Sunday, August 29, 2010

Did Californians break their contract?

Mark Thoma, whom I admire, approvingly posts Michael O'Hare's letter to his students. Professor O'Hare says something that really bothers me:

...for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves. “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s? Posterity never did anything for me!”

As Professor O'Hare correctly notes in the header to his blog, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

So before we accuse middle-aged Californians of being greedy, we should consider four things. First, California ranks 4th in state and local per capita spending in the country (and number one is Alaska, where the tax price of government service is essentially zero). Second, about 2/3 of California bond referenda that go to the public receive the 2/3 super-majority necessary to get passed. Third, we in Los Angeles County voted two years ago, in the middle of a recession, to tax ourselves to pay for transportation infrastructure. Finally, we absorb more people from the rest of the world relative to our population than any other state. These facts are more consistent with generosity than greed.

I understand Professor O'Hare's frustration with California's state budget process and with the threats against the wonderful UC and Cal State systems. Those who know me know that I enthusiastically support all kinds of public spending. But Professor O'Hare's rhetoric could well alienate many whom he wants on his side, and may actually give aid and comfort to the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world.