Poll Shows Little Voter Appeal to Repeal SMART

Three years after their original vote on Measure Q, the sales tax ballot measure passed in 2008, an overwhelming majority of voters want the SMART project to continue to move forward. Voters show little desire to stop the SMART train project according to a poll commissioned by North Bay Leadership Council (NBLC) The poll, completed in late October, found that voters in Sonoma and Marin County strongly support construction of the project as presently planned from San Rafael to Santa Rosa. Six of 10 voters (58%) opposed the repeal of Measure Q.

Despite a perceived rocky start for SMART due to the recession and management issues, voters have held firm in their commitment to the project for the same reasons they supported Measure Q. “It is clear from the poll results, that given these tough economic times, North Bay voters are clamoring for the 900 jobs SMART will create by year’s end followed by many more jobs in the coming years. Voters seek to reap the twin benefits of stimulating the local economy and getting reduced construction and materials costs,” said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of NBLC. Murray continued, “Voters also want green transportation alternatives to Highway 101 offered by the train and pathway, and aren’t buying the argument that if SMART goes away that there will be any another alternative.”
Proponents of repealing Measure Q remain approximately the same percentage (32%) as those who did not vote for it in 2008. Then and now, the anti-SMART proponents have failed to undermine voters’ convictions that the SMART project will create much-needed jobs, boost the economy, relieve congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poll confirms that the repeal effort is misguided and cannot succeed.

Said Murray, “We hope that these compelling poll results lead the anti-SMART group to drop its efforts to stop the train. The train opponents have already cost Marin and Sonoma taxpayers millions of dollars bond sale penalties. Now they want to make taxpayers pay even more for an unnecessary, expensive do-over election that voters already decided in 2008,” Murray concluded.

The poll, by Dresner Wickers Barber Sanders, fielded 501 randomly selected, registered voters in the SMART district (Marin and Sonoma Counties) between October 27-30. Given the sample size, the poll results have a margin of error of +/- 4.37% at a .95 confidence level.

The Young Entrepreneurs Who Will Save the California Economy

As set out over the past few years at Fox and Hounds, there are big reasons to be concerned about our employment future in California. We have built vast entitlement systems that are far removed from jobs. The marches of technology and globalization continue to permanently eliminate jobs. Our retail and financial services sectors are undergoing major downsizing, and even sectors like health care that have seen constant employment growth are now stalled.

Now it is true that the history of California employment over the past fifty years suggests a very strong resilience. Technology has eliminated jobs throughout this period, only to create a greater number of new occupations, not even envisioned at times of job loss. Whether this past resilience will continue, though, remains to be seen.

For me, the most encouraging dynamic today for California’s employment future is the entrepreneurism and ambition of the generation of Californians in their twenties and thirties. Far more than my generation of Baby Boomers, this is a generation in California that is market oriented, pragmatic rather than ideological and risk-taking.

I see their entrepreneurism and ambition at every turn, in my professional activities, volunteer activities, and in some ways most of all in my activities with one of our Bay Area universities, California State University East Bay (CSUEB).

Our young entrepreneurs in social media and internet commerce receive the greatest attention, but of course they are in all fields. Here are a few I’m now working with: two entrepreneurs in San Jose who are heading an effort to install solar panels in the rights of way of state highways; two young developers, based in Santa Monica, who are part of a team trying to build a new transit-oriented community in the City of Hercules; a human resources professional building an online job search business; two workers’ comp/payroll service experts building a professional employer organization. What unites all is a willingness to take up big economic issues of alternate energy, transportation, employment not through “policy analysis” or “policy advocacy” but through specific projects and business ventures.

In the nonprofit world, a Silicon Valley start-up veteran concerned with autism is starting a software testing business to employ adults on the autistic spectrum. A job training agency in San Francisco working with ex-offenders has started a security guard business, to help integrate ex-offenders into security guard employment.

Then there is our college population, as represented by our college students at CSUEB. I go to CSUEB once a week, and always come back upbeat about our state’s future. Many of the students at CSUEB come from our state’s working class and struggling lower middle class. They do not take for granted the opportunity in higher education, and are very focused on finding their place in the emerging job world . Though most are looking for steady decent-paying jobs, there is a streak of entrepreneurism. CSUEB, like the other universities in the California State University system, does the heavy lifting in California education, contributing particularly to our workforce of nurses, teachers, educators, IT administrators. In recent years, CSUEB has launched major initiatives to increase training in engineering and technology.

A few miles down the road from CSUEB, former UC Berkeley student leaders from the Baby Boomer generation, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her sidekick Dan Siegel last week continued to undermine Oakland businesses as they played out their communitarian fantasies. Who says today’s students don’t represent a better employment future.
Speaking of entrepreneurship, from our colleagues, Chris Thornberg and Ben Wright of Beacon Economics comes the most recent data on new business incorporations in California.

2011 Number of Incorporations by Month
January  5,227
February  5,760
March  7,648
April  6,817
May  5,998
June  6,710
July  6,885
August  6,187

The most recent numbers on new business formation in California continue a trend that we’ve seen since 2008. Even while the economy has struggled, new businesses have been incorporated in California, at a substantial rate. Incorporations are only a part of the new business growth, but is an important indicator. Below are the most recent numbers from the state Department of Finance on new business incorporations for 2011. They are below the rates of 8,000-9,000 new business incorporations per month in 2007, but still show an active new business growth.

Michael Bernick, Former California Employment Development Department Director and Milken Institute Fellow

Historical Precedents Reason for Hope

A look back in time will provide not only context but hope for a better economy. Comparisons of the Great Recession with the Great Depression often lead to a concern that it took World War II to end that depression. As Christina D. Romer writes in “The Hope That Flows From History,” (New York Times August 11, 2011), “what is going to save us today?”

Romer answers that while the war speeded the recovery, the economy was “improving long before military spending increased. More fundamentally, the wrenching wartime experience provides a message of hope for our troubled economy today: we have the tools to deal with our problems, if only policy makers will use them.”

“Monetary expansion was very effective in the mid-1930s, even though nominal interest rates were near zero, as they are today,” say Romer. She takes heart that the Federal Reserve may be using its available tools more aggressively in the coming months as a lesson learned. Another lesson “is to beware of withdrawing policy support too soon. A switch to contractionary policy before the economy is fully recovered can cause the economy to decline again.” Romer points out that reducing the deficit more sharply in the near term could be a crucial mistake. She says, “The lesson here is that fiscal stimulus can help a depressed economy recover” as demonstrated in depression.

Looking at mismatch of skills and jobs then and now, Romer notes that “because nearly 10 million men of prime working age were drafted into the military, there was a huge skills gap between the jobs that needed to be done on the home front and the remaining workforce. Yet businesses and workers found a way to get the job done. Here the lesson is that demand is crucial – and that jobs don’t go unfilled for long.”

Romer’s last point is about the national debt. She says, “At the end of WWII, the ratio of debt to GDP hit 109% — one and half times as high as it is now. Yet this had no obvious adverse consequences for growth or our ability to borrow.” She calls for a bolder approach more like that taken in WWII to solve our economic malaise today. Romer says, “Unemployment of roughly 9% for 28 months and counting is a national emergency. We must fight it with the same passion and commitment we have brought to military emergencies in our past.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!

Now that the legislative session is over, business is busy sorting out the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good:  Governor Brown formalized his Office of Business and Economic Development. GO ED was established in April 2010 via executive order but this action ensures that California now has a permanent and highly visible single point of contact for economic development and job creation efforts. Governor Brown also signed into law a bill that, among other things, requires a standard economic impact analysis for major regulations at the beginning of the regulatory process.

The Bad:  Governor Brown vetoed a requirement that the state begin “performance-based budgeting,” forcing each state agency to provide lawmakers its goals, targeted outcomes and performance data. This bill was strongly supported by the business community.

The Ugly:  California’s revenue for September missed the state’s budget projection by $301.6 million, raising the prospect that spending cuts could be triggered early next year, the state controller said. “For better or worse, the potential for revenue shortfalls is precisely why the governor and Legislature included trigger cuts in this year’s state spending plan,” Controller John Chiang said in a statement. “September’s revenues alone do not guarantee that triggers will be pulled. But as the largest revenue month before December, these numbers do not paint a hopeful picture,” Chiang said. Revenue from the start of the current fiscal year in July through September is trailing budget estimates by $705.5 million, Chiang said. (“California’s September revenue misses target,” Reuters, Oct. 10, 2011)

Starve the Beast?

Is Darwin’s natural selection theory a better framework to understand our Economy? Starve the Beast? by Robert Frank, is an excerpt from his new book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good. Frank posits that one day Charles Darwin, not Adam Smith, will be considered the father of economics. Read the article and the book to see if you agree!

By means of three separate Congressional earmarks in 2005, a total of $320 million was proposed for the construction of a bridge linking the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with its airport on Gravina Island. Dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere,” the project quickly became a celebrated symbol of waste in government.

This particular bridge was a terrible idea from the beginning. Ketchikan’s population at the time was less than 9,000 and Gravina’s was only fifty. Ferry service provided transportation between the town and the island at a fee of $6, at fifteen- to thirty-minute intervals, depending on the time of day. Having bridge access would have been more convenient, obviously, but nowhere enough so to justify the enormous cost of the project.

Yet if the bridge was such an obvious loser, why was it slated for construction in the first place? The answer to that question reads word-for-word from the dog-eared script of antigovernment crusaders. The politicians who proposed the project hoped to curry favor with the local voters who would directly benefit from it, while foisting the bill on millions of distant and unsuspecting taxpayers, who would never even notice, much less complain about, the eventual small increment in their tax bills. Legislators from other states supported the proposal in the rational expectation of receiving reciprocal support for their own pork projects when the time came.

The encouraging coda to this story is that a firestorm of unfavorable national publicity eventually forced the project’s cancellation. In each congressional budget, however, a host of other proposals survive because they’re too small to make it onto the public’s radar screen.

Antigovernment crusaders are clearly onto something. There is waste in government. But the interesting question is what to do about it. Many libertarians believe that the best strategy is to “starve the beast.” Or, as Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, colorfully put it, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Starve-the-beast proponents make a simple point. Since money sent to Washington (or Sacramento or Albany) will inevitably be wasted, the solution is to send as little money as possible to those places. California has been fertile ground for proponents of the starve-the-beast approach because of the state’s unique constitutional provision that permits legislative proposals to be decided directly by voters.

It’s been said that if you want to see where America is headed, you should study California. The state was the first jurisdiction seriously to tackle the problem of air pollution from auto emissions. It led the way in promoting energy-efficient appliances. It was a forerunner in the expansion of rights for women and minorities. It was among the first to confront the issue of secondhand smoke. And it also spawned the anti-tax crusade that has dominated public discourse for the past three decades.

On June 6, 1978, Proposition 13 won the approval of almost 65 percent of Californians who voted in an election with near-record turnout. Officially called the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, the main provision of this measure was to limit California property taxes to 1 percent of a property’s assessed valuation, which in turn would be prohibited from rising more than 2 percent in any year.

Debate continues about the specific details of Proposition 13’s impact on the state. But no one seriously questions that it significantly dampened what had been a long-run upward trend in tax revenues. Unlike the federal government, state governments are generally not permitted to run persistent budget deficits. There is thus little question that Proposition 13 also prevented much government spending that otherwise would have occurred.

Since at least some of that spending would have been wasteful, the supporters of Proposition 13 can claim, without fear of contradiction, to have eliminated some government waste. But it’s a much harder task to persuade neutral observers that Proposition 13 made California a better place to live. All government programs exist because legislators have constituents who favor them. Some of these programs deliver good value for the money. Others are boondoggles. When revenue shortfalls force government to make budget cuts, the best predictor of which programs get the ax is the power of the particular constituents who support them. As Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere clearly demonstrates, however, the mere fact that a group supports a project does not mean that it serves the broader public interest. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that Proposition 13 has also caused many worthwhile programs to be cut.

What’s been the net effect? In his 1998 book Paradise Lost, Peter Schrag grappled with that question. Schrag, who had been the editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee for nineteen years, offered a meticulously researched and studiously nonpartisan account of the state’s economic and social history during the two decades following passage of Proposition 13 and numerous other ballot initiatives aimed at curbing the scope of government.
The portrait that emerges is of a state dramatically different from the one that had been “both model and magnet” for the nation during the generation immediately following World War II. The California government’s fiscal position has continued to deteriorate sharply in the years since Paradise Lost was published, and its overall prosperity relative to other states has fallen spectacularly. In 2009 alone, for example, revenue shortfalls forced the state to make some $20 billion in additional budget cuts. But even the first twenty years of Proposition 13 had left the state a very different place. Thus, Schrag wrote,
California’s schools, which, thirty years ago, had been among the most generously funded in the nation, are now in the bottom quarter among the states in virtually every major indicator—in their physical condition, in public funding, in test scores—closer in most of them to Mississippi than to New York or Connecticut or New Jersey. . . . Its once celebrated freeway system is now rated as among the most dilapidated road networks in the country. Many of its public libraries operate on reduced hours, and some have closed altogether. The state’s social benefits, once among the nation’s most generous, have been cut, and cut again, and then cut again. And what had once been a tuition-free college and university system, while still among the world’s great public educational institutions, struggles for funds and charges as much as every other state university system, and in some cases more.

Proponents of Proposition 13 counter that other factors have been important in the state’s long-run relative decline. Undoubtedly so. Yet the fact remains that chronic revenue shortfalls have been at the core of the state’s problems.
Antigovernment activists insist that the best way to deal with revenue shortfalls is to eliminate wasteful government spending. Who, other than the direct beneficiaries of a wasteful program, could possibly object? The difficult question is how to eliminate wasteful spending without inflicting even more costly collateral damage. Experience suggests that the starve-the-beast strategy is not the answer.

Starve-the-beast proponents might be likened to a doctor who treats a patient suffering from intestinal parasites by ordering him to stop eating. The patient’s food intake, he explains, is the very lifeblood of the parasites. Cut that off, and they will eventually die. Well, yes. But the patient himself may die first, or be seriously damaged in the process. That’s why the approved strategies for attacking parasites all take a much more targeted approach. They attempt to inflict damage on the parasites directly, while minimizing collateral damage to their host.

It’s instructive to push the parasite-host analogy a step further, by noting that no complex organism is ever completely free of parasites. Yes, the organism benefits from reducing its parasite load, and that’s why natural selection has always favored organisms with effective immune systems. But natural selection has always favored the most effective parasites, too. The battle against parasites entails costs as well as benefits. The rule of thumb for how to wage such battles is the same as that for battles in other domains: use the most cost-effective weapons first, and use them to attack the most dangerous parasites. But eventually a point comes at which the cost of the next weapon exceeds the costs imposed by the most dangerous remaining parasite. Beyond that point, additional parasite reduction actually leaves the organism worse off.
The same logic applies to the problem of waste in government. The best way to reduce it is surely to reach first for the most cost-effective weapons at our disposal and deploy them against the most important causes of waste directly. To do that, of course, we must ask why waste exists in the first place. Often the answer is that politicians support wasteful programs because of demands from important campaign donors. A good place for opponents of waste to focus might thus be on legislation that could reduce legislators’ dependence on large campaign contributions. (Small donations pose a less serious threat because the individuals who make them are in no position to extract major concessions from legislators.) The cost of enforcing stricter campaign finance laws would be relatively low, and such laws would be likely to curb some of the most important sources of government waste. But the U.S. Supreme Court has shown little inclination to support stricter campaign finance laws in recent years. On the contrary, its controversial ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case appears to signal the court’s intention to roll back even long-standing limits on corporate campaign contributions.

Unless the court reconsiders, opponents of government waste will have to continue working their way down the list of alternative strategies. One lesson of the Bridge to Nowhere episode, for example, was that boondoggles are less likely to survive politically when more voters learn about them. The information revolution has greatly reduced the cost of putting information in front of voters, so we might make some progress there. But the same revolution has also caused explosive growth in the total amount of information that bombards us each day. Thus it may be just as hard as ever to draw voters’ attention to any particular wasteful program.

In short, attacking government waste is a project that will be with us forever. Going forward, new technologies and better institutional design may facilitate significant progress, but they will never eliminate waste entirely.
Government may be imperfect, but there are no countries without one. The territory of any such country would have long since been invaded and claimed by some other country with a government and an army. So our challenge is to come up with the best government possible.

Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit group, conducts periodic surveys to assess the quality of the world’s governments. The organization publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), based on its definition of corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain.” Its surveys ask respondents to report “the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among a country’s public officials and politicians.” Some countries, such as Myanmar and Somalia, are perennially near the bottom of Transparency International’s CPI. It’s no accident that they and other persistently low scorers on that index—which include Afghanistan, Haiti, Tonga, and Uzbekistan—are among the poorest nations on the planet.

Government may be imperfect, but there are no countries without one. Our challenge is to come up with the best government possible. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of antigovernment crusaders, there seem to be some governments that are relatively free from corruption and do at least a reasonable job of responding to their citizens’ demands for public goods and services. In a three-way tie for the least corrupt government on Transparency International’s 2007 list were Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. Singapore, Sweden, Iceland, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and Norway rounded out that year’s top ten in that order. Here, too, it’s surely no accident that most of these countries are among the richest on the planet.

The causality undoubtedly runs in both directions. Having a more honest and effective government helps support activities that raise per-capita income. And being richer generally makes citizens more able and willing to support more effective forms of governance. But the correlation between per-capita income and the CPI is far from perfect. For example, the United States, which had higher per-capita income than any of the top ten on the 2007 CPI, ranked only twentieth-best on that list, primarily because of perceptions that our campaign finance system had corrupted Congress.

In countries with honest and effective governments, the view that promoting good government is a worthwhile investment would not strike most observers as absurd. Yet that does not seem to be the position of antigovernment evangelists in the United States, many of whom view government service with thinly veiled contempt. The foundation of honest and effective government is a professional civil service that takes pride in its work. Fostering a climate in which government is viewed with contempt inevitably makes it more difficult to recruit talented and dedicated civil servants.

If we must have a government, it’s surely worth thinking seriously about how to promote good government. What public goods and services do we want? How can we best raise the money to pay for them? And how can we attract the kinds of civil servants we’re willing to install in positions of trust? Going forward, questions like those should be our main focus.

Robert Frank is the Louis Professor of Management in the Johnson School, a New York Times columnist, and the author of such books as Luxury Fever, Falling Behind, and The Economic Naturalist’s Field Guide. He also co-authored the textbook Principles of Economics with Ben Bernanke.