My Interview with ‘The Can’

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)

Every time a new budget agreement is passed, there’s a lot of talk about “Kicking the Can Down the Road.” I’ve long wondered: who exactly is The Can? And which road?

After considerable street-level reporting, I caught up with The Can at a gas station just off I-10 near the Arizona border. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Q: It’s a pleasure to meet you. How are you doing?

How do you think I’m doing? It’s hot here, man. And you may have noticed I’m a can and I’m made of metal. So you take this summer heat, and combine it with $1 billion in accelerated tax withholding and $1.7 billion in education spending deferrals, and you’ll forgive me if I’m feeling pretty beat up.

Q: Well, you know it’s bad times everywhere.

THE CAN: Don’t I know it. It was one thing when I lived in that sweet pantry in Marina del Rey – July is cooler there, with the ocean breezes. Back then, they closed the budget with phony pension borrowing and inflated estimates of Indian gaming revenues. Ah, the good old days. With all the beautiful people and ethnic restaurants, getting kicked down Venice Boulevard once each summer was kind of fun.

But those folks in Sacramento have been kicking me so hard for so long that I’ve rolled 300 miles East to the desert. I can see the Colorado River from here.

Q: Aren’t you the least bit relieved that the folks in Sacramento have reached a budget agreement?

THE CAN: You kidding? This is the third big kick from those guys in the last 10 months. The Oakland Raiders have footballs that get booted less often than I do.

The legislature and governor reached a budget agreement last September that was out of balance a week after it passed. Let me tell you, that one was a kick to the butt—if I had a butt. Then in the February deal, they left me at the mercy of that miserable special election. That was real pain. It’s one thing to get kicked by 120 legislators. But imagine having a couple million angry California voters kick you down the road—that’ll put a dent in anyone.

And now these geniuses are kicking me again with their new deal. I saw the governor say it’s $25 billion in budget solutions. C’mon. It’s $15 billion in cuts maybe. The rest is a bunch of deferrals. They’ve piled lies on their lies—an $800 million reserve fund without any money in it? Talk about a kick in the head. And that $1 billion for privatizing the State Compensation Insurance Fund? Heck, I’m a can and have no nose, and even I know that smells bad.

Q: What do you make of the borrowing from local governments?

THE CAN: You know, I’m the state budget Can—I’m a big boy. I’m used to getting kicked. But when you take billions from the locals, you’re kicking little cans in every city and county. With the state taking transportation money, those cans are in for a bumpy ride as they go down the road. Potholes hurt like hell. So mark my words: Some of them local cans are gonna break. And who is going to clean up that mess?

Q: The governor said he held out this long because he didn’t want to kick you down the road again. He wanted to balance the budget for real this time so he could move onto other issues, like water.

THE CAN: Whenever I feel bad about being the budget can, I always remember my Central Valley uncle, the Water Bottle, and feel a lot better about myself. That dude’s whole world has dried up on him. As for the Austrian — please. I read once that his legs were his weakness when he was a bodybuilder, but I don’t believe it. He’s a first-class can kicker.

Q: At least we don’t have to pay bills with IOUs.

THE CAN: IOUs are a mixed bag for us cans. Yes, the whole concept is big kick of us. But when no one has any real cash, it’s good for my cousins the Soup Cans. They’re in heavy demand now.

Q: So what’s next for you?

THE CAN: Absorbing more kicks, I’m afraid. From what I read on Twitter, this budget agreement is so phony that they’ll be kicking me again every few months ‘til the economy comes back.

Q: You’re on Twitter?

THE CAN: Who isn’t? I don’t have any followers, though. I’m more of a lurker.

Q: So where do you think you’ll end up?

THE CAN: At the rate the state is kicking me down the road, I’ll make Texas by Christmas. Maybe Mrs. Can and I can find jobs there.

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