Skip to main content

A top ten list of what ails California with which almost everyone agrees

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | October 19, 2009

What ails California? Let me count the ways:

1. A two-thirds voting requirement for new taxes and for budgets,

2. Legislative districts that are apportioned so that they’re either Democratic or Republican – resulting in the extremes running against more moderates in primaries, and summoning enough votes to get in,

3. Initiatives that, over the years, have mandated that certain items get funded regardless of other priorities,

4. A prison system that continues to grow, locking up ever more people at a cost of $45,000 each, even though many are non-violent offenders who are imprisoned because they’ve violated the law three times,

5. Public employee unions that demand and take an ever larger share of the public budget,

6. Term limits that ensure that no elected official has to live with the long-term consequences of his or her irresponsibility,

7. Proposition 13, which makes it impossible for locales to raise the property taxes they need without putting huge burdens on newcomers like me,

8. A tax system that’s regressive and becoming more so — depending too much on sales taxes, and thereby putting an impossible burden on the middle class,

9. An upper class and upper-middle class that’s seceded from public services (schools, parks, public transit) in favor of their own private services – and thereby withdrawn their support from the public sector,

10. Media that don’t report carefully and accurately on what’s happening in Sacramento.

I could go on, but you get the point.

But here’s the really interesting thing: Almost everyone agrees on these ten. They may have other candidates, of course, but these are the ten that keep coming up.

Yet almost no one agrees on which of the ten is the most troublesome, or the next most. Everyone has his or her own priorities for reform.

And no one knows how to start reforming the system, anyway. Cynicism abounds. The governing structure seems just too big, too far gone, too removed. If California were a small state with a strong tradition of paying attention to its government, or if it were a nation to itself, this probably wouldn’t happen. But it’s neither.

The immediate challenge is to overcome cynicism and convince enough people that enough can be done to reform the system that they should get involved in the effort.