Thursday, May 21, 2009

California Proves My Point-The Pitfalls of Direct Democracy

The New York Times had an article today about the latest round of California referendums. Here is a link to the article:

California is possibly the third-worst run state in the country, after Texas and Mississippi. They have the largest population in the US, the 8th largest economy in the world, and the a budget deficit that puts other overspending places to shame. I have already talked about my issues with referendums, so I will keep this first part short. My primary reason for disliking referendums is that they slow the legislative process in important areas often at times that make the least sense, such as now in a time of crisis. When things are bad, the government needs to be nimble and cannot be if there is a mass of people voting on everything. Californians and Washingtonians are especially bad about this, where they vote for the project they most like the idea of, regardless of its feasibility or cost. This may mean that the public will vote for a project one year and then vote it down another. This lack of constancy is wasteful. My second reason to dislike referendums is that they have usually very low voter turn-out, meaning that the voice of interest groups carries much more weight. This pertains especially to local politics, but is exhibited in state and national politics as well. My third reason is that I view referendums as redundant. We elect politicians to help make and pass laws. They need to be able to do so without people who are ignorant of the larger picture stepping in the way. If you do not like your legislature, vote against them. Finally, I do not like referendums because they are costly.

California, as the article states, is already burdened by arcane budgetary laws. People are able to vote on referendums about anything, and when the governor brought a set of budgetary cut and revenue increasing packages to the voters. They voted all but one, and that was largely a symbolic thing, down. Their reason according to interviews and the news media? They were angry. How absurd is this? Your state is in crisis, you are going to lose your education, health care, roads, security, everything, and you vote it down to express your anger? The only good I can see coming out of this is if California amends its constitution to make their budgetary processes less cumbersome. In today's day and age, flexibility is required, and their policies have stopped this. Basically, people have to make sacrifices for ONCE in that state. We act like going without expensive cable or a really nice car is a sacrifice, it is not. Neither is paying your fair share of taxes or recognizing that sometimes government spending needs to be cut. I applauded the governor when he was willing to offer both spending cuts and tax increases, I see this as the only way out. Apparently, however, Californians would rather see their state collapse before they accept the inevitable.


  1. Yes, Derrick Californians ARE angry. Mind, a lot of their anger stems from their own foolishness. This time around, however, it was our elected representatives who were wearing the black hats. They basically couldn't agree to live within their means, so they wrote a partial budget and threw the really indigestible bits back at the voters. We voted down all five of their budgetary issues and voted up the one item that prohibits their getting raises when they create a budget with a deficit. It's worth noting that the commission that sets pay rises for both legislators and the governor cut their salaries by 18% this time around. That goes into effect next year.

    Let me set you straight on a few things...

    1) if we hadn't had a 2/3rds vote rule for budget items the state would have gone bankrupt 10-15 years ago.

    2) when Prop. 13, the limit on property taxes went into effect, local property taxes, due to rampant inflation in housing prices brought on by enviroNazi restrictions on housing supply, had, in the LA Basin, reached such levels where retired people were faced with paying a yearly property tax in excess of what they'd paid for their homes a few decades before.

    3) the left in the state have assured their dominance in state politics by creating a vastly bloated civil service in what amounts to protected employment upon which they can depend to keep them in power. This is not an unusual tactic for the left. I saw it when I lived in Sweden and I hear something similar keeps the Labour Party in power in the UK.

    What's going to have to happen now is that we are going to have to make serious cuts in the size of our civil service at both state and local levels, something that has needed doing for several decades. We're also going to have to cut way back on some of the totally insane "social services" that we overfund.

    To give you a taste for this last, less than 100 yards from where I live, we had a drug dealer that was so into using her own inventory that she'd managed to ruin her health. Rather than put her in jail, social services got her declared disabled. She had careworkers coming into her drug den daily to clean it up and cook her meals. Her landlord was prohibited from evicting her by social services. She carried on selling drugs in spite of everything.

    She's still be there except that she made the mistake of ODing on a Friday after her careworker left and, by the time the careworker returned on Monday, was too far gone for the intensive care unit to bring her back.

    That's California. It's time for change!

  2. Thanks for your comments, here are a few counter-comments and some areas of agreement.

    For your first point, I disagree totally. It is pure conjecture to speculate that the 2/3rds rule has prevented a budgetary crisis earlier. What usually happens is that overspending does force a change, but you all are powerful enough to elect a Republican as governer, so you could vote the Democrats out of power if you wanted as well. This would likely happen if they did what you say they would have done and bankrupted the state 10-15 years earlier. I believe is not that spending is any less depending on who is in power, but that spending is on different things or in different forms. A 2/3rds majority to change the budget is foolish because you will almost never be able to pass anything sustantive when substance is required. That is in my mind a primary cause of the crisis.

    In regards to the bloated California social system, I agree with you. Thats why painful cuts must go along with tax increases. It is important to mention, however, that California is a very expensive state to run, one that requries more infrastructure and social services than the average place. You all have to deal with a myriad of problems, and simply cutting spending will sink you. Besides, where is it that you feel they should cut? Education? Health care? Police? Environmental Regulation? Infrastructure? Social Services? Wherever you want to cut, someone else will want to cut another place, and with your 2/3rds rule and referendum method of governing, the decisions will never be made to make the cuts and tax increases that are necessary since the referendum method is biased toward the extreme political viewpoints.

    Third, the point about the drug user...there are always a millions stories like this from one side, along with a million others from the proponents of such programs. It is for this reason that the government needs better auditing; however, government record on allowing auditing itself is not so good since they tend to fire the auditors when they report something they [the government] do not like.

    As much as I support the idea of preventing the elderly from losing their homes, the problem with California policy is not too little housing. The fact is, you all have exceeded long ago the carrying capacity of your land. The reason that there are fires is not because of environmentalists, but because people are building where they never should be allowed to, in areas that are too far away from jobs, where there is not enough water, where there are hazards such as fires, etc. To me, getting building permits must not be hard enough since people are over-building low density developments in land that cannot support that population. Where do you think the water will come from? Property taxes are high because housing values were high, that is just the way things work. It helps to regulate the market, since higher taxes will help slow the growth of areas like that. As you can see now, the problem with California housing policy has not been too few houses, but too many, if there were not too many, there would be no housing crisis right now! Also, I really do not like that term EnviroNazi, the NAZI and environmentalists are completely unrelated and should not be combined into the same phrase. While I agree with many elements of your other comments, I feel that a closer analysis of the situation in housing really does reveal that it has been bad policy of allowing too much building on marginal land, in areas where it cannot be supported by infrastructure that is the problem. And, by the way, the cost of exurbs on the state are astronomical, not only because of environmental reasons, but because of infrastructure costs and lost productivity from insane commutes. Unlimited growth is not the solution here, exurbs cause more problems than they solve..

  3. Californians didn't elect a Republican governor. They elected an action hero, movie star for governor. It isn't the same thing.

    Career Republican politicians of the sort that usually run, as well as Democrats, typically have all the appeal of uncooked carrots.

    "The fact is, you all have exceeded long ago the carrying capacity of your land."

    Interesting. By the last estimates I saw we could immediately drop California's population by 8 million by closing the border and ejecting illegal aliens. California's population level would be about even to declining without the hispanic influx. Surely you're not proposing that we do that, are you? :-D

    "Also, I really do not like that term EnviroNazi, the NAZI and environmentalists are completely unrelated and should not be combined into the same phrase."

    Deal with it. There's an old saying, "if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck."

    I can give you an example. Those brave environmental activists, to use a term you might approve, recently threatened our local police chief with both civil suits that they claimed would bankrupt him if he attempted to dart and relocate the several dozen mountain lions that have moved into this little coastal town. We're also in serious water straits ever since the state water board precluded us from pumping from the Carmel River, a move which I thoroughly approve of, thanks to wall-to-wall lawsuits from those same brave environmental activists who have kept the start of the construction of the desalination plant at Moss Landing which we need to even maintain the level of water availability that we once had. They've been successful for ten years now and it appears that they are ready to go on for another hundred.

    Yup. EnviroNazis. BTW, I'm a former Sierra Club member and was a long time participant in Austin's nascent Environmental centre when it opened in the early 1970's. I also devoted about 20 years of my career to developing low cost, passive solar housing technology. I've got environmental credentials that include a lot of very hard work, not just obstructionism.

  4. In regards to your first comment about Arnold, I see your point, and agree, although I did love it when he called your local Democrats "Girly Men." As I said, as a Texan, I think those Californians are obnoxious and even as a Democrat, I consider many of their moves stupid. You should read my post on taxes and paying taxes (even though I imagine you would not agree with everything or even anything) since I discuss there some issues I have with one side being all ready to create new programs (Cali liberals) while the other fails to recognize the importance of government programs (people like Rick Perry of Texas).

    For my comment on your comment about the term EnviroNazi, I have just tried to steer clear of calling people who do not kill and oppress millions Nazis.

    About the obstructionism. I understand and get it that environmentalists often fail to take a fair middle road when it comes to policy. The way I see it, however, is that the "middle road" is currently unsustainable at a time off rapid environmental change. California, as I mentioned in my piece on development that you commented on previously, is far from alone in the race to use every drop of water available. I can agree that environmentalists should be more open to "lesser evil" options, but I feel we should recognize that what we call "middle" on the environment is still massively unsustainable.

    My experience with Texan activists has led me to see people put in an unsustainable exurb in a place like Blanco, use way too much water, and then attack farmers like my family for using water, even though we do so with the best conservation technology we can get. This is obviously hypocrisy, so I understand your frustration, especially since I totally support your point on Mountain Lions. When it comes to stuff like water from the Colorado, I feel we should put some of it off limits to human consumption even though this would prevent growth because I recognize the environment and species in that environment as valuable in and of themselves. Also, it bothers me that the Colorado River does not even reach the sea anymore.

    So my final point is this: sure, do not be obstructionist, be reasonable, and try to find solutions even though there may be no good ones. On the other hand, recognize that we have gone too far in exploiting environmental resources, and it is time for us to alter our behavior and environmental activists are valuable to provide a balance to the unmitigated growth that has put California in the mess it is in.

  5. Great comments, overall.

    As to my use of Nazi in to refer to radical environmentalists, which sadly here in California is most of 'em, I use the term in full recognition of just how cruel the Nazis were.

    Consider for a moment. After WWII, we pretty much eradicated malaria with DDT. It worked brilliantly as a wash for walls in villages which had malaria before for keeping mosquitos down.

    Sadly, as with many industrial chemicals, it got used for more and more things, many of which it was not very good for, like pink boll weevils in Texas cotton fields. Like Rachel Carson said, the was used so massively the stuff got into the food chain of raptors and made their eggs to thin to survive incubation, so hawks in South Texas disappeared there was no efficient predators to go after the rats that infested the fields except rattlesnakes. The rats overpopulated and the only predator for them was rattlesnakes.

    It's not well known, but a raptor will eat several hundred times it's weight in prey per year while a rattlesnake just might manage two times its weight. As a practical matter what that means is that if you have two tons of rats you hav one ton of rattlesnakes, whereas if you have raptors you might have 50-100 lbs of hawks.

    When I was in middle and high school we regularly had swarms of rats come out of the nearby cotton fields. Our Siamese tried to keep up but there were just too many of them. The rattlesnakes followed them out and you always had to crack the door open slightly on cold mornings and look carefully before you opened it completely because rattlesnakes tended to snuggle up to the crack under your front door trying to keep warm.

    Within five years of the ban on DDT the raptors came back. I was in college then and it seemed that there was a hawk on every other telephone pole. The rat mass migrations ended and the rattlesnake population dropped back to something workable.

    What we didn't realise at the time, though, was that a TOTAL ban on DDT, which is what the environmentalists wanted and got meant that malaria, which had virtually disappeared from the tropics, reappeared and reclaimed its former zones.

    It's been estimated that the resurgent malaria has since the early 1960's has killed about 100 million people. We've known for thirty years that the science and environmental politics that led to the total ban on DDT for malaria control, not agricultural use, were both wrong. In spite of this environmental groups are still, after years of contrary evidence largely opposed to its use for any reason.

    The Nazis managed, by most counts, to murder about 21 million people, both civilian and military. Environmental activists are, by my reckoning, responsible by their mindless opposition to the use of DDT responsible for nearly five times that, mostly pregnant women and children under five.

    I use the term enviroNazi in that light, though the magnitude of murder perpetrated by the policies of environmental activists absolutely dwarfs that achieved by the Nazis.

    I hope this takes you some distance towards understanding my animus towards environmental activists. Mind, the mischief they've got up to only begins with DDT. As a technologist who has worked for sustainibility and reducing mankind's footprint on the earth pretty much my whole life, I find profesional environmental activists little short of monsters.

  6. I find this as one of the better arguments against extreme environmental activists, although I feel we have to always separate the most extreme from those who have an important role to play in society and policy. Also, I still feel that the nature of the NAZIs killing was different, but at least now I get where you are coming from.

    I know the US banned DDT, but it is still used in other places. The international community just stopped the massive push that was underway to eradicate malaria. You are right in saying that DDT had its benefits, but when its use was stopped in the US at least, it was time for it to be stopped. It would seem as though it should have continued elsewhere, though with an understanding that it would have to stop eventually and that the environmental costs long-term were worth it.

    Also, DDT is beginning to be less effective where it is used as mosquitoes become immune to it.

  7. "I find this as one of the better arguments against extreme environmental activists,"

    The problem is that the directorates of virtually ALL environmental organisations are pretty much 100% extreme environmental activists by any rational measure.

  8. I do not think that is a fair or accurate statement. I am involved with groups such as The Student Conservation Association (SCA) and I have volunteered for local and community-based environmental organizations. Yes some are crazy, but also some are not. And there are others who have to fight fire with fire (I admit that I applaud the anti-whaling stuff-and yes, those people are pretty crazy).

  9. I think we are talking apples and oranges here. The fault is mine, I think. When I said "ALL", I should have said "IMPORTANT".

    In my experience, I've found that a rough idea of the social impact of an organisation via the Alexa rating of its web site. To benchmark this notion I invite you to compare the Alexa rating of the Democratic Party website...

    ...with that of the Republicans.

    By way of comparison, I don't consider the open source technology project, Reprap, that I am a major participant in, to be a particularly important undertaking in the greater scheme of things. In five years it may be another story, but now ... not.

    With that in mind, take a look at the Sierra Club...

    ...and then compare it to the rating for the environmental organisation you cite...

    Please pardon me for not making my thinking more clear earlier.

  10. That is a fascinating site. I liked especially looking at the top ranks of sites by country to see how many in India use our websites, and I wonder why the SCA is used by so many people in Phillipines? I know the SCA history intimately, and I understand that, as an Environmental SERVICE organization rather than specifically a lobbying and policy organization it will never be as important to the overall public, although it has its fair share of supporters in the government. Sure they are not as powerful, and many important organization do not make sense (especially PETA...not environmental, but close). PETA is angry at the "fish throwers" in Seattle's Pike Place it, it is really funny.