The Economist has put together a large special edition about the problems facing California. It is a very sobering article about the problems that have been developing for the past 30 years. The overall message of the article is that the initiative process has been disastrous for California because people will vote for a “good” thing, but not understand the consequences. As a result many seemingly “good ideas” are bad for the state as a whole. It does not blame parties, it blames the voters for the problems.
The one section I am going to focus on used some in depth polling of the electorate of the state. The results are simply stunning to say the very least. The opening paragraph is so good and so relevant to the discussion that I have to quote it.
“A POPULAR GOVERNMENT without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,” James Madison wrote. “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” The question in any democracy, but especially a direct democracy in which citizens legislate at the ballot box, is how much voters do in fact know.
If I extrapolate from the James Madison quote and judge California on the level of Farce and Tragedy that is in progress, it is clear that the people have failed to “arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.”
The article goes into great depth about the ever increasingly complicated legal situation as each proposition creates a set of unintended consequences that then needs a later proposition to attempt to fix the problems created with the first one. The end result in the state of California is that no one understands the funding laws for the public schools. By slowly explaining the growing farce of initiative based elections it gets to a truly fascinating discovery.
This poll was about as simple as it gets. It was only asking about the basic overview of Proposition 13 which started the growing avalanche of initiatives. The question was:
Does Proposition 13 apply to: Residential only. Commercial only. Or both Residential and Commercial Property.
That is a simple question. This initiative has been in the news for 30+ years now (passed in 1978) and only 1/3rd of people were able to answer that it applies to both Residential and Commercial properties. That is only the tip of the iceberg for the story though.
When it came to predicting who answered the question correctly, there was a strong correlation between education level and the correct response.
Those with advanced education (Master’s or above) were the least likely (i.e. less than 33%) to get the answer correct.
Those with a high school education only were the most likely (i.e. greater than 33%) to get the answer correct.
Those that owned property were the least likely to answer correctly.
That that rented property were the most likely to answer correctly.
So the conclusion from the pollster (Professor Kimberly Nadler at California State University in Sacramento) is that people were basing their vote on their perception of their own self-interest instead of actually gaining any understanding about what was actually happening. The people with the most education were the least likely to actually study the issue and act only based on their perceptions.
Even more shocking was the following poll result:
The longer a person has lived in California the least likely they were to answer correctly.
The shorter a person has lived in California the more likely they were to answer correctly.
It might appear that the longer a person has lived in California the less they know. Or at least the more misinformed they are about what is actually going on. Here is the comparable quote from the Economist on the issue:
The longer that people live in California, it seems, the more likely they are to be misinformed, and possibly brainwashed into ignorance. The supporters of Proposition 13, says Mr Nalder, have for three decades framed the debate as the “little guy versus the established powers”, with images such as that of a grandmother being taxed out of her home. Homeowners who are happy with their low property taxes might therefore ignore the fact that large firms, trusts and hedge funds which own commercial property benefit just as much, because that would “disrupt that clean narrative”. They also ignore the fact that property taxes elsewhere are high.
How many problems this highlights is too numerous to mention, so I will focus only on the global warming aspect. If people cannot understand one of the the three possibilities that property taxes apply to, how can they possibly have enough information to understand global warming? The simplest fact is that they cannot.
Education even appears to be a hindrance in taking the time to understand before reaching a conclusion. They must be assuming that because they have an education that they understand the issue when they do not. It makes me wonder at how many people out there have really taken the time to understand global warming. I suspect that the number is very small as a percentage of the population.
As James Madison said, this can only lead to Farce, Tragedy or both. In this regard both the financial situation in California and the global warming debate have much in common. The amount of money being wasted on both is truly sad simply because it is wasted. Only by taking the time to understand can proper decisions be made.