Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Six Californias?

Silicon Valley rich guy Tim Draper claims that he has gathered enough signatures to place his idea of breaking up California into six separate states on the ballot in 2016. Draper supposedly spent $4.9 million of his own money on this effort so far.  There are lots of reasons why this is a terrible idea, and also lots of reasons why it will never happen. I'm not going to get too much into those.

What I want to talk about is a pet peeve of my own, which is why some rich guy gets to put his personal project on the public agenda. I have a blog, so I get to talk about whatever I want. You don't have to read it. And I'm not forcing you to vote on any of my ideas. Tim Draper, on the other hand, is forcing me to vote on his dumb idea. (And even if I thought it was a great idea, I think I would still resent the way he is forcing his idea on the public.)

Draper might think that he is setting in motion a democratic process, that will allow the people to decide whether to support this plan or not. But as a California voter for more than 20 years, who has had to wade through countless propositions every time we have an election, my perception is that very few of these are conceived in a genuine spirit of democracy. Most are put on the ballot by special interests trying to bypass the legislature, or represent vanity projects by people like Tim Draper, who have the will and the means to use this method of gaining attention for their ideas. A lot of them are half-baked proposals of dubious constitutionality that sound good on the surface but haven't been thought through very thoroughly. I'm sure, however, that Tim Draper thinks that his plan was conceived in a pure spirit of altruism to benefit all of the people of California, and that it's just a coincidence that it also happens to allow him to remove his very own new state of Silicon Valley--the richest state in the nation--from whatever problems might be faced by the remaining five states of the new California.

Assuming we get to vote on this brilliant plan in 2016, here's how the campaign will go. Information will be diffused by pro and con forces at great expense through campaigns of television commercials and billboard ads. Both sides will present their campaigns in a selective and misleading way, and few voters will have all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision. Is this any way to decide such an important and complicated issue?

Whatever you want to say about the legislative process, and we can all agree that it is a deeply flawed process, on an issue like this one we can at least trust that the state legislature would refer it to a committee that would assemble facts and analysis in a way that would at least enable our legislators to have a reasonable idea of the benefits and costs of the plan, before they would vote on it. Since under the U.S. Constitution, the state legislature would have to do this anyway before any proposal like this could be sent to Washington where it would surely be killed in Congress by every other states' senators not keen on adding 10 more votes to California's senate delegation, it is hard to see the value of putting this proposal to a vote of the public before such a legislative process could begin.

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