Author, progressive activist and professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley.
As California struggles with a crippling $21 billion project deficit, professor and progressive activist George Lakoff has submitted a 2010 ballot proposition that would roll back the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget and, he says, end the gridlock created by minority rule. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the budget crisis here in California. The state faces a projected deficit of $21 billion, according to a new report from the state’s budget analyst. The prospect for further cuts loom.
I’m joined now from Berkeley, California by a man who says the real cause of the state’s fiscal problems is its "dysfunctional system of government." George Lakoff, an author, progressive activist, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at University of California, Berkeley, he has sent the attorney general a ballot proposition for the 2010 ballot that he says can end the gridlock in the state legislature. It’s called the California Democracy Act and reads, quote, "All legislative action on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote." It changes two words in the state’s constitution, turning "two-thirds" to "majority" in two places. It would roll back the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget and, Lakoff argues, end the gridlock created by minority rule in the state.
George Lakoff, joining us now from the University of California, Berkeley, I welcome you to Democracy Now! Lay out what your proposal is, Professor Lakoff.
GEORGE LAKOFF: It’s a pleasure to be here, Amy.
The proposal is very simple: namely, end minority rule by simply having the majority decide on economic — day-to-day economic issues. That’s what this says. It says, on revenue and budget, let the majority in the legislature, you know, decide these things, just as happens in forty-seven other states. California is the only state in the union that is completely — that has minority rule in the legislature on both issues.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it happen? What is the history of this?
GEORGE LAKOFF: The history was, back in the ’30s there was a two-thirds rule on the budget put in. And then in Prop 13 back in the 1970s, over thirty years ago, there was a hidden part of Prop 13. Most people thought Prop 13 was primarily about, and only about, property taxes. And that said that you needed a two-thirds rule locally to raise property taxes. And what was hidden in there was the idea that you needed two-thirds rule to raise any taxes in the entire state. And that meant that the legislature was basically under minority rule, that one-third plus one, 34 percent, could thwart the majority on any major economic issue simply by saying no until the majority gave in.
AMY GOODMAN: So what is the reaction to your proposal?
GEORGE LAKOFF: We don’t know yet, because it’s not out there yet. And in fact, there has been a reaction by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general changed the wording of the proposal — it’s in its description — although it doesn’t change the initiative in any way. They put a wording on it that said that this “changes the vote requirement to pass a budget and to raise taxes,” quote-unquote.
Now, that’s misleading for the following reason. You can raise revenue without raising a tax rate at all, say, by plugging loopholes. If you say “raise taxes,” most people think it means raise taxes on them significantly. But if the majority runs the state, then the majority can decide whether or not taxes should be raised on them, or whether taxes should be raised at all, or lowered, or whether loopholes should be plugged to raise revenue, or whether revenue should be raised by selling oil to oil companies rather than just giving it away. There are many ways to raise revenue. That’s what our initiative said. And it also didn’t say whether you should raise it or lower it; it just said let the majority in the state run the state.
And the people of California, I think, have been maligned. Most of the people in California, most of the voters, I think, are quite reasonable and responsible. They have voted for a majority of legislators who are reasonable and responsible. But it’s a minority, a conservative minority, that does not want any public service run by the state, that only wants — that wants basically everything privatized, that says no, that says, you know, no to all of the majority’s proposals. And that’s why we have gridlock in this state. That’s why budgets don’t get passed on time. And it’s why public services all over the state, including the closing of, you know — well, the firing of many teachers, tens of thousands of teachers in the state, the closing of parks, the closing of health facilities and so on throughout the state has been happening, largely because that minority is running our state government.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening now, a major strike taking place on California campuses. The Board of Regents, we dealt with this some yesterday on Democracy Now! with Professor Roy, Professor Nader and students who are leading the solidarity strike. What is the climate like right now? And what do you think other options are in dealing with the budget, Professor Lakoff?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, privatization is the cause of the problems in this state — that is, because of minority rule. Therefore, the budget in the state going to the universities has been cut, and Governor Schwarzenegger also wants to privatize the universities.
Within the universities, privatization has begun. And that means many things. It means that student fees and tuition have gone up very considerably, 32 percent next year, but it had been going up before that, as well. It means that all sorts of people have been laid off who are needed. It means that unpopular — that is, programs as unpopular in the sense of not having a lot of people in them, are being cut. And universities are there to have things like languages, and so on, taught. There are cuts all over the place that are there because of the budget cuts, but these are also made because of decisions inside the university to move in the direction of privatization.
The people who are striking are saying that this was a wrong move, that even within the university right now, other funds and other funding decisions could have been made that would have prevented all of these layoffs, furloughs and program cuts and that could have prevented the rise in student fees. That is something that the faculty has been trying to determine and has been showing that, bit by bit, as we get more information, that it’s true, that many of these cuts could have been avoided, you know, under other circumstances, although we don’t know yet, because it’s hard to get information out of the university administration.
The strike is going to happen, and it’s mainly a union-led strike. The SAVE the University committee of the faculty is not sponsoring, but is supporting that strike. And that is going to happen today. As I walked in here, there were strikers out there.
AMY GOODMAN: And we should say that as you walked in there is at 5:00 in the morning California time, so that’s an early time for strikers to be gathering.
Can you put, George Lakoff, this story of the massive education cuts, affecting people in the Cal State system even more than University of California system, in the context of what’s happening in the world today; the context of the United States, President Obama expected to announce any day now his decision on Afghanistan, on expanding the war in Afghanistan; about the budget cuts at home; the latest issue of the study of hunger come out of the Agriculture Department, saying one in six people in this country went hungry last year — hunger, the cuts to education and the context of the war?
GEORGE LAKOFF: What is being said is, there’s just no money, as if it’s a force of nature. But it’s not a force of nature. These economic conditions are the result of human action and human decision, and those decisions could have been made otherwise and can be made otherwise.
Right now we have an economic disaster and an ecological disaster upon us, and those two disasters have the same cause: namely, short-term greed combined with a lack of an understanding of systemic risk, of how systems work both in ecology and in the economy. You put those together, and you have the same cause for twin disasters.
And the argument is that it just happened that way. But it didn’t just happen that way. The move to say that there’s only private interest, not public interest, is what is behind all of this. It is what has — what led the Republican administrations, from Reagan on, to cut regulators throughout the government and to try to privatize as many things as possible. That has led to all kinds of disasters all around, both in the ecological sphere and in the economic sphere.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your assessment of President Obama at this point, a year later?
GEORGE LAKOFF: It’s hard to tell. He made a choice, in choosing Rahm Emanuel, to try to twist arms in Congress and to, let’s say on the healthcare issue and on the environment, to go issue by issue, that is, part by part, of healthcare. Instead of just saying, “Hey, we have a great American plan for Americans’ health, and here are all the parts of it, but it’s one plan, and that’s what makes sense of it,” instead, they went for the parts. That is, they said, “It doesn’t matter whether we have a single healthcare plan, but we’re going to get more people insured. We’re going to get rid of preconditions,” and so on and so on. And they gave out a list of parts. Over the summer, the President said, “Look, it doesn’t matter whether we actually get the public option or not, as long as this long list is carried out,” and then he gave like two dozen — two dozen long lists, a laundry list. And David Axelrod wrote on Organizing for America, “Here are the twenty-four things that we want changed. Three groups of eight.” Nobody is going to remember the twenty-four things, and each of them can be attacked separately by insurance companies. That decision, the decision to go point by point rather than for the whole, has affected the healthcare debate in a very bad way.
And the same thing has happened in the Waxman-Markey bill, which essentially said we’re not going to just say we have to cut global warming and — cut global warming carbon dioxide emissions, but simply said we’re going to go and do this long list, 1,500 pages of it, which essentially sort of kills the bill, in a lot of ways, and gives huge amounts of money to industry that should be going to the American people.
Maria Cantwell has an alternative bill that’s thirty-two pages long and very simple, called "CLEAR," that actually would cut global warming emissions and, at the same time, function as a stimulus bill, because it would give three-quarters of the permit money for emissions back to the American people and would only essentially cap the distribution of fuel, not the burning of it, which is easy to check on and easy to monitor, whereas if you’ve got hundreds of thousands of places to check, you can’t possibly check them. So, basically, Maria Cantwell’s bill is a much better bill than what we have now under Waxman-Markey. But for the same reason, namely, it does a single job, and it does it well, and it doesn’t try to break it up into, you know, hundreds and hundreds of special cases.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lakoff, I want to thank you for being with us. Professor Lakoff is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.