Saturday, September 17, 2005

He'll be back

A two-fer this week: Schwarzenegger launched his last push for the special election on Monday, and then said he'll run for a full term on Friday. Captain Ed at Captain's Quarters suggests how a chief executive with bottom-feeding approval ratings could still prevail:

First, the gay-marriage bill shows that Californians do not get the representation they want at the Legislature, regardless of the merits or demerits of the bill itself. They voted against gay marriage five years ago, only to have their representatives try to pass it again and again and finally succeeding this year. Only the Governator's veto kept it from trumping the will of 60% of California's electorate, which has a significant Democratic majority. Arnold made himself the people's representative, restraining an imperial Legislature that has far too easy of a time maintaining a Democratic deathgrip on state politics. (Note: Schwarzenegger hasn't vetoed the bill, just said he would. -- ED.)

That allows Schwarzenegger to run not only as a counterbalance, but as a reformer with more work to do. He wants to change the way California apportions its districts to disrupt that political deathgrip, a much better idea than the term limits that failed to do the job almost a generation ago. While he may have lost some popularity and luster of celebrity, that combination will be hard for any Democrat to overcome. It will take someone with star quality and a sense of reform to beat him, and the closest thing the Democrats have is Dianne Feinstein -- who has already ruled it out.



Democrats' relentless push for SB 60, which would grant de facto driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is another instance where the Legislature shows it's completely out of touch with the electorate. On its merits, Gil Cedillo's bill might comform completely with the federal Real ID law, which allows states to grant driving privileges to illegals, so long as the documents meet certain uniform standards.

Arnold has countered that the bill may not meet those tests, so why rush to pass something that may have to be scrapped later? It's a legitimate point that scores politically, too: It suggests that legislative Democrats would rather kowtow to a (wait for it!) special interest than arrive at a measured policy to accommodate noncitizens who operate vehicles in California. It also highlights the disconnection between realitiy and legislators in bulletproof seats. An earlier licenses-for-illegals bill helped kick Gray Davis from office; Cedillo faces no competition for his job. (To be sure, this argument also stokes some of the borderline nativist sentiments that reside in certain quarters, but that's another story.)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Happy birthday to the King
BB King, that is, who turned 80 today. (He shares a birthday with Katie Snell, 7-year-old daughter of our good friends Mike and Lisa). Riley King may be a beloved cultural icon, but he's also a wonderful musician; Clapton and Stevie Ray both considered him on of the greatest guitarists. By all accounts, he's also a lovely man with a big heart who can still play. Many happy returns.
We keep losing BB's contemporaries and colleagues -- pioneers who can never be replaced. Over the past few months, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry's longtime piano collaborator and the first sideman selected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) passed on at 80. Last week, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown left us at 81.
It was fascinating how both these legends transcended categories. Johnson, a jazzman by training, recorded two pretty solid albums with country outlaws The Kentucky Headhunters, and even toured with them. Gatemouth appeared on "Hee Haw" so that he could jam with Roy Clark.
I was fortunate enough to see Gate play an outdoor festival in D.C. about a decade ago with what looked like a biker band backing him. (Their opening number was "Hot Rod Lincoln.") The performance was vintage Gatemouth, crossing genres as the quiet legend picked his guitar and puffed on his pipe during instrumental breaks by the other musicians. He had his fiddle on stage that day, but decided not to take it from the stand.
I regret not seeing Johnnie Johnson perform in person. But if you catch Taylor Hackford's 1987 rockumentary Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, you can't miss Johnnie, tickling the ivories. (BTW, that film celebrated Chuck's 60th birthday. He'll be 80 soon, too. Yikes.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Calling Lyle Lanley
It's a tale of juice, boondoggles, the Mormon Mafia: The intrepid Steve Sebelius and George Knapp unravel the mystery of the Las Vegas Monorail in this week's City Life. Alternative weeklies offer what may be the last outlet for this dead-tree-based form of long-form, feature writing on local issues -- and it's a type of storytelling TV cannot match. Check it out here. And for some fun blogging from the left side of the aisle, be sure to read Steve's two blogs, Under a Naked Bulb and Various Things and Stuff. They're both on my blogroll.
Newt the seer

Horrific tales of child abuse, much like the one unfolding in Wakeman, Ohio, come to light far too often, with foster parents treating their young wards as a cash crop, or livestock. All of which makes Newt Gingrich look like a humanitarian.

Remember 11 years ago, when he suggested that a revival of orphanages might offer a more compassionate means to provide a healthy upbringing for some children who were abandoned or abused by their parents? Gingrich was widely ridiculed by the left at the time, claiming that this was a mean-spirited Republican plan to dump poor children into warehouses. But those warehouses exist now; they're run by adults who have state approval to keep abandoned children, apparently, without having to worry about being watched by the government. To be sure, the vast majority of foster parents are loving, caring people. And we should value their commitment to provide some security to children who can rely on no one else.

But the current system also allows monsters to torture and abuse helpless kids -- at a profit.

Who could argue that an institutional setting would not provide a healthier environment for kids who don't have parents? (See this 1996 Brookings Institution study for background.) At the least, those facilities would face a lot more scrutiny than the in-home kennels some foster parents operate. Children would be safer. Isn't that the goal?

UPDATE: The Brookings study was published in 2000. My bad.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Terminated

Terminated?
On Monday, Gov. Schwarzenegger formally launched what’s left of his November campaign to reform California government. It’s a reminder that the real summer blockbuster in the Golden State was Arnold’s unexpected political meltdown. And if Props 75 (paycheck protection) and 77 (redistricting) fail, not only will Schwarzenegger likely become a lame duck; California may well become ungovernable.

A year after pulling in unprecedentedly stellar approval ratings, his favorables have plummeted toward the Gray (Davis) Zone. (If it’s any solace to Arnold, at least Californians continue to despise the Legislature.) See the latest Public Policy Institute of California survey here.

To be sure, some of Arnold’s wounds are/were self-inflicted, perhaps a sign of political naivete. Letting corporate-bankrolled nonprofits underwrite the costs of his Sacramento offices? Dumb – and a betrayal of his vow to govern transparently, not influenced by special interests.

Allowing third parties (Allan Zaremberg, Ted Costa) to control two key initiatives in his reform agenda, rather than commanding his political operatives to scrutinize every jot and tittle of the process? Damn near suicidal. Drafting blunders by the outsiders a) forced Arnold to pull from the ballot the crucial proposition that would revamp state pensions; and b) spawned a court battle that nearly bumped Prop. 77 from the special election.

But these weren’t entirely rookie mistakes. It looks like Arnold realized – belatedly – that being CEO of a state government isn’t the same as sealing a commercial real-estate deal or producing a movie. It’s a real-world lesson in public-choice theory that has presumably chastened Schwarzenegger and should caution other corporate types who hope to enter the elite levels of politics, especially in an executive-branch role, where accountability matters.

That’s why I think Arnold shifted from conciliatory gestures toward the Sacramento establishment last year into a declaration of war. Because there are two big differences between business and politics: The processes and incentives aren’t the same.

Making a movie or negotiating a real-estate transfer are finite processes. It happens, or it doesn’t. Once the process begins, there’s an endpoint: The film reaches theaters, the new owner takes title to the property. Then everybody moves on. Schwarzenegger thrived in this environment.

Governing, by contrast, is continuous; bureaucracies are perpetual. You may balance this year’s budget, but then the next fiscal year begins. Will spending programs that are on automatic escalators (like public-employee retirement plans) crowd out resources for other programs? Will an economic slowdown depress tax revenues? Will wildfires or earthquakes sap funding for other projects? Roads crumble, kids need educating, people get sick, fires rage, bad guys have to be locked up. Even though governments are awful at long-term fiscal planning, it has to be done or the tax-and-spending environment becomes chaotic – and the investors who buy government debt look to other jurisdictions.

The incentives faced by negotiating partners and the branches of government are different, too. Once a studio decides to produce a movie, it’s in the interests of everyone – the studio, the financiers, the writers/directors, the crew, the on-screen talent – to finish the job. If this film never reaches the big screen, it’s tough to produce the next one.

But inside the Capitol, there’s no incentive to change. The establishment likes things fine as they are. Bulletproof districts mean that legislators of both parties have guaranteed tenure, 14 years if they want it, once elected. Term limits don’t make them accountable to voters; instead, senators and assemblymen just move from one body to another (or to cushy political sinecures) when their term limits kick in.

The public employee unions love the status quo, too. Teacher unions give heavily to Democrats; the public safety types (cops, firefighters, prison guards) ply Republicans with cash. Compensation packages keep getting plumper; everybody – except the taxpayers, of course – is delighted.

Sacramento Bee sage columnist Dan Walters has said that Arnold figured this out sometime during the 2004 legislative session, and decided that he had to fight the establishment, not schmooze it. (Walters, who’s no right-winger, has also said that if an outsider with Schwarzenegger’s forceful personality and broad appeal can’t govern California, no one can.) This shift, though, forced Schwarzenegger to drop the “uniter, not divider” persona that he adopted during the recall. And it left him an easy target for the political barrage he’s endured from the unions and their legislative allies.

It’s possible that – other than the strategic blunders he made with the initiatives – Arnold did as well as he could. Had he campaigned like Tom McClintock, as a feisty foe of state spending and the unions and the bureaucracy, rather than a populist who vowed to topple the Capitol’s special interests, Davis might have prevailed in the recall.

Whatever happens in November, though, champions of industry who hope to prevail in politics have much to learn from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brief tenure in office, especially if they assume that a market-based business model would seamlessly apply to governing.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Goat Boy returns
I don't mean to diminish the unmitigated evil al-Qaida encapsulates, but did anyone else find the the latest Jihadist bluster -- a 9/11/05 video message purportedly from former Riversider Adam Gadahn -- cartoonish? Gadahn, privately referred to as "goat boy" by some of the locals since he grew up on a goat farm, hardly appeared threatening to me. Looked like he belonged in one of the Die Hard movies.
I'm back ...
Though it's not entirely my idea. My previous gig at The Press-Enterprise didn't work out. That's all I'll say for now, but I may choose to share more over a virtual beer if you drop me an e-mail.
Meantime, I'm actively seeking steady pay at a new work place. I have several irons in the fire (or maybe it's a few irons in separate fires), and am freelancing to stay sharp. Plus, blogging again. Thanks for tuning in.

Speaking of freelancing
My first effort, post P-E, was for Las Vegas City Life; a follow-up with the folks in New London, Conn., to see what indignities the local government would dump on hapless property owners once the Supreme Court refused to defend their rights. (Thanks to City Life's editor, my buddy and former Review-Journal colleague Steve Sebelius, for getting me back on the horse so quickly.)