Friday, September 30, 2011

Michael Lewis on California

I always like reading Michael Lewis' stuff. Here's a nice piece on the fiscal problems of California:
“The recall happens and people are asking me [Arnold Schwarzenegger], ‘What are you going to do?’ ” he says, dodging vagrants and joggers along the beach bike path. “I thought about it but decided I wasn’t going to do it. I told Maria I wasn’t running. I told everyone I wasn’t running. I wasn’t running.” Then, in the middle of the recall madness, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines opened. As the movie’s leading machine, he was expected to appear on The Tonight Show to promote it. En route he experienced a familiar impulse—the impulse to do something out of the ordinary. “I just thought, This will freak everyone out,” he says. “It’ll be so funny. I’ll announce that I am running. I told Leno I was running. And two months later I was governor.” He looks over at me, pedaling as fast as I can to keep up with him, and laughs
This I totally believe. Arnold doesn't strike me as the sort of person who plans anything, but I think he's excellent at grasping the moment.
His view of his seven years trying to run the state of California can be summarized as follows. He came to power accidentally, but not without ideas about what he wanted to do. At his core he thought government had become more problem than solution: an institution run less for the benefit of the people than for the benefit of politicians and other public employees. He behaved pretty much as Americans seem to imagine the ideal politician should behave: he made bold decisions without looking at polls; he didn’t sell favors; he treated his opponents fairly; he was quick to acknowledge his mistakes and to learn from them; and so on. He was the rare elected official who believed, with some reason, that he had nothing to lose, and behaved accordingly. When presented with the chance to pursue an agenda that violated his own narrow political self-interest for the sake of the public interest, he tended to leap at it. “There were a lot of times when we said, ‘You just can’t do that,’ ” says his former chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, whose hiring was one of those things a Republican governor was not supposed to do. “He was always like, ‘I don’t care.’ Ninety percent of the time it was a good thing.”

Two years into his tenure, in mid-2005, he’d tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. “To me there were shocking moments,” he says. Having sped past a do not enter sign, we are now flying through intersections without pausing. I can’t help but notice that, if we weren’t breaking the law by going the wrong way down a one-way street, we’d be breaking the law by running stop signs. “When you want to do pension reform for the prison guards,” he says, “and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible, and it happened over and over: people would say to me, ‘Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won’t do it.’ I couldn’t believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.”
California is ungovernable.

Also, some interesting thoughts on exactly how the California public union compensation got to its current crazy levels:
Over the past dec­ade the city of San Jose had repeatedly caved to the demands of its public-safety unions. In practice this meant that when the police or fire department of any neighboring city struck a better deal for itself, it became a fresh argument for improving the pay of San Jose police and fire. The effect was to make the sweetest deal cut by public-safety workers with any city in Northern California the starting point for the next round of negotiations for every other city. The departments also used each other to score debating points. For instance, back in 2002, the San Jose police union cut a three-year deal that raised police officers’ pay by 18 percent over the contract. Soon afterward, the San Jose firefighters cut a better deal for themselves, including a pay raise of more than 23 percent. The police felt robbed and complained mightily until the city council crafted a deal that handed them 5 percent more premium pay in exchange for training to fight terrorists. “We got famous for our anti-terrorist-training pay,” explains one city official. Eventually the anti-terrorist-training premium pay stopped; the police just kept the extra pay, with benefits. “Our police and firefighters will earn more in retirement than they did when they were working,” says Reed. “There used to be an argument that you have to give us money or we can’t afford to live in the city. Now the more you pay them the less likely they are to live in the city, because they can afford to leave. It’s staggering. When did we go from giving people sick leave to letting them accumulate it and cash it in for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they are done working? There’s a corruption here. It’s not just a financial corruption. It’s a corruption of the attitude of public service.”

When he was elected to the city council, Reed says, “I hadn’t even thought about pensions. I can’t say I said, ‘Here is my plan.’ I never thought about this stuff. It never came up.” It wasn’t until San Diego flirted with bankruptcy, in 2002, that he wondered about San Jose’s finances. He began to investigate the matter. “That’s when I realized there were big problems,” he says. “That’s when I started paying attention. That’s when I started asking questions: Could it happen here? It’s like the housing bubble and the Internet bubble. There were people around who were writing about it. It’s not that there aren’t people telling us that this is crazy. It’s that you refuse to believe that you are crazy.”

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