Unanimous Rules of Thumb

A few years ago California’s legislature enacted at then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s request a sweeping deregulation of our state’s energy policies.

That this measure enjoyed considerable bipartisan support is something of an understatement. Not only did the bill itself, carried by Republican leader Jim Brulte, pass with a unanimous vote in both houses of the state legislature, but it also bore the almost unique distinction of attracting the endorsement of virtually every one of the endlessly quarrelsome special interest groups and lobbies that prowl the halls of our State Capitol– -the corporations, the unions, the environmentalists, the farmers, the utility companies, the consumer activists, every assorted component of the Left, Right, and Center.

In fact, only a tiny handful of the most contrarian Naderite activists remained silent rather than mouth fulsome praise, on the grounds that too small a fraction of the inevitable huge savings in energy costs were guaranteed to be passed on to the ratepayers.

As we now remember from last summer, this inevitable huge drop in energy expense actually became the sharpest major price spike in American history, with wholesale costs increasing by 1000% or more as the extraordinarily perverse incentive structure of California’s “deregulation” scheme made it the clear fiduciary responsibility of power plant owners to use any possible excuse to shut down their generators.

Only a few lucky events and a particularly mild summer saved California from financial collapse and the even more serious waves of sweeping blackouts that would have probably killed hundreds or thousands, destroyed the sixth largest economy in the world, and at a single stroke completely reversed America’s decades-long ideological trend toward deregulation, privatization, and free market economics. California, and America’s conservative-libertarians, dodged an absolutely lethal bullet.

Few would dispute that this energy deregulation scheme constituted the greatest political-made disaster in the history of America’s greatest state. Certainly if the scheme had passed by initiative rather than legislation, America’s numerous establishmentarian critics would endlessly cite it as the absolute proof that “direct democracy” endangered our nation’s very survival and must be abolished, and their argument would have had considerable merit. But since California’s deregulation scheme had actually passed through every one of the legislative checks- and-balances so beloved by initiative critics and received not a single No vote from our elected lawmakers, none of these voices called for abolishing our elected legislature instead.

It is this important lesson—the warning signs of public unanimity—that we might explore with equal scientific curiosity in the case of another political touchstone on which California’s political leaders also took a public stand not long after thundering their unanimous support for energy deregulation, our own Proposition 227 in 1998.

As I have often stressed, that initiative campaign was among the most absolutely bipartisan in California history, with “English for the Children” being heartily opposed by nearly every prominent Democrat and every prominent Republican. President Bill Clinton, the Chairman of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, all four candidates for governor, the legislative leaders of both parties, almost every newspaper, every union, every educational organization, every major political slate—all said No, with only a tiny handful of supporters—and a landslide majority of the California voters—saying Yes.

This interesting story has already often been told, and there is no need to further repeat it. Except that even among that small handful of mostly hard- right elected officials, activists, and media outlets that grit their teeth and nervously endorsed the teaching of English in Californian public schools, that support almost always came together with their strong disclaimer on one component of the measure, namely the $50 million of annual funding to establish adult English literacy programs, particularly aimed at the parents of the limited-English children affected by the abolition of Spanish-only classes.

Now in a state with an overall educational budget of around $50 billion—much of it wasted—$50 million hardly seems a great sum, but that paltry $1.50 per citizen inspired ferocious opposition among legions of conservative ideologues who may closely mind their dollars but have absolutely no common sense. The entire leadership of California’s anti-immigration Proposition 187 movement reconstituted itself and marched into battle to defeat Proposition 227, daily blasting the initiative on the state’s conservative talk- radio network. Apparently spending a dime a month of government money teaching English to adult immigrants was the one line that self-proclaimed opponents of Big Government determined never to cross.

And they weren’t the only ones. Perhaps the most bizarre convolution of a thoroughly bizarre initiative campaign was that once bilingual education’s defenders concluded that “English” itself was just too popular to beat, they ruthlessly decided to focus their paid and free media attacks on what they perceived as the one potential chink in Proposition 227’s popular armor, the “costly” proposed adult English literacy program.

Thus, Richie Ross, dean of California’s left- liberal political consultants, crafted a campaign message in which his millions of advertising dollars and legions of spokespersons from MALDEF and the teachers unions adopted the grim rule that not one more dime of taxpayer funds must be spend on immigrant education, out-Jarvising the Howard Jarvis Organization itself.

I myself remember engaging in a radio debate with a leading MALDEF activist, during which the fiery young woman so stridently denounced any proposed “giveaway” of taxpayer funds to Latino immigrant education that I am sure she convinced half her radio listeners that she had been a full co-author of Proposition 187. (For those who doubt this remarkable history, I attach a few clips below).

But campaigns end, and this improbable alliance of MALDEF and the authors of Proposition 187 to block a dime a month of funding for Latino immigrant education lost heavily at the polls. As a result, the program—which I had casually entitled “Community-Based English Tutoring” in the text of the initiative—has blossomed into California’s much-heralded CBET program, the subject of endlessly glowing series of stories in the media, including one in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times attached below.

As discussed earlier, given the personal limitations of our political class, it is hardly a complete surprise that the one component of Proposition 227 almost universally opposed by every member of that political world—denounced by conservatives even as they endorsed the bulk of the measure and simultaneously made the focal point of attacks by left-liberals and Latino activists—has become the one most universally popular policy program, about which perhaps not a single critical word has been uttered since passage. For example, last year a small school district in the Central Valley which considered discontinuing the program was faced with a massive protest petition of a thousand immigrant residents.

So universally and uncontroversially popular has the CBET program become, that many of the politicians who praise the program in their visits and the reporters who recount these stories apparently remain completely ignorant of its direct connection to Proposition 227, as do I assume the participants themselves.

And I suspect that the leaders of MALDEF are hoping that everyone will forget their so fervent opposition to “squandering” even just a dime a month of taxpayer money teaching English to Latino immigrants.


P.S. The most recent weeks of horrific events in the Middle-East have seemed to render even my extremely pessimistic predictions of a few months ago almost optimistic by comparison. Hard words to write, but true ones nonetheless.

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