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Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Arnold's Modest Proposal

By Michael Meranze

Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the younger labourers they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal

In his May Budget Revision Governor Schwarzenegger, unlike the projector in Swift’s famous satire, does not suggest that we eat the children of the poor—at least not literally. Instead, the May Revision plots out a path where the poor, the sick, and the young can be slowly disencumbered of necessary public support and left to their own resources in a recession-racked economy. The Governor and his republican allies have made the decision to place the burden of balancing the budget on those least able to bear it. We need to be absolutely clear about this point. While the May Revision insists that it is a “reflection of … the difficult and necessary changes required to address this year’s budget gap” (MR, 5) it is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is the result of a decision to protect the interests of the wealthiest Californians and of large corporations at the expense of the rest of the state’s population.

Typically, the Governor blames everyone but himself for the budget mess: no mention of his pandering rollback of the vehicle registration fee that set revenues back billions of dollars; no mention of the long-term decline in corporate taxes and the shift of tax burdens onto wage-earners; no admission that his own refusal to sign into law changes the legislature had passed at his urging (because they were not everything he wanted) had worsened the situation. Instead, the problem lies with Courts that uphold the laws, workers who expect to get paid, and legislators who don't follow him like children after the pied piper.

Let’s look at the central elements of the May Revision:

1) The Governor and his Republican allies have made it clear that they will not accept any tax increases. Arnold opposes an oil severance tax that might raise over 1.3 billion dollars and which all other oil possessing states, including Sarah Palin’s People’s Republic of Alaska, have imposed. Moreover, he indicated that he won’t roll-back the corporate tax breaks provided to selected corporations as part of political deals in 2008 and 2009—tax breaks that are costing the state billions of dollars in tax receipts. The refusals to impose an oil tax or repeal these corporate taxes are not, we should be clear, designed to benefit the working or middle-classes. The Governor’s willingness last year to agree to a sales tax increase (the most regressive of taxes) showed where his true loyalties lay—with the wealthiest and most powerful amongst us.

2) Instead of considering tax increases, the Governor has decided to raise fees and limit eligibility to Medi-Cal recipients as well as those in the Health Families Program, eliminate the Cal-Works program, cut funding for In-Home Services for the Elderly, and shift funding for some Food Stamp and Child Welfare Services onto Counties. (MR, 21-26) Just so we are clear who the Governor is targeting with all of his cuts it is not simply the poor in general but the elderly and the young. To take only one point: over ¾ of the Cal-Works recipients are children.

3) The Governor claims that he is meeting the Proposition 98 funding level for K-12 schools. Technically this may be correct, but we should recognize that it is the result of a series of sleights of hand. For one thing, the Governor also proposes eliminating “the remainder of state funding for need-based, subsidized child care totaling almost 1.2 billion” (MR, 41) (which lowers the overall budget and consequently funds for schools) and has proposed a swap involving gas taxes between the general fund and special funds which will lower the Proposition 98 funding levels.

4) The Governor is proposing that all state civil service workers take one furlough day a month with the resultant downward effects on wages.

5) As you all know the Governor has promised to increase funding for Higher Education in this budget. Several things should be said about this. First, the Governor’s proposal does nothing about the recently passed fee increases—they remain in effect at both UC and CSU. Second, the proposal effectively fills up some of the cuts from last year—it doesn’t address needs for growth. Third, while the budget for 2010-11 is larger than for 2009-2010 the Governor has lowered the proposed funding between January and May.

There is political calculation here, of course. As Robert Cruikshank has argued over at Calitics the whole political point of this gambit is to divide the different Democratic constituencies. Arnold knows that he will not be able to eliminate all of these programs. In response he will then cut Higher Ed and blame the Democrats. The middle-classes, faced with rising fees, will become even more disenchanted with the Government and the wealthy and the large corporations will laugh all the way to the bank. The Governor’s budget pits Higher Ed against services for the poor and the elderly; universities against children; and the middle-classes against the working-poor. By pitting the middle-class against the working class and the poor, the Right (and that is who Arnold represents) hopes to continue their long attack on any notion of a common good ensured through the public realm.

Even more insidiously, the May Revision implies that the only budgetary option is to choose among different ways to cut the state’s investment in the young. California has long been noted for its willingness to pay more to lock someone up in prison than to educate them at college. But under cover of the budget crisis and the recession, the Governor is proposing to sacrifice the young by undermining, and in some cases, destroying a whole range of social institutions: childcare, schools, health care, job training, colleges and universities. And all to protect the tax breaks of those who need help the least. In effect, The Governor’s proposal condemns the future to protect the past. This point seems to have escaped UC leaders in their rush to thank the Governor but it should not escape us. Against the politics of Arnold we need to support a politics of investment in the future; saving the University means reinvigorating the larger public realm.

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