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California

Troy Senik
Visionaries on Demand
California’s self-appointed philosopher-kings try to “think long.”
1 February 2012

In the divisive world of California politics, only one belief produces unanimous agreement: state government is irredeemably flawed. Beyond that agreement, however, the conversation returns to the usual polarized positions. Depending on whom you ask, California’s ongoing fiscal woes either owe to runaway public spending or to an insufficient tax burden on the state’s affluent class; the Golden State’s schools are failing either because they’re starved of funds or because the powerful union establishment impedes even the most modest reforms; and the state’s pronounced “green” tilt is either a model for environmental consciousness nationwide or a key reason for the state’s flagging fortunes. Pick virtually any statewide issue, and the divide persists.

Pair this dichotomy in public sentiment with a baroque political process—a system of direct democracy that essentially acts as a fourth branch of government; hundreds of unelected boards and commissions; supermajority requirements in the state legislature—and the familiar dysfunctional refrain emerges. California may remain a social bellwether for the nation, this argument goes, but when it comes to politics, this is a land of perpetual budget crises, hemorrhaging pension obligations, broken schools, and crowded freeways.

With public faith in the state’s governing institutions near an all-time low, this pessimism has given rise to a fad in civic activism: the entrepreneurial statesman. These days, everyone who’s anyone in California public life must be part of an unelected, self-appointed, blue-ribbon panel aiming to reimagine state government from scratch. The latest purveyors of such noblesse oblige are the members of Think Long, a bipartisan commission founded and funded—to the tune of $20 million—by Nicolas Berggruen, an eccentric European billionaire described by the Wall Street Journal as “rich, handsome, and homeless.” The itinerant Berggruen lives out of hotel rooms around the world—including the New York suite where the Journal photographed him, bathrobe-clad, with a pair of stuffed animals. Think Long boasts an A-list roster, including two former Republican Secretaries of State (George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice), two former Democratic Assembly Speakers (San Francisco’s Willie Brown and Los Angeles’s Bob Hertzberg), and billionaire businessmen, like real estate magnate Eli Broad and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Other notable members of the 16-person roster include former Clinton economic advisor Laura Tyson, former California governor Gray Davis, and Ronald George, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

After more than a year’s work, Think Long issued its much-anticipated manifesto in November. The final product, however, shone more light on the deficiencies of French-cuff committees than the travails facing the nation’s largest state. The group’s report—in which only 19 of 98 pages actually involved policy recommendations—advertised the triumph of style over substance.

Predictably, the bipartisan elite latched on to the proposals involving the kind of good-government technocracy that always seduces reformers—with buzzword-laden but ultimately underwhelming proposals such as pursuing “meaningful teacher and principal evaluations” in California schools or developing a “Golden State Strategic Agenda” (essentially one big bureaucratic report to replace all of the state’s smaller bureaucratic reports). As if to drive home the point that Think Long chose to settle for consensus-driven marginalia over bold reform, the report concludes by noting that one of the state’s fundamental problems—nearly half a trillion dollars in public-pension liabilities—was “beyond the scope and time frame of the committee’s year-long deliberation.” Apparently, Think Long saw its mandate as working to save California right up until the task got difficult.

Think Long was legitimately innovative in one area: the committee proposed the formation of a public body, the Citizens Council for Government Accountability, an institution whose sweeping powers would belie its bloodless name. Under Think Long’s recommendation, the unelected citizen’s council would be empowered to place initiatives on the California ballot unilaterally; print its own “analysis” of other initiatives on the ballot; and enjoy wide-ranging subpoena power. And who could become members of this Golden State illuminati? Think Long suggests “distinguished residents of California with varying experience—such as prominent scholars, former governors, legislative leaders, former justices or judges, university presidents and leaders from industry, labor and community affairs, as well as young business or social entrepreneurs—who have demonstrated a commitment to the state and are broadly reflective of the economic, cultural and social diversity of California.” In other words: the members of Think Long.

Despite failing to produce much in the way of solutions, the ad hoc committee had high hopes of becoming enshrined as a sort of perpetual shadow government for California. But Berggruen and company recently dropped plans to put Think Long’s plan on the November ballot.

Good riddance. The citizens’ council proposal would have taken all of California’s worst political instincts and rolled them into one, combining the state’s love of technocratic progressivism with its exuberance for direct democracy. The Golden State has indulged both of those enthusiasms for a century with little to show for it. In truth, California’s policy shortcomings, while serious, are not complex. Excessive taxation, regulation, and litigation have poisoned the business environment. The commanding influence of public-sector unions has created a mountain of unfunded pension liabilities and sapped the vitality from the state’s public schools. Energy initiatives, including a statewide cap-and-trade mechanism, have elevated environmentalism over economic growth, with little thought given to the trade-off between the two. Remedying these deficiencies is achievable through the state’s existing political institutions. The last thing California needs to do is add another layer to state government, populated by a group whose members think of themselves as a modern-day version of Plato’s guardians.

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