News & Views from 465 California Street


Clint Reilly

James Fallows recently wrote a long piece in The Atlantic titled, “How America Can Rise Again.”

We should listen to him.

While pundits claim that America’s greatest challenge is the bitter economic aftermath of our recent near-Depression, Fallows disagrees. “The American tragedy of the early 21st Century…is a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke,” he writes.

“When the United States Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had ten times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Now the most populous, California, has 69 times the population as the least populous, Wyoming. And yet they both have the same two votes in the Senate. A business organization as inflexible as the United States Congress would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.”

In other words, our ossified and creaky political system is increasingly unable to address and solve the problems of the American Commonweal. Or, as Fallows succinctly states, “our government is old and broken and dysfunctional and may even be beyond repair.”

During such desperate economic times, government reform may seem disingenuous and disconnected from our real problems. But just read the headlines:

The right makes a goal line stand against health care reform. An $800 billion stimulus package can’t bust out of Washington. Double-digit unemployment persists even as seven figure bonuses rain down on Wall Street. Budget deficits storm in like tornadoes – more than $1 trillion in Washington, $20 billion in Sacramento and $500 million in San Francisco. Polls by both CNN and The Wall Street Journal reflect the unpopularity of President Obama’s policies.

Republicans crow that these are all examples of Democratic failure and government’s inability to work effectively and efficiently.

But the nihilistic attacks of so many ideologues against “big government” are nothing more than a puerile denial that we need government at all.

In fact, a robust, vibrant government is the only forum that exists in a democratic society where we come together to address our most daunting challenges.

As a prime example, when post-war America functioned at the height of its powers, California state government built the infrastructure – highways, waterways and universities – that catapulted us into global prominence. Private entrepreneurs utilized this infrastructure to build a booming economic engine.

This marriage of civic infrastructure with private capital and human ingenuity requires a strong, functioning government. Just look around at our decaying schools and highways today and you can see the extended symptoms of a dysfunctional government in Sacramento.

So, what are the plummeting polls and negative stories really telling us then?

At every level, they question our government’s ability to confront major challenges, address glaring problems and lead us forward. President Obama recognized this in his state of the union address:

“We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.’’

The perilously low performance ratings for Congress and our state legislature bear his statement out.

Can this be a good sign for the future of democracy?

If we have no confidence in our democratic institutions to solve problems, build and maintain necessary civic infrastructure or guide our nation forward – are we not reduced to a permanently disenchanted rabble?

It was only a year ago that Americans were convinced that too little federal oversight had enabled gigantic financial behemoths to nearly destroy our system of capitalism. Widespread disgust at the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina – and subsequent mass suffering – reminded the nation that a compassionate and competent government relief capability was vital.

Reforming our government at the federal, state and local levels is a national emergency.

Comments (9)

  • Clint: I agree with you totally–also requiring 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a fillibuster–when the Constitution speaks only of a majority to pass legislation, has something to do with paralysis in Washington. But, we can start here in California to reform our state government—if we can’t accomplish that, I don’t know how we are going to do it in Washington. California has to lead the way.

    Posted by: Tony Gantner | February 2nd, 2010 at 9:36 am

  • This is a vicious Catch 22. The more government fails to accomplish anything the more it ignites the no government movement. I fear far worse than disenchanted rabble. I agree, we must reform our government at all levels…it is our national emergency.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | February 2nd, 2010 at 1:35 pm

  • I have followed your articles for quite a while. As I read them, It’s as though I know what’s coming next as I share your thoughts exactly. You go so far beyond where most skeptics go with your take on what really is happening to this country.
    Most, I’m afraid , can only or are are willing to look just below the surface. It’s a pure case of “FIDDLING WHILE ROME IS BURNING”, or,”SEE THE KINGS NEW SUIT?”

    I think we as a country, are in such denial of what a Real National Emergency we are faced with that it’s more than most can comprehend, let alone begin to face and deal with. One of the most tragic examples of poor leadership is when Nancy Pelosi took George W. Bush’s impeachment off the table. And recently, her counter part, Harry Reid said recently, that the health care bill was on hold until maybe next month or there abouts.

    And why can’t President Obama declare a Presidential Order to cancel “don’t ask, don’t tell”? So many in the Military are being harmed by this problem.

    I do not know where I’d begin to fix this mess, if I were King. I think Obama is on the right track as he attempted to start something positive by confronting the Republicans in their own camp last week but I think they just don’t have a clue.
    It’s still business as usual. Dig their heels in and fight to maintain their ideology which wants “this President to fail”! PERIOD! And to hell with anything else. They have theirs and that’s all that counts. I do think though, that there are many of us who are really angry at what’s going on. Unfortunately, those in Congress on the Federal level and state legislatures, are sensing this anger, but don’t really know what to do about it. I think that they’re only afraid of being voted out of office but nothing more that that. Business as usual has become the norm for such a long time, that now that the chips are really down, they just don’t know how to function. Besides, they’re ONLY politicians and not business people, who would be so much better suited to deal with the daily ins and outs of how to run the business of government. All they can do is lie and cheat. After all, Isn’t that all there is to do?

    Joel S

    Posted by: Joel S. | February 3rd, 2010 at 10:36 am

  • Interesting point brought up in your February column, about the number of senators a state should have, but my understanding was this was an expressed wish of the country’s founders.Wasn’t this how they were able to bring the smaller states into the union?

    I believe that the larger point is to have representation by people who have as their first purpose something other than to get re-elected, something tantamount to what is good for the country in the context of what is good for their state. Some greater notion than that of Ben Nelson who only wanted to be bought, or Mary Landrieu (sp?) likewise, among so many others.

    Elliott C

    Posted by: Elliot C. | February 3rd, 2010 at 10:37 am

  • Your first starting point is the ratification of our Constitution. Almost immediately advantage was sought by states and their representatives, presidents and vice- presidents, those they appointed, those who sought appointment, and all who could influence them and be influenced by them.

    Virginia had 10 times as many people as Delaware. California has 69 times as many people as Wyoming. But does that explain a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke?

    Assume that the Senate and the House had both proportionately represented population, anytime before or after the direct election of Senators. What would have changed to prevent gerrymandering Senate districts that did not prevent gerrymandering House districts?

    How would proportionate representation in the Senate and the House have likely changed our history as a nation after the constitution became the law of the land? The constitution itself was the product of dissatisfaction with the articles of confederation and the product of several great compromises among thirteen young states.

    WOULD a Federal Government with a proportional Senate and House HAVE: a) tempered the internal divisions that have divided Americans since i) each colony’s founding? ii) since the Constitution became the law of the land? b) ended slavery earlier? b) ended abuses of Native Americans earlier? c) avoided civil war? d) better balanced corporate vs. State and Federal government competition following the civil war? e) better aligned voting – one human being, one registered voter, having one vote per office/per ballot measure matched with electoral campaign financing solely funded by registered voters and/or public funding, that purposefully excluded non-voters and legal fictions, f) changed Supreme Court rulings that upheld slavery and protected corporations against Federal and State governments’ efforts to reign them in? g) tempered ideological swings in politics and governing? h) reduced three majority standards for legislatures – simple majority for legislation, three fifths for ending filibuster, and two thirds for budget passage to one majority standard, i) exercised greater oversight of gigantic financial behemoths that more than once have nearly destroyed our system of capitalism and j) changed the relatively greater unity of Republicans as compared with the relatively lesser unity of Democrats?, k) tempered our internal contradictions; in sum, the multiple plagues of politics and of governing after an election?

    Your second starting point is post-war America and California state government, a marriage of civic infrastructure with private capital and human ingenuity.

    A forty member State Senate and an eighty member Assembly cannot be faulted for disproportional representation. Where is an analysis, a history – generally agreed to by politicians, public administrators, academics, active civic citizens – that identifies landmarks of California’s descent from it post-war ‘high’ to its 2010 ‘low’.

    Your essay makes brief references to corporate governance and behavior. Comparing public governance and corporate governance, how is the decline in Federal and State governance, that you attribute to disproportionate representation in the upper legislative chambers, fundamentally different from one small, narrow interest holding much more stock(votes) in a given corporation than one large, broad interest holding much less stock(votes)? How many corporations have governed themselves more wisely in the interests of stockholders? bondholders? employees? consumers of their products? the residents of their cities? counties? state? the citizens of the USA? as compared with how wisely the governments of American cities? counties? states?, the nation? have governed themselves in the interests of their residents and citizens?

    Canada achieved independence from Great Britain without revolution and national union without civil war. How did the American revolution and civil war mark our politics and governing? Have American politics and governing recovered from them? Is America’s international agenda taking too much from America’s domestic agenda, bringing us down as they did Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, the USSR and others. Finally, are there other large federal republics in the world more governable that the USA is?

    Peter D. Reimer

    Posted by: Peter D. Reimer | February 5th, 2010 at 2:59 pm

  • James Fallows is right when he suggests that American government has become a tragedy, but it is not a joke. As I see it, government no longer about governing. It has become a contest for power between the democrats and the republicans unrelated to providing the basis of an efficiently running society.

    Until the millions of dollars funneled through lobbyists and special interest groups is removed from the political process, I’m afraid the will to change this cannot and will not be found.

    Posted by: D. Hale | February 5th, 2010 at 3:00 pm

  • You note that our malfunctioning federal, state and local governments
    constitute a national emergency. We know that. The question is: how to fix
    the problem?

    Don’t expect anything from us activists. We can’t even stop the most
    obvious of local pork barrel boondoggles. Despite our efforts, the mindless
    and useless OAC and Central Subway projects are moving ahead. Our arguments,
    and our credentials are impeccable. But no one listens. The Chronicle
    yawns as it trips lightly over the surface of the issues it purports to
    cover. The Examiner swipes at the problem from time to time. The agencies
    circle the wagons and stone-wall. The local politicians go to ground. Our
    Washington representatives, blissfully ignorant, take their cues from the
    likes of Gavin Newsom and Steve Heminger.

    If the rest of the country is squandering its federal handouts as
    thoroughly as the Bay Area is, the U.S. truly is headed toward bankruptcy.

    Gerald C

    Posted by: Gerald C. | February 8th, 2010 at 9:46 am

  • Clint–Excellent column! Your pieces in the Murky News are always interesting, even when they’re wrong, as when you get into insider politics, but the National Emercency piece was not only interesting but absolutely right on. BUT, you don’t touch on how we got to repeatedly electing nest-featherers that care only about being re-elected and even when bright, rarely, have no interest in, or talent for, solving crucial social problems or conceiving of any solutions whatsoever. To understand how we got there, it’s back to Jefferson. He was very aware that education is the basic requirement for a meaningful democracy, and our educational system is absurd. It works for just enough people to keep the country sputtering along, the few who can think despite 12 years, or more, devoted to creating armies of consumers, not citizens.

    Having taught in the community college system for 25 years, and approaching old age, it is still the topic that energizes me. I’ve just finished writing an 11 page critique of the mess that is teaching English, specifically writing, and am sending it off to The Atlantic Monthly for a look. Interested? If you are I’ll email it, but if not won’t waste your time.. Anyway, how to get the confused and disorganized electorate to take action against failed, traditional government bodies, from school boards to the federal government seems an impossible task. The crazy Teapartiers “think” that’s what they’re doing, that lunatic egomaniac Sarah Palin leading a group that is up front about not having a leader. These people would impeach Jesus. George G

    Posted by: George G. | February 8th, 2010 at 9:48 am

  • I read your column every time it appears in the West County
    Times. I like reading your comments especially about what is going on
    in Washington. So keep up the good work.

    Posted by: Ken | February 8th, 2010 at 9:48 am

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