Arnold’s Choice

We had a little bit of a debate the last few days at work (a public radio newsroom) about how much importance in our newscasts we should give Governor Schwarzenegger’s “May revise” — the adjustments to the state budget he first released in February. I took the position that since we all know that the situation is bad, that the revision would include some new, but predictable, cuts, and that the revision release itself amounts to little more than a political ritual, we shouldn’t waste a lot of time on the event. On the other hand, if we wanted to devote some resources to talking about the real impacts the state’s budget calamity have already had–effects on people and institutions, effects that might tell us something about where the state’s headed with the next round of cuts–that might be worth something to our listeners. My view didn’t sway anyone, and in the event, we wound up doing a smart and well-informed take on the story, though one that focuses almost entirely on the political chess game behind the budget.

As It happened, I was off work yesterday when the governor made his announcement. I caught just a snippet of it–but it was a provocative snippet. The governor appeared before the media, while outside the state Capitol protesters decried more cuts to programs to the poor and sick and to the state’s public schools. Solemnly, Schwarzenegger detaied his bad news and talked about how those around him had failed to heed his cals for budget reform. But one phrase stood out from the rest: “no choice.”

“I now have no choice,” the governor said, “but to stand here today and to call for the elimination of some very important programs.” In fact, Schwarzenegger called his decisions about cuts a “Sophie’s Choice.” He sounds tormented. How tormented? Here’s a glimpse, courtesy of The New York Times Magazine, from last year’s budget crisis (a.k.a., “Sophie’s Choice 2009”): “Schwarzenegger reclined deeply in his chair, lighted an eight-inch cigar and declared himself ‘perfectly fine,’ despite the fiscal debacle and personal heartsickness all around him. ‘Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,’ Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, ‘I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,’ he said. ‘I’m going to lay back with a stogie.’ ”

“No choice”? Well, one of the governor’s fellow citizens begs to disagree.

You could step up, governor, and show a little moral leadership and talk about how to raise money while we’re in the crisis. Yes, I mean taxes, which many Californians pay without flinching as part of the cost of living here. Of course, you’ve never been one to tell the voters they might need to pay a little for some of the privileges they enjoy. When the last governor and Legislature reinstated a motor vehicle tax during a crisis, you chose to pander to the anti-taxers who threw a tantrum. That tax alone–which had been suspended during boom times with an explicit provision it could be reimposed if the state’s finances unraveled–would have prevented much of the budget crisis we’re facing today.

So, there are choices, governor. Pretending there are none simply avoids responsibility for finding a way through the mess we’re in.

Punishment: Our Most Important Product

How often do I sit or stand still long enough to follow a “This American Life” episode from beginning to end. Not often. That’s at least as much a comment on my attention span, though, as it is on the program. But today, I did manage that feat for a segment entitled “Hasta la Vista, Maybe.” It was about a “model” prisoner at San Quentin prison who in his mid-20s murdered a man during an armed robbery and was sentenced to 25 years to life–with the possibility of parole. The story turns on the inmate’s efforts to rehabilitate himself after his conviction–he managed to do 27 years in state prison without a single infraction and worked hard to make something of his life behind bars and to prepare for a life outside someday. After the state parole board found him “unsuitable for parole” six times, it finally changed their verdict and ruled him suitable for release. Then the board’s decision went to the governor, who reversed it.

Why? Probably the best answer is that it’s politically untenable for a governor to show a whit of leniency–even after a prisoner has done all that’s humanly possible to pay his debt and “rehabilitate” himself, even after a famously conservative parole board approves a release. It’s not just the incumbent Republican governor who behaves this way. According to the story, he’s reversed 75 percent of the parole board’s release recommendations. His Democratic predecessor reversed 99 percent of such cases.

The “Hasta la Vista” case has something of a happy ending. The inmate’s lawyers challenged the governor’s decision in court and won, and the man finally went free. But the state’s institutions remain unchanged. When it comes to crime, they are singularly focused on retribution and punishment. They are abandoning the idea that preventive programs–like a decent education–can keep people from winding up in jail in the first place. And they make a mockery of the notion that a “corrections” system should work to effect lasting positive change in inmates lives.

Still Life, with Guy

Kate left for a teachers’ conference at a very nice hotel near Portland. Thom’s in Eugene. Eamon’s in Japan. I’m home alone. With the cat.

So I came home after a part-day freelancing for a high-end home furnishings retailer that shall remain nameless. I let the cat in. I checked the mail. Our cellphone bill was stated as being triple what it actually was. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with the cellphone company, which vary graciously corrected the bill.

I polished off the end of a bag of tortilla chips. Had a beer. Then an ice cream bar. No one’s here to tell me not to.

Then I started semi-obsessively checking the election returns. The more conservative counties in Southern California reported first, and for the first couple of hours after the polls closed, two of Conan‘s four propositions — one that would require unions to get annual permission from members to spend their dues on political causes, one that would require public school teachers to serve five years to get tenure, instead of the current two — were leading. But none of the ultraliberal Bay Area counties was in yet. Neither was L.A.

I finally persuaded myself to stop hitting reload on the election returns page. I went out for a walk in the hills. Stopped at the store. Came back. Now all of Conan’s propositions are losing.

Can I get a yee-haw?

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Voting No

Conan the Governor forced an election on the state to give De Peepull of Kollyfawnya a chance to enact his "reform" agenda.  I’ve struggled with whether to give in to my utter dislike for Conan and simply vote against anything and everything he proposes — the "Whatever It Is, I’m Against It" approach — or to soberly weigh my responsibilities as a citizen and vote on the measures according to their merits.

I’d like to say I’m taking the high road. But I’m not. It’s mostly because I think that at best, Schwarzenegger has appropriated the language of latter-day populism to bully opponents; at worst, he’s a demagogue. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in his carping crusade against "politics as usual" and "special interests" — the catch-all term for anyone who opposes him, whether it’s Democrats, teachers, other working people, their unions, or union leaders — while he curries favor and raises funds from the state’s corporations and business interests. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in the way he calls for fixing the state’s finances while refusing to even discuss the tax side of the equation. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in his positioning himself as a moderate Republican who stands apart from the party’s conservatives; true, he’s pro-choice, and he straddles the fence on the gay marriage question. But just remember that during the last few days of last year’s presidential campaign, he went to Ohio to campaign for Bush. 

So, even having thought about some of the propositions and whether one or two  might deserve support (I’m thinking of Proposition 77, which would set up a less-partisan reapportionment scheme), I’m voting no on Conan’s whole list.

Today’s Good News from California

The good news from the Golden State is that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers are down. Not that that has any huge significance in the cosmos or even in the world of California politics four months from now. It’s just nice to see our thumping lumpish bully-boy demagogue — oh, did I say I don’t care for his act? — have a rough time selling the rubes on his patent potions for what ails him and his buddies.

The amazing thing in the latest poll results from the Public Policy Institute of California is that Schwarzenegger somehow manages to lag behind Bush in the overall approval rating among adults surveyed: 38 percent approval for the president, 34 percent for the governor. It’s a stunning achievement, really, for anyone this side of the BTK killer to trail Bush in a popularity contest.

So, since people don’t love Arnold this month, the initiatives he’s forcing on the voters by way of a special election in November are all hurting. Specifically: an initiative to increase the time it takes public-school teachers to get tenure from two years to five; a measure to create a special reapportionment panel so the Legislature can’t gerrymander things anymore; and new budget rules that would give the governor more power.

But, and this is a big but: Arnold still has two months and change to make people love him again. He’s a Hollywood guy. He’ll have lots of money to spend on wooing us and convincing us that he’s our best friend, and we are our own worst enemies.

A Cruel Hoax

Or maybe just a semi-amusing one. Here are two improbable wire service leads playing off today’s news about the Bowl Championship Series controversy. I admit I wrote them to snare a University of Southern California football fanatic in my newsroom — I was pretty sure he’d actually believe them, at least for a few minutes.

Schwarzenegger Says BCS ‘Bad for People of California’


Filed at 8:44 a.m. ET

SACRAMENTO — Seizing on the popular outrage sweeping voter-rich Southern California in the wake of Sunday’s surprise exclusion of USC from the national championship football game next month, newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised an investigation of a computer system he declared was “bad for the people of Colly-for-nya.”

Bush: BCS ‘Worse than Saddam’


Filed at 8:44 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — Declaring that the inclusion of the University of Oklahoma in next month’s Sugar Bowl “a national outrage,” President Bush recalled special envoy Paul Bremer from Baghdad to deal with the BCS controversy.

“In the eyes of the world, America is about fair play,” the president said. “The BCS decision keeping the Trojans out of the national championship — well, it’s worse than anything Saddam ever did and I think it’s got nothing to do with democracy.”

But although he has recalled Bremer, his top troubleshooter, to handle the football mess, the president denied reports he’s considering redeploying U.S. troops from Baghdad to seize the rogue BCS computers.

Notes: This is a dangerous thing to do in any newsroom. As unlikely as it seems, something like this, once floated, can take on a life of its own and find its way to publication or to air. Bad. –I did take pains to plant clues that these were hoaxes. The phonetic spelling of California. The suggestion that Bush was responding to reports of a troop redeployment to seize the BCS computers. –The intended targets and (distressingly) a couple others did bite on the stories. My surmise: Part I: That they didn’t really do more than scan the first few words and hurry over the rest of what was there. The format looks right. Some of the right names and words are there. Sold. Part II: That we all encounter too much that really is unbelievable — yet turns out to be true, somehow — that we start out better than half-willing to believe the next amazing tale.