California ballot initiatives are a dangerous business, and one that we all would be wise to take a break from, as I previously suggested in this space.
But I’m tempted by the new pension initiative backed by mayors.
The initiative is a constitutional amendment, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Our constitution already has too many things in it. But it’s a very rare constitutional amendment, and a very rare initiative, in one very good way: it gives more power to elected leaders, not less.
Indeed, the whole point of the initiative is to unshackle the people we elect (and the voters, and other policymakers) when it comes to the issue of pensions and retiree benefits. The amendment would overrule the presumption that protects pensions and retiree benefits offered to workers on their first day of work as a “vested right” and permit governments to change or lower current employees’ benefits in the future.
This is at once modest (no one loses anything they haven’t earned via work, they could lose what they’ve been promised) — and revolutionary in its unshackling of government. And its value would go beyond pensions. It’s a big opening for democracy and politics, leaving these decisions to elected officials, union negotiators, and the vagaries of politics.
This is exactly the sort of medicine California needs, and not just on pensions. In our budget, our governing system and almost every major policy area, our policymakers are constrained by the weight of old promises, old ballot measures, old court decisions. Without flexibility, it’s hard to make smart investments and long-term decisions.
Of course, the very fact that the pension initiative would provide such flexibility is its chief political weakness—and why it’s a safe bet that it will be defeated. All the opponents will have to say is that it gives “more power to the politicians” and note that politicians – mayors – are its proponents, and and voters, relying on the anti-politician contempt nurtured for a century by California media and professional campaign managers and politicians themselves, will surely recoil in horror. Critics will point out, and not without reason, that the unshackled politicians could provide even more benefits to workers than they already do. CalPERS has suggested that its broad language could imperil other contracts.
The simplest response to all this is: those who oppose flexibility are really advocates for the dead. They argue that the decisions made by the politicians and voters and courts of decades ago should carry more weight than those of today’s politicians and voters. They want to use the dead to obligate the future, and California is already too much governed by ghosts. And those who would oppose flexibility do so by telling us that we are not as worthy of self-government as our ancestors. We should shout back: we deserve democracy too.
Maybe, just maybe, this pension initiative offers a chance to change the conversation in California. To emphasize that today’s humans are best governed by today’s humans, since we cannot hold the dead accountable. And that politics and democracy are to embraced, and not feared, because humanity haven’t invented anything better.
Politically, this measure is an almost certain loser. But it’s essential to our state’s future that the central idea behind it should ultimately win.
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Joe Matthews is a Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010).