Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Republican Dreams Come True.. California's Government Nearly Non-Existent. It's almost small enough to drown in a bath tub.
LOS ANGELES — The state of California — its deficits ballooning, its lawmakers intransigent and its governor apparently bereft of allies or influence — appears headed off the fiscal rails.
Since the fall, when lawmakers began trying to attack the gaps in the $143 billion budget that their earlier plan had not addressed, the state has fallen into deeper financial straits, with more bad news coming daily from Sacramento. The state, nearly out of cash, has laid off scores of workers and put hundreds more on unpaid furloughs. It has stopped paying counties and issuing income tax refunds and halted thousands of infrastructure projects.
Twenty-thousand layoff notices will go out on Tuesday morning, Matt David, the communications director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Monday night. “In the absence of a budget we need to realize this savings and the process takes six months,” Mr. David said.
After negotiating nonstop from Saturday afternoon until late Sunday night on a series of budget bills that would have closed a projected $41 billion deficit, state lawmakers failed to get enough votes to close the deal and adjourned. They returned to the Capitol on Monday morning and labored into the evening but still failed to reach a deal. They planned to reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday to go at it again.
California has also lost access to much of the credit markets, nearly unheard of among state municipal bond issuers. Recently, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s bond rating to the lowest in the nation.
California’s woes will almost certainly leave a jagged fiscal scar on the nation’s most populous state, an outgrowth of the financial triptych of above-average unemployment, high foreclosure rates and plummeting tax revenues, and the state’s unusual budgeting practices.
“No other state is in the kind of crisis that California is in,” said Iris J. Lav, the deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group in Washington.
The roots of California’s inability to address its budget woes are statutory and political. The state, unlike most others, requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass budgets and tax increases. And its process for creating voter initiatives hamstrings the budget process by directing money for some programs while depriving others of cash.
In a Legislature dominated by Democrats, some of whom lean far to the left, leaders have been unable to gather enough support from Republican lawmakers, who tend on average to be more conservative than the majority of California’s Republican voters and have unequivocally opposed all tax increases.
And then there is Governor Schwarzenegger, whose budget woes far outweigh those of his predecessor, Gray Davis, whom he drummed from office in a 2003 recall that stemmed from the state’s fiscal problems at the time. The governor has failed to muster votes among lawmakers in his own party, whom he often opposes on ideological grounds, resulting in more scorn from Democrats.
Furthermore, Republican leaders in the Senate and the Assembly who have agreed to get on board with a plan have been unable to persuade a few key lawmakers to join them. The package needs at least three Republican votes in each house, to join with the 51 Democrats in the Assembly and the 24 Democrats in the Senate.
For months Republicans have vowed not to raise taxes, which in California means no increase in either the sales, gas or personal income tax.
“It is a dramatic time,” said Darrell Steinberg, the State Senate’s president pro tempore. “The solvency of the state is on the line. It is really quite a system where the fate of the state rests upon the shoulders of a couple of members of a minority party. The system frankly needs to be changed.”
In the meantime, drivers are met with “closed” signs at Department of Motor Vehicles offices two days a month, environmental programs are left unattended, piles of dirt mark where highway lanes are to be built to ease the state’s infamous traffic congestion, school systems mull layoffs and counties prepare to sue the state for nonpayment of bills.
Last week, Mr. Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders concurred on a series of bills that included $15.1 billion in budget cuts, $14.4 billion in tax increases and $11.4 billion in borrowing, much of it subject to voter approval.
The Senate Republican leader, Dave Cogdill, said he thought he had all the votes needed to get the deal done in each house. But on Sunday, two Republican senators — Dave Cox, who was originally thought to be the last vote needed, and Abel Maldonado, whom Mr. Schwarzenegger had been able to woo into voting against his party in the past — said they would reject the plan.
Democrats, who had already given into Republicans’ long-held dreams of large tax cuts for small businesses and for some of the entertainment industry and a proposed $10,000 tax break for first-time home buyers, balked at Mr. Maldonado’s request that the Legislature tuck a bill into the package that would allow voters to cross party lines in primaries.
“I think with an open primary, we would have good government that would do the people’s work,” Mr. Maldonado said.
Sunday evening ended in frustration and exhaustion for lawmakers, who returned to work on Monday facing the state’s uncertain future.
“My boss will continue to work toward a responsible budget solution,” said Mr. Cogdill’s spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart. “There are real risks and real consequences for not passing a budget.”
Bush Legacy: There has been ZERO wealth creation in the United States since 2001. Scary.
By now everyone knows the sad tale of Bernard Madoff’s duped investors. They looked at their statements and thought they were rich. But then, one day, they discovered to their horror that their supposed wealth was a figment of someone else’s imagination.
Unfortunately, that’s a pretty good metaphor for what happened to America as a whole in the first decade of the 21st century.
Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.
At one level this should come as no surprise. For most of the last decade America was a nation of borrowers and spenders, not savers. The personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent in the 1980s to 5 percent in the 1990s, to just 0.6 percent from 2005 to 2007, and household debt grew much faster than personal income. Why should we have expected our net worth to go up?
Yet until very recently Americans believed they were getting richer, because they received statements saying that their houses and stock portfolios were appreciating in value faster than their debts were increasing. And if the belief of many Americans that they could count on capital gains forever sounds naïve, it’s worth remembering just how many influential voices — notably in right-leaning publications like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and National Review — promoted that belief, and ridiculed those who worried about low savings and high levels of debt.
Then reality struck, and it turned out that the worriers had been right all along. The surge in asset values had been an illusion — but the surge in debt had been all too real.
So now we’re in trouble — deeper trouble, I think, than most people realize even now. And I’m not just talking about the dwindling band of forecasters who still insist that the economy will snap back any day now.
For this is a broad-based mess. Everyone talks about the problems of the banks, which are indeed in even worse shape than the rest of the system. But the banks aren’t the only players with too much debt and too few assets; the same description applies to the private sector as a whole.
And as the great American economist Irving Fisher pointed out in the 1930s, the things people and companies do when they realize they have too much debt tend to be self-defeating when everyone tries to do them at the same time. Attempts to sell assets and pay off debt deepen the plunge in asset prices, further reducing net worth. Attempts to save more translate into a collapse of consumer demand, deepening the economic slump.
Are policy makers ready to do what it takes to break this vicious circle? In principle, yes. Government officials understand the issue: we need to “contain what is a very damaging and potentially deflationary spiral,” says Lawrence Summers, a top Obama economic adviser.
In practice, however, the policies currently on offer don’t look adequate to the challenge. The fiscal stimulus plan, while it will certainly help, probably won’t do more than mitigate the economic side effects of debt deflation. And the much-awaited announcement of the bank rescue plan left everyone confused rather than reassured.
There’s hope that the bank rescue will eventually turn into something stronger. It has been interesting to watch the idea of temporary bank nationalization move from the fringe to mainstream acceptance, with even Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham conceding that it may be necessary. But even if we eventually do what’s needed on the bank front, that will solve only part of the problem.
If you want to see what it really takes to boot the economy out of a debt trap, look at the large public works program, otherwise known as World War II, that ended the Great Depression. The war didn’t just lead to full employment. It also led to rapidly rising incomes and substantial inflation, all with virtually no borrowing by the private sector. By 1945 the government’s debt had soared, but the ratio of private-sector debt to G.D.P. was only half what it had been in 1940. And this low level of private debt helped set the stage for the great postwar boom.Since nothing like that is on the table, or seems likely to get on the table any time soon, it will take years for families and firms to work off the debt they ran up so blithely. The odds are that the legacy of our time of illusion — our decade at Bernie’s — will be a long, painful slump.