Friday, May 22, 2009

Sacramento Table Talk

It happens in households everywhere. Mom and Dad sit at the table and discuss finances.

"That trip to D.C. would be nice this year, but I just don't see how on earth we're going to get there. Until we get those credit cards paid down, we're going to end up a couple thousand short."

"We have six months, right? What if we give up eating out on Fridays, and see if the kids want to take a break from swimming and dancing lessons this summer? That might help..."

It used to be axiomatic that if moms and dads ran their finances the way "the government" did, they would soon find themselves in bankruptcy.

A very large part of what has brought this country to its financial knees today is the fact that many households — far more than when Woody was a young pup — run their finances precisely the way governments do: buy whatever you want; borrow for whatever you can't pay up front; hope it'll sort itself out in the end. Add to that a healthy dose of entitlement (i.e., I am a carbon-based life form and therefore I deserve a house) and you have the makings of a financial collapse.

It will be instructive to watch how Sacramento deals with the fact that voters are tired of fronting their addiction to spending. Many of those voters are, of course, to blame for Sacramento's addiction. For years we've been approving spending measures, bonds, and all manner of budget-shuffling initiatives that have taken whatever surpluses we might have claimed years ago and made them disappear faster than an Obama campaign pledge.

But the voters have finally declared "enough" to Schwarzenegger and the Girly Men. Time to cut bait, folks. Your fishing days are over.

Except that they're not. No, the Governator has already signalled that he feels no compunctions about taking money away from county and city governments. He claims this would be a "worst-case scenario" of course, but we all know what's coming. (His actual words were "I absolutely despise taking money from local government, but...") (And, yes, that's one mighty large "but.")

The bailout has made things worse. Obama's plan to create money where none exists is troublesome in the extreme. There is absolutely nothing of value backing up his monetary projections right now, and he's already indicated that we need to make it easier, not harder, for high-risk borrowers to get home loans in the future. This will set up a never-ending round of loan defaults, blaming everyone but the people responsible, then re-regulating the industry ad infinitum until they go out of business.

So California has tough choices to make now. I don't see them making the truly tough ones. They might make the "tough" decisions to take money from other sources, but will absolutely refuse to slash things like education or health services while calling for massive reforms in those services.

My suggestion would be locking them in a room and not feeding them until they deliver a budget that makes sense. They may as well get used to the idea right now that, no matter what they do, no one is going to like it. Not one little bit. The unions will howl. The voters will gnash their teeth.

But if it brings forward an actual balanced budget, I'll be willing to live with it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Election Post-Mortem

Ah, victory. Mostly.

Uncle Woody was, it goes without saying, one of the voices raised in favor of killing all the initiatives in this election. Nothing about this "special" election had any validity on its merits. It was truly an act of political desperation.

If the writers of these travesties were completely honest, we would find that this wasn't designed to fix our budget deficit. This was an attempt to force dollars into the hands of greedy special interests. They know who they are.

California voters, whatever else our faults may be, were not fooled. Even those who voted for the initiatives appear to have done so largely because they didn't see any better way of getting out of our mess.

The real loser, of course, is Schwarzenegger. Politically and personally, Schwarzenegger is running out of options. His so-called political capital is just about maxed out. He has, truthfully, no creative ideas for fixing anything, budget included. Nor does he have enough influence left with the state legislature to be able to dictate solutions that will garner any serious discussion.

Assuming Arnie has aspirations of serving further as a career politician, this entire budget fiasco is going to become a millstone around his thirty inch neck. Anyone heard from Gray Davis lately?

It's still relatively early, but no one seems to believe that the 1A through 1E initiatives have any life left. Good. May they rest in relative peace. 1F appears to have won, but that doesn't really bother me. For all my huff about "voting the bums out," If we can actually put some teeth behind this initiative that theoretically limits the legislature's ability to raise their own salaries in a deficit year, the current class should be forced into salary laissez faire for the duration of their terms.

California may be dysfunctional, but the voters still have some life left.

Election Day

Californians: Go vote.

Those who would not vote today are left without complaint.

And I have plenty of complaints.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wherein Woody Discusses the Desert

In the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum, the land of Oz is surrounded by an impassable desert. Although I never read every installment, the books I did read led me to believe that there were very few ways to cross this desert. One was by air. The Wizard himself crossed over via a hot-air balloon, while Dorothy crossed over while kept aloft by the tornado that ripped her house from its foundations. Another way over involved a special carpet owned by the princess Ozma which unrolled itself in front and rolled itself back up again behind as she and her "army" crossed the wasteland.

Baum was obviously acquainted with the Mojave desert, specifically that portion which lies between Las Vegas and San Bernardino.

We have just crossed this bleak landscape on our way home after a tremendous vacation through some truly awe-inspiring patches of terra firma in the vicinity of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Our carpet is our trusty Odyssey minivan. We have plenty of liquid on board. We hesitate to set foot on the surface of the desert lest we find ourselves turned into sand. Even the underpaid staff of the Agricultural Checkpoint can't wait to wave us through without stopping.

Coming back into California is always a let-down.

Not that California is without its charms. The vicinity immediately surrounding our home in Orange County is actually very nice most of the time. Except for those two or three truly brown months of the year, this eastern end of Anaheim with Yorba Linda to the north and Anaheim Hills to the south is quite green most of the time. But head, oh, twenty miles or so to the north and the desert begins to manifest itself in deadly earnest. Where Minnesota and other northerly climes lay claim to seven month winters, we in Southern California can boast (if, indeed, boasting is appropriate) of nearly endless summers. Here in one of the more expensive portions of an already overpriced state it's not so bad. Temperate climate and well-kept greenery keep this place moderately liveable through even the hottest days.

But this is, as has been pointed out to me, a Mediterranean habitat. I actually argued this point with a local docent. My thinking was that a desert, even one with Mediterranean vegetation, was still a desert. I probably lost the debate on points, but I still hold my views firmly.

Believe me, I appreciate the differences. I lived for nearly ten years in California's so-called "Antelope Valley," a desolate collection of dust and Joshua trees north and east of Los Angeles that constitutes the "upper" or "miserably hot and windy" portion of the Mojave desert. I hated it. Still do, as a matter of fact, but I tend to keep this information to myself. I do so only because a part of me — an admittedly microscopic part — feels that the height of disrespect and ingratitude towards one's Creator is to criticize any part of His creation. The rest of me believes that this desert accurately portrays what happens to people who were tasked with tending a garden, and ended up listening to a snake, if you get my drift. "Bit the apple, eh? You know what that means!" "No! Not the Mojave!"

There are ways to avoid the desert in California if you really want to. Or way, I should say. That way is the coastal drive between south and north that skirts the ocean and prevents one from seeing even so much as a jackalope (or a cleverly Photoshopped post-card alleging the same). Ironically, I rarely drive the coast when travelling between south and north these days. A man under the influence of a vacation tends towards mental instability and will actually appreciate driving through desert and endless dust-laden miles of the San Joaquin and Owen valleys in order to shave a few hours off the drive time to get to more bearable destinations north of Sacramento. Aside from the coast, between Sacramento and Los Angeles you will find little of any real value except for truck stops with relatively clean restrooms.

(I realize that there are people who actually live in the desert who claim to appreciate its "beauty" and "lower housing costs." To them I say: you live your delusion, and I'll hold onto mine, thank you very much.)

I have also noticed over the years that, whenever popular causes are taken up by activists with placards and way too much time on their hands, they don't focus a lot of their energy on the desert. There was once, several years ago, an attempt made to limit access to certain desert areas to bikers and ATV enthusiasts, but it ran out of steam after a few rounds in the press. Heck, even the bikers and ATV nuts no longer frequent the desert as much as they used to. I think they burned out, so to speak. When was the last time you heard of some nut at Berkeley climbing up a Joshua tree to mount a protest? Ever wonder why Marine recruiting centers in those cities are never molested? No one wants to block access to any building with working air conditioning up there, that's why.

And so the desert rarely changes. The drive last Saturday between Las Vegas and Barstow was just as dreary and depressing as it always has been. The one rest stop at which we paused was so oppressively hot that I couldn't quite catch my breath. I don't think there was any oxygen in that air. There was one site that has been, at various times, a speedway and a water park. Now it's mostly a decaying collection of misplaced landscaping (palm trees... honestly) and rotting infrastructure. A few more years and it will probably resemble a deserted gold mine from 1849. The billboards will proclaim it as some important historic site, now suitable for tourists with nothing better to do than watch their radiators boil over in the parking lot.

Still, the desert has its use. Personally speaking, I mean. I have no idea what benefits to the ecosystem the desert provides, other than occasionally sand-blasting innocent passers-by from time to time. No, the desert serves to remind me that, all in all, I'm living in relatively good circumstances nowadays. Although my elected representatives have largely abandoned me, my basic rights are still intact. My governor is more interested in saddling taxpayers with his inability to balance a budget, but my own checkbook is under control. For now. At the golden age of fifty I have several more productive years of work ahead, and good prospects for retirement.

In some other state, though. I have my principles, after all. And none of them are guaranteed protection by any politician currently serving this state today. May they all rot live in the desert.