Tuesday, November 08, 2005

CD's Rule Number One

Which is: Never Ask A Question The Answer To Which You Do Not Want The Answer.

That rule applies in many serious situations. It guides a lot of courtroom interaction. And here, we apply it to the policy discussion context - i.e.: never ask a question requiring a wonked out answer if you don't want a wonked out answer.

I don't know if he wanted one or not, but when Josh Trevino asked how today's Special Election threatens representative democracy, I had no choice but to wonk out and tell him. So here's what I wrote. I welcome all comments on both the opinion expressed in my comment and my gross simplification of political history (Professors Pitney and Blitz, I apologize in advance):

Glad you asked Josh - though be warned, you've now opened the door for me to wonk out in a way I usually reserve for my own blog.

As I'm sure you recall from your high school civics class, the Greeks experimented with direct democracy and realized that it flopped when the population exercising it grew beyond, oh, let's say 7 people or so. Any true majority view ran the very real risk of getting lost in the white noise of everyone having a literal, direct say in running the state. So they had to get a bit creative with how they ran things. Compressing and mutilating years of political history gets us to the representative democracy. A republic. The form of government guaranteed to us in the Federal constitution and the term that best describes our current system of government (sorta).

The idea is that - see, we're all busy people who'd like to spend more time enjoying the guarantees of freedom, life, liberty, etc, than we would like to spend enacting the laws that guarantee it. So we elect people to take care of it for us - endowing in them our unalienable rights, etc [cue "1776" songs here].

In California, we have 3 branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The representative branch of government is the legislative branch. The executive branch is supposed to execute the laws written and passed by the legislators, and the judicial branch is there to hash out what the hell the first one said and how the second one got it right/wrong/took a walk/etc.

But in 1911, under the corrupt, unbearable influence of greedy railroad dudes, Californians said "enough" and gave themselves the rights of initative, referendum, and recall. Ah the Progressives . . . . Hiram Johnson, the governor at the time, is the historic architect of the 3 powers and if you have a problem with the consequences of his reforms (ie: the 2003 recall and subsequent selection of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the unending California election season), you can visit his grave and have words with him - he's buring in Colma (file that under slightly useful local trivia for your next pub quiz emergency).

So now, what have we got? We have a branch 2 dude (that's Arnold) talking about how's going to do branch 1's job by taking legislation straight to the people via the initiative process, removing our representatives from the process altogether. The practical effect is that most voters learn what they can from 30 second, absurd television ads and a few ballot pamphlet paragraphs, if they haven't already thrown it out come Election Day.

More practical effect: anyone with a few million dollars can qualify ANYTHING for the ballot. The courts don't have the power to say "yo, dude, you wrote that wrong/into the wrong section of the code/it's stupid/etc" - their power to pre-adjudicate ballot measures is highly limited to a few issues (single-subject rule; prohibition on revisions, etc).

More reality? There's a term in political science known as "drop-off." That describes what happens when people drawn to the poll for the top of the ticket (Presidential elections, etc) give up on the rest of the ballot because it either stretches on too long, they don't know as much about everything else on there, or they just don't care. This is their right as voters, of course, but it undermines the idea that ballot measure are "The Voice of The People." They are more likely The Voice Of Well-Funded Interests Who Could Get Their Targeted Language On The Ballot And Run Enough Ads To Convince People To Stick Around Long Enough To Vote Their Way.

This election, featuring very few candidates, will play out a bit differently - but in the normal course of things, the butchered "direct democracy" idea doesn't bear out and usually serves to hamstring our elected representatives to the point that they can't legislate effectively. Which in turn makes the well-funded types or others antsy. Which makes them run more initiatives, which makes the legislators look like they aren't doing anything . . .Rince. Repeat. Dizzy yet?

Now - there are some - some - things that might need to go directly to voters. And those things are provided for in the State Constitution. But we've mucked up that bad boy too. If you haven't read it - take a moment to marvel at its girth: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/const.html.

Little of what Arnold is trying to pass was fully cooked by the time it landed on the ballot. For instance, my personal preference is for redistricting reform - the sooner, the better. Except not the way Ted Costa wrote it. He botched it. Bad. And Arnold's threats of "if you don't do it, i'll go to the ballot box" aren't really the best way to start meaningful deliberation about needed reforms. He wanted to blow up boxes, but all he's really terminating is representative government by removing the representatives as often as he can.

I elect legislators to legislate. I don't elect the governor to legislate. I certainly didn't vote for the recall or Arnold, but even if I had, I would not - and do not - favor any governor who's main selling point is "vote for me so I can get rid of that pesky first branch of government."

So I voted No on everything today because I completely disagree with the motivations for this election and I want today's results to send a message that Californians are smart enough to protect they form of government guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution and given them by their own State Constitution.

There. I have wonked.
By the way, the number one rule to which I refer in the title of this post is a general rule. My number one political rule is: Never Leave The Original In The Copier - though I'll admit that Jack Pitney taught me that and many others have learned that the hard way. Political Rule Number Two is: Always Confirm The Microphone Is Off.

Happy Election Day! Go Vote No!


Joel B. said...

Do I agree generally with your point? Yes. Are you pretty much completely correct in laying out the problems with Direct Democracy? Yes.

The problem of course, is that we do not live in the ideal world, we take what we have in front of us. And for whatever reason, now, we have a disfunctional legislature, a nearly ungovernable state, and a budget destined for bankruptcy, and with little hope to mend the situation. I would love to hold out with you for the ideal republican government (little r), but I won't reject good (heck let's be even less generous, mediocre) in persuit of the perfect, especially when, perfect is gone done, left the station, ran through a siding, came off the rails, and fell off the side of a cliff.

California is the premier example of legislative malfeasance being remedied through popular inititiative that band-aid over one problem and create another one, but...given the option most people will choose a bandaid and some neosporin over let the wound infect and rot. From the enactment of the initiative process down the line to Prop. 13, Prop. 140, Prop. 98, Three strikes, the list goes on, but these initiatives were passed in response to legislative perfidy. So to hold up representative republicanism as some great process, misses the very way that those elected have abandoned the call that you describe they have to focus on the laws and the state and instead, focus on the next higher office, fundraising, and of course, insuring a leasurely life for themselves.

Bethany said...

Josh, you make some fundamental assupmtions that I, personally, just can't subscribe to. The world isn't perfect but that's no excuse for bad reform. We're smarter than that, aren't we?

First, if left alone, I find it hard to beleive that the California legislature would "rot". It gets a makeover every 2 years in the form of elections (which are, in most cases anyway, decided by the same voters who you think will solve the problems through voting on initiatives). If the electeds have abandonned their mandate, abandon the elected in the next election. We already have a system for that. I get that the same folks tend to run and win all the time, but spend all of your campaign time running better campaigns instead of more elections for a while and let's see where that gets us. Work within the framework before you make a more complicated one.

Secondly, if you really think that nothing can be done to make California better given the current set of rules (and again, I'm not there yet), not passing THIS "reform" measure does not preclude those who would support reform from working harder, getting smarter, and writing a better measure that DOES get us to a better system. This NOW OR NEVER mentality is a big, fat, reckless lie. Sorry, but I gotta call a spade a spade. At the rate we've been calling special elections, Lord knows there will be other chances to get it right.

Shody reform doesn't help anybody. If you're going to go to the trouble of running an initiative, and you're really interested in solving problems, get them right the first time. Otherwise, it just seems to me like a power grab.

(As an aside, Arnold was the one all hot and bothered about having a special election for this rather than using the primary and general ballots. He should have done his homework rather than shoving a slapdick initiative at us and claiming it's an emergency. Governating is hard. This is serious business and we need serious leadership. No more of the Arnold show.)

cd said...

Josh only asked "how so," I think Bethany is responding to Joel's comments.

Right, B?

Joel B. said...

The world isn't perfect but that's no excuse for bad reform. We're smarter than that, aren't we?

Well now, if the "reforms" were actions that I thought (as I'm sure you do) were net negatives than it would be logical to oppose them. But I don't think the reforms are bad. I conceded to mediocre, but I will not concede to bad.

I do think the reforms are flawed half-measures at fixing a particular problem, but they at least fix the immediate problem. Will another problem pop us, certainly, but it will be something else, and it will have to be dealt with then. As it stands now, California is barrelling towards financial insolvency and interest group (whatever group R or D) tribalism. This is not sustainable for the long-term and I doubt it is sustainable in the short-term. If California suffers any economic hiccups in the next couple years, the financial situation of the state will be drasticly strectched.

As to working through the system, what can I say other than that I would and do, but my effort is nearly wholly irrelevant. You are saying that we have to continue to play a rigged game, and that although the rules are rigged well you should play by the rules, uh okay, but my point is that the current rules are creating many of the very problems that we have. The current rules are a mess, and failing to do something about them now will make it more expensive to do something about it 5, 10, 15 years from now when the ever elusive "perfect reform" is proposed. Which of course, will never be. Perhaps of course, one more simple reform would be to just drastically increase the size of the state Assembly and Senate. I find it appalling that a member of the US House, is closer in representation than a State Senator. Putting representatives in greater proximity to the actual voters, would I think be a net positive.

It's certainly no Now or Never mentality but it is truly a now is better than later mentality. Because ever subsequent year that something is not done to make the system more manageable, makes the problems created by the system that much harder to unwind.

The perfect reform, I of course have my idea for the perfect reform...which would be to call a constitutional convention and break the state down along East/West lines, but maintain a single state structure for federal elections. Effectively, California would have two legislatures one would govern the East and the other the West. The convention could also scrap everything single existing initiative constitutional amendment and statute, but that will never happen.

Jared said...

Even within a representative democracy, there is a place for initiatives. And that place is in dealing with institutional problems created by the branches of government where it is in the self-interest of the government to avoid correcting that problem.

The prime example of this is redistricting. In California, both parties' legislative leadership agreed to divide the state up into safe districts. The result is a dysfunctional legislature and a dysfunctional state. I think most of us can agree on that. I think we can also agree that since the legislature's members are protected by this arrangement, there is an institutional bias to avoid fixing the problem.

Now, this doesn't mean that Prop 77's provisions in particular are the only or best solution to the problem (though I support it as being net good for the state). But it's important to remember that even in representative democracies, it's helpful for the people to have a check on the legislature as an institution, because all the legislators will have the same institutional incentives to avoid reform of their branch. And while it is possible that elected legislators might turn against that incentive, it is less likely they will do so, and it is therefore beneficial to the state as a whole to have that check against the government.

jbl said...

I thought Rule #1 was "Don't let the candidate wear hats"