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Book Explores Fixes For California’s Broken Government

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Aired 8/3/10

Do you think the problems that face California are bigger Democrat versus Republican or left against right? "California Crackup" is a new book that offers some solutions. We talk to the book's co-author, Mark Paul, and UCSD Political Scientist, Thad Kousser, about what they think could fix our broken government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We just finished talking about the City of San Diego and a potential breakthrough in addressing some long-standing economic problems. That happy news does not extend, however, to the state legislature in Sacramento. We are now in the fifth week of a budget standoff in California with no compromise in sight. State workers continue to face furloughs, major social programs in the state are being cut back to the bone, and our budget shortfall stands again this year at more than $19 billion. But the authors of a new book contend, if these were the only problems plaguing California, things wouldn't be so bad. Every government, every society, goes through cycles of bad economic times. What the authors of “California Crackup” say we need to be concerned about is the fact that our form of state government is making it impossible to fix these problems. Here to explain what’s gone wrong with government in California and some ideas about how to fix it are my guests. Mark Paul is co-author of "California Crackup.” He’s senior scholar and deputy director of the California Program of the New America Foundation. And, Mark, welcome to These Days.

MARK PAUL (Deputy Director, California Program, New America Foundation): It’s nice to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Also joining us is Thad Kousser. He’s professor of political science at UC San Diego, co-author (sic) of “The New Political Geography of California.” And, Thad, good morning.

THAD KOUSSER (Political Science Professor, University of California San Diego): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think the problems that face California are bigger than Democrat versus Republican or left against right? What do you think could fix our broken government? Call us with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Mark, you begin “California Crackup” by saying that the worst thing about the current situation in California is that it cannot be solved under the current system of government. So what’s wrong with the way California is governed?

PAUL: Well, I think at core the problem is that California actually doesn’t have a single system of governing itself. It actually has three systems. We have one system of elections to our legislature, you know, with members elected in single member districts, by first pass the post plurality elections and, you know, that’s a majoritarian system that we’re familiar with from national government etcetera. We elect a party to run the government and they’re supposedly supposed to be accountable for what they do. But California then layers a second system on that, which is our supermajority requirements in the legislature for anything having to do with money pretty much, the budget, appropriations, tax increases, changes in school funding, etcetera. And so we have this second system that says, you know, once the majority of voters pick a party to go to the legislature the first thing they have to do is reach a consensus with the party whose ideas that the voters rejected.

CAVANAUGH: Hmm…

PAUL: They have to reach basically government by consensus. And then on top of that we layer a third system, which is the initiative process, which is, again, a majority system. And the combination of those three systems being at war with each other is responsible for what you talked about in your intro, which is, unfortunately, as Californians know, is not just something that happens this year but seems to almost happen every year.

CAVANAUGH: Now with your co-author Joe Mathews, Mark, you make very interesting reading in this book about how we got into this situation and you basically outline the fact that California has never really had any kind of Constitution. It was all sort of slapped together on the fly. Tell us about that.

PAUL: Well, California has, for a long time, has been a great state but we, in California, have never had a great government. We, California, got founded in a great hurry during the Gold Rush as people rushed in. They quickly, at the behest of the military governor of the state at the time, improvised a constitution, which was largely copied from the state Constitution of Iowa, which happened to be the most recent state constitution and also one of the shortest. But from the beginning, for instance, they couldn’t figure out a way to actually pay for government in California, that with so many people involved in the Gold Rush there weren’t any people around to actually even to collect taxes and so they, at the very beginning, punted on the question of financing state government in that first Constitution and decided, well, maybe the federal government would step in and help. And so ever since then we’ve, you know, we spent then the next 40 years trying to fix that Constitution that wasn’t very good. In 1879, we had a constitutional convention and it – which Carey McWilliams, the great California journalist, has called the greatest civic disaster in the state’s history, which we ended up with a system that we then spent the – most of the rest of the last 140 years trying to fix in one way or the other. So we’ve gone through the initiative process and the big change with Prop 13, etcetera, improvising all along but never putting together a system that worked, and particularly as the state’s grown larger and more complex that doesn’t work for a state like California.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Mark Paul. He’s co-author, along with Joe Mathews, of the new book, “California Crackup.” And Thad Kousser. He’s professor of political science at UC San Diego and co-editor of “The New Political Geography of California.” We’re talking about the problems with California state government and possibly how to fix them. 1-888-895-5727, if you’d like to join the conversation. Thad, I’d like to get your take on what you’ve heard so far. I imagine you agree with most of it.

KOUSSER: Well, I, you know, I share a lot of Mark’s premises but take them in different directions.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

KOUSSER: I mean, this idea that California’s never had a good government, you know, Mark has wonderful sentence in his book, it’s a new mess built upon an old mess, all of our governmental changes, all of our political reforms. And sort of taken to extreme, that idea kind of says, well, why bother reforming California now because it would just be more mistakes. You know, I think, instead, California government has, in some ways, even though it’s been messy, it hasn’t been a mess. It is the government that has dealt with, you know, this amazing demographic in economic change and pressures on this state that no other state has seen and built, you know, an incredible state, managed many of these conflicts, built an infrastructure that allowed this state to become one of the world’s great wealth generators and allowed, you know, at least some redistribution of that wealth to sort of bring everyone a society. It’s the state that’s been on the forefront of the major American governmental innovations since our Revolution, direct democracy, and the progressive era and the professional legislation, the professionalization of legislatures in the sixties. California was one of the leaders in both of those. So I think our government has done many things well, and if you look at sort of the quality of our laws, you know, do they match – there’s a recent study that came out of Columbia that says, you know, do the laws of Cali – that states pass match what the average voter wants and looked at in 39 different areas. And if you look at that, California comes out number one. And I think exactly as Mark was saying, we have a few different governmental systems. We have the system that passes laws, that’s a majoritarian system, you know, it says you go out, you have elections so whoever wins the battle of ideas, they get to put those ideas into practice. That system works very well today. It’s the system that passed the Global Climate Change bill, that resolved our water conflict, it’s a system that still produces laws that match what gov – voters want. The other system, the system that deals with our budget, the system that deal with our financial issues and funding our schools, is the system that I think is most broken. That’s the system that requires a two-thirds vote…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

KOUSSER: …to get everything done and that’s where I think we should focus our reform efforts.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, you say in your book, you know, the boom-bust mentality that has basically gotten California through a lot of hard economic times, that whole cyclical thing, has basically – is not going to save us anymore. What do you mean by that?

PAUL: Well, California is – The biggest industry in California has always been growth. We have had the spectacular increase in population that has gone on often steadily but also in great bursts such as after – during and after World War II, which I agree with that in that California actually dealt with some of its problems very well during that era of post-World War II California where we had all these people pouring into the state but we also had politics of a pretty broad consensus. It was fairly rare in American life between Republicans and Democrats about the role of government and so we managed to build a university system and the water systems and the freeways and all the things that are sort of the sinews of California life because we were in a quite exceptional period in American political life and because of the war and the Depression and the cold war. But this California is different in as much as throughout our entire history in California, we – a majority of California voters, of California adults, were born someplace else but that is now going to come to an end soon here in California. We are on a path that my undergraduate-age children, when they reach their middle thirties, California, for the first time in its history, will have a homegrown majority of voters. And so we can’t – we’re really much more dependent on ourselves. We’re not going to be a state of where growth dominates. Instead, we’re going to be a state whose fate depends on our ability to deal with things ourselves and not wait for somebody to ride over the horizon to rescue us.

CAVANAUGH: We have a lot of people who want to join the conversation. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Ucie (sp) is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, Ucie. Welcome to These Days.

UCIE (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. I’m one of those out of state people who moved here from Pennsylvania actually about 15 years ago.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

UCIE: And I was amazed at this concept of propositions when I first got here and once I began voting because I was overwhelmed with these texts that would arrive in the mail that I would somehow be expected to read, understand, and then actually have an informed opinion about. And I tried for the first couple years, I honestly tried. And, actually, KPBS was greatly helpful in digesting some of the stuff that was put on there but in all truth, I gave up. I don’t feel like I really can intelligently vote on some of these issues because they’re so complex and sometimes so convoluted that I’m actually fearful of the proposition system because it seems like to me it’s just a bunch of people weighing in on an opinion on something but it has – they have huge consequences that seem to gridlock our ability to govern.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

UCIE: I’d like to see them done away with actually.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for that call. I think a lot of people share your feeling about that. Thad, how did we get to this, where we have so many initiatives, so many propositions on the ballot?

KOUSSER: Well, we’ve had a lot of propositions on the ballot from the birth of direct democracy and long, confusing ballot statements and then it sort of went into dormancy but as California grew and people got better at collecting signatures, we’ve seen many because California government is so important that it’s really – that there – that it pays to sort of invest the $2 million it takes to get something on the ballot and the multi-millions it takes to run a campaign. But I think one important point to make that a recent Ph.D. from UCSD, a guy named Mike Binder, found was that even though many voters get it wrong with direct democracy, about 10% of voters said, you know, I really support gay marriage so I’m going to vote yes on 8…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

KOUSSER: …and about 10%, and about 9% said no, no, I really oppose gay marriage so I’m going to vote no on 8. Even though individuals got it wrong, the system generally gets it right. Most of those errors are sort of random and so overall we generally wind up with the decisions made from direct democracy that reflect what the average voter wants. Not to say there aren’t changes that could be made in the process, and Mark has – and Joe have some great ideas in their book but the system generally does get it right.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, in the book, “California Crackup,” do you find the number of initiatives and propositions weighing down our ballots in California as part of the problem in governance?

PAUL: Well, the biggest problem with the initiative in a direct democracy is the way we do it in California. California, most people don’t understand this but California’s initiative process is the most inflexible process in the world. I mean, there are a lot of – about half of the states have an initiative process and it’s widely used elsewhere in the world. Thad and I both did a conference the last couple days in San Francisco where people from all over the world are talking about direct democracy. But California is the only place in the world where a initiative, once it’s passed, can’t be changed, modified by the legislature. It’s required – unless the authors of the initiative explicitly give the legislature authority to amend their initiative, it’s necessary to go back to the voters. And so one reason we have so many initiatives in California is that California’s initiative creates a privileged, higher class of law that is very difficult to change. And so special interest groups in particular, you know, like to use the process because they can win victories at the polls that then voters, you know, by normal legislative elections can’t un-do…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PAUL: …or modify, so it’s the inflexibility in our process, I think, that is the biggest problem we have.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Patricia is calling us from Pine Valley. And good morning, Patricia. Welcome to These Days.

PATRICIA (Caller, Pine Valley): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Fine, thank you.

PATRICIA: This may be archaic and may be a little naïve. I came to San Diego in 1975 and shortly thereafter there was a lot of talk about splitting the state, north and south. And I’m wondering if either of the gentlemen that you have on the show or even yourself have a comment about that, if that’s still a viable alternative to straightening out some of the issues that we’re having because of the complete differences in what’s going on up north and what’s going on in Southern California and what’s needed in both those areas. Is that really a simplistic question?

CAVANAUGH: Patricia, thank you for the call. I know that this comes up with a certain regularity about splitting the state and I’d like to get both of your reactions to that. Mark?

PAUL: Well, you’re right. It has – comes up all the time. Most recently, though, is that there’s a group that’s trying to split the state but they’re trying to split it east-west. That, as Thad can tell you…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PAUL: …better than me, that that’s the new political geography in California is the blue coast and the red inland area. You know, it’s – You know, there’s no way we’re ever going to be able to split the state if for no other reason than the rest of the country, you know, it doesn’t want to have, you know, four or six more senators from California in the U.S. Senate. But the state-splitters, you know, understand something important, which is that the system – the passage of Proposition 13, by centralizing power in Sacramento, has created, you know, this heavily centralized system that doesn’t give local communities enough autonomy to deal with their – and regions, their real problems so that the real solution here is not splitting the state but devolving power from Sacramento and empowering, particularly regions and local communities because California, the different parts of California, this is a big state, you know. You know, Northern California north of Sacramento is as different from Los Angeles as Wyoming is from New York. We need to have a system that puts more control over regional matters back in the hands of regional people and that’s, I think, what we propose in the book.

CAVANAUGH: And, Thad, why is that splitting the state, do you think, a popular thing that keeps coming up?

KOUSSER: Well, I mean, it partly comes up because nobody hates Southern Californians like Northern Californians. I got to spend last year up there. The state is palpable. They’re going to steal our water. But, look, the shifting divides in this state are, I think, the best argument against splitting it in two. And so 20, 30 years ago, the argument was, well, we need a Northern California and a Southern California. Well, the shifting political divide has now made this an east-west state and now there’s a proposal in the state legislature to divide it along east-west stages. So, you know, you don’t want to – because California is this ever-changing state, you don’t want to start drawing lines that can’t be undone when the next sort of pritical (sic) resorting happens. But I think Mark’s getting much closer to the issue. What we really want to do is get together and have sort of, you know, people who we agree with and a government that we can access. You know, a city hall or county board of education that – the governments that we can really touch much more than we can access Sacramento with our 800,000-person-strong state senate districts, and give those local governments a bit more control over how they spend money. I think that is the thing that would make more people happy with their government and feel connected to it.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue to talk about California’s problem in governing itself and what we can do to fix it, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Mark Paul. He’s co-author, along with Joe Mathews, of the new book, “California Crackup.” He’s also a senior scholar and deputy director of the California Program of the New America Foundation. And Thad Kousser is professor of political science at UC San Diego, co-editor of The New Political Geography of California. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now. Mike is calling us from Santa Monica. Good morning, Mike. Welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, Santa Monica): Yeah, thanks. I’d like to ask Mark why he thinks proportional representation is better for the state legislature than our current system.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Mark.

PAUL: One of the reasons for the, I think, the alienation between voters and elected officials is that we have, as Thad mentioned, these huge, huge election districts. It’s close to half a million for members of the Assembly and we’re approaching a million for members of the state Senate. We have one of the nation’s smallest legislatures and, of course, by far the biggest population. And so the result is is that we don’t get the kind of fine – this is a very complex and diverse state politically, ethnically, economically, but our legislature really, having this old 19th century legislature, sized for a time when there were fewer than a million people in California, doesn’t reflect the full range of views in California so the proportional representation, which is used in – around the world is a kind of advance. America was the first mass democracy but the rest of the world has gotten better at using electoral systems that more accurately represent the texture of their populations and bring more different kinds of voices instead of just, you know, we have a very – the most polarized legislature in the country between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Under a proportional representation system, we could end up with more parties represented and different points of view and the legislature moderate and green and Libertarian. And, for instance, I think that would make people feel like they have real representation. I mean, right now, if you live in the Bay Area and you’re a Republican, you have nobody representing you. There are no Republicans and there are likely not to be any Republicans elected in the Bay Area. Under a proportional representation system, you would see Republicans elected in the Bay Area, you would see Democrats elected in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. I think we’d end up with a better conversation and a legislature that looked and talked more like California’s diversity.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mark, in the book “California Crackup,” one of the solutions, if I understand it correctly, is you would like to see some of the problems that we’ve been talking about corrected through a constitutional convention. Now since the last one we had was such a disaster, I wonder why you support that method?

PAUL: Well, it’s actually – it’s not just a constitutional convention. It would take either a constitutional convention or a revision commission. You know, Thad mentioned the professional, full time legislature. That was created as part of a revision commission process in the 1960s. We’re agnostic about what route California takes to get to the changes we propose but under our Constitution in California, you – a series of individual amendments, you have to – unless you have a revision commission or a constitutional convention, initiatives have to apply to a single subject and so what we’re arguing is that there needs to be a reform that looks at all the pieces in the system as they operate together. We’ve gotten in this problem precisely because we do all these magic moments of reform, silver bullets which, once they’re enacted, turn out not to work quite as well as they were advertised.

CAVANAUGH: But the step by step approach, Thad, is exactly what California Choices is trying to get on the ballot slowly, reform of election rules, reform of the budget process. Why have you chosen to go that route with this organization?

KOUSSER: Well, to clarify it, so California Choices is a website that scholars at UCSD, Stanford…

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Thank you.

KOUSSER: …Berkeley, and Sacramento State have put up to help voters figure out for themselves what to think about these. California Forward, completely unaffiliated, is an organization that has proposed the sort of piecemeal approach to reform. And I think the idea behind the piecemeal approach to reform is, boy, changing government is incredibly complicated, as Mark said. There are lots of unintended consequences and lots of diverse consequences that come out of this. So instead of trying to do everything at one fell swoop with a constitution convention, the idea behind California Forward is to take a bite-sized piece at a time. Do one little experiment and see how it works, then do another experiment, because if you try to just sort of all at once, you know, change the genetic code of California politics, you might end up with Jurassic Park. You don’t know where it’s going to go.

CAVANAUGH: Now there were two choices, there were two initiatives on the ballot in June. There are going to be a couple coming in November that are supported by California Forward, is that correct? Thad?

KOUSSER: I’m not sure whether – what they’ve taken positions on but they will most likely support the On-Time Budget Act which now has a number, Proposition 25, which would say that this two-thirds majority requirement to pass a budget that requires this consensus that often leads to these late budgets, as Mark said, that that would be cut to a simple majority and in exchange no legislators would be paid until the budget gets – if the budget is a day past the June 15th Constitutional deadline.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Let’s take another call. Joe is calling from Otay Mesa. Good morning, Joe, and welcome to These Days.

JOE (Caller, Otay Mesa): Hi. First I have a quick question for both the guests and then I wanted them to comment on a comment I have. Have either of you two heard of a thing called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem?

KOUSSER: Yes.

PAUL: Yes.

CAVANAUGH/JOE: Okay…

CAVANAUGH: …tell us what it is.

JOE: Well, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem is something that won Kenneth Arrow the Nobel Prize in economics and basically it’s a mathematical proof that shows that there is no voting system that gives people what they want out of a democracy. Now that’s not to say that we should go to a dictatorship but that’s just to say that you’re – no matter what voting system you have, there’s always going to be something that’s going to be left – that’s going to be undesirable in terms of what people are looking for out of a democracy.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

JOE: But then having said that, I guess the other question I have, and I hear this all the time, people say that the problem is we need a supermajority to increase taxes. I guess what I would say is what would happen if, or what do you folks think would be the case, if maybe there was a supermajority required to increase spending because what happens during boon times is that you get all these propositions that get put on the ballot and it leads to new programs that didn’t exist before and, of course, nobody really is concerned about where the money’s going to come from. And then, of course, when we get into these bust periods there’s no money for the old programs or let alone the new programs and everybody’s fighting to cut somebody else’s program. So what would happen if really instead of needing a simple majority for new spending, we required a supermajority just like we do to raise taxes.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Joe. Another supermajority, what do you think, Mark?

PAUL: Well, actually it requires a supermajority in California to increase spending. That’s the rule with regard to budgets and any appropriation in the legislature except for school funding requires a two-thirds vote. So we already have that. And, in fact, you know, the research on the two-thirds vote for budgeting has shown that it actually has the effect of increasing spending. In order to cobble together that two-thirds majority, what frequently happens is that they go out and look for legislators to provide the final votes and the price of the final votes are spending for those legislators’ districts. So what your caller asked for, California already has and it’s been part of our – it’s part of our problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thad, on shows that we’ve had in the past, a lot of people criticize the supermajority, the two-thirds vote, on taxes and some spending in order – as crippling the state. Is that the take on it that you have?

KOUSSER: Well, I think what it does is it doesn’t give us the government that the average voter wants. So if you look at what the average vote – You know, we have this terrible deficit caused by the global financial crisis that forces us to do the two things that nobody wants to do, to raise taxes and to cut spending. And if you ask the average voter in poll after poll, how do you think this should be resolved, and they say, well, we should do, you know, we should do evenly split but – or, we should do both increasing taxes and raising spending (sic). Only about a third of Californians say no new taxes, do it all through spending cuts. But that third represents, you know, is represented by a group in the legislature of slightly over a third of the legislature as an effective veto on the rest of government. And I think what Joe and Mark show in their book is that throughout California history, these supermajority requirements, whether it was the 1878-1879 Constitutional Convention or the budget deals today, it lets – these things let a minority rule, and so it really doesn’t give us the government that the average voter wants.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, starting with you, Mark, do you expect to hear anything we’ve been talking about today being discussed by this year’s gubernatorial candidates?

PAUL: No, I don’t. They certainly haven’t talked about them to this point, and I have to tell you, I worked as the policy director for Phil Angelides, who was the gubernatorial candidate in 2006 and, as I tell audiences, you know, he tried to tell at least some of the truth about what we needed to do to change in California and was rewarded by losing by 17 points. I think, you know, his example is – reads loud and clear to both candidates running this year, that it’s dangerous to talk about real things in an election in ways that are actually factual because it can get you into big trouble.

CAVANAUGH: And Thad?

KOUSSER: But the funny thing is even though it would be wonderful to see some leadership from the people running to try to run our state, all of our ways of amending the Constitution essentially cut the governor out. So we can amend the Constitution through a citizen constitutional initiative, we can amend it through a constitutional convention, or we can amend it through a constitutional revision code – constitutional revision group that goes through the legislature, and at the end of the day voters have the final say on all three of those. But the governor does not have a formal role in any of those processes. So, in some ways, if they want to stay on the sidelines in this debate, let them. We’ll work it out ourselves.

CAVANAUGH: But wouldn’t the leadership kind of help?

KOUSSER: I think it would help but it’s such a political hot potato that I don’t begrudge the governors sort of ducking something that’s only going to alienate people where they really aren’t going to have formal power.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mark, I’m wondering, “California Crackup” has a lot of information in it and it’s obviously, you know, a message to people, you know, that you want to get out there. But what do you hope that this book might accomplish?

PAUL: Well, what we hoped to accomplish was, first of all, to tell a new story to Californians. We tell a lot of stories in our politics about, you know, why we have problems. Most of those stories are either outdated or just wrong. So we’re trying to provide a new narrative and we’re also trying to push the boundaries of the conversation beyond safe, you know, safe and small and incremental things to think more broadly about California’s problem. You know, I think any – it’s going to require a citizens’ movement to make this happen. You know, we hope we’ve just helped broaden and spurred the conversation.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any other state that we can look for – look as an example of how we could better operate our governing system here or is California such a world unto itself that we have to basically create our own solutions?

PAUL: Well, a lot of other states do a lot of smart things and you can look at states as various as Virginia or Wisconsin or, you know, Minnesota, etcetera, that do a lot of things well. But, you’re right, California is of itself. I mean, we are almost a nation state. We have the 8th largest economy in the world. And if we were a separate country, we’d be the 35th largest by population in the world. We need to finally come to terms with just the sheer scale and complexity of California and the other states don’t provide, you know, don’t face those same sort of issues.

CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there, gentlemen. Thank you Mark Paul, co-author of “California Crackup.” Thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC San Diego, co-editor of The New Political Geography of California. Thad, thank you.

KOUSSER: Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days. You’re listening to us on KPBS.

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