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Collective Guilt and the California Budget

A look at the past week.

They say democracy is a terrible system of government until you consider the alternative. But there’s got to be something that works better than democracy in California.

The latest news from Sacramento is more of the same. California’s new governor (aka California’s old Governor, Jerry Brown) has to fill a $25 billion budget hole. This has Jerry dreaming of the budget surpluses he used to have in the 1970’s. It’s also caused him to propose huge cuts to Medi-Cal and higher education. Meanwhile, he’s hoping voters will agree to extend some sun-setting tax increases and increase the vehicle license fee. Good luck with that.

This year’s situation is another in a seemingly endless succession of financial crises that Brown’s predecessor could not affect. California isn’t alone. Illinois, a much smaller state, has managed to create a budget deficit of $15 billion. But at least Illinois was able to respond by increasing the state income tax. The only way to increase taxes in California is to pass a supermajority vote in the Legislature (a virtual impossibility given GOP opposition) or ask voters to increase taxes on themselves.


Politics requires accountability. So who IS to blame for California’s financial mess? Schwarzenegger? Republicans? Democrats? No, the blame lies with all of us. Let’s talk about collective guilt.

It’s a concept that’s been applied to the people of Nazi Germany. The German people, we think, bore responsibility for the evils of the Hitler regime even though the government was a dictatorship and very few Germans were directly involved with the killing of Jews. You have to prove personal responsibility to convict people for specific crimes. But the entire German nation bore collective responsibility because their cooperation was essential in order to operate the diabolical Nazi machine. Collective guilt is a weight that Germany carries even today, when the country is populated by people who had nothing to do with Nazism.

So if the German people could be held responsible for Nazism, can Californians be blamed for our dysfunctional government? Of course we can! We not only live in a democracy we live in a direct democracy.

Since the whole thing is our fault, let me propose a possible solution. If voters are going to continue to make policy decisions, through direct democracy, let’s give them a choice and make them accountable. Don’t just propose a tax boost and put it on the ballot for a popular vote, up or down, as Jerry Brown wants to do.

Let voters choose either a tax increase or a package of budget cuts that would also appear on the ballot. They’d have to choose one or the other, and the proposal with the most votes would win and become policy. It would be just like choosing between two candidates.


The beauty of this is people will know what services they’re getting rid of, as they keep their taxes low, and they’ll be responsible for it. The system will need close regulation so the proposals are presented simply yet truthfully.

If you think this system will be even more disastrous than what we already have, you may be right. But it will force us to acknowledge that this state really does belong to us, and with freedom comes responsibility. Collective responsibility.