California Cocktail Party Blues

An Open Letter to My Fellow Fortunate Californians

Lately, upscale gatherings of prosperous Californians have been dominated by conversations about the troubling political rise of Donald Trump. But more troubling by far is the failure of us fortunate Californians to engage in the political activities that would alleviate the conditions that lead to support for such demagogues. Those political activities are largely at the state, not federal, level of government.

Imagine you inhabit the less fortunate world of most Californians, one in which you have no choice but to send your kids to hit-or-miss public schools, ride unreliable and unclean public transportation, wait weeks for healthcare appointments, and pay usurious fines imposed by governments in search of more money even as tax revenues hit record highs. Imagine further that your wages have been flat for two decades, your kids are struggling to pay off student loans in a slow-growing economy, and the politically​ connected — but not you or your family — got special tax or other benefits from government. The differences are glaring:

  • While we prosperous send our kids to private schools from which ineffective teachers are quickly removed from classrooms, most Californians send their kids to public schools that protect bad teachers.
  • While we wealthy send our kids to private universities we support with tax-deductible contributions, California’s public universities are starved by a state diverting dollars to politically-connected special interests.
  • While we affluent drive or take car services, our fellow citizens wait for public transportation whose maintenance has been sacrificed in favor of other priorities.
  • When crime surges, we hire private security services or retreat behind gates while ordinary citizens rely on understaffed police departments being cut to pay past debts.
  • While Californians on public healthcare wait weeks for appointments, we affluent get immediate access to providers of our choice.
  • While we reap capital gains from investing in a globalized economy, median family income for everyone else hasn’t risen in two decades.

State legislatures are the key to solving these problems. It is the California Legislature that allocates more than $80 billion a year to the education of six million ​K-12 students. Want more money to go to infrastructure and higher education instead of prisons and pensions? The California Legislature is your man/woman. Want Medicaid that works without busting the budget? The California Legislature has that authority. Want economic growth large enough to lift the boats of all Californians? The California Legislature writes the regulations, tax rates and fees that frame the state’s economic environment.

Fortunates are missing in political action. If you’re affluent and not supporting good candidates for the state legislature, you are part of the problem. Your absence creates a vacuum filled by special interests, in particular government employee unions, corporations and professional associations whose interests rarely coincide with those of ordinary citizens. Contributing to candidates for governor isn’t enough. Legislatures are co-equal branches of state governments. Contributing to federal elections ​isn’t enough. Under the federalist US system states provide the lion’s share of public services such as public ​education. Contributing to charities isn’t enough. Dollars to charities add up to just a tiny fraction of the $250 billion per year spent by California’s government and have no impact on the laws that govern public schools, pensions, prisons, transportation, safety, infrastructure, justice, recreation, and more.

Fortunates must get involved in elections for state legislatures. If we don’t participate in state elections, civil society will continue to deteriorate and inequality will continue to grow. To learn more about the immense power of state governments, read here, and then start supporting good candidates for the state legislature. You don’t need a PAC. You just need to make direct contributions to candidates, which are publicly reported and capped at $4,200 per candidate. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

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