Skelton and Sacramento’s Bad Habits of Mind

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

George Skelton is a great journalist and better person. It always feels bad to pick on him. But a recent column of his was so emblematic of the nutty thinking of Sacramento that I couldn’t let it pass without comment.

Skelton’s column was about civil rights lawyer Molly Munger and her ballot initiative to raise income taxes for 12 years with the goal of funding schools, some state debt and pre-school programs. Munger’s initiative is in competition with another tax-hike initiative from Gov. Jerry Brown and a coalition of labor unions, progressive groups, local governments and some business.

Skelton’s main argument was that Munger was wrong to continue to push her measure. Why? Let’s do this as a multiple choice. Skelton’s reason was:

  1. Because the policies in Munger’s initiative aren’t as well designed or as necessary as those in Brown’s initiative.
  2. Because Brown’s measure does more for schools than Munger’s.
  3. Because ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make tax and education policy, particularly in California, where changes can’t be made to an initiative without another costly initiative or other vote of the people.
  4. Because polls show public support for Munger’s initiative is much weaker than that for Brown’s measure.

Now, if you live in the real world, an argument like A, B, or even C might be the most powerful argument to make. But Skelton, blithely, confines his argument to D.

Munger’s initiative polls worse – so what business does she have going forward?

Indeed, Skelton goes even further, by acknowledging that Munger’s “tax measure makes more public policy sense than Brown’s.” But to think that one might push forward when one has the substantively better measure?

That’d madness in California politics.

For the record, I’m not a fan of either initiative. But the nature of the debate between them is important – because it reveals a collective mindset that is at the heart of California’s troubles.

We’ve constructed our governing and budget system out of laws and initiatives and constitutional amendments that polled well. Whether the thing will actually work is a secondary consideration – if it is a consideration at all.

All of these measures that poll well have congealed into a system that is slowly strangling public institutions.

It’s way past time to stop thinking this way, and to try to figure out what works. That’s the only question that should matter in a crisis like this. Answering the question of what works is hard enough, without having to shape everything to polling. Once you’ve figured out what works, then you use polling to sell it.

And for those in Sacramento who would sneer at such advice as hopelessly naïve, let me ask a question: what would voters say if they were asked whether policies in California should be based on what policy stands the best chance of working, or on what policy polls best?

Go ahead and poll on it if you like.

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