Reporting the Bad News

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 06:47:00 PM

At a farmers’ market, we sat down to share a table with a mother and two small children. The little girl, who looked to be about 3, or perhaps a clever 2 and a half, announced that my companion had “a big white beard!”  

“He’s a king!” she said joyfully. Her brother, 4-ish, said “No, a monster”—a category he obviously prefers to kings. My companion obligingly made a dreadful monster face, causing both to scream with pleasure.  

Things are as you see them. If you expect daily life to contain kings and monsters, an idea little kids pick up from the books devoted parents read to them, you’ll see kings and monsters everywhere, and you’ll enjoy the experience.  

You see what you’re looking for, but conversely you don’t see what you aren’t looking for, or what your experience hasn’t prepared you to notice. This is perhaps the kindest explanation for what seems to be Gov. Schwarzenegger’s apparent total departure from the reality-based community. Yes, the state’s in appalling trouble, but the “solutions” he proposes are wildly unlikely to solve any of our problems.  

Authorizing more deep-well oil exploration off the coast? Come on! Luckily, almost every environmental organization in the business, not to mention several big-time Democrats and various editorial pages, have come out against it, so perhaps it can be stopped. Now an oil severance tax, on the other hand… 

Or how about his suggestion that schoolkids be given electronic devices next year to use instead of textbooks? He clearly lacks the math skills which would quickly show this to be an expensive strategy, not to mention the child-rearing experience which would tell him that such gadgets quickly get lost or broken when maintained by the average teenager. Maria or the nannies must have done the heavy lifting in raising their four kids. 

Close the state parks? There’s ample data to prove that parks bring in much more tourist revenue to adjacent towns than they cost to maintain, not to mention the serious risk of fires and other damage to parkland left without rangers. 

What’s really needed is for Schwarzenegger to lock the recalcitrant Republicans into a room until they agree to raising enough tax money to pay the state’s minimum ongoing expenses. Maybe if he makes a few monster faces at them—he’s good at that—they’ll come around. 

These rubes provide a classic example of the proverbial “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” If they destroy California’s educational system and fabled natural attractions, their penny-pinching constituents and their children and grandchildren will pay the bill eventually, as more and more high-tech businesses decide to locate in more appealing places. 

The long-term solution to this summer’s California crisis will probably have to be three reform measures at the constitutional level.  

First, it’s outrageous that big corporate property holdings are isolated from paying their just share of taxes because of the lingering effects of long-ago Proposition 13. It’s one thing to say that individual homeowners should be protected from tax increases until they die or sell their houses, since residential properties do turn over at regular intervals. It’s quite different to say that corporate holdings, which can and do stay under the same ownership for generations, should be shielded from tax increases as the value of their property increases. 

Next, the requirement that tax increases require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature is just plain dysfunctional. Its disasterous effects are all around us. It has to be repealed. 

Finally, the Republican legislators by and large were elected from enclaves of privilege and power, places where the worst thing that can happen to you is for your property taxes to go up by a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars. Carving up the state into super-safe districts can be blamed as much on the Democrats as on the Republicans, but the really out-of-it dinosaurs are being elected from iron-clad Republican districts, where no moderate who supports judiciously raising taxes can get past the primary. If voters in these places were exposed occasionally to reality-checks in the form of seriously contested elections, they might get with the program. 

Meanwhile, in individual human terms, the cost of inaction is mounts. It’s immediate and sometimes fatal.  

A friend writes to me:  

“Becky, you should be doing much more coverage of the devastating human effects of the budget cuts on real people. As you know, there are kids getting kicked off of health care; elderly people denied the in-home care necessary for their survival; poor people having life-sustaining benefits cut; necessary services being eliminated; and of course people losing jobs. These cuts are occurring not only at the state level, but at the county and city levels. Real lives are being destroyed. There are limitless human interest stories on this topic—stories that are not being written anywhere, and the lack of which give the cuts a surreal, bloodless quality.” 

He’s quite right, of course, and I’ve forwarded his suggestions to our over-worked reporters. But it occurs to me that many of our readers are in the best position to report on what’s going on in the trenches. Some have already done so in this issue.  

We’d like to invite the rest of you, our readers, to submit your own horror stories for the Planet to publish. We’d be looking for about 400 descriptive words about what the state budget cuts are doing to you yourself or to someone you know. We’d even like to try linking on our web site to YouTube videos of people telling their stories in their own words, if you know how to make and post them.  

Will any of this persuade the Terminator and the Repugs to get off the dime? Sad to say, it’s unlikely. But does anyone out there have any better ideas? Let us know if you do.