Why you should care
If you think things like schools, parks and public safety are important, open your wallet and fund good legislators.
David Crane, former special advisor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, teaches public policy at Stanford University and is co-founder of Govern for California, whose mission is to elect “honest and effective state legislators.”
Americans love to complain about the sorry state of their political affairs, and the federal government shutdown has given them plenty to work with. But they don’t love to take responsibility for that state of affairs.
The brutal truth is that most Americans don’t do the work or contribute the money required for a successful participatory democracy. That’s hurting the country badly, and if it doesn’t change, our democracy is doomed.
As Thomas Jefferson put it: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” (Emphasis added.)
Many states have cut funding for education, parks and social services, and many of us respond by donating to charities. But charities can’t make up for massive cutbacks.
But who participates? At the federal level, it’s largely the military-, medical-, and entitlement-industrial complexes that, not surprisingly, get most of the $4 trillion spent by the federal government each year. At the state level, it’s government employees who get most of the $2.5 trillion spent each year, plus some corporations and other organizations who want special favors.
Everyone else is pretty much MIA.
Just ask yourself: Do you know the names of your local supervisor, school board member, state assemblyperson or state senator? You should, because in our federalist U.S. system, states provide the vast majority of domestic government services. If you care about public transportation, parks, public schools, courts, colleges, social safety nets, public safety, taxes going to services and not to lining pockets, and more, you should know these things.
But most Americans don’t.
For example, lots of states have cut funding for education, parks and social services, and many of us respond by donating to charities. But charities can’t make up for massive cutbacks. A study of six states – New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, California and Virginia – by the State Budget Crisis Task Force co-chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch reported that “all six states face major threats to their ability to provide basic services to the public, invest for the future and care for the needy at a cost taxpayers will support.”
Despite higher revenues, California alone cut $3 billion per year from welfare, parks, courts and higher education, shifting the money to salaries, pensions, debt service and health care. Not many charities can make up for $3 billion per year, especially to a single state, but $3 billion is less than 2 percent of the federal and state funds appropriated each year by the 120 members of the California legislature.
This is where you and I come in: The election of a few different legislators can change how states allocate money. So, if you care about public services at a reasonable cost to taxpayers, think of contributing money to elect good legislators as the most powerful form of charity.
The problem isn’t that special interests are spending too much money but rather that you and I are spending too little.
Right now, legislators get most of their election money from special interests feeding at the state trough. You can look some up here and here. That’s why those legislators keep choosing in favor of those interests and against parks, education, courts, social services, citizens, private-sector workers and taxpayers.
Who’s missing from that list? You and me.
The problem isn’t that special interests are spending too much money but rather that you and I are spending too little – and it doesn’t take much. If enough of us spend even a few dollars, we can make a big impact, as President Obama’s 2008 campaign showed.
Nothing is blocking your participation – and now there are new ways to get involved. In Colorado, students and others are rallying behind a few pro-education state legislators. In New York, citizens financing a few legislators played a pivotal role in that state’s enactment of a marriage-equality law. It’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and hope for some billionaire to throw money at a pet political cause. What’s needed is widespread engagement and spending on the low-visibility races that really make a difference.
Americans need to make good government one of their charities. As Michael Douglas’ character said in The American President, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” That won’t happen unless you and your wallet get behind some of those people.