Economist Writer Talks about Why California Won't Split Up

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For those who missed our blog post on it last week, we'll say it again: The Economist correspondent Andreas Kluth's special report on dysfunction in California's government is worth a read. Earlier this week, we attended Kluth's talk at the World Affairs Council on Sutter Street, where he offered a few insights beyond what was in his story.

The premise of that story, more or less, was that direct democracy has ruined us. This form of government worked (sort of) for the ancient Athenians, but only because their popular assembly was so small that it met, as Kluth noted Wednesday night, on a single rock. The sort of representative democracy, or republic, envisioned by America's founding fathers has been confounded in California by a vigorous process for legislation through the ballot box -- essentially a fourth, unintended branch of government that has hampered elected lawmakers' ability to meet challenges, particularly in the realm of state finances.

Kluth was pressed repeatedly during the Q&A period of his chat about concrete solutions he would propose for California. He had a few reflections on this subject:

The chicken-and-egg question. Did direct democracy screw up the state legislature, or did the inefficacy of the state legislature require citizen intervention at the ballot box? The originators of the initiative process envisioned it, as Kluth noted, as a "safety valve" for the will of the people to bypass corrupt lawmakers. One could argue that the poster child for initiatives with unintended consequences -- Proposition 13, which severely limited legislators' ability to raise taxes -- was a result of the state government's failure to address popular angst over rising property taxes in the 1970s. One of the difficult things about assessing the threat of the ballot box is determining whether it is cause or symptom of dysfunction.

Only referendums? That said, Kluth made it clear that he takes a dim view of the initiative process -- which, along with referendums and recalls, comprises direct democracy in California. If it were possible to excise the initiative aspect of our state government, leaving referendums (a chance for voters to reject laws that have been passed by their elected representatives) and recall elections intact, the state would be better off, Kluth argued. This would allow direct democracy to truly serve as a safety valve, rather than as a tool of special interests. "If all of the ballot measures we had had over the past 30 years had been referendums, we probably wouldn't be in this mess," he said.

Forget about dividing California. Every once in a while, somebody will propose dividing the state of California along geographical and ideological lines to form mini-states that would be more heterogeneous, and hence, presumably, more governable. There's a lot to make one morally queasy in this secessionist impulse, not least its fundamentalist rejection of the idea that different types of people can thrive together in a sprawling, diverse society. But as Kluth pointed out last night, the suggestion is also impracticable.

A two-state solution for California would likely entail a division between liberal coastal areas and the more conservative Central Valley. (Suggestions for a North-South divide, as Kluth noted, are antiquated, dating to the time when the two regions were struggling over water rights.) This would mean, essentially, the creation of a new, "red" California, and the addition of two senators, both likely Republicans, to the federal government. Good luck persuading the Democrats who run California of that.

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