Commentary Magazine


The Message of Proposition 13

The Jarvis-Gann Constitutional Amendment, limiting property taxes in California, has touched off speculation about a conservative backlash and the ascendance of a New Right in America. But analysis suggests that the trend exemplified by the “taxpayers’ revolt” confounds the traditional political designations.

In 1946, according to Gallup, Americans who wanted taxes cut outnumbered those who did not by only four percentage points (48-44). By 1963, the gap was 44 percentage points (63-19). In 1969, 54 per cent of Americans told the Harris survey that they had “reached the breaking point” with respect to the amount of taxes they paid; that figure was up to 66 per cent by 1978.

Those who are unhappy use a simple consumer’s measure: in so many words, only 23 per cent of the people queried by the Harris poll in 1971 thought they were getting their “money’s worth from tax dollars.” In this sentiment no more than two or three percentage points separated whites from blacks, Democrats from Republicans, or one income group from another. All felt put upon. In that same year, about 7 out of 10 told Harris that the time was coming when they “would sympathize with a taxpayers’ revolt,” involving a refusal to pay taxes—again with little difference in view related to whether they were white or black, and whether their income was around $5,000 or over $15,000.

The pressure has increased along with inflation. About one out of three Americans ranked inflation as their chief worry in 1977; in 1978, two out of three Americans did so. The “money’s worth” was diminishing rapidly. In response, public officials uniformly promised tax reduction, but they did not deliver. Then the California property tax provided the dramatic breakthrough. California real-estate inflation had been brutal, often triple-digit over a few years’ span. It was common for people who had bought a modest home for $20,000 to find themselves paying taxes ten years later on a home assessed at $90,000. No one was surprised to learn that the home of a Los Angeles man had been reappraised to $60,000 in 1977, and reappraised again in 1978 to $104,000, with a jump in taxes from a little over $2,000 to a little over $3,500. It became a hardship for many people to live in their own homes, and obviously there was no point in selling for the profit to buy other inflated houses at proportionally higher interest rates.

While these and other taxes were rising so much faster than income, the number of state and city employees was also increasing faster than the population. In the period 1970-75, the number of state and local employees rose by 21 per cent, while the state’s population grew by only 6 per cent.

But the tipping point in the California situation was a sizable tax-generated surplus that public officials in Sacramento continued to sit on despite the growing tax lament from the public. Inflation pushes many taxpayers into higher brackets in all graduated-income-tax systems as their dollar earnings (although not their real earnings) go up. Under the Reagan administration, the California income tax had been made even more progressive than before, producing a visible and well-publicized $5.7 billion surplus by 1978. This was available for distribution, or to serve as the basis of a tax cut. But instead of proposing such remedies, Reagan’s successor, Governor Jerry Brown, apparently preferred to hoard the surplus in order, according to some, to use it to advantage in his reelection year. As State Treasurer Jesse Unruh has pointed out, this enormous surplus constituted a standing public invitation to Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann Amendment. For this reason, Unruh has called Brown “the father of Proposition 13,” although the Governor opposed the measure—with somewhat waning vigor as the polls showed increasing support for it. The polls were accurate: Proposition 13—which rolled back property taxes to 1 per cent of market value as of 1975, prohibited local taxes from rising more than 2 per cent a year, and put other checks on tax-raising—passed by nearly a two-to-one margin.

But while the surplus may have been idiosyncratic to California, it was, even for Californians, only the final straw. They were obviously using the occasion to express themselves on the matter of tax burdens in general. And indeed, this is how their vote was taken, by politicians in California and everywhere else, as well as by the American public. After the California vote, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that the whole country was jubilant. Again by a two-to-one margin (51-24), Americans said that they supported a similar measure for their own jurisdictions.

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But if California’s Proposition 13 was the messenger, what really was the message? To what extent do the taxpayers just want to keep their money, as against seeking their money’s worth? What services are they willing to give up? What do they expect from government?

One stream of opinion on the subject was articulated by Senator George McGovern when he said that Californians had acted on a “degrading hedonism that tells them to ask what they can take from the needy.” He also saw “undertones of racism” in Proposition 13. According to others who share this view, Proposition 13 is an expression of “mean-spiritedness” and the harbinger of the conservative and/or racist backlash which has allegedly been around the corner for the past dozen years.

There is no doubt that self-interest (which, however, is not necessarily the same thing as mean-spiritedness) was a factor in the Proposition 13 vote. A Los Angeles Times/CBS News election-day poll of those who voted revealed that 72 per cent of homeowners (who stood to gain) had opted for the measure as against 47 per cent of the renters (who had nothing to gain), while only 44 per cent of those with public employees in their family said they had backed the measure, as compared to 65 per cent of the total population.

What is noteworthy, however, is how many voters with an apparent interest in the defeat of Proposition 13 nevertheless went for it: 44 per cent of families of public employees, 47 per cent of renters, and 42 per cent of blacks. In these categories, the majority who voted opposed Proposition 13; but in every economic category, it was the other way around. Thus the measure was supported by 55 per cent of those with incomes under $8,000; 66 per cent of those in the $8-15,000 bracket; 67 per cent of those in the $15-25,000 class; and 61 per cent of those with incomes above $25,000.

A similarly mixed picture appears when we look at the vote in terms of ideological categories. As might have been expected, 82 per cent of self-designated “conservatives” voted for the measure. Yet here too what is noteworthy is the large number of self-described “moderates” (63 per cent) and “liberals” (45 per cent) who voted for it.

Clearly, then, the victory of Proposition 13 represents something more complex than a triumph of selfishness and/or old-line conservatism. In trying to understand what that something is, we might begin by noting that the evidence from a variety of opinion surveys reveals that a growing number of Americans, when asked to describe themselves politically, say that they are conservatives. In 1964, according to the New York Times/CBS poll, the ratio of self-described conservatives to self-described liberals was fairly even (32-27); today, the gap has widened considerably (42-23).

But what do people mean when they call themselves conservatives? Evidently it has to do with distaste for a growing, interfering, and cumbersome government. Thus in 1964, according to the Gallup poll, Americans were almost evenly split (42-39) on the issue of whether “the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free-enterprise system.” By 1978, when the New York Times/CBS poll repeated the question, Americans had come to agree with the statement by a margin of 58-31 per cent. Not surprisingly, self-described conservatives now endorse this statement overwhelmingly (67-26); what is surprising is the fact that even “liberals” divide in favor of it by 45-35 per cent.

The percentage of people who think that “government is spending too much” has also risen steadily since 1973. But “too much” is a famous term of relativity. It may be considered too much with respect to the income of the citizenry; but it may also be considered too much with respect to the quality of the product. This is the “money’s-worth” question. And the overwhelming tide of opinion, especially “conservative” opinion, identifies this government deficiency as “waste.” In 1958, only 42 per cent of those polled told Gallup interviewers that “the government wastes a lot of the tax money”; by 1978, 78 per cent of Americans thought so (New York Times/CBS News). A vast majority of blacks also agrees with this view.

“Waste in government” was the key phrase in the Proposition 13 campaign. Mervin Field of the California poll reports that the main comment made by proponents of Proposition 13, other than “Taxes are too high,” was “The time has come to cut government costs, waste, and inefficiency.” Field noted that prior to election day, the California public believed that a cut of 10 per cent in tax revenues could be accomplished without any decline in state and local government services. And three-quarters of Californians in favor of the Proposition, in the Los Angeles Times/CBS News election-day poll, said that they did not think public services would be reduced by Proposition 13. After the California vote, a vast majority of Americans nationally (89-5 per cent) interpreted it as “a strong protest that people running government will have to respond by trimming a lot of waste from government spending” (Harris/ABC).

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Does there begin to appear an anomaly in the position of those who supported Proposition 13? After all, it was reliably estimated that $7 billion in revenue would be lost to the state as a result of the measure. Surely two out of three Californians did not believe that paper clips and bureaucratic perquisites could account for that much fat. And indeed, three weeks after the election, a majority of the supporters of Proposition 13 told Los Angeles Times interviewers that they still favored the amendment, even though they now recognized that there would have to be some cuts in services. Was, then, the cry against “waste in government” merely a cover-up for “hedonistic” and “mean-spirited” impulses to cut services for the needy? The evidence indicates that the answer to this question is no, and that the cry against government is genuine.

In all surveys, the percentage of people who say that they trust or have confidence in the government has dropped steadily. In one recurrent poll (the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center) the percentage trusting the government dropped from 78 in 1964 to 33 in 1976. More and more Americans think that the people running the government “don’t know what they’re doing.”

But more significant in refuting the interpretation of Proposition 13 as pure “hedonism” is the fact that the desire for government to intervene in beneficent ways has not diminished. The New York Times/CBS poll reports that in 1960 63 per cent of Americans agreed that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everybody who wants to work has a job.” This year, 74 per cent of the people in general—and 70 per cent of those who describe themselves as “conservative”—approved that mandate for government. In 1960, about 64 per cent of the people endorsed the proposal that “the government ought to help people to get doctors and hospital care at low cost.” This year, 81 per cent of those interviewed by the New York Times/CBS poll agreed. In the fall of 1976, the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center asked a national sample whether they thought “government should spend less even if it means cutting back on health and education.” Only 21 per cent favored spending less under such circumstances while 75 per cent opposed the cut. In the same year, 67 per cent of those polled by Gallup thought that government help for the elderly should be increased, while only 3 per cent said it should be reduced; 51 per cent thought that there should be more government support for health care and only 13 per cent said there should be less; 44 per cent felt there should be more government intervention on behalf of the unemployed, as compared to 19 per cent who believed there should be less. There was no significant difference between the attitudes of professional and business people and manual laborers, or among the various income classifications.

This common support of beneficent government intervention, substantiated by survey after survey, cannot be written off by saying that people are only interested in maintaining social programs of direct benefit to them. No doubt a certain amount of “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” sentiment has always sustained liberal social programs; but the figures do not confirm the charge that it is narrow self-interest which motivates the well-to-do and the ideologically conservative to favor government help for the aged and the needy. Rather, Americans seem to have developed an irreversible commitment to basic government welfare programs, as they did, finally, to social security. It is now as natural to them as getting up in the morning.

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There seems to be one nagging exception to this generalization which itself throws light on the attitudinal sets in the country. The word “welfare” constantly draws antipathy from the American public. When asked by the Los Angeles Times/CBS poll which services they would least like to see reduced, if services had to be reduced, 75 per cent of Californians who voted on June 6 named police protection, while only 11 per cent said welfare programs. (Actually, if this was an index of “mean-spiritedness,” it did not differentiate sharply between those who had supported Proposition 13 and those who had opposed it: about 9 per cent of the former and 14 per cent of the latter listed welfare as the leading candidate for a cut.) The California (Field) poll also found 62 per cent choosing “welfare and public-assistance programs” as the prime target for a cutback, as compared to the 6-8 per cent who favored cuts in fire and police departments.

This attitude toward “welfare” is by no means new. In 1935, in one of the first surveys Gallup ever took, 60 per cent of the respondents said that the government was expending too much money for “relief” (the contemporary term for what later came to be called welfare) while only 9 per cent replied that the government was spending too little. The majority of Americans continued to show disdain for “relief” all during the Depression. But the same polls which produced these results revealed a considerable majority in favor of the government’s providing jobs for the unemployed, and for requiring those on relief to accept such jobs.

This general response pattern has remained substantially unchanged over the years. In a 1970 Harris poll, Americans approved (46-34) the proposition that welfare should be abolished, and that welfare recipients be made to go to work. But the same respondents overwhelmingly supported (56-28) the idea that government programs should be increased to help the poor. Again, in a 1976 survey, Harris found that 62 per cent favored (and only 23 per cent opposed) “a major cutback in federal spending.” However, confronted with a list of specifics, substantial majorities of the same respondents rejected cutbacks in spending for education, health, help for the unemployed, equal opportunity for minorities, environmental protection, and product safety. It was only on welfare that a majority (56-35) favored a cutback.

The juxtaposition of these two answers—cut welfare, increase help for the poor—poses a puzzle which turns up again and again. Thus in 1977, the white population was evenly split (39-39) on whether welfare programs should be greatly decreased, but three-quarters of them said that the government should spend money to provide job incentives for the poor (Roper). In 1977, the American public approved by 80-13 per cent the idea that all able-bodied people should be removed from the welfare rolls, but also stated by a similar majority that the government should provide public-service jobs, with tax money, for those who could not find jobs in private industry. And by about the same margin (78-15), the American public agreed that its tax money should continue to be expended on the aged, blind, disabled, and one-parent families with children under the age of seven (Roper). There was no significant difference in the anwsers to these questions by self-styled conservatives and self-styled liberals.

The numbers may be subject to various degrees of distortion, but the answer to the puzzle is clear. Americans—especially that growing contingent of self-identified “conservative” Americans—are willing to pay taxes to assist the needy, but they are not satisfied with the way that portion of their tax money is being spent.

There are three strikes against “welfare.” It still durably connotes “relief,” “dole,” something for nothing, economic waste. It is connected to the sometimes exaggerated, sometimes prejudiced sense of how many able-bodied people are on the rolls, or how many prefer not to work. As a program it seems to epitomize bureaucratic government at the worst: inefficient, ornately overlaid, corrupt, unfathomable, feckless.

But helping the poor by providing jobs is another matter entirely. Thus in 1972 Gallup asked: Suppose it would cost the government less money to give poor people cash payments than to have government train them, find jobs for them, and, if necessary, provide care for their children while they work? About 81 per cent responded that they would prefer the more costly program; only 9 per cent said they would favor the less expensive one.

The message, then, is: help the poor but get rid of “welfare.” That “liberal” message is consistent with the nature of our new self-styled “conservative.”

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This hybrid political animal has, of course, been spotted before. In 1967, for example, Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free found that many Americans were “ideological conservatives”—that is, anti-statist in their political beliefs—and “operational liberals,” in the sense that they supported government action to create jobs. The number of such people is growing. More precisely, ideological conservatism has been growing as a partner to a continuingly dominant operational liberalism. This orientation is often described as neoconservatism, but it might just as accurately be called neoliberalism. The former designation emphasizes the belief that expansion of government services at the current welfare-state level should, in lawyer’s language, be suspect—subject to proof that a real problem cannot be dealt with in another fashion. The latter term emphasizes the continuing acceptance of collective responsibility to provide for the impoverished and the disadvantaged.

But if this hybrid phenomenon is the most dynamic force in the American political culture today, it also poses a dilemma—perhaps the new American dilemma, which, like Gunnar Myrdal’s old one, also encompasses a contradiction between practice and ideology, this time in the arena of government intervention. Is it finally possible to hold down the monster state while dealing with the sheer bulk of services of every kind our society seems increasingly to need?

The “tax revolt” is perched at the edge of this huge question, whose answer will probably evolve rather than be calculated. But the tax revolt raises a more practical and immediate question as well: will the politicians quickly enough recognize and accommodate to the growing neoliberal (or, if one prefers, neoconservative) mood, or will they misread it, one way or another, according to their pre-dilections?

If characterizing the tax revolt epitomized by Proposition 13 as “mean-spiritedness,” or “hedonism,” or “racism” is to misread it on the one side, to interpret it as the sign of a swing to old-line conservative or right-wing Republicanism is to misread it equally on the other. For not only did California Democrats give Proposition 13 a landslide vote of support, 57 per cent to 43, but California Republicans chose the moderate Evelle Younger as their gubernatorial candidate over the more conservative Ed Davis.

Nationally, too, the same pattern is evident. The growth of tax-revolt sentiment has been accompanied by a parallel growth of identification not with the Republicans but with the Democratic party (Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 45 per cent to about 20 per cent in the polls). In practical terms, both Gallup and the New York Times/CBS polls estimate that the overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress will be renewed this November, even though the out-party usually makes a comeback in congressional contests held in non-presidential election years. In addition, the Democratic party—the party which has stood for expanding social services—has gained overwhelming control of government from the county courthouses to the state and national legislatures, and from governorships to the Presidency, during a period when the proportion of self-identified conservatives and anti-tax sentiment have been increasing steadily.

Nor are the elements of a classic right-wing extremist movement present in Proposition 13. Howard Jarvis, who has been plumping for this kind of tax measure for over ten years, suddenly found himself at the head of a parade he did not assemble. He may be a culture hero at this point, but he is not a political leader. Extra-partisan movements, whether rightist or leftist, usually make headway when they espouse a cause which is not embraced by one of the major coalition parties. Such movements have always been done in by the fact that one of the major parties, following the logic of its coalitional nature, took over their cause in a more moderate form. That seems to have happened already in California. It remains to be seen, however, if the politicians understand exactly what it is they have embraced.

The strong support of Proposition 13 by Democrats, in California and around the nation, provides the clue. As the survey data show, these Democrats have not abandoned their desire for a socially protective government. (On the contrary, most Republicans have tended to join them in that desire.) But the Democrats increasingly consider themselves “conservative” in their queasiness about the way government is growing and acting.

If, then, the public mood today is against enlarging the power, scope, and size of government in order to solve social problems, as advocated by George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, or the Americans for Democratic Action, it is also against returning to the laissez-faire small-government philosophy proposed by Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, or the American Conservative Union. Reagan, however, appears to be shifting: in a post-Proposition 13 speech he challenged his image as a “right-wing person” by pointing out that as governor he had made the California income tax more “progressive” and had increased welfare grants “by 43 per cent for the truly needy.” Evidently he at least understands what analysis of the tax revolt tells us—that the predominant public mood is not “right-wing” but the neoliberal (or neoconservative) impulse to combine support of collective social responsibilities with a suspicion of growing government power.

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