Friday, January 15, 2010

Sacramento is a Dirty Word (Although Supermajority Should Be)

If you don't know political advertising in California, then perhaps you have never heard the way the word "Sacramento" is said on TV here. It's generally hissed out in contempt, with more condemnation than the word "Satan." Everyone hates Sacramento politics, even those who serve in office there.

However, yesterday's teach-in with famed Berkeley professor and cognitive linguist George Lakoff was aimed at undoing the rhetorical train wreck that has been the response of interested parties to the drastic budget cuts to the state's public universities that only reinforce the simple binaries in which either "UC administration" or "Sacramento politicians" are the enemy. Instead, Lakoff argued that UC faculty need to be speaking to PTAs and going into conservative districts to remind people outside the university that money invested in higher education goes back into the economy by a factor of four.

State Senator Loni Hancock was also on hand to explain the three structural factors that cause California politics to be so dysfunctional in governing even with a clear majority of sixty-three percent: 1) the initiative system that creates unfunded and even contradictory mandates based on the popular vote, 2) term limits that relegate institutional wisdom to lobbyists, and 3) the supermajority, and 3) the supermajority 2/3 rule for budgets and taxes that only exists in two other states: Rhode Island and Arkansas.

Yesterday's meeting was aimed at lowering this hurdle, which is higher even than the Senate's sixty percent fillibuster proof barrier that has inhibited legislation on everything from healthcare to climate change at the federal level. Hancock argued that many might be tempted to go with a less elegant form of attacking the problem, such as the multi-initiative and heavily obfuscated California Forward project, which has received a lot of support from philanthropic foundations, but Hancock cautioned that it will only cause more 2/3 thinking, since it will add the legislature's capacity to collect fees to this unwieldy political structure.

Instead members of the meeting were encouraged to support the more direct Californians for Democracy, which would simply remove the words "2/3" from two spots in the state constitution, those that specify the approval threshhold for the budget and for approving raising tax revenue. (The latter is a particularly vexing issue for political observers, because there is no prohibition on having a simple majority lower taxes, so there is continuous downward pressure leading to greater budget deficits.) Hancock thinks it is more likely to get voters to sanction the budget provision rather than the tax provision, however.

Lakoff said the word "supermajority" was objectionable to him as a linguist, because it sounds like it means even more democracy, even more government by the majority, but in fact it turns out to result in government by minority, where individual deal-makers can swing the vote in exchange for takeaway pet projects for their districts.

Habermas lifeworld

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