When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

The California state government is bankrupt, and the voters won’t raise taxes. Those are realities. Appropriation-by-initiative makes the state even more bankrupt.

Mike O’Hare has criticisms of Kevin Drum’s argument against the high speed rail bond. I’m going to get the hell out of the way and let the experts argue this one out.

But Mike makes two important conceptual points about the structure of Kevin’s argument. I think both of them are right, but on one of them I think Mike misreads Kevin’s point and misunderstands the depth of the state’s permanent fiscal crisis.

Mike is clearly right that high speed rail shouldn’t be expected to pay for itself out of the farebox.

Mike is also clearly right that if we understand Kevin’s “We. Don’t. Have. The. Money.” as referring to the economic capacity of the people of California to pay for more public goods, the slogan is wrong. Californians can and should pay higher taxes in order to have a better place to live. But, as Mike acknowledges, the government of California is broke, due to a series of bad choices by voters and officials going all the way back to Prop. 13.

Mike says that we shouldn’t treat the unwillingness of Californians to tax themselves adequately as a constraint, because doing so would simply ratify that choice. Fair enough. But it’s equally true that if every group with a special interest or a good idea goes directly to the voters to appropriate money for that group’s pet cause, while leaving the basic fiscal machinery in its current broken condition, things will only get worse. It’s about time that advocates start treating the voters as grown-ups, and admit that we can’t have everything we want within the current California tax system. (Back when Ronald Reagan was governor, Eric Hoffer said of him, “Reagan was a B-movie actor, and wants to run California on a B-movie budget. But California is an A-movie.”)

If taxes aren’t raised, then the money to pay back those bonds is going to have to come out of something else. Since K-12 education has its piece protected by a previous initiative, that means prisons (hard to cut back on in the short term), programs for the poor, and higher education. That’s not a menu of options that appeals to me, but it’s also probably not a set of threats that would induce the voters to loosen the fiscal shackles.

No one has told the voters yet, and even many politicians may not know it, but back in the late 1990s, when the state coffers were overflowing, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and the legislature made a decision to wreck the University of California. Instead of stumping up the money to maintain the UC system as the home of four world-class universities, places that have for the past thirty years competed with the very best private institutions for students and faculty, they decided it was more important to try to buy popularity by cutting the motor vehicle registration fee.

So voting for the high speed rail bonds, without changing the tax system, is voting to drive the state even deeper into the hole. It’s against that background that “We. Don’t. Have. The. Money.” is a sensible slogan.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com