Boomerang was a fun read and I liked the way Lewis linked each economy’s woes to cultural factors in a concrete way (too often do people chalk things up to “cultural factors” without actually describing what those factors are and how they cause the effect in question). In the chapter on California, I thought Mark Paul’s quote was especially sharp: “What the polls show is that people want services and not to pay for them.” Lewis goes on to describe how this sentiment manifests itself in the state’s politics, but I think he missed an important piece of that conversation: ballot measures.
CMC’s own Ken Miller gave a briefing on California politics a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of what he had to say about ballot initiatives in California is supportive of Lewis’s thesis. Here’s the video (the discussion of ballot measures starts around 15:00): http://vimeo.com/52641324
Miller points out that, of states that allow ballot measures, California is far and away “the most aggressive in its use of the initiative process, both in terms of absolute numbers of initiatives, and in terms of consequences of these measures.” For example, almost 30% of all 2012 ballot initiatives in the nation were on the California ballot. While direct democracy might be philosophically admirable, it lacks is fiscal accountability. Individual citizens can’t hold one another responsible for the states budget, and so it is easy to get into financial trouble. Only three times in history have Californians directly voted to raise taxes, and two of those were cigarette taxes (the third was on incomes over $1 million). Raising taxes is always a political challenge, and usually only gets done when politicians are backed into a corner. Sidestepping the representative legislative process also sidesteps forcing anyone into such an unpleasant compromise, and makes raising taxes in a serious way nearly impossible.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Californians have voted many times to increase services or cut taxes. Miller lists five relatively major tax cuts that came through ballot measures off the top of his head, and there are certainly others. Proposition 13, in particular, placed stringent restrictions on property taxation, and is often cited as a leading cause of California’s repeating budget deficits. Of course, increased spending on state services has also ballooned the deficit, but that only reinforces the claim that Californians want it all, and they want it for free.
Update: Both proposals to raise taxes on California’s ballot failed to pass last week. Big surprise.