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Michael Meranze

Michael Meranze

Posted: August 24, 2009 03:46 PM

California's Crisis: Coming to a Neighborhood Near you

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California's budget crisis continues through the summer and threatens to worsen in the fall. In its wake a rough "common sense" has emerged among the State's political class and local and national commentators and pundits. California, we are instructed, has finally reached the end of its ability to sustain its commitments -- derived from the era of Pat Brown -- to social support institutions and widespread, high-quality and low cost higher education, not to mention broad-based commitments to K-12 public education. The Great Recession, they insist, has put an end to this earlier vision of the Golden State as new economic realities compel us to scale back government action and commit ourselves more and more to a reliance on the private sector for increasingly limited social goods and services. To be sure, at the margins of this understanding -- at least outside of the state's notably ideological Republican Party -- there is recognition that the crisis is not simply fiscal but political. California, after all, is hampered by a wide-range of structural issues that make governance more and more difficult: the requirement (established in Proposition 13) that any tax increase requires a 2/3 vote in the Legislature, an even older requirement that the State Budget requires a 2/3 vote as well, the imposition of term limits that have had the perverse effect of empowering lobbyists, the gerrymandering of the State's Assembly and Senate that has aided ideologues (again especially in the Republican Party) in primary campaigns and the proliferation of ballot initiatives that have removed from legislative discretion more and more spending and governing decisions. In all, California has become a state where responsible governance seems impossible.

While this is the conventional wisdom, it is significantly wrong. For what has come crashing down around us is not the Golden State of Pat Brown's dreams but the Iron State of Howard Jarvis' imagination. What has come paid this summer is the vision of a State focused not on social welfare but on corrections, not on education and broad-based economic development but on the reduction of tax burdens, not on the young and the future but on those properties and people already established. California's political leaders have spent the last 30 years cobbling together enough funding and compromise to keep at bay the full implications of the Iron State. The Great Recession has shattered those efforts.

As with so many stories of contemporary California, this one starts with Proposition 13. Proposition 13 has protected many on fixed-incomes from losing their homes to rising property taxes while enabling many others to minimize the negative effects of rising housing costs (at least once they have been able to purchase property). But it did so in (calculatedly?) perverse ways. Proposition 13 not only protected individual homeowners but commercial property as well (hardly those on fixed incomes) while making it increasingly difficult (by imposing a 2/3 rule) to raise taxes of any kind. By stripping local governments of important sources of revenue it shifted power for education and other locally organized public functions from cities and counties to the state where they were increasingly caught up in the dysfunctional nature of state-wide politics. Consequently Proposition 13, while in form and self-description a moment of "citizen's revolt," actually served to centralize revenue and spending questions at the level of state government while simultaneously making it more difficult for those decisions to be made rationally. These effects may not have been immediately apparent but as the number of citizen initiatives increased (many on the model of Proposition 13 -- most importantly one establishing term limits) a political system was put into place all but designed not to function.

But Proposition 13 was only one side of the Iron State. During the 1980s, California embarked on a policy of mass incarceration. Between 1980 and 2000 the criminal inmate population grew from just under 25,000 to just over 160,000. Today it stands around 170,000. In recent years this upsurge has been exacerbated by the passage of a 3 Strikes initiative but it emergence is earlier -- as part of the shift from the state of Pat Brown to the state of Howard Jarvis. Whether as part of the war on drugs, in response to fears of sexual offenders, or the perception of an epidemic of violent crime, the penal system has grown by leaps and bounds. While not necessarily consciously linked, the logic of Proposition 13 (turning the state away from social spending, limiting a steady source of revenue, placing an emphasis on what was already in place over what might be in the future) and the logic of increased incarceration (incapacitation over retraining, emphasizing the punishment of past deeds over programs to encourage opportunities and lessen the temptations to criminal activity) worked in tandem. Perhaps the clearest indication of this shift in priorities has been the relationship between spending for higher education and spending for corrections. For at least the last decade the two have been in clear competition for State funds. In this competition, prisons have been winning -- as their portion of governmental spending has gone up higher education's has gone down proportionally. In a final perversity this long-term shift in priorities and spending has left both corrections and education unable to meet public expectations. The decade long reduction of state support for the UC and CSU systems have left them overburdened and underfunded -- this reduction means that the recent budget cuts threaten to end the renowned California system of higher education we have known. And despite the growth in spending on corrections, the logic of mass incarceration has meant that the number of inmates always exceeds the capacity to house them adequately and safely.

Like the state's polity more generally, the correctional system is in a state of acute crisis. The recent riot at Chino State Prison was only the latest example of an overcrowded and unsafe penal system -- unsafe for guards as well as inmates. Federal judges have determined that the health system within the prisons is so inadequate as to be unconstitutional (while endangering the health of inmates within the prison and the general public when inmates leave prisons); other judges have ordered the prison population reduced by 40,000 over the next two years. The multiple crises of the prison system have allowed for some discussion of reform of the correctional system -- but only on the margins. New ideas are being floated about early release for some non-violent offenders, reexamining some sentencing policies, and reevaluating the treatment of parole violations. But at least in the near future it seems likely that whatever small programs for drug addiction or inmate training that exist will be cut. Nor does the will to seriously reconsider the State's emphasis on punishment of individuals as opposed to investment in society appear anywhere on the horizon of the state's political leaders.

It is at the point of this failure of imagination that California's crisis offers lessons on a broader scale -- although the fog of stories of the state's profligate spending and high taxes serve to conceal this (in fact, in per capita terms California's social spending is by no means high and the state's tax rates for individuals somewhere in the middle of the United States). By presenting this crisis as the last remnant of the "Great Society" rather than as the crisis of the Iron State, we miss its larger implications. California was hardly alone in making the shift from investment and social spending to retrenchment and punitive spending in the 1980s. True, California went the farthest down this path (in part because it had the farthest to go). But from the recently repealed Rockefeller drug laws through the expansion of the prison systems in Texas and Florida, onto the increasingly punitive response to poverty in the Clinton years, and the continuing disparity in sentencing laws, states and the federal government have chosen the Iron State over the Golden State. And whatever arguments there may be about the relative effectiveness of imprisonment in affecting crime rates (a topic of great controversy amongst scholars and analysts), one thing seems certain: a policy that exacerbates the brutalization of society is not one that will make us safer. Investing in prisons means investing in institutions that produce neither goods nor new opportunities (aside from the limited jobs available for prison employees and the one-time opportunities in construction); money spent on imprisonment is money taken from rebuilding our worn out infrastructure, our schools, our communities, and our economic future. Insofar as corrections remains at the heart of our social policy -- rather than as a supplemental or marginal support as it was throughout most of United States history -- it is the Iron State stealing from the future of the Golden State.

California's present crisis, then, is not an effect of an outdated liberal irresponsibility. It is instead the logical outcome of a radically reactionary agenda that seeks to limit the State's ability to help the needy and invest in the future, while strengthening its ability to incapacitate through a continually expanding system of incarceration. Pursuing a fantasized past before either the government or newcomers changed their state, proponents of the Iron State have succeeded only in creating conditions that ensure that more people will be imprisoned and less people educated; that more will be unemployed and less skilled in new jobs; that more will be less productive and less find fulfilling work. The expansion of imprisonment is the cutting edge but it is only one part of this policy perspective. Perhaps nothing reveals the logic of the Iron State more than Governor Schwarzenegger's decision to cut funds from health care for the poor and those suffering from AIDS while refusing to impose an extraction tax on gas and oil that would have provided more than enough funds for these programs.

California's crisis may come to a neighborhood near you not only because California is central to the national economy but because it exposes the long-term effect of our recent social policy choices. In California the effects of the Iron State grow clearer everyday. Unless we wish to descend into more and more social insecurity this policy logic needs to be overturned -- not only in California but in the nation at large.