Et Tu, Arne?

As the crisis in California worsens, the state that may have done more than any other to elect Barack Obama president – donating enormous sums of money and time, fanning out across the nation to push swing states into the blue column – is finding that the love is not being reciprocated.

First it was Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner rejecting a Treasury backstop for CA short-term borrowing. Now it’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is planning to head a $5 billion effort to improve public education in America – an effort he says California won’t be a part of:

A handful of states will soon be chosen to take part an intense, $5 billion experiment to improve schools that the federal government is calling “Race to the Top” – but California will be lucky if it gets to participate, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today during a visit to San Francisco.

“Honestly, California has lost its way,” Duncan told dozens of the state’s mayors and education officials who packed into San Francisco City Hall. “The long-term consequences of that are troubling.”…

He said California’s fiscal crisis – in which schools are being forced to cut programs and lay off teachers – means the state has a long way to go before it is regarded as a state that can show others how to make public education shine.

“I have huge hopes for what California can do,” he said. “I’d love to have California at the table, but California has things it needs to change.”

In itself those comments are totally reasonable. California has undeniably lost its way – under 30 years of conservative anti-tax policy, we have slowly starved our schools of funding and set up a day of reckoning that has finally arrived. Instead of leading the nation in education, as we once did, we’re now bringing up the rear, as those who benefited from CA’s generous education policies in the 1960s and 1970s now refuse to fund it for the next generation.

We can all agree with Arne Duncan that CA is facing a severe crisis and that our government’s unwillingness to support its schools is detestable. And yet the troubling thing about Duncan’s statement is that it suggests the federal government isn’t going to to much to help.

This comes on the heels of a growing trend of liberals dismissing California’s problems as something we created, and therefore something we must solve on our own. You can see the attitude everywhere from the comments section at Daily Kos to the editorial page of the New York Times. The general attitude is “you guys made your bed, why are you crying to us for help?” (Although to be fair, the NYT does support some form of federal aid.)

The Obama Administration, judged by the statements of Secretaries Geithner and Duncan, seems to agree. The administration that moved heaven and earth to rush bailout money to Wall Street is showing little interest in helping California avert meltdown, even though budget shortfalls like ours have blunted the effectiveness of the federal stimulus and that mass layoffs, a weakening of the safety net and a destruction of educational opportunity will undermine economic recovery. If Obama thinks he can have a national economic recovery with the largest state acting as deadweight, he’s out of his mind.

Obama’s emerging attitude toward the states – that they’re largely responsible for themselves – is counter to the tried-and-tested role of the federal government in managing economic crisis. In fact, the entire reason we have the federal government we do is because of the failure of individual states to deal with the economic crisis of the 1780s. The Constitution was written precisely to provide a common national recovery strategy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt revived this model during another major crisis in the 1930s, using federal aid to help the states recover – but to also force changes in the way they did business.

In other words, to refuse to use the power of the federal government to meaningfully aid the states is to misunderstand the purpose of the federal government. And while Obama hasn’t totally abandoned the states, neither does he seem to understand the need for a much more robust federal intervention. It’s not just California – every other state has a budget crisis of varying severity. Left unchecked the 50 Herbert Hoovers that govern the states will wind up embracing deeper spending cuts, making it difficult to see where economic recovery will come from.

It’s not just for California’s sake, but for the sake of the nation as a whole, that the Obama Administration needs to reassess its attitude and policy toward the crisis in the states. The approach of “we’ll give you some help but you have to do all the rest” might have worked in the 1990s, but it is a recipe for disaster today. It’s time Californians who worked so hard to elect Obama saw a return on that investment, instead of a dismissal of our problems.

31 thoughts on “Et Tu, Arne?”

  1. and it is indicative of the utter unmitigated failure of all the merit pay, perpetual testing education “reform” that has been pushed for decades now – it’s shock doctrine for people in trouble, and bonuses for anyone who can show high marks. totally bass-ackwards IMO.

    if someone’s fucked up, struggling, dysfunctional, or in CA’s case, underfunded for decades, you help them out, you don’t kick them when they’re down, tell ’em to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they’re not worth the investment.

    education in CA is struggling, and it needs help. attach it to demands that the state govt not slash it, fine, but jesus it is short-sighted to deny aid, be it california or anywhere else for that matter.

  2. As a liberal Californian it pains me that I have to agree with Obama. I realize the cuts coming down will hurt the poorest and modest means Californians the most, but what’s the point of the Feds coming in trying to help when California conservatives will just tear it down.

    It’s time for the California Democratic Party to take a stand. They’ve muddled through for a decade marshaling support. We are the clear majority party in this state and if they can’t fight for real change now, they never will.

  3. I’ll keep all of this in mind when Obama’s machine asks me for more money.

    I can see not sending aid to a state government that would replace state dollars with federal dollars so Arnie and the California Legislature can play funny money games.

    But to basically say to the biggest state “fuck you, you’re not worth helping” while they bail out those criminals on wall street is really galling.

    Change We Can Believe In! Yes We Can!


  4. I called my Congressman (ugh- Buck McKeon), Boxer and Feinstein on Friday asking them to support legislation that would allow the Feds to guarantee short term loans we need to pay our bills.  That is the very least the Feds can/should do.  If they can give $11 trillion to the banking industry, they can surely help us.

  5. and this is such an Obamaesque move, reserving the prospect of sadly not having to do anything, that it might happen — is to condition aid to California on our getting our fiscal house in order by eliminating the 2/3 provisions.  Dangle a carrot as well as a stick in front of state voters and see how they respond.  At least they can talk about this, raising the issue in the public mind.

    In the meantime, though, bond guarantees out to be a no-brainer, no matter what.  We’ll still be in plenty bad enough shape even without them; they just take away some of the hurt.

  6. To begin with, I doubt that the administration is actually anti-CA aid in the extreme.  I think they’ve probably just reached the same conclusion that the rest of us have–judging from the outcome of ballot propositions over the last 5 years, there’s never going to be public will to fix CAs problems until the situation gets really bad and the voters have to reexamine the high services/no tax mentality.

  7. LAT 2009-05-24 pg A43 Title “The state goes in search of a leader”

    In 1991, when he became governor, Republican Pete Wilson was faced with a $14-billion deficit — at the time one-third of the state’s general fund. The most potent Democrat in the state was Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco. In bouts of negotiating that one bystander said resembled an Ali-Frazier match, the two came to a deal that basically split the difference between taxes and program cuts.

    Each took tremendous heat from his own party and opponents. Wilson’s approval rating fell at one point into the low teens — for perspective, that’s twice as bad as Schwarzenegger’s current low ratings. But the state ultimately rebounded.

    This is NOT a fiscal crisis. At least it didn’t start out that way. This is a political crisis. State politicians are incapable of doing what has been done time and time again in the past; create a workable solution.

    As for the Feds, an organization called the  California Institute used to issue a report called “California’s Balance of Payments with the Federal Treasury”. The last report I can find listed data to 2003.

    To quote from the report:

    In fiscal year 2003, Californians’ tax payments to the federal treasury exceeded federal spending in the state by $50 billion, a record high.  Much of that discrepancy, however, may be attributed to demographic factors such as youth and wealth.  For every tax dollar paid by Californians in 2003, the federal government spent 79 cents for grants, wages, contracts, retirement benefits, etc.  It was California’s 18th year in a row as a net donor state.

    The Federal Government shouldn’t kill the goose that lays so many Golden Eggs for it. Barack Obama better remember that California voters supported him 60% to 40% in 2008.  

  8. I don’t see why the Feds have to restrict necessary aid to California. The fact is, the so-called “Stimulus” was half-baked, compared to what FDR did to get people back to work, and to do it immediately. Right now, even without the VERY necessary changes in our tax system here, and in the budget process and property tax reform, if we could put people back to work to get us to 6 percent unemployment, taxes of all kinds would begin to flow into the treasury. That would be a huge step toward taking care of the immediate cash problems.

    The stimulus money is taking too long to get to the states, and there is too much red tape. The Feds need to stop worrying about all the details and just get people to work, NOW. Advertise immediate jobs for people to clean up parks, do repairs on park buildings, paint school rooms, cut fire breaks (in advance of the summer fires), work in food banks, etc. Send two or three aids to every non-profit in every state. Put aids in every summer school classroom. In other words, put together huge works projects that don’t take a lot of skill for the most part, don’t take a lot of training, and can be easily supervised. Act as if the country is under attack and do it NOW. That way you don’t have to worry about years-long environmental report requirements or building permits.

    As for California, the Obama team sucked up every bit of volunteer energy during the last election and used it outside California. I warned the crew in the headquarters I was in charge of that we would lose California if they wouldn’t give any time to our state legislative election, and they would not listen. The OFA “listening tour” I attended didn’t give me any hope that they were interested in the confluence of federal and state politics. I say put all your energy in the state. Don’t send money to OFA or the DNC. We need every ounce of genius, energy and money that we can gather up right here.

    Sharon Toji

    70th AD DAC

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