Thursday, January 6, 2005

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My kind of big aims

The signature aspect of the current president is his belief that incrementalism is bunk. George W. Bush clearly believes that great achievements come from grand, uncompromising visions. If some of them fall by the wayside (mission to Mars, anyone?), so be it. But if even a few of these visions comes to fruition, then Bush can be viewed as both a successful politician and a world historical figure.

I'd be more excited about this if it wasn't for the concern I had about both the rank ordering and actual implementaion of these visions. Like Andrew Sullivan, I'm leery of the fact that tax fairness and Medicare reform were shunted aside in favor of Social Security reform -- one reason why I haven't blogged at all about the latter.

Still, if a politician adopts this style and seems to have is priorities in order, it can be damn inspiring.

Which brings me to the governor of California and his State of the State address. John M. Broder recaps it for the New York Times:

A little over a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger did an end run around politics as usual in the recall election that made him governor of California, he is embarking on a new campaign against the status quo here.

In his annual State of the State address on Wednesday night, the governor called on the Democratic-controlled Legislature to enact a fundamental overhaul that would include that most sacred of political cows, the way Congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

Mr. Schwarzenegger proposed turning over the drawing of the state's political map to a panel of retired judges, taking it out of the hands of lawmakers who for decades have used the redistricting process in a cozy bipartisan deal to choose their voters and cement their incumbency. He threatened to take the issue directly to the voters if the Legislature does not act on the plan in a special session he called for.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, noted that of the 153 seats in the California Congressional delegation and Legislature that were on the ballot in November, not one changed party hands.

"What kind of a democracy is that?" he asked in his address....

Although Mr. Schwarzenegger rode to office as the action-figure anti-politician ready to take on the entrenched interests in Sacramento, little has changed in the political culture here. Well-heeled interests still set the agenda, and the state still faces a huge budget gap.

The governor made clear in his address that he seeks to change all that. He endorsed a controversial proposal to convert the state's public employee retirement system from a traditional pension plan to an employee-directed program similar to the 401(k) plans often used in the private sector. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would impose automatic across-the-board spending cuts if state spending grew faster than revenues. And, calling California's public schools a disaster, he proposed that new teachers be paid based on merit, not just seniority.

He warned that if the Legislature did not heed his call, he would take his program to the voters in a special election, as he did last year to secure passage of a $15 billion bond to help balance the state's budget.

"If we here in this chamber do not work together to reform the government," the governor said, "the people will rise up and reform it themselves. And, you know something, I will join them. And I will fight with them."

The proposals will be hugely controversial. Democrats have already indicated they will oppose the redistricting plans. State employee unions will balk at what they will call the privatization of the state pension fund. Teachers' unions will scream about merit pay. The Legislature, much of whose financial support comes from just those well-organized interests, is likely to hesitate to enact any of them.

Mr. Schwarzenegger learned in his first year in office that he was most effective not when negotiating with balky legislators but when campaigning at shopping malls and on television. His televised appeals helped pass his borrowing plan and sink well-financed ballot measures to expand Indian gambling and to soften the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law.

This year, aides said, the governor will devote his considerable star power and high approval ratings to trying to change fundamentally the way the state does business.

Side note: is it just me or when the New York Times uses the word "controversial," it's always code for, "a person or idea that we here in the newsroom believe is wrong"?

I don't know enough about the pension proposal to comment on its worthiness. [UPDATE: Dan Weintraub has some thoughts.] But the other two priorities sound great to me.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum depresses me by not supporting Arnie's proposal.

posted by Dan on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM


I watched the speech, live on C-SPAN2, and I got to say, I was skeptical over whether or not I'd vote for an "Action Star," (I live in PA) but after hearing that speech I'm sold. This guy can deliver a political speech. I love conservitism veiled as populism, and I love that in Calivornia it can be a real tool.

He's awkward with his English, but it comes across on the wavelength of the people. As someone who almost became a teacher, his line (granted, it's more than likely to be nothing more than a bone thrown to right-wingers) about teacher's pay being tied to merit, not tenure warmed my innards like nothing else could. I hate teacher union rackets.

I'd vote Rendell out of office for him, and though I didn't vote for him, I like Fast Eddie. I don't know what it is, but I buy his spiel. I liked Casey, thought Woffard was what was wrong with PA state gov't, and well, I guess I'm a Ridge groupie, poor guy got saddled with the most un-thankful job in America.

posted by: christopher on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Hope he gets the redistricting proposal through, it would be a great challenge to other states. I have a conflict as a former state employee retired with a defined benefit pension. State retirement has a devastating impact on productivity. Young people who enter state service and get laid off before they are 'vested' ruin their lives because private employers are reluctant to hire someone who will go back to work for the state as soon as they get the chance. Once an employee is vested, he or she will not leave until they have accumulated enough 'credits' to retire. No matter how much one may hate the job, and no matter how attractive a salary one might earn elsewhere, leaving public employment before one can retire is to sentence oneself to an impoverished old age. Given the generosity of promised future pensions, those who work for the state have little incentive to save during their working years. Result is that you get a state work force where nearly everyone is over 40 and risk-averse. Very little new blood comes in with lessons learned from other sectors of the economy. There is a mindset against taking any risks that might jepordize one's chances of staying until eligible to retire. Most states' pension liabilities are unfunded or underfunded, thereby saddling future generations with a vast unrecorded debt. Whenever there is a current deficit, the state and the unions readily agree to forgo funding the liability. The unions go along because they want to protect the jobs of dues-paying members. Politicians don't care about future liabilities as much as they care about winning their next election by preserving popular state services and not raising taxes. All in all it is an unhealthy situation. That said, I'm glad I got out with my defined benefit pension and generous health insurance. Need to get the US Constitution amended so that foreign-born citizens can run for president.

posted by: jimbo on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

How about Texas reforms redistricting at the same time California does?

posted by: Publius on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Sorry, couldn't get past the first paragraph. So I was wondering if anyone can name one of the Administration's grand, uncompromising visions that, upon closer inspection, is not a Nigerian e-mail scam get-rich scheme. And "Mars, bitches!" is not one.

posted by: norbizness on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I like the redistricting proposal a lot.
"What kind of democracy is that?" is a question I've asked myself plenty of times -- I think gerrymandering is incredibly pernicious.

Props to Arnold for that. I don't know enough about CA on the other stuff.

posted by: praktike on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Arnie's idea sounds great in general. But the real question is whether these reitred judges would be actually non-partisan or not ...

As far as GWB and grand visions go, we generally call people who have grandiose impractical visions nutcases.

posted by: erg on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Kudos to Jimbo for exposing the ugly truth about working for the state (and it's not just on the state level--rarely did I meet anyone in DC working for the feds who did not know to the day how much longer his/her sentence was til release, inspiring to all newbies and would-be civil servants, I can assure). I have dear friends working for a large northeastern state who somehow manage to hold onto their work ethic, year after year, but acknowledge that few around them even try, and as for fresh blood, it's been nearly impossible for at least a decade to get anyone new hired. Advanced sclerosis.

Right now Arnold's closest peer on the world stage is preparing to take office in Kiev--note to Arnold, hire a taster! But imagine the ripple effect in Washington of a Californian success at ending vile gerrymandering. Brilliant. The gutters would run red. We'd have to amend the Constitution then. I'm torn between thinking that it is precisely BECAUSE Arnold CANNOT run for prez that he is so bold (what's to lose?) and thinking that he thinks somewhere in the back of his mind that such reckless genius might be the only way to get the ultimate prize. Two doorways into the same room?

posted by: Kelli on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

"He warned that if the Legislature did not heed his call, he would take his program to the voters in a special election, as he did last year to secure passage of a $15 billion bond to help balance the state's budget."


posted by: Max on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel Burnham

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I'd just note that not one of Arnie's proposals required political courage - they all benefit the Republican party in a Democratic-dominated state. That's not saying they're all bad, just that they're not so impressive.

The pension fund issue in particular has an unstated political dimension. CalPERS has fought for shareholder rights against corporate management. Dismantling the fund would be a big favor for Arnie's big business friends.

posted by: Brian S. on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

The redistricting proposal Schwarzenegger made yesterday is very similar to the way Iowa has had district lines drawn for years. Neither party in Iowa has died because of it.

In Georgia (and other southern states that have the added problem of Voting Rights Act compliance) fights over redistricting have absorbed legislators attention for years at a time and cost both parties millions in legal fees. Democrats in the 1990s thought they would cement their dominance over state government for years by ramming through favorable district lines when they had big legislative majorities. As it turned out they extended their control of the legislature by a couple of years -- a pretty small return for all that effort.

As a rule, it is the most extreme, least competent legislators -- this includes members of Congress -- who have the most to lose by replacing the traditional means of drawing district lines. It may look as if Schwarzenegger is proposing something that doesn't cost him anything, but he's the only governor to do this so far, and deserves a lot of credit for it.

posted by: Zathras on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel Burnham

You so got that from NPR last night.

posted by: praktike on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I love nonpartisan redistricting. I'd vote for him.

posted by: Jim Dandy on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I heard the speech this morning on some or other cable channel and was very impressed. He sure did sound some interesting themes.

I was particularly interested in the bit about prescription drug cards for the poor (I think that's right, kinda swung by fast). He said it would cost very little according to his plan! Now, why does that make me skeptical? The rest, though, was genius.

posted by: MD on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Being a native Californian, I watched my state go downhill. The reason is not a few extra bucks thrown at retired state employees. Nor is it gerrymandered districts. The reason is mass immigration, legal and illegal.

State bankruptcy: Try educating the children of millions of Mexican peasants. That costs money for very little return.

Third World Style Income Distribution: Guess

45 Minutes to go 5 miles on the Freeway: Well, it ain't cause of all the Iowans moving to Cali

So go ahead, Arnie, fiddle with lines on the map, give an extra hundred bucks a month to a few teachers (BTW, how are they gonna compare teachers trying to deal in Barrio Logan (formerly National City) San Diego with teachers in Marin).

Whatever man, whatever.

posted by: stari_momak on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

It's not just you, Dan. In traditional news coverage, "controversial" does, indeed, signify something or someone the reporter doesn't agree with, just as "tired and emotional" used to be the euphemism for drunk in public.

posted by: Mike on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I'm a public employee (county level) in Ohio. OPERS as of last year is offering a choice of defined-benefit, employee-directed, and some-of-each plans. I'm 49 and am likely to retire at around age 66 from my current job (I'm a busy forensic scientist, not a paper shuffler, and my work ethic is quite intact, thank you) so when the choice was offered to existing employees I chose to stay in the defined-benefit plan, which on balance is best for me. I'm sure many younger employees and new hires are choosing one of the other plans for their greater portability. It's a sad comment on the sclerotic nature of California politics that such a reform occasions so much political drama there.

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Twenty years ago, we had a ballot proposition in California for redistricting to be done by retired judges. Willie Brown shot it down with very effective but completely unfair TV ads saying that it would completely corrupt the judiciary -- with shadowy figures bribing judges, but never saying what the proposition would do. But with Arnold's backing, and no one in the Democrats of Willie's political cunning, it could make it this time.

posted by: Curt on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Kevin Drum kindly suggested the budget "proposals" were smoke and mirrors. The replacement governor is not reducing the deficit - even if a couple of reporters (one noted by Maxspeaks and the other by me over at Angrybear) have this illusion that borrowing reduces deficits.

posted by: pgl on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I would respectfully challenge the premise of the lede graf:

The signature aspect of the current president is his belief that incrementalism is bunk. George W. Bush clearly believes that great achievements come from grand, uncompromising visions. If some of them fall by the wayside (mission to Mars, anyone?), so be it. But if even a few of these visions comes to fruition, then Bush can be viewed as both a successful politician and a world historical figure.

While President Bush to some degree follows the Reagan model of focusing on two or three big issues (on the theory that this is about all a President can realistically expect to accomplish), I do not think that Bush believes that incrementalism is bunk.

Rather, I would suggest that incrementalism has been one of his key strategies on a number of issues. In education, settled for incremental progress toward school choice. The same could be said on healthcare with health savings accounts. His support of the partial-birth abortion ban is an incremental strategy. And he is pushing partial private savings accounts for Social Security.

In tax policy, he got rid of a few unpopular features of the IRC (marriage penalty, estate tax, etc.) and won a marginal rate reduction proportionately smaller than Reagan's. He's now punted tax reform to a commission, effectively moving the issue into next year. And word is he doesn't want to appoint anyone with a strong opinion about moving to a flat tax or sales tax, suggesting he's looking for 1986-style simplification at most.

As for the priority being given various issues, the GOP probably prefers to be debating taxes in an election year. Conversely, SocSec is probably seen as risky, so an off-year debate is better. Politics! Who'da thunk it? [If Sullivan did, I apologize in advance; I'm not a TNR subscriber anymore.]

posted by: Karl on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Some quick observations:

1) Incrementalism is a tool, Not a philosophy. You have to
know when you can apply the tool towards a certain goal.
Bush and his Administration is too dumb to know this.

2) Arnie is a goofball. His speech,(pun intented), was nothing
but hollywood hype. His 15 billion dollar borrowing act could
have been done by anyone. (Even me.) As for the redistricting
idea, it's dead. Arnie didn't even bring up Texas redistricting
as a role model. I wonder why......

3) Arnie didn't say a thing about closing tax loopholes. I wonder why.....

4) It is rather funny,(odd?), that a person like Arnie who makes
$20 million a picture does everything he can to reduce his taxes
to zero, then complains that the indians and their casinos aren't
paying any taxes.

5) Rich leaders never know what is really going on at the lower
income levels of living. I wonder why....

posted by: James on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I like the California redistricting idea for a couple of reasons. I think a nonpartisan panel of judges might well come up with a better balance of liberals and conservatives in the typical congressional district, which would do two things. It would provide an incentive for congresscritters to work together and to be less ideological. Second, it would enable the voice of the people to be heard more effectively. A congressman elected 55-45 has to listen to his constituents, but one elected 70-30 often finds it wiser to listen to the ideologues (to prevent them from trying to overturn her in the party primary).

My reservation is based upon the first Texas redisctricting. Texas was a state in the process of changing it's dominant political party in 2000. All the major statewide offices and one house of the legislature were controlled by Republicans. The other house was in deadlock but was in the process of going Republican also. Given the deadlock a panel of three 'nonpartisan' judges made the congressional redistricting decisions with the result that a Republican state returned a majority of Democrats to the US congress in 1992.

At first glance it appears to be a classic case of brilliant gerrymandering. I'm not sure whether it was actually gerrymandering or merely favoring the incumbents. But it indicates that 'nonpartisan' judges may have been biased in their decisions. They may have thought that 50-50 was 'fair' in some way or they may have favored incumbents. It's even possible that they decided to change existing districts (previously gerrymandered by Democrats) as little as possible.

I think the judges have to be fair to both parties and not stuff all the republicans or all the Democrats into as few districts as possible.

posted by: Don on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Hi Dan, Thanks for noticing our great state. Arnold is far from perfect, but I believe he succeeds at the four most important challenges of leadership:
1. Identifying the most important problems
2. Picking winnable battles
3. Proposing workable solutions
4. Building broad-based support
While some of his critics have valid technical points, they completely ignore the significance of him actually trying to tackle the real problems affecting California. That's rare anywhere, but especially here. Go Arnold!

posted by: Dr. E on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

Dan, your Kevin Drum Update reads

UPDATE: Kevin Drum depresses me by not supporting Arnie's proposal. He goes on to observe:

before abruptly ending.

posted by: Aaron on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

I'm another supporter of Arnie's ideas - for Texas.

posted by: Andrew Boucher on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

What Kevin Drum observed is the glaringly obvious fact that A.S.'s anti-gerrymandering proposal would be terrific -- IF every state in the union did it simultaneously; that is, if he was recommending a federal Constitutional amendment. He's not -- he didn't utter a word about that. He's recommending that California -- where the Dems have one of the biggest House majorities in any state, thanks partly to gerrymandering -- do it, WITHOUT Texas (or any other state where the GOP has an edge thanks to gerrymandering) being also forced to do it. This is no accident. In short, he's simply engaged in a clever little flim-flam to try and further increase the GOP's still narrow edge in the House -- NOT in an honest political reform move. And so Drum opposes it, entirely correctly.

As for A.S.'s supposed political brilliance: I'll believe in it the day he finally has to stop borrowing wholesale to try and temporarily paper over the continuing state deficit, and manages to persuade a landslide majority of Californians to back either a sharp rise in their taxes or a sharp cut in their services. For all Arnie's supposed political "brilliance", he couldn't even keep the voters of California from further enlarging the Democrats' edge in the legislature this time. I'm reminded of what George Will said about Reagan's deficit spending: "If I stand on my front porch and yell at the neighborhood kids, 'Let's all go out for pizza!', I'll draw a big and enthusiastic response, but that fact will hardly make me a Great Communicator."

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel Burnham

You so got that from NPR last night."

Nah, im from Chicago. They print that on cocktail napkins and fortune cookies.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.06.05 at 12:19 AM [permalink]

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