Thursday, July 24, 2003

Suffrage vs. Suffering in CA

There is almost a unanimous consensus that the petition to have a recall election against Gray Davis is dangerously misguided. Some might see the convergence of normally fractious voices of the citizens’ intelligentsia (AKA blogosphere) as proof that this is, in fact, a really bad idea. I, on the other hand, see this is an opportunity for an exercise in contrarian thinking.

The argument is that this election is (a) expensive (b) destabilizing and (c) not likely to lead to better government for the Golden State.

It is impossible to argue that this election will not be expensive if you think $35 million is real money and not chump change. But if you believe that this election could in fact buy better, more responsible government for California, then $35 million isn’t so much. Hell, it’s less than 1/1000th of the state’s $38 billion deficit.

So the question, then, is whether this can produce better policy in the short-term (i.e., over the next four years) and/or whether this might produce improved long-term governance through structural adjustment.

I think that there’s a chance that the answer to both is possibly “yes.” But first, let’s note that there’s a huge positive externality for the rest of the country, regardless of the outcome. This is one of those “federalist moments” during which a single state really serves as a “laboratory of democracy” by trying something completely different from what is policy in other states. California’s groundbreaking Proposition 13 worked in this way when it showed the way to cap taxes is through tax and expenditure limitation (TEL) legislation.

But that, of course, reduces Californians to the role of guinea pigs, which is something that they might not be happy about.

Here are two reasons why Gray Davis’s recall might help California in the long- and short term. Let’s take the short term first. Davis’s replacement will have a mandate to save California from its budget crisis. Anything that makes the fiduciary relationship between citizen and public servant more explicit is to be lauded. If the Davis replacement can convincingly assert that their primary motivation is to get California on firm fiscal footing so that the government and state can recover its normality, the citizens will be able to buttress their support for making the hard choices (spending cuts) needed to overcome the current fiasco.

Next, and more importantly, are the doomsday predictions that this undermines the essential stability and orderliness of regular elections. It might be noted that regular elections give politicians the chance to do both (a) what is necessary but unpopular (early in the term) and (b) what the people demand (towards election time). But why must we assume that this irregular recall function will be abused by Golden State voters? Californians are currently getting an object lesson in how expensive, complicated, and time consuming this process is. Perhaps they will not take so lightly the prospect of recall elections in the future. Maybe this will be a sort of “emergency exit” to be used during special occasions of democratic failure rather than a vehicle for the whimsical ambitions of those who are out of power. The truth is that, as of now, we just don’t know.

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