Commentary Magazine


Topic: Schwarzenegger

RE: Immigration and the Golden State

Like Jennifer, I’m an advocate of increased legal immigration. I believe immigration is a net positive. There is no question that today’s illegal immigrants are a net burden to California’s government-provided social services. But the place to look for the root of that problem is California policy.

If you don’t have an ever-expanding list of entitlement benefits, illegal immigrants can’t take advantage of it. The original problem is the expansion of benefits and “services” well beyond anything that makes sense. The authors of that problem are in the statehouse in Sacramento. The key reasons why state expenditures on social services have increased dramatically in the last quarter-century are the following: the scope of benefits has expanded; the eligibility standards have been loosened; and the state has expanded its own payroll to include hundreds of analysts and managers who function as advocates for enlarging their programs.

In 1999, for example, California’s Healthy Families program made families eligible for state health benefits at incomes up to 250 percent of the poverty level. Then, in the 2000s, the list of state benefits lengthened significantly.  By 2009, with the housing market and the overall economy crashing, Governor Schwarzenegger had to freeze enrollments in the program. It had driven the state’s direct expenditures on medical services up from a little over $8 billion in the 1999 budget to more than $14.3 billion in 2007. (Budget figures here.)

From 1985 to the high-water spending year of 2008, California’s total state expenditures on health and social services — in non-adjusted dollars — rose from $8.64 billion to $29.34 billion. In adjusted dollars (adjusting the 1985 figure to $17.28 billion), the difference represents an increase in social spending of 64 percent in that 23-year period, while the population increased only 39 percent. Read More

Like Jennifer, I’m an advocate of increased legal immigration. I believe immigration is a net positive. There is no question that today’s illegal immigrants are a net burden to California’s government-provided social services. But the place to look for the root of that problem is California policy.

If you don’t have an ever-expanding list of entitlement benefits, illegal immigrants can’t take advantage of it. The original problem is the expansion of benefits and “services” well beyond anything that makes sense. The authors of that problem are in the statehouse in Sacramento. The key reasons why state expenditures on social services have increased dramatically in the last quarter-century are the following: the scope of benefits has expanded; the eligibility standards have been loosened; and the state has expanded its own payroll to include hundreds of analysts and managers who function as advocates for enlarging their programs.

In 1999, for example, California’s Healthy Families program made families eligible for state health benefits at incomes up to 250 percent of the poverty level. Then, in the 2000s, the list of state benefits lengthened significantly.  By 2009, with the housing market and the overall economy crashing, Governor Schwarzenegger had to freeze enrollments in the program. It had driven the state’s direct expenditures on medical services up from a little over $8 billion in the 1999 budget to more than $14.3 billion in 2007. (Budget figures here.)

From 1985 to the high-water spending year of 2008, California’s total state expenditures on health and social services — in non-adjusted dollars — rose from $8.64 billion to $29.34 billion. In adjusted dollars (adjusting the 1985 figure to $17.28 billion), the difference represents an increase in social spending of 64 percent in that 23-year period, while the population increased only 39 percent.

Until 2009, when the state had to cut funding for whole categories of medical benefits — thereby creating a political fracas — most Californians probably had little idea what their tax dollars were going for. I gained a direct understanding myself in the summer of 2008, during my annual optometric exam. The optometry benefit under Healthy Families had recently kicked in, and my optometrist had seen a huge increase in low-margin Medi-Cal business. (This put her practice under stress, incidentally: she needed another office worker to handle the additional traffic, but couldn’t hire one because she was taking a net loss on the new business.) As a cash patient, I had become a rarity in her practice — but I was also footing the bill for the dozens of new working-class patients for whom she was now submitting Medi-Cal claims.

It’s very unlikely that most of the benefits cut in 2009 were being used by illegals in any great numbers. Likewise, serving illegals had almost nothing to do with the fastest-growing sector of the state’s health services in the 2000s: the provision of “developmental services” (e.g., services for autism, epilepsy, and mental disabilities). California guaranteed spiraling costs for this line of effort by choosing to create much of the infrastructure itself rather than emphasizing voucher assistance for privately-provided services. Paying for infrastructure – practitioners’ salaries, clerical support, pension plans, facilities and maintenance – is a huge and growing problem for California’s public finances; in too many fields, the state has become the employer of first resort. That has nothing to do with illegals. It’s a function of the excessive privilege enjoyed by public-policy advocacy, whether the subject is education, health care, environmentalism, unionism, or schemes for income redistribution.

Under no demographic conditions is California’s path sustainable. Without illegals, it might have taken a little longer for the house of cards to collapse. But the fundamental problems are a bloated, activist public sector and a tax-and-regulatory environment that discourages the private economy. Illegals haven’t created those problems; immigration per se certainly hasn’t. It’s the state policies, stupid, and only changing those policies can fix what’s wrong.

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California’s Water and Eggs

Two events this past week highlight just how far California’s political class still is from the home base of responsible policy. The events seem, to the modern American mind, to represent narrow slices of decision-making in the public realm. But that sense says more about us and our technology-enabled complacency than it does about the issues involved. It has been surreal to watch these developments unfold in concert.

Both issues are ultimately related to farming, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the content of the public debate. One involves a bond package for water infrastructure improvements, which the governor and legislature were planning to present to the voters in November. During its concoction last year, the bond package gained notoriety for its pork and backroom deals. Environmental purists have opposed it from the start; now good-government watchdogs argue for scrapping it and starting over. Central Valley farmers and southern coastal urbanites — the Californians most affected by the state’s current water woes — are still pushing the deal. But late last week, Governor Schwarzenegger asked the legislature to take the bond package off the November ballot and submit it in 2012 instead.

This inertia in the face of the severe economic problems caused by current water policy is remarkable. Thousands of people in the farming industry have lost their livelihoods and property since California’s “man-made drought” became reality three years ago. In some counties, unemployment tops 20 percent. The state has lost billions in revenue from its largest industry: agriculture.

Advocacy groups this spring brought the central dispute, which is over the celebrated Delta smelt in the San Joaquin River delta, to a judicially brokered compromise that now allows some level of water pumping. (A good summary of the process is here.) But this is a conditional outcome: not sustainable and not intended to be so. New development is what’s needed to transcend the limitations of our state water infrastructure, which set us up for the crisis to begin with. But legislators in Sacramento aren’t serious enough to prioritize taking action; they have to wangle votes from each other with unseemly pork, which only makes their “fix” more difficult to present to tax-weary voters.

There is, however, something on which the political leaders in Sacramento were able to take unified action this week. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, which mandates a set of humane conditions for the hens tended by egg-producing farmers. This year’s legislature has passed a law that will require out-of-state egg producers to conform to the mandate as well, if they want to sell eggs in California. The governor signed it yesterday, demonstrating that they can get things done in Sacramento. The things just have to be on their list of priorities.

What will it take for California’s political class to recognize that prosperity, public order, and human survival are not givens? They can collapse under the weight of hostile regulation. The Golden State’s sour economy and staggering deficit are the chief exhibits in that lesson today, and worse is probably looming. But by all means, let us fight to ensure that hens across America can spread their wings without bumping into each other.

Two events this past week highlight just how far California’s political class still is from the home base of responsible policy. The events seem, to the modern American mind, to represent narrow slices of decision-making in the public realm. But that sense says more about us and our technology-enabled complacency than it does about the issues involved. It has been surreal to watch these developments unfold in concert.

Both issues are ultimately related to farming, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the content of the public debate. One involves a bond package for water infrastructure improvements, which the governor and legislature were planning to present to the voters in November. During its concoction last year, the bond package gained notoriety for its pork and backroom deals. Environmental purists have opposed it from the start; now good-government watchdogs argue for scrapping it and starting over. Central Valley farmers and southern coastal urbanites — the Californians most affected by the state’s current water woes — are still pushing the deal. But late last week, Governor Schwarzenegger asked the legislature to take the bond package off the November ballot and submit it in 2012 instead.

This inertia in the face of the severe economic problems caused by current water policy is remarkable. Thousands of people in the farming industry have lost their livelihoods and property since California’s “man-made drought” became reality three years ago. In some counties, unemployment tops 20 percent. The state has lost billions in revenue from its largest industry: agriculture.

Advocacy groups this spring brought the central dispute, which is over the celebrated Delta smelt in the San Joaquin River delta, to a judicially brokered compromise that now allows some level of water pumping. (A good summary of the process is here.) But this is a conditional outcome: not sustainable and not intended to be so. New development is what’s needed to transcend the limitations of our state water infrastructure, which set us up for the crisis to begin with. But legislators in Sacramento aren’t serious enough to prioritize taking action; they have to wangle votes from each other with unseemly pork, which only makes their “fix” more difficult to present to tax-weary voters.

There is, however, something on which the political leaders in Sacramento were able to take unified action this week. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, which mandates a set of humane conditions for the hens tended by egg-producing farmers. This year’s legislature has passed a law that will require out-of-state egg producers to conform to the mandate as well, if they want to sell eggs in California. The governor signed it yesterday, demonstrating that they can get things done in Sacramento. The things just have to be on their list of priorities.

What will it take for California’s political class to recognize that prosperity, public order, and human survival are not givens? They can collapse under the weight of hostile regulation. The Golden State’s sour economy and staggering deficit are the chief exhibits in that lesson today, and worse is probably looming. But by all means, let us fight to ensure that hens across America can spread their wings without bumping into each other.

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Nor Any Drop to Drink

The man-made water shortage plaguing California is usually called “man-made drought,” but this bumper-sticker description doesn’t capture the essence of the issue. It focuses us on the frightful word — drought, – evoking associations with natural, climate-induced drought. Unlike natural drought, however, man’s conscious choices about the use of water affect us 100 percent of the time — and are always subject to our discretion.

The man-made drought in California is uniquely emblematic of a shift in the political thinking of the Left toward prioritizing abstract, untested ideas about the environment over the survival of man. Few can be unaware today that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, some of the most productive agricultural land in North America has had its water turned off due to a federal judge’s ruling to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This decision has cost California’s $18 billion economy more than $1 billion in revenues and as many as 40,000 jobs. What is less widely known is that it was an FDR-era public-works project that modernized the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley to begin with. Regularizing the delivery of water was intended to stabilize crop production, agricultural income, and jobs.

The policy of the U.S. government has thus effectively changed in the intervening decades, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 increasingly invoked to shut down the artificial irrigation that had been made possible by earlier government projects. Significantly, however, the choice here is not between delivering water for irrigation and letting Mother Nature do as she will. The alternative use of the water is governed by human decision as well. In the case of the San Joaquin River recovery project, for example, water that had gone to agriculture since 1942 is being redirected to the San Joaquin riverbed, with the hope of restoring the river to its condition before the Friant Dam had been built.

The water being withheld out of concern for the Delta smelt, meanwhile, is sitting in reservoirs. It can’t be pumped because the pumps themselves are the menace to the two-inch smelt. Neither alternative in this case delivers a “natural” outcome; both are managed by man with deliberately chosen objectives. But the objective of protecting endangered species is particularly ill-defined and open-ended. As Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, points out, no California fish put on the endangered-species list since 1974 has ever been removed from it. This casts doubt on the original purpose of the enterprise as well as its methodology.

Governor Schwarzenegger led an effort in 2009 to get California out of the water-infrastructure straitjacket imposed by lawsuits, but succeeded mainly in guaranteeing that state regulation of public water use be increasingly intrusive. Environmental groups are now shifting their efforts to the Santa Ana sucker, a small bait fish whose protection portends, at a minimum, irrigation losses for citrus growers east of Los Angeles. Man’s technology has advanced considerably since the ancient Sumerians irrigated their Mesopotamian fields 6,000 years ago, but his wisdom has a long way to go.

The man-made water shortage plaguing California is usually called “man-made drought,” but this bumper-sticker description doesn’t capture the essence of the issue. It focuses us on the frightful word — drought, – evoking associations with natural, climate-induced drought. Unlike natural drought, however, man’s conscious choices about the use of water affect us 100 percent of the time — and are always subject to our discretion.

The man-made drought in California is uniquely emblematic of a shift in the political thinking of the Left toward prioritizing abstract, untested ideas about the environment over the survival of man. Few can be unaware today that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, some of the most productive agricultural land in North America has had its water turned off due to a federal judge’s ruling to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This decision has cost California’s $18 billion economy more than $1 billion in revenues and as many as 40,000 jobs. What is less widely known is that it was an FDR-era public-works project that modernized the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley to begin with. Regularizing the delivery of water was intended to stabilize crop production, agricultural income, and jobs.

The policy of the U.S. government has thus effectively changed in the intervening decades, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 increasingly invoked to shut down the artificial irrigation that had been made possible by earlier government projects. Significantly, however, the choice here is not between delivering water for irrigation and letting Mother Nature do as she will. The alternative use of the water is governed by human decision as well. In the case of the San Joaquin River recovery project, for example, water that had gone to agriculture since 1942 is being redirected to the San Joaquin riverbed, with the hope of restoring the river to its condition before the Friant Dam had been built.

The water being withheld out of concern for the Delta smelt, meanwhile, is sitting in reservoirs. It can’t be pumped because the pumps themselves are the menace to the two-inch smelt. Neither alternative in this case delivers a “natural” outcome; both are managed by man with deliberately chosen objectives. But the objective of protecting endangered species is particularly ill-defined and open-ended. As Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, points out, no California fish put on the endangered-species list since 1974 has ever been removed from it. This casts doubt on the original purpose of the enterprise as well as its methodology.

Governor Schwarzenegger led an effort in 2009 to get California out of the water-infrastructure straitjacket imposed by lawsuits, but succeeded mainly in guaranteeing that state regulation of public water use be increasingly intrusive. Environmental groups are now shifting their efforts to the Santa Ana sucker, a small bait fish whose protection portends, at a minimum, irrigation losses for citrus growers east of Los Angeles. Man’s technology has advanced considerably since the ancient Sumerians irrigated their Mesopotamian fields 6,000 years ago, but his wisdom has a long way to go.

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California Taxpayer to the Feds: Don’t Do It!

I live and pay taxes in California. And when I read Governor Schwarzenegger’s “threats” today, about the consequences of the federal government’s not bailing out the state by $8 billion, my immediate reaction was “No bail-out! Carry out the threats!”

The Governator’s threats are to cut funding to the state welfare program and in-home health services, and to push for a resumption of offshore drilling to raise new revenue. The state’s welfare policies are extremely counterproductive: in combined state and federal subsidies, beneficiaries can receive over $1,500 a month–more if they have dependents–plus food stamps, free medical care, and low-income housing, which are enough to live on pretty well in many parts of the state. The ease with which day laborers can earn undeclared cash income, moreover, means many families have substantially more than their welfare subsidies to live on. California benefits give native Californians the option of lifetime dependency, but they do worse than that: they attract millions of welfare aspirants from elsewhere.

Earlier this year I received this communication from an unusually knowledgeable reader. It’s a dollar-by-dollar description of the welfare benefits available to people in California, and of how the residents of a north-coastal county consequently live, in a census area where only 6 out of 256 people actually have paying jobs. This is a broken, unsustainable system. By far the best thing that could happen to California is for this system to fail, and to have to be reconstituted under much different procedures. The burden of it, as a major element of state spending, makes it a Sisyphean task under the best of economic conditions for new businesses to establish themselves, and for working families to stay in or enter the middle class.

Offshore drilling, meanwhile, is something California should never have stopped doing. The state could also realize healthy revenues, as well as jobs and cheaper fuel for residents, by retooling its existing refineries. Efforts to do so, however, have been stalled by environmentalist lawsuits and, in some cases, by California senators. The nation as a whole, we should note, would also benefit from a resumption of drilling and a more robust oil-production profile in the Golden State.

Welfarism, economically destructive taxation and regulation, irresponsible environmentalism: California’s fiscal wounds are all self-inflicted. An $8 billion bail-out from Washington would only enable the state to stagger about dementedly for a bit longer, still holding a knife plunged between its ribs. This is what the therapists call a dysfunctional situation, and it needs intervention, not enabling. Don’t do it, Washington. Don’t do it.

I live and pay taxes in California. And when I read Governor Schwarzenegger’s “threats” today, about the consequences of the federal government’s not bailing out the state by $8 billion, my immediate reaction was “No bail-out! Carry out the threats!”

The Governator’s threats are to cut funding to the state welfare program and in-home health services, and to push for a resumption of offshore drilling to raise new revenue. The state’s welfare policies are extremely counterproductive: in combined state and federal subsidies, beneficiaries can receive over $1,500 a month–more if they have dependents–plus food stamps, free medical care, and low-income housing, which are enough to live on pretty well in many parts of the state. The ease with which day laborers can earn undeclared cash income, moreover, means many families have substantially more than their welfare subsidies to live on. California benefits give native Californians the option of lifetime dependency, but they do worse than that: they attract millions of welfare aspirants from elsewhere.

Earlier this year I received this communication from an unusually knowledgeable reader. It’s a dollar-by-dollar description of the welfare benefits available to people in California, and of how the residents of a north-coastal county consequently live, in a census area where only 6 out of 256 people actually have paying jobs. This is a broken, unsustainable system. By far the best thing that could happen to California is for this system to fail, and to have to be reconstituted under much different procedures. The burden of it, as a major element of state spending, makes it a Sisyphean task under the best of economic conditions for new businesses to establish themselves, and for working families to stay in or enter the middle class.

Offshore drilling, meanwhile, is something California should never have stopped doing. The state could also realize healthy revenues, as well as jobs and cheaper fuel for residents, by retooling its existing refineries. Efforts to do so, however, have been stalled by environmentalist lawsuits and, in some cases, by California senators. The nation as a whole, we should note, would also benefit from a resumption of drilling and a more robust oil-production profile in the Golden State.

Welfarism, economically destructive taxation and regulation, irresponsible environmentalism: California’s fiscal wounds are all self-inflicted. An $8 billion bail-out from Washington would only enable the state to stagger about dementedly for a bit longer, still holding a knife plunged between its ribs. This is what the therapists call a dysfunctional situation, and it needs intervention, not enabling. Don’t do it, Washington. Don’t do it.

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Re: Who’s Trumping Whom

Jenn, I should make clear that I am a supporter of gay marriage, though, like you, I remain uneasy about attempts to enact it via judicial fiat as opposed to legislative agreement. That said, what I take issue with is your assertion that yesterday’s court decision represented “clever judges” trumping “the will of the elected legislature.” That’s just factually incorrect. “The will of the elected legislature,” after all, has been expressed clearly on two occasions, and the California Supreme Court is in agreement with the state assembly, not “trumping” it.

Of course, this decision does, as you point out, reach above the “constitutional and democratic system in place in California” in that it voids the vetoes of Governor Schwarzenegger. Yet Schwarzenegger, who vetoed both gay marriage bills, has stated (prior to the decision) that not only would he fight any and all attempts to amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, but that he will “respect” the ruling of the state’s highest court. Frankly, I think it’s clear that Schwarzenegger has no problem with gay marriage, he was just uneasy about being the first Governor in the country to sign it into law. Either way, rhetoric like “judicial activism,” “discovering a right,” and “trumping the will” is misplaced.

Moreover, from an electoral perspective, I don’t think it makes sense for John McCain or the GOP to demagogue this issue. There are far graver problems facing this country than the threat of gay weddings, and using this state-level decision as a national campaign issue could backfire on Republicans and make them look desperate. Fortunately, John McCain realizes this. I’m not so sure the same can be said about the GOP.

Jenn, I should make clear that I am a supporter of gay marriage, though, like you, I remain uneasy about attempts to enact it via judicial fiat as opposed to legislative agreement. That said, what I take issue with is your assertion that yesterday’s court decision represented “clever judges” trumping “the will of the elected legislature.” That’s just factually incorrect. “The will of the elected legislature,” after all, has been expressed clearly on two occasions, and the California Supreme Court is in agreement with the state assembly, not “trumping” it.

Of course, this decision does, as you point out, reach above the “constitutional and democratic system in place in California” in that it voids the vetoes of Governor Schwarzenegger. Yet Schwarzenegger, who vetoed both gay marriage bills, has stated (prior to the decision) that not only would he fight any and all attempts to amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, but that he will “respect” the ruling of the state’s highest court. Frankly, I think it’s clear that Schwarzenegger has no problem with gay marriage, he was just uneasy about being the first Governor in the country to sign it into law. Either way, rhetoric like “judicial activism,” “discovering a right,” and “trumping the will” is misplaced.

Moreover, from an electoral perspective, I don’t think it makes sense for John McCain or the GOP to demagogue this issue. There are far graver problems facing this country than the threat of gay weddings, and using this state-level decision as a national campaign issue could backfire on Republicans and make them look desperate. Fortunately, John McCain realizes this. I’m not so sure the same can be said about the GOP.

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Who’s Trumping Whom?

Jennifer, is it fair to say that yesterday’s California Supreme Court decision represents “clever judges” “trump[ing] the will of the elected legislature?” The California Assembly has twice passed laws that would have extended marriage to gays, in September of 2005 and again in September 2007. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills, yet he has made it clear he will oppose any attempts to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. There are many criticisms one can make of the events that transpired yesterday in California. But I say the “activist courts” line isn’t going to work.

Jennifer, is it fair to say that yesterday’s California Supreme Court decision represents “clever judges” “trump[ing] the will of the elected legislature?” The California Assembly has twice passed laws that would have extended marriage to gays, in September of 2005 and again in September 2007. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills, yet he has made it clear he will oppose any attempts to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. There are many criticisms one can make of the events that transpired yesterday in California. But I say the “activist courts” line isn’t going to work.

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