartooning Calbuzzer’s just-below-the-surface sociopathic tendencies (which some day will likely result in us being quoted as telling some know-it-all, whippersnapper reporter that Meyer “was always a quiet loner”) but also offers a scary glimpse at the terrifying political threat that California’s  not-so-jolly giant budget deficit represents to Jerry Brown, who will have to  slay the awful monster if history is to judge as a success his gubernatorial second act.

And for those keeping score at home, that’s a crisp, three-year-old 100-word lede, three times as long as the traditional MSM  industry standard to which New Media over-the-hill guys thankfully no longer must adhere. But we digress.

Not since the Fifth Labor of Hercules, when another son of a famous political family was assigned to muck out the dung produced by a herd of immortal cows chewing their cuds in the Augean Stables, has a public figure faced such a daunting task as Brown. Even in a state familiar with chronic deficits — and with chronic, gimmick-laden “solutions” to them — the latest red ink estimate of $25.4 billion sent chills through denizens of the Capitol.

As a brilliant political analyst recently noted, Governor-elect Krusty will begin his term with policy options that are straitjacketed, both by a host of long-standing restrictions imposed by initiatives, and by a whole new batch of ballot measures just voted in by California’s have-it-both-ways voters – More services! Less taxes! – including Props 22, 24 and 26.

Add to that the disappearance of federal stimulus money, not to mention the pig-headed intransigence of Republicans to even rational new revenue ideas, and you’re left wondering why in the world Brown ever thought moving back to Sacramento would be a good idea at the ripe old age of 72.

During his campaign, Gandalf made few proposals to fix the budget, beyond a fuzzy promise to convene bipartisan kumbaya meetings, where sweet reason will allegedly replace the bitter ideological gridlock that grips the Capitol. Good luck with that.

“This will take all the know-how that I said I had,” Brown said the day after election, “and all the luck of the Irish as I go forward.” Indeed.

.

Pilgrims rout Indians – lead series 2-1: As we approach the end of our second full year of publishing, our Department of Green Eyeshade Performance Based Measureables and Obscene Year-End Executive Bonuses reports that our page view total is certain to exceed the number of votes won by Meg Whitman.

Given that our little enterprise seems in much better shape than her out-of-business campaign, and that we’ve managed this feat by spending a teeny bit less on expenses than her, we feel entitled to celebrate by indulging ourselves in that hoariest of journalism practices – reprinting our annual Thanksgiving message to readers. Herewith a slightly updated version:

As Calbuzz joins in our annual national celebration of gratitude and gluttony, we recall Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous words of blessing for this special holiday:

“I love Thanksgiving turkey. It’s the only time in Los Angeles that you see natural breasts.”

With humble hearts and heaping helpings of snark, we want to thank the Calbuzz online community for all your support, encouragement, boorish comments and vicious critiques. We look forward to the next year, and hope you’ll stay with us for an exciting and entertaining ride with Gandalf  the Wizard, Prince Gavin, Lady Difi and all the other colorful characters who populate the ever-entertaining court of California politics.

Beyond that, we sincerely hope that on this joyous day, you’ll click on our ads a whole bunch of times, and that you won’t get a wishbone lodged in your throat while stuffing your pie hole. Also: take the Saints, give the points, and bet the under.

Our Department of Living History and Living Wills tells us that it was Abe Lincoln, not Miles Standish, who jump started this whole Thanksgiving thing.

Nonetheless, Calbuzzers of a certain age remember with fondness the Thanksgiving school pageants of years gone by, when pilgrim hats made of folded black construction paper oozed gooey globs of white paste at the seams, and Pocahontas was played by the smart girl in the front row who always had her hand up, and who ended up living in Newport Beach, botoxed to the max.

We leave you with our favorite commentary on that historic period, courtesy of Calbuzzer emeritus Mark Twain:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for – annually, not oftener – if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months, instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians.

Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.

Happy Turkey Day.

 

D.C. and Sacto: A Tale of Two Political Universes

Monday, April 11th, 2011

After speaking in Los Alamitos last weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown labeled as “pathetic” the last-minute deal on the federal budget that averted a government shutdown.

“You’re not the superpower of the world if you have to stay up half the night trying to make a few decisions over a fraction of your budget,” Brown said.

Krusty the Governor should know from pathetic: he’s surrounded by it in Sacramento. That’s not to mention what seems to have been his own feckless attempts to quietly persuade a handful of Republicans to do what they have no inclination to do: give voters the right to decide whether to extend some taxes instead of slashing another $15.4 billion from the California budget.

So now Brown is on a belated bully-pulpit tour of California, hoping to build pressure on Republicans to make a reasonable deal on the budget. “You got to wear people down,” Brown told reporters. “You have to persuade them, and you have to go out to as many parts of California to create the mood, the momentum, and the environment where people are ready to face the music.”

But even Gov. Gandalf now admits he’s facing dark forces that may be too strong for his wizardry.

“Getting some of these Republicans to let the people vote for taxes or cuts is like asking the pope to let Catholics vote on abortion,” he said. “Highly unlikely.”

Passive aggressive behavior: In Washington, House Republicans – who were in danger of over-reading their “mandate” – and Senate Democrats – who were in danger of placing their genitals in a mason jar – finally made a deal because not making a deal was seen by both sides as too politically perilous.

How that’s different from Sacramento is this: In Washington, the party leaders in Congress can actually make a deal because a) they want to, and b) they have the power.

In Sacramento, not only do the passive aggressive Republicans have no incentive to allow a vote on taxes – since the 2/3-vote requirement on taxes allows them to accomplish their goal by sitting on their hands – but their leaders have no power to make a deal.

This is something Calbuzz has hammered on for some time. As we explained back in July 2009:

The governor and the Legislature fulminate and flounder simply because no one in the Capitol in 2009 has the stature, clout or influence to cut a deal like Ronnie and Jesse or Pete and Willie once did.

Strip away all the policy wonkery, weed whacking and egghead analysis  and you find that a combination of term limits and politically-safe, gerrymandered legislative seats has created a political atmosphere in which every legislator is an army of one – and none of them fears the governor, the speaker or any other leader in the Legislature.

For the moment, the Democratic leaders appear to have a bit more sway over their members than the Republican leadership. But that too may disintegrate if Brown’s terms for a deal include a spending cap or pension reforms that the jefes in the California Teachers Association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association or Service Employees International Union don’t find acceptable.

Reapportionment and the top-two election system may mitigate the wing-nut intransigence of Sacramento in coming years – perhaps replenishing the Legislature with lawmakers who don’t believe compromise is capitulation. But until term limits are eliminated, leadership will remain a huge impediment to deal-making in the public interest.

Talking to reporters on Saturday, Brown also argued that President Obama faced “the same problem I do, only worse.” He likened the need for supermajorities to overcome filibusters in the U.S. Senate to the Legislative votes needed to raise taxes in California.

Caving in to bullies: But there is a more important way in which Sacramento and Washington are alike, as outlined in a compelling essay by Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

“The right-wing bullies are emboldened. They will hold the nation hostage again and again,” he wrote the other day, urging Obama and the Democrats to take a stand.

All the while, he and the Democratic leadership in Congress refuse to refute the Republicans’ big lie – that spending cuts will lead to more jobs. In fact, spending cuts now will lead to fewer jobs. They’ll slow down an already-anemic recovery. That will cause immense and unnecessary suffering for millions of Americans.

The President continues to legitimize the Republican claim that too much government spending caused the economy to tank, and that by cutting back spending we’ll get the economy going again.

Even before the bullies began hammering him his deficit commission already recommended $3 of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increase. Then the President froze non-defense domestic spending and froze federal pay. And he continues to draw the false analogy between a family’s budget and the national budget.

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth: That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

Likewise, Democrats in Sacramento – including Gov. Brown – seem to have conceded the argument that public employee pensions, extravagant state spending on social services, over-regulation and over-taxation are the causes of California’s deficit. All of which is simply not supported by the facts.

Bottom line: Jerry Brown won a huge mandate in large part because he said he would bring order to the chaos in Sacramento and that he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people. He did not win by promising to slash teachers’ pensions, eviscerate environmental regulation or cut taxes on rich people.

In Washington, the Republicans – now talking about eliminating Medicare — are overinterpreting their electoral mandate, as analyst Charlie Cook has noted.

But the Republicans in California have no such mandate to misread: what they have is the power of a minority veto in the Legislature. Still, they seem to think they’ve got the voters on their side; Brown and the Democrats need to  disabuse them.

But please, spare us the White House’s obnoxious new mantra — “winning the future.”

Press Clips: Fox (Mis)Fires, Oligarchs on the March

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Joel Fox is a temperate and thoughtful guy whose online opinings usually skip the fact-free cant and bombast that mark so many offerings from elsewhere in California’s conservative blogosphere.

So imagine our surprise when Fox fired his latest broadside at Calbuzz over at Fox and Hounds, a truly woeful – or was it willful? – misreading of our recent dispatch chronicling the state and nation’s steady march from democracy to oligarchy.

Filled with straw men, fatuousness and borderline hysteria, our friend Joel’s ravings served up a pungent hash of off-point platitudes, boiler plate bromides and red herring reasoning that did everything but attack our ancestors — while managing to utterly avoid addressing the central argument of our thesis.

Other than that, it was a helluva’ piece.

Dr. Corey meet Dr. Fox: We’ll spare you most of the gruesome details, except to note that, among other things, Fox fabricated his own premise for our argument (“Calbuzz…claim(ed) the way to save California is to tax the rich and tax businesses”); misrepresented the thrust of Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign (it wasn’t the flat tax, as Fox claims, which was only one issue that Brown employed to make the broader point that the political system is rigged to redistribute wealth upward – but what do we know, we only covered it); and leaned on sweeping, unproven assertions in lieu of evidence to make pre-cooked points (Tiger Woods and the tennis-playing Williams sisters prefer Florida to California because of tax laws, he says, and they “are just the tip of the iceberg” – Ah, the old ipso facto iceberg sum proof – Irwin Corey would be proud).

We could go on, but shooting at life boats ain’t our style. Except sometimes.

We’re political writers, not advocates like Fox, so we bring this whole thing up because we’re still scratching our heads about why he mysteriously neglected in his bashing to even mention, let alone critique, the analysis that we actually proffered.

Namely:

1-There has been a massive shift in wealth in the U.S. over recent decades, to the overwhelming benefit of the richest one percent of the population and the detriment of almost everyone else.

2-This shift has occurred – and been enabled by – 30 years of policies based precisely on the tax-cut, low-regulation ideology that Fox and his cohort just love, and which they continue to champion, despite the fact its real-life impact has been to trigger the greatest recession since the 1930s.

3-Awareness of the accumulating evidence of how and why wealth is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a tiny, oligarchic class is growing; as it moves into the mainstream, this awareness over time will change the terms and framework of political debate dramatically:

Paradoxically, the recent idiocy of Capitol Republicans, who blocked a popular vote on whether to extend a few modest taxes and fees that would  affect almost all Californians, has now made the GOP’s natural base among the very wealthiest taxpayers a far more narrow, rich and inviting target for pols and interest groups who are looking for Plan B to balance the budget while heading off even more cuts to education and other services; Plan B’s  Exhibit A is last week’s announcement by the California Federation of Teachers that they will push for a 1% income tax hike on the state’ richest 1%, a proposal that a new Ben Tulchin poll shows is backed by nearly three in four voters.

Such a proposal would find fertile political ground, in part because the dramatic national trend of growing wealth inequality is, if anything, more pronounced in California.

Which, of course, would hardly be a boon for bumper sticker, anti-government orthodoxy or the cozy “taxpayer advocate” political network that’s so well served the interests of Fox et al. since Howard Jarvis was still stumbling around in a boozy haze.

Hey, maybe that’s why he didn’t mention what we said.

Recommended reading:

– Here’s a nifty infographic primer on what’s actually happening to real people in the U.S. economy.

–Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at Cal, writes about the implications of the oligarch economy in a clear, accessible, frequent and timely way, as in this recent essay on the subject.

–Also this and this or this. Or this or this and this.

Rip Van Calbuzz: Not sure how this one got by us at the time, but the eagle-eared Steve Harmon had an intriguing scooplet on Sacramento’s budget mess that mysteriously seems not to have been picked up.

Mike Genest, the finance director under ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a revealing comment in a wide-ranging budget discussion on Capital Public Radio today.

Genest, now a political consultant advising Republican senators who are in talks with Gov. Jerry Brown, was asked if Brown’s tax extension should be placed on the ballot. He said:

“As a Republican, I kinda hate to say it but our tax burden is less now because of recession. The amount of the economy going to state government is lower than it has been for several years. Except for right at the bottom of the recession, you go back 30 years to find tax revenues at this low a level. So, there is a case to be made that we might need to keep those taxes at a higher level for a while.”

He went on to say, however, that Republicans “shouldn’t lose the opportunity while contemplating doing this. We ought to take that opportunity to get serious reforms.”

Politics is all about exploiting opportunities, but the brazenness of the ask couldn’t have been clearer. A Republican who is advising GOP senators in talks with Brown, acknowledges that the tax burden is low and the current rates should be continued — but that they might as well extract as much as possible since they have the leverage of a two-thirds vote that’s required to put a tax issue on the ballot (with the goal, of course, of, as Genest said, “helping the economy grow”).

Guess that’s why Genest hasn’t moved to Florida with Tiger, Serena and Venus.

Where’s the Inquistor when you need him: Genest isn’t the only Republican talking out of school: we can only imagine what torments right-wing talk show host Eric Hogue will endure on the rack for uttering this heresy, suggesting that the children of illegal immigrants are actually, um, people.

For Republicans to spend time in crafting legislation that refuses qualified, achieving high school graduates is highly corrosive. Granted, Americans are rightfully frustrated with the lack of attention from the federal government toward illegal immigration and its impending fiscal costs placed upon taxpayer supported state and federal budgets – not to mention the effects (good and bad) illegal immigration has upon our private sector economy. But we must learn to restrain ourselves from legislation and ballot initiatives that do nothing but evolve into political wedge issues and cultural ‘cat nip.’ Funneling any initial state reforms through the children of illegal immigrants (to get back at the parent’s illegal behavior) is mean-spirited, politically corrosive and wrongheaded.

Fleischman! Fox! Hogue and Genest to the dungeon at once!

Jerry Brown vs. Charlie Sheen; Higher Ed Hypocrisy

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

As Jerry Brown prepares to hit the road to campaign for his tax plan, our Department of Political Tour Logistics and Grateful Dead Wannabes has drafted a strategy memo with seven key words of advice for the governor:

Try not to act like Charlie Sheen.

As Tom Meyer illustrates today, there are eerie similarities between the  governor’s upcoming tax extension road show and the whack-job actor’s current “Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour.

Both men are scions of a famous father who paved the way for his son’s success in the same profession; both now face an epic crisis that may define his career; both are seeking to escape his predicament by trying to get his hands on other people’s money – Brown in order to finance public schools and health care while cleaning up the state’s fiscal mess, Sheen to make up what he lost by being fired from his highly-rated TV show for the purpose of maintaining his party hearty jones for coke and hookers.

As Brown heads off to far-flung locales in a bid to bring pressure on Republican lawmakers, however, he’s well advised to avoid the blunders Sheen committed in venturing onto unfamiliar turf, far from Mulholland Drive orgies and sensory delights, for his disastrous opening night appearance in Detroit:

1-Don’t refer to women as goddesses. When Sheen hit the stage, he swiftly introduced his self-styled “goddesses,” the porn star and the alleged actress with whom he lives, who promptly locked lips, to wild applause.

Although Anne Gust Brown, Brown’s wife and most trusted adviser, would probably appreciate deification, the other most important woman in his life, Department of Finance director Ana Matosantos, would surely find it unprofessional, if not a matter for the EEOC. More broadly, Brown needs help from every women voter, the most likely group to back his pitch for public schools, and acting like a drooling degenerate creepo sleaze would run the risk of losing their support.

2-Don’t threaten to pummel Bob Dutton. Sheen keeps boasting about his “fire breathing fists,” and how he plans to use them on his former producer and his ex-co-star, as well as Dr. Drew of “Celebrity Rehab,” who said the actor should be on psychiatric medication (“I think me and [Dr. Drew] should jump in the ring and he should see how unstable these fists of flaming fury are,” responded Sheen).

As much as ex-boxer Brown might justifiably harbor similar feelings for Dutton, the whining menopausal GOP senate leader,  he’s probably better off maintaining a veneer of bipartisanship, at least in Dutton’s Rancho Cucamonga  district.

3-Don’t say “I’ve already got your  fucking money, dude.” Sheen used those very words to bait a booing audience member in Detroit, as others loudly demanded refunds. On his tour, Brown no doubt will face folks who are understandably suspicious of politicians treating the public treasury as a  personal bank account, so the governor needs to avoid sounding entitled, while selling his tax plan as an extension of his skinflint cheapskate brand.

In the end, the biggest difference between Governor Krusty and Crazy Charlie is this: Brown (who has never claimed to have tiger blood in his veins) lives in a world based on facts, and will appeal to voters on the basis of rational argument, while Sheen (a self-described warlock) lives in a la-la-land world of fantasy, much like, oh say, most legislative Republicans.

In the California GOP’s world, truth is whatever they say it is. The laws of arithmetic don’t apply, the poor and destitute are invisible, workers don’t have rights, education can be fixed in a jiffy with vouchers and home schools, and corporate loopholes and business-biased tax policies are crucial characteristics of “free markets.”

Selling tax extensions in Inland California is not an easy task for Brown – employing facts, figures and hard evidence to win over citizens whose elected representatives and anti-tax “advocates” have for decades  cynically fed them a steady diet of failed ideology, flat earth sloganeering and Fox News bloviation.

Be careful out there, governor.

.

I’m studying for a Ph.D in Poltroonery: Calbuzz yields to no one in our support for California’s system of higher education: we have not only studied but also worked in the system ourselves, we have kids and friends on campuses throughout the state and we staunchly believe that high-quality public universities, colleges and community colleges are crucial to the civic and economic health and future of the state.

So it pained us to see that 250 administrators from public universities and colleges descended on Sacramento Tuesday to argue that they should under no circumstances be asked to absorb any more than the $1.4 billion in cuts they’ve been given because of California’s budget deficit.

“We have done our part,” CSU Chancellor Charles Reed told a crowd outside the Capitol at the start of a day of lobbying. “But you know what? That’s enough.”

Oh really? And if there are no tax extensions or other new revenue sources approved, who should suffer further cutbacks: widows and children, the elderly, blind and disabled? Please, oh self-interested scholars, spare us your self-pity.

Where were Charlie Reed, UC President Mark Yudof and community college Chancellor Jack Scott when the crucial need was rounding up two Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate to put tax extensions on the ballot to head off doubling the universities’ $1.4 billion haircut?

Where were the organized legions of trustees, boards of directors, alumni associations*, lobbyists and cronies putting the screws to GOP legislators? They didn’t have the guts to come out, push and pressure for tax extensions and now they want to be protected? What unmitigated gall.

Had the higher education lobby worked and argued fiercely and publicly for extending taxes and fees, they’d be in a far stronger position to fight against further cuts and scenarios of turning away 400,000 community college students, more from CSUs and UCs, not to mention raising tuition and slashing whole programs, institutes, courses and offerings.

Instead, the fainthearted “leaders” of the higher education community let Brown and the legislative Democrats do all the heavy lifting on the overall budget strategy while they singularly argued for more revenue only for California’s once-great system of higher ed. And now, caught once again in the divide-and-conquer budget trap, they call for special treatment.

All of which brings to mind the words of our most venerable mentor, sage and metaphysical consultant, the great Calbuzzer, Confucius:

To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.

*UPDATE: Thanks to Adrian Diaz for informing us (after our post) that the Cal Alumni Association DID press its members to push for tax extensions with this letter:

Dear Cal Alumni and Friends,

On February 18, the Cal Alumni Association (CAA) Board of Directors, in an unprecedented action, voted to support placing Governor Jerry Brown’s current proposal for maintaining existing taxes on the June 2011 ballot.

Why did the CAA Board take this action? Without the maintenance of existing taxes, the excellence and access of UC Berkeley will be jeopardized by further drastic budget cuts.

In 2009-2010, all departments at UC Berkeley, including academic departments, took a permanent budget cut averaging 19 percent. Last year, approximately 600 staff positions were eliminated. Another 280 are slated for elimination this year. State funding for UC Berkeley is now less than federal funding, less than student fees, and less than private donations.

What can you do? Before Californians can vote on the maintenance of existing taxes, the measure first has to get on the June ballot. The State Legislature must decide by March 10, 2011 to get the measure on the ballot.

Please send an email telling your legislator to put a revenue measure on the ballot, so California voters can decide whether to maintain existing taxes that will help save UC Berkeley.

Governor Brown’s budget already includes a $500 million cut to the UC budget. Without the tax extensions, the Legislative Analyst Office predicts that the UC budget could be cut by an additional $500 million. Of this $1 billion reduction, $160 million could be cut from the UC Berkeleycampus alone.

Californians face a difficult choice — do we balance the state budget by cutting expenditures alone or do we minimizing the damage to one of our greatest educational institutions by balancing the budget with a combination of expense reduction and revenue generation?

While we recognize that no one likes to pay taxes, we are also assured that the Governor’s current proposal does not include any new taxes, only an extension of the existing taxes. Please send an email telling your legislator to put a revenue measure on the ballot, so California voters can decide.

Join the Cal Alumni Association in our efforts to ensure the excellence of our alma mater for today’s Cal students and future generations of Golden Bears.

Fiat Lux,

Alan C. Mendelson ’69
President, CAA Board of Directors

Why Tax-On-Millionaires Measure Is a Slam Dunk

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Vanity Fair, the monthly organ of opulence that chronicles,  celebrates and caters to the self-indulgence of the uber rich, seems a strange place to encounter a learned and astute analysis of wealth inequality in America.

VF’s current issue, however, features just such an insightful piece, by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who not only  presents the latest evidence that the world’s oldest democracy is morphing rapidly into the biggest oligarchy on the planet, but also dissects the unhappy social implications of this economic and political transformation.

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.

One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone.

All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

.

The case in California: Since our last discourse on the subject, the massive gap between the wealthiest 1% and everyone else in the population has gained more traction as a political issue in California.

Paradoxically, the recent idiocy of Capitol Republicans, who blocked a popular vote on whether to extend a few modest taxes and fees that would  affect almost all Californians, has now made the GOP’s natural base among the very wealthiest taxpayers a far more narrow, rich and inviting target for pols and interest groups who are looking for Plan B to balance the budget while heading off even more cuts to education and other services; Plan B’s  Exhibit A is last week’s announcement by the California Federation of Teachers that they will push for a 1% income tax hike on the state’ richest 1%, a proposal that a new Ben Tulchin poll shows is backed by nearly three in four voters.

Such a proposal would find fertile political ground, in part because the dramatic national trend of growing wealth inequality is, if anything, more pronounced in California.

The Legislative Analysts’ most recent substantive report on the matter, published in 2000, found that in the previous 15 years, the adjusted gross income of the wealthiest 1% of Californians tripled, from 7% to 20%; while the overall wealth of the top one-fifth of taxpayers increased during the period, from 18 to 33%, it declined for the other 80% of taxpayers, at a time when governments were routinely cutting income and capital gains taxes for the wealthy and for corporations.

Talk about the government picking winners and losers.

Self vs. selfish interest: Beyond the moral queasiness such statistics brings on for social justice types, there are many practical reasons, based upon rudimentary self-interest, why this state of affairs represents a clear and present danger to the country and the state.

For starters, the tax-cut, no-regulation policies that have accelerated income disparity in recent decades also triggered the financial meltdown that set off the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Also, the steady, decades-long decline of inflation-adjusted incomes for the middle class shrinks the pool of confident consumers, keeping dollars out of the economy and making recovery more halting and problematic. More broadly, the wealth gap does violence to what Stiglitz recalls Alexis de Tocqueville labeled America’s “self-interest properly understood.”

The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook—in fact, he was suggesting the opposite. It was a mark of American pragmatism. Those canny Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business.

For much of its recent history, the U.S. has been a place where the government literally provided the concrete underpinning for economic expansion and growth. Now that the no-taxes-ever-again crowd is gaining ascendance and – amazingly – recycling failed economic policies that crashed and burned the economy, the public-private partnership model that underwrote widespread business success for decades has fallen apart:

A modern economy requires “collective action”—it needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology. The United States and the world have benefited greatly from government-sponsored research that led to the Internet, to advances in public health, and so on. But America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels. Further cutbacks in these areas lie ahead.

None of this should come as a surprise—it is simply what happens when a society’s wealth distribution becomes lopsided. The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security—they can buy all these things for themselves.

In the process, they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had. They also worry about strong government—one that could use its powers to adjust the balance, take some of their wealth, and invest it for the common good. The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.

Why it matters: In California, the impact of these “lopsided” policy changes are seen most visibly in public education or, more accurately, in the decline of public education. With the state financing 40% of the cost of public schools, which have seen the real dollar amounts of that support decrease for several years, policy shops from PPIC to UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University have described and analyzed the destructive impacts that reductions in education and training programs have on the California economy.

At present, California completely fails its lower class population.  It begins with an educational system that many don’t complete, while many of those who do are often unprepared to participate in a 21st century economy.  It ends with a lack of opportunity and upward mobility.

California’s K-12 program is a failure.  Dropout rates are extraordinary, and those who finish are often unprepared for employment or college.  The failure continues when the few who do manage to prepare for college find that the price has gone up and is now unaffordable for many.  Just as bad, classes are often not offered at times that are convenient for working students.

The arguments against: To be sure, there are policy arguments to be made against increasing the taxes on the rich, as the CFT proposes, starting with the fact that it may create an incentive for them to pick up and leave (although another PPIC study has presented data showing this is not the huge problem the Coupal/Fox axis would have us believe ).

Politically, however, that’s beside the point: if Republicans and conservatives hew unwaveringly to their unserious, I’ve-got-mine refusal to help govern the state, both the pressure on, and the demonization of, their core constituency will only increase.

Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them.

It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else.

All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.

Jerry Brown, meet Bob LaFollette: Having been bitch-slapped on budget negotiations by legislative Republicans, Jerry Brown has belatedly taken our earlier advice and is going on the road to campaign on behalf of his balanced plan to ease the deficit. Given the above, don’t be surprised to see him strike a populist tone, ala his “We the People” winter soldier 1992 campaign for president.

It’s worth recalling that shortly after the 1900 election, in which Robert La Follette was elected governor of Wisconsin, our hero Lincoln Steffens, the native San Franciscan who had become America’s greatest muckraking journalist, visited the “little giant” to write about what he expected to be a corrupt, demagogic, socialist, dictatorial boss, as he had been portrayed by the Establishment Republicans of the day.

After spending some time in Milwaukee and Madison, however, Steffens came to a very different conclusion:

La Follette from the beginning has asked, not the bosses, but the people for what he wanted, and after 1894 he simply broadened his field and redoubled his efforts. He circularized the state, he made speeches every chance he got, and if the test of demagogy is the tone and style of a man’s speeches, La Follette is the opposite of a demagogue.

Capable of fierce invective, his oratory is impersonal; passionate and emotional himself, his speeches are temperate. Some of them are so loaded with facts and such closely knit arguments that they demand careful reading, and their effect is traced to his delivery, which is forceful, emphatic, and fascinating.

As a political matter, it’s time for Jerry Brown to reach for his inner La Follette and start sounding some good, old fashioned, Wisconsin style populism. Instead of going after the railroads, as La Follete did, however, Brown should aim at the ultra-wealthy, the oil companies and other greedy corporate interests who have a) allowed the California Republican Party to gridlock the budget process and b) fought to keep special corporate loopholes, including outrageously low property tax rates from Prop. 13.

Sic temper tyrannis.