Sunday, October 24, 2004

Requiem for a Lightweight

And so der Gövernor’s California Performance Review project staggers on towards well deserved oblivion. Last week his handpicked CPR Commission, which he set up in June to "facilitate public input" on the Review team proposals (i.e. to create the appearance of community participation) held its final meeting.

Press reports suggest that the Commissioners were less than enthusiastic about the recommendations handed them by the Review team, and could agree only on a 15-page "outline of expansive goals for restructuring state government" (politely known as "platitudes" a/k/a "bullshit".) A typical news headline sums it up: "Panel supports many parts of California government overhaul", which is like saying "Apple not completely rotten." The diligent reader scanning the news would find the heading reinforced with phrases like "qualified endorsement" "urge the governor to scrap some of the recommendations" and "a well-intentioned but half-baked hodgepodge that needs more work and public exposure". In addition to swirling allegations of improper access by oil industry lobbyists, we now have evidence confirming incompetence: "many proposals were crafted by people with no experience or knowledge of the subjects they worked on."

"'I know nothing about education,' said Dills, who is a staff attorney for the Department of Social Services. Nevertheless, Dills was asked to draft a radical overhaul of education governance. Of 14 staffers drafting education reform proposals, only four work in education. The rest were from departments such as transportation, veterans affairs and the Franchise Tax Board. 'Much of the time, we were doing something not to make the state better but to forward someone's ego,' he said."

It seems that the disenchantment crosses party lines. Commissioner and State Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, "did not attend the meeting because he said he would not sign on to recommendations that were 'half- cooked.'" Commissioner and Assembly member Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said "'there needs to be another vetting process' because many members of the public have pointed out potential flaws in the plan." And as Professor Tax noted back in August, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst has concluded that the CPR team greatly overstated claimed budget savings, so that:

"Reforms proposed in the California Performance Review won't solve the state's budget problems... Hill said Schwarzenegger's administration believes the reforms could save the state $32 billion over five years. Hill said a more realistic figure is $10 billion to $15 billion."

What a relief! Professor Tax is happy to learn that he is not alone in seeing the CPR as "a facade, a graphic designer's idea of what a management consultant's report should look like." Responsible political figures, it seems, recognize a "Hollywood movie approach to state government", and they understand that California cannot operate solely on camera tricks and special effects magic. The Professor will gladly put the CPR report into his blue recycle basket, and move this blog on to new topics. Fortunately, there's a steady supply of fresh material in the intersection zone of "taxes, higher education, business frauds and California politics".

Before we leave the CPR, however, let's look one last time for "lessons learned". Can we squeeze a moral out of the whole shabby affair -- other than "Morals Tomorrow, Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Tonite!" What does this episode reveal about der Groepenegger's approach to the role of Governor? Why, after launching the CPR to great fanfare, is he now "cautious", "unsure" and "doesn't want to do something really stupid"? Why did the Review result in a reform package so inherently flawed that it is bound to fail? (Hint: ask yourself what Producer Max Bialystock had to gain by selling dozens of 50% shares in a Broadway production of "Springtime for Hitler", calculated to be so foul that its backers would never recover a dime?)

Newspaper reporters have certain preconceptions -- mental frames for thinging about political events -- that incline them to the wrong conclusion. Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee fell into this trap when he portrayed those testifying at the CPR hearing at UC Davis on September 27 as special interest defenders of an illogical and inefficient status quo. True, the predominant response to the proposal to eliminate citizen boards and commissions was: "My commission (on which I sit/ that regulates me/that my group lobbies) is (different from the others/ doing a good job/ vital to California) and eliminating it would (harm the people/ signify lack of respect/ put me out of a job)." The trap was sprung when the professional cynicism of the journalist led Walters to write that the hearing "was, if nothing else, graphic display of why true government reform is almost impossible". In order to "fit the frame" of "special interests blocking change", Walters was led by reflex to portray the CPR as "true reform":

"In fact, despite its awesome bulk, the report is a fairly mild rearrangement of responsibilities and authority that, if anything, falls far short of the severe, but constructive, pruning that state government sorely needs after many decades of pile-on expansion."

Sorry. Wrong Moral. The CPR is not true reform, but a fake. The opposition may stem largely from petty self-interest, but a policy is not made worthy just because it has unworthy opponents. As explained in earlier posts here, the CPR is defective at its core. Specifically, the big claims that we'll save gigabucks falsify and misrepresent the supporting evidence. The attempt to make State agency outputs and outcomes fit a corporate performance model is based on crude and incorrect notions of how government works. The plan to reorganize all state functions into eleven monolithic mega-bureaus is inefficient and foolish, and the CPR's "accountability = follow the leader" mantra resembles Fascism with a celebrity face.

Professor Tax believes that the key to the significance of the CPR episode lies in recognizing that der Gövernor’s political style is what sociologists call "charismatic" -- leadership by inspirational personality (enhanced by years of practice before the camera.) The theorists explain that "Charismatic authority is radically opposed to rational and particularly bureaucratic authority. The personality cult of the leader is inherently unstable." Like other famous charismatics -- whether good or evil, Christ or Mao Zedong, Franklin Roosevelt or Hitler -- Arnold’s talents do not incline to cheese-paring the State budget or managing the immense swirls of paper and electrons that make up the rational structure of today’s bureaucratic state. He needs to pose with sword in hand, with all lenses fully focused upon him.

Schwarzenegger’s most salient feature is his vanity -- a vanity so gigantic that it even overcomes the natural cynicism of the press. "Surely," they reason, "one who thinks so highly of himself must have some basis for his opinion." His entire career, from the Mr. Universe days thru Hollywood, has been built on securing the approval of others. Our Governor Narcissus is so vain that he can even laugh at his own vanity.

But vanity is also Arnold’s tragic flaw. His position gives him unique opportunities to alter the world, but so far he has passed them up, in favor of cheap applause and trivial adulation. Think what the impact would be if Arnold announced a general pardon for all Californians now jailed or on parole for nonviolent drug possession. Think what a hero he would be if he renounced his fake hydrogen Humvee and declared in favor of higher taxes on oil and on cars as a way to fight against global warming and California’s ruin. What if Arnold one day saw the light and announced that he had become a Democrat? Could anyone else dream of slaying the heathcare cost monster? Or of restraining the limitless accumulation of wealth? Could anyone but Arnold dare to challenge California -- a state named after an imagined civilization, a mythic Utopia -- to create the best educated, the most thoughtful and considerate, the most confident and forward-looking society yet known on earth?

But he won’t. He can’t. He's too afraid of failure. No cojones.

Lessons learned: If the CPR had succeeded, Arnold would take the credit, when it proves unworkable, he can disclaim it, and when nothing comes of it, he can campaign against the "special interests" who sabotaged reform. The Performance Review is one instance of a dynamic process that Professor Tax predicted last January, where those around the charismatic leader engage in a Darwinian struggle for his attention and approval.

"Arnold’s friends and appointees will predictably disorganize and weaken the rational operations of state government and fiscal policies in the course of 'working towards the Governor'. This can be interpreted as showing that rational government is failing, justifying additional grants of power to our charismatic ruler."

The Moral: California, like every nation, will get the charismatic leader it deserves.

As Producer Max Bialystock once said: [windows media file download]

Friday, October 15, 2004

So farewell, then...

Donna Arduin

It's not even Halloween yet, but already the knives are out and flashing in the circle of advisers around Governor Narcissus. Today's encouraging word is that "Cabinet Secretary Marybel Batjer will likely step down before January".

It's been a good week. On Wednesday we learned that conservative ideologue Donna Arduin, the Gropernator's spectacularly incompetent budget director, has resigned forthwith. Her departure was accompanied by the usual euphemisms -- "to pursue alternatives in the private sector", "to spend more time with her family", "sorry to see her go", "shot while trying to escape", etc. The faculty at California's state universities, who will long remember her principled opposition to state support for higher education, will doubtless honor her departure in song and story.

Perhaps the most memorable contribution of the Arduin regime to the budget debate was the proposal to save state money by allowing animal shelters to kill stray cats and dogs faster, after holding them just 72 hours. When pet lovers protested, Gov. Narcissus quickly dropped the scheme as potentially harmful to his image. We can only speculate on Arduin's response to this policy reversal.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Great California Accountability Hoax

The California Performance Review is big on "accountability". The Report recommends rebuilding state government into eleven bureaucratic mega-pyramids because this will supposedly enhance "accountability". The word appears 57 times in the transcript of the Review Commission's final hearing on state reorganization held at UC Davis on September 27th. By now, however, we've learned not to take the Review at face value, but instead to view it as an example of the Hollywood studio approach to public policy. Just as a movie set must *look* real tho it need not *be* real, a Governor must appear to champion the public, and special interest politics must resemble bold, revolutionary reform. There must be reasons why the image masters in charge of promoting Governor Narcissus are now emphasizing "accountability" -- in such contrast to the Groeper's own reputation for youthful debauchery. Let's go behind the scenes, and find the motives behind the Performance Review report recommendations.

To begin with, what is this "accountability", and why does it have such nice associations in the public mind? The favorable aura surrounding the word probably owes something to its widespread use in Christian ministry ("personally accountable to God"), to which must be added the warm and satisfying glow one gets from using it as a polite form of vengence oath ("I'll hold you accountable!") against teachers and petty officials. The word marks the speaker as one of the elect, as an educated person for whom revenge is a middle-class virtue.

Words frame the way we view the political world. The campaign to abolish the tax on multi-million dollar inheritances appeals to our dislike of the "death tax" and to our sentimental regard for "small" "family" "enterprises". Because "accountability" triggers a favorable response from right wing Republicans in Orange County suburbs and Central Valley small towns, Governor Narcissus may be using it to shore up his standing with the party faithful. We know that selective inattention can be powerful. The year 2004 Ig Nobel prize in Psychology honored an experiment where test subjects watching basketball practice and told to count the exact number of passes proved oblivious to a costumed gorilla that wandered among the players. Perhaps Ahnold's consultants view state government reform as a basketball that can divert the attention of some voters from his more liberal personal or political morality.

But rational public policy debate should involve more than the use of subliminal symbols to manipulate public opinion. The Performance Review catalogs many real problems, but its analysis is crude and shallow. Would reorganizing to fit the Reviewers' notion of "Accountability: Responsibility to someone or responsibility for some activity" really put California on the right road to better government? Do state agencies now fail the citizens because they lack "clearly defined lines of leadership, responsibility and authority"? Surprise! The reviewers who faked the numbers in order to claim billions in savings and who conflated "citizens" with "customers", also got accountability wrong. They forgot that accountability also involves monitoring, reporting, and a system of checks and balances. A Federal performance handbook explains:

"Accountability is an often used word, yet the concept of accountability is not easily understood. When people hear the word accountability, they know that it means something important, but that’s about as far as it goes. Subsequently, because they don’t grasp the concept of accountability, they don’t know how to (and can’t) achieve it. Often, the word responsibility is used in conjunction with the word accountability. When hearing the word accountability, many people immediately equate it with responsibility and see the two as being the same. However, (in our opinion) they are not.... Accountability refers to the obligation a person, group, or organization assumes for the execution of authority and/or the fulfillment of responsibility. This obligation includes:

  • Answering - providing an explanation or justification - for the execution of that authority and/or fulfillment of that responsibility,
  • Reporting on the results of that execution and/or fulfillment, and
  • Assuming liability for those results."

The Performance Review's emphasis on authority and a chain of command is no accident, nor is the failure to mention any duty to report, any independent review or any need to limit the holders of power. Political reality keeps intruding on administrative theory, as though the Review were a movie filled with bloopers, like bluejeans on gladiators, windows instantly fixed after smashes by Terminators, or cars that un-wreck themselves when Ahnold takes the wheel. Behind the entire Review program there is a not-very-well-hidden agenda: to concentrate government power in the person and office of the Governor. One may infer a variety of motives among the contending crowd of advisors who are "Working toward the Groeper":

A final possibility is even more disquieting. No doubt there are some idealists mixed in with the partisans on the Review team, so "accountability = follow the leader" may express a sincere conviction that this is the best form of government for California. Our idealistic Reviewers quote James Madison, but they have forgotten his message: checks and balances are essential for real accountability in a democracy. The Reviewers imagine a government where every worker, manager and agency is responsible only to The Leader. The Leader, in turn, is personally responsible to the citizens (at least those who vote) for everything that the State does or fails to do. In governments of this type, The Leader's ability to stay in power typically depends on purchasing the support of business interests and the wealthy elite by using the machinery of the state in ways they favor. History tells us that this form of government is not new. It resembles the elected dictatorships of Late Republican Rome (@ 130 - 44 B.C.), led by ambitious charismatics like Sulla and Caesar. The modern equivalent is rule by a popular strongman who makes the trains run on time (or would if we had any trains left.)

The mission is clear. We must find more celebrity leaders like Governor Narcissus. The future of California depends on it.

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