Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 6, 2009

Highs, lows, and life lessons

Last year, on the same day that Californians narrowly approved the egregious and unconstitutional Proposition 8, Americans also elected our first African-American president. Barack Obama won an improbable nomination battle in the Democratic Party against an “inevitable” candidate from a political dynasty. And he did it while running a clean, grassroots-based campaign, even while his major primary and general election opponents made very different decisions.

The lesson? When we allow them to, hope can triumph over fear, individuals can triumph over institutions, and character can triumph over cynicism. But it takes hard work, perseverance and focus.

•••

Last year, we witnessed an economic meltdown of near-record proportions. We felt rumblings of the coming crash with ever-increasing numbers of foreclosures in the subprime mortgage market. But with the Sept. 15 failure of investment bank Lehman Brothers, our economic troubles became too big to ignore.

The lesson? I discern two.

First, we have irrefutable proof that excessive deregulation is dangerous. Even – or perhaps, especially – bankers and money managers need adult supervision. As Andrew Leonard of Salon wrote, “We now know … that left to themselves, economic actors do not pursue rational, sustainable courses of action. Greed and self-interest will steer you into the ditch every time.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s favorite economist, Alan Greenspan, admitted as much in his October testimony before Congress, saying, “… Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief. Such counterparty surveillance is a central pillar of our financial markets’ state of balance. If it fails, as occurred this year, market stability is undermined.”

Second, ideologues — folks who cling to a theory even in the face of evidence that refutes it — are dangerous. South County has home-grown ideologues on issues ranging from evolution to global warming. When deregulation ideologues (and we have local examples of those, too) try to tell you that too much regulation, not too little, is to blame for the current economic mess, give them exactly as much credence they deserve: none.

•••

Last year, California legislators passed a tardy, smoke-and-mirrors budget that they hoped would allow them to avoid making politically difficult decisions to balance the state’s books. It was wishful thinking before Sept. 15, but when the economy began to contract dramatically, it became clear that California’s budget woes could no longer be patched with bandages and good wishes. As of this writing, state legislators still haven’t agreed upon a realistic solution for the state’s projected $42 billion shortfall.

The lesson? Again, I see two.

First, California must scrap the rule that requires a two-thirds majority for budget approval. It gives the minority party power to hold the state’s finances hostage, and despite the unprecedented fiscal crisis the state faces this year, the minority Republicans are doing just that, refusing to approve any budget that includes tax increases, even though Democrats have compromised on program cuts.

Californians took a big step toward reducing gridlock in Sacramento by passing redistricting reform this past November, but that will take time — and another census — to begin to pay dividends. We can go a long way toward fixing the problem by getting back to a simple, democratic, majority-rules plan for budget approval– as is done in 47 other states.

Second, taxpayers have to remember that they must pay for all the services they demand from their state and local governments, and that they must hold elected officials responsible to deliver those services efficiently and effectively.

Do you want tough sentencing laws? You must be willing to pay for sufficient prison cells, prison guards, prison hospitals and parole officers. Do you want smooth roads, safe bridges and well-maintained parks? You must be willing to pay for necessary maintenance. Do you want top-notch schools and libraries? You must be willing to pay for books, teachers, librarians, training, and the construction, operation and maintenance of facilities.

Do you want it all done efficiently? You must first vote, then follow the actions of your elected officials, and follow-up by telling them what they’re doing right and wrong so that they know you’re watching.

•••

2008 was a year of extremes, ricocheting from fanastic highs to depressing lows, sometimes presenting them simultaneously. Together, we lived through a roller coaster year. Let’s not settle for survival alone. Instead, let’s heed the valuable lessons that 2008 offered us and apply them to 2009 and beyond.

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