Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lost in the Sunbelt: Notes from Southern California

Rather than the usual coherent essay-style posting, I'm presenting today just a few notes in easily digestible form about life in the fiscal disaster that is California.

1. Who would have thought that in a time of financial crisis, the faculty of the UC system would be looking with envy at our Rustbelt colleagues? We are in a fiscal crisis of unprecedented depth and severity, and every day or two we receive a new email telling us how bad it is or what new calamity awaits next week. And what of the flagship university in the state hit hardest by the financial crisis? The University of Michigan is in a state where at least one city, Michael Moore's hometown of Flint, is actually debating shrinking itself and giving back whole sections of the city to nature. And yet the University of Michigan is doing fine. I would like to blame our misery on Wall Street, but clearly, the system in California needs to be redesigned (either the ways we tax and spend in Sacramento or the way we finance the whole university enterprise or both) and perhaps the Rustbelt can give us a model.

2. Am I the only person who sees what seem to be obvious examples of unnecessary spending at the local level despite the crisis? Gilman Drive, the road I take to UC-San Diego when I drive, has for a decade been a bumpy, crumbling mess. But someone picked this year to pave it--beautifully, I might add. Smooth as satin. Recall that San Diego is a city that a few months ago considered closing several libraries, and has numerous other fiscal debacles to worry about. Is this all about "use it or lose it" funding rules for government institutions?

My hometown of Highland, IN closed its public library this year, but this fiscal juggernaut did it to renovate, not to save money. Perhaps this is a mini-version of the financially sound University of Michigan.

My pet peeve wasteful spending (I actually love the new Gilman Drive) is that the University of California still prints a campus phone book for every faculty member and office. Who uses phone books anymore? Everything has been on the web for more than a decade. I'm guessing the cost of those phone books would keep at least a few staff people employed for a year or more.

3. Unrelated: Is it time to rethink the political strategy of incrementalism, at least in the culture wars? I've always thought that progressive change on cultural and regulatory issues comes best from expanding on small victories. And so, for example, advocates for gay rights should focus on the simple things, like having the Civil Rights Act of 1964 amended to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. Small changes like this do not challenge deeply held beliefs (and yes, it's still legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the job).

In this view, the focus of gay rights advocates on the hot button issue of gay marriage is totally misguided. Why mobilize your enemies by going after marriage rights before employment nondiscrimination rights?

But perhaps this is wrong. Note that the year 2000's Prop 22 in California, creating a statute that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, passed with 61% of the vote. In 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Prop 22. But the voters went and reversed, passing Prop 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a woman and a man. What is interesting here is that this time the idea only won over 52% of the voters.

The trend for gay rights in general is toward increasing acceptance. Was the mobilizing for the right to marry by advocates for gays and lesbians the best PR campaign ever run? Unlike so many public portrayals of gays and lesbians (who can forget the story in _The Onion_ reporting that the flamboyant antics of a gay pride parade set the movement back 50 years?), the struggle for the right to marry re-brands this group as just regular folks, no different from anyone else, on the central institution of family life. Even if the right to marry fails, it may actually make all of the other nondiscrimination rights easier.

4. If America is ever again going to see economic populism, now should be the time: the Wall Street firms we all just bailed out with our tax dollars are now posting record profits and will begin to reward themselves handsomely very soon with bonuses--while contributing no visible benefits to the country. My guess is that the financial crisis is more likely to generate an anti-immigrant backlash than anti-Wall Street populism. Perhaps it is time to re-read Michael Kazin's excellent book, The Populist Persuasion, and search for lessons.