State of the State: Arnold and California

Schwarzenegger’s 2006 State of the State address began with a topical self-deprecating joke that he stepped on in delivery

Now what a difference a year makes – a year ago USC and I were #1 – what happened?

and continued with a genuinely disarming and admirable apology:

I’ve thought a lot about the last year and the mistakes I made and the lessons I’ve learned. What I feel good about is that I led from my heart.

Now it’s true that I was in too much of a hurry. I didn’t hear the majority of Californians when they were telling me they didn’t like the special election. I barreled ahead anyway when I should have listened.

I have absorbed my defeat and I have learned my lesson.

The centerpiece of the speech was an enormous capital investment program, something the state desperately needs. Unfortunately, he poisoned the political well for this by accompanying it with a truly reprehensible lie, “And we can do it without raising taxes.” Perhaps it depends on what you think the word tax means; in this case, it appears not to include “moneys taken by force by government after my term of office.” Another item I liked was his explicit call to get the arts back in the schools, a no-brainer for a state whose economy depends so much on aesthetic goods and creativity, even if the arts weren’t mainly worth having for their own sake.

Sadly, the first item on the infrastructure list had the wrong recipe: 1200 lane-miles of highway and 600 miles of mass transit. If there’s anything we have learned in California’s last fifty years, it’s that we cannot highway our way out of the consequences of fundamentally contradictory demands. We may well have a right to live in a single-family houses on half-acre lots, drive anywhere we want (to work, for example), in a half-hour, and park free when we get there, but there is no reality in which those rights can be assured outside a decade or so around 1960. It can’t be bought even with a lot of money and especially not with money spent on roads.

Education, both higher and K-12, is promised a lot of capital and operating money. I believe we grossly undercapitalize people who work with their minds as a society, and this is especially true in education (note that my self-interest favors spending more on educational labor, not bricks and mortar). In a paper I wrote about classroom design, I once calculated that if one could increase college student learning by 5% through some capital improvement in a classroom, one would be ahead of the game to spend as much as the whole cost of the room. The abysmal state of classrooms in my daughters’ high school (attended, and the LAUSD school where the older one is teaching now) and across most of the Cal campus indicates that the governor’s intentions are correct in this matter.

The governor’s emphasis on infrastructure can be viewed cynically as a decision to adopt hardhat unions, and construction industry heavy-hitter donors, as his principal new political allies. But aside from his enabling of our continued pathological addiction to cars and roads, and his continuing refusal to tell the truth about taxes and public services, I think he is on the right track here. He’s talking about a $220 billion shopping list: this will cost the average California family about $2000 per year over a twenty-year period, or about one-and-a-half fewer new cars. Is trading the last $2000 worth of stuff we would buy in those years for well-chosen collective goods like schools, transit, soccer fields, and community theaters a good deal? In a New York minute.

What’s wrong with the speech more generally? Well, as regards the environment, he’s way behind the curve in not demanding a carbon fuel tax and a larger one on vehicle fuel. He’s asking for two new prisons, prisons that will entail enormous down-the-line operating costs and soak up money that could be used for crime and disorder programs that work much better. And there wasn’t a word about districting, the state budget process, Prop. 13, or term limits, four very costly dysfunctional elements of our non-physical infrastructure.

Why does a governor who doesn’t need the job find it as hard to provide real leadership (I refer here to Ronald Heifetz’ meaning of the term as enabling a group to find and do the adaptive work that needs to be done) as his pathetic predecessor, whose only visible motivation in any office was getting the next one?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

One thought on “State of the State: Arnold and California”

  1. State of the State (CA)

    Michael O'Hare's got the best analysis of Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech. My reaction is simpler: infrastructure good, massive debt bad. Schwarzenegger's allergy to tax increases, even moderate ones, will badly harm the state. Weirder yet,…

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