The Billionaires Can't Save Us

There's still more than a month left in 2010, but the clear leader in the war for most foolish newspaper editorial is this one from the Mercury News, of the great city of San Jose.

The piece argues: 1. There are a handful of ballot initiatives that can fix the state's governing system. 2. All that is needed is a few billionaires to fund them.

If there's a more wrongheaded argument out there, I'd love to hear it.

Rich people and ballot initiatives are the problem in California, not the solution. In fact, it is rich folks (and interest groups) who have access to the ballot (because it costs millions to qualify an initiative and run a campaign). The hundreds of constitutional amendments and initiatives that have made California so ungovernable -- creating the very messes of budget and faulty politics that the Mercury News identifies as problems -- were only able to take effect because of rich donors and the ballot.

Using more ballot initiatives should only make the system, worse by building new structures upon what is broken. Why's that? Because California's initiative process is the most inflexible in the world. Measures passed by the people can't be fixed or amended except by more votes of the people. Each time, we pile on a new initiative, even a well-intentioned one, we are setting the broken system deeper in concrete.

What's needed is to stop the initiative solutions (which are the poison) and tell the billionaires and other rich interests to keep their distance. We need comprehensive reform -- some sort of constitutional process (either a convention or revision commission) -- that allows Californians to do what they've never done: redesign all the pieces of their system so they fit together. Such a process requires not billionaire spending but real engagement by the public, which has much more at stake than the billionaires.

Any billionaire who takes the Mercury's advice and backs initiatives is getting in the way of such a process -- and making things worse.

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