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.