Near-Infinite Vacuity

You grow up in dark and lifeless Pittsburgh, go to college in the dead center of Ohio, go to graduate school in grits-and-gravy North Carolina, teach for a decade in snowy upstate New York, and then just up and move to California, and jump into a career no one expected – and move to the beach, buy a small red Italian convertible, and remarry, to a willowy blond ex-model fourteen years your junior, with issues – and your friends back east do wonder about you. What is it with California? Los Angeles is the nation’s joke – surfers and Paris Hilton and earthquakes – and everyone tanned and toned and possessed of a near-infinite vacuity. And then, after the quite inevitable divorce, the move to the center of Hollywood almost twenty years ago made them wonder even more. They shrugged off the frequent trips to Paris and Provence and London. Easterners do that sort of thing too. But settling in, and settling down, in the middle of Hollywood, was inexplicable.

Well, at least it wasn’t Venice Beach – Jim Morrison, Dennis Hopper territory. And, as one place is pretty much like another on an hour-to-hour basis, Hollywood seemed like a good idea at the time. The weather is nice. LA is fine, the sun shines most the time, and the feeling is lay back – palm trees grow, and rents are low, just like in that comically pretentious pop song. It’ll do.

But California is a strange place:

Federal officials say they arrested a man who strapped 15 live lizards to his chest to get through customs at Los Angeles International Airport.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that 40-year-old Michael Plank of Lomita, Calif., was returning from Australia when U.S. Customs agents found two geckos, two monitor lizards and 11 skinks – another type of lizard – fastened to his body Tuesday.

Okay then – he was released on bond and will be arraigned in federal court just before Christmas. Nothing is surprising – almost nine grand worth of rare lizards, the Australian kind that are strictly regulated, and no permit for them. Such things happen – just another day in paradise. And Lomita, an LA suburb down in South Bay, is cool – good railroad museum there. As they say out here – whatever.

But this place is falling apart:

The day after the University of California Board of Regents approved a 32 percent increase in fees that are the equivalent of tuition, protests continued on several campuses, with students occupying buildings at Santa Cruz and Berkeley.

On the Berkeley campus, at least 50 students took over a classroom building, Wheeler Hall, barricading themselves on the second floor. Hundreds of students surrounded the building, huddled under umbrellas, tarps and plastic, chanting slogans like “Fee hike! We strike!”

“We are planning to stay as long as possible,” Andi Walden, a 21-year-old senior in the building, said by cellphone. “It appears the police are getting ready to break down the doors and drag us out. We had to take direct action. The regents won’t respond to anything else.”

We’re out of money, kids. That’s the way it is. At UCLA, where the Regents met, a group of students that had taken over Campbell Hall left peacefully enough on Thursday evening. There’s not much you can do.

It’s like this:

Despite an economy on the mend, California’s budget woes will drag deep into the next decade, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s chief budget analyst.

Tax collections have leveled off after one of the most precipitous drops since the Great Depression. But revenue is not expected to fully bounce back until the 2014-15 budget year.

State government faces a nearly $21-billion deficit over the next year and half, according to the report by nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor. Sacramento will be forced to muddle along, he says, unable to reverse the deep cuts that officials have made to K-12, universities, healthcare and social services.

A major reason the recovery will take so long, say many experts, is California’s place at the epicenter of the real estate slide and the resulting foreclosure wave. Moreover, “the mess in Sacramento is going to affect the California economy,” said Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist at UCLA Anderson Forecast, “and not in a good way.”

Californians must get used to a state that offers fewer services – and has higher taxes – than before the real estate boom, Taylor’s report suggests. But it remains to be seen how much residents will accept.

That’s from the Los Angeles Times, and it’s pretty clear. That’s it. We’re twenty-one billion short. We’re shutting down. The California dream is over. Strike the Ozzie and Harriet set. Go hunt lizards in Australia.

But what’s this about a mess in Sacramento? That would be this:

Budget shortfalls have reemerged less than four months after lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger struck a summer deal, which contained accounting gimmicks and rosy assumptions that have failed to pan out.

“The thing about smoke and mirrors is they are usually short-term solutions, and they come back to bite you the next year,” said John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

Schwarzenegger, who last week predicted more across-the-board budget cuts, must unveil his plan to address the projected $20.7-billion deficit in January. Taylor urged that officials begin tackling the red ink “as soon as possible.”

The deficit is expected to be worse in the years beyond 2011, as temporary taxes expire and raids on local government funds must be repaid by Sacramento….

So it’s a tad over twenty-one billion short in fiscal 2011-12 and a twenty-three billion short in fiscal 2012-13… and those are best-case projections:

They assume no raises for state workers and no cost-of-living adjustments for government programs. They also assume that California will win all pending court cases in which billions of dollars in service cuts are being challenged.

Good luck with that. Republican lawmakers have vowed to block new taxes of any kind – they want to change the state’s “punitive regulatory and tax climate that is driving jobs away.” The idea is that if businesses and absurdly wealthy people don’t have to pay taxes, well, both will stay here, and others will flock here, because this will be a good place to do business. Stop taxing people, or at least the important people.

So let the schools shut down and the roads and bridges crumble, and the sewers back up, and let the police and fire departments run on reduced staff, at minimum wage, and stop all social services, and the state will be attract people from all over, who want to make big money. They may not want to live here, but they’ll want to do business here. The Democrats disagree. And neither side will budge. Both seem to be possessed of that near-infinite vacuity we’re famous for out here.

The Times item goes on to discuss attempts to get some federal aid to tide us over. No dice – conservatives, and some Democrats, who never liked smug and cheery California in the first place, say we’ve mismanaged our fiscal house, as they say, and that’s not anyone else’s problem. Talk to the hand.

Did someone mention vacuity? There’s our amateur governor, the Austrian bodybuilder turned Hollywood movie star, on the student uprising offering this:

Gov. Schwarzenegger blamed UC’s financial crisis on the Legislature’s failure to reform the way the state collects and spends taxpayer money. He said he was unhappy about the increases, but considered them necessary under the circumstances.

“This is the time to look at our budget system and tax system. The Legislature should be sitting there right now fixing it. In the meantime, students have to suffer,” Schwarzenegger said.

It’s not his fault, it’s the state legislature. And he knows what’s right. The students have to suffer. That’s the way it is, and it’s probably good for them. Get over it. Of course he may be stuck in his old Terminator movies, or somehow that sounds less brutal in his native German – but probably not. There’s a lot of vacuity going around these days.

But times are tough:

California’s unemployment rate rose to 12.5 percent in October to set another modern record, even though more than 25,000 Californians found jobs, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday.

It seems only three states – Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island – had higher rates than California last month. And last year California’s unemployment rate was eight percent. Now, down in Imperial County, along the border with Mexico, unemployment is running at thirty percent. That doesn’t bode well for tax revenues out here. All the folks who had California-style crap mortgages, or second mortgages for quick big cash – those liar loans where you didn’t even have to show that you had a job, with adjustable interest rates that started at nothing, or less, then at a specific date reset to usury that would make Shakespeare’s Shylock drop his protests about being demonized – have already lost their homes. Now those who did not fall for that madness are losing their homes. That happens when you lose your job. You can’t pay the mortgage. And no property, no property tax, and no property tax revenue – California cannot possibly recover.

But, given our propensity for the vacuous, we will of course blame the Mexicans in our midst. Conservatives out here are endlessly griping about all the Spanish you hear everywhere – that’s not right. Too many people snuck in and they’re ruining everything. Sure, they pick the crops, and bus the tables, and wash our cars, clean our houses and tend our gardens, and we don’t have to pay them real wages and benefits – wink, wink – but their kids turn up in our public schools, and they flood the emergency rooms when they get sick, as they have no insurance of course, driving hospitals into bankruptcy. Out here you often hear that they are the real problem. All would be well if they were all deported, and also stayed and continue to do all that work they do, for next to nothing. The details of this argument need some work, of course. But it sounds good, and self-righteous posturing is power out here, in the land of the tanned and toned folks possessed of a near-infinite vacuity.

But this bears examination, as the argument has spread to the national stage, as lots of cultural imperatives start out here.

In Slate, Timothy Noah tackles this in The Nativism Tax – a discussion of what it will cost us all to deny illegal immigrants health insurance, as is planned in all versions of pending healthcare reform.

Noah begins with that September 9 speech to Congress on health care, when President Obama said this – “The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” That prompted Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina to break over two hundred years of decorum and scream out his now famous words – “You lie!” Good times, but Noah sees it this way:

What Obama meant was that health care reform would not extend government subsidies to illegal aliens to purchase health insurance. What Wilson meant was that health care reform would nonetheless allow illegal immigrants who were uninsured to purchase unsubsidized health insurance through the exchanges that reform would create. Indeed, to whatever extent the government could track down uninsured illegal immigrants through the tax system, it would compel them to buy health insurance. This was unacceptable to Wilson and other conservatives – not because they felt illegal immigrants should be left in peace, but because they felt illegal immigrants should be excluded entirely from whatever superstructure would be created by health care reform.

Noah sees that as an insane argument on several levels:

Illegal immigrants are currently permitted to purchase a quart of milk at the corner grocery. Should that activity be banned, too? If an illegal immigrant showed up at an emergency room with a burst appendix, should that person be left to die? But the Senate finance committee (probably at White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s insistence) took Wilson’s rude outburst seriously enough to insert language into its version of the bill barring illegal immigrants from participating in the exchanges at all. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., followed suit in the “blended” bill now before the full Senate. If this remains in the bill, those of us who aren’t illegal immigrants will end up paying for the health insurance of those who are.

That would be the Nativism Tax, and it goes like this:

Currently, if an uninsured illegal immigrant (or any other uninsured person) shows up at an emergency room with a burst appendix, the hospital typically will not leave that person to die. It will treat that person, squeeze that person for some portion of the cost, and then pass the remaining cost onto the federal government, to state government, to charities, and to private insurers, who in turn will pass it onto taxpayers, to charitable givers, and to policyholders.

And that’s where it gets tricky:

According to a May 2009 study by Families USA, a nonprofit consumer group, the annual cost of uncompensated care is about $73 billion, of which $30 billion is paid by government and charity. The remaining $43 billion is passed onto health insurers, thereby raising the average family insurance premium by $1,017 annually, about 8 percent of the average family premium.

So they call this a “hidden health tax.” But it’s not that simple:

An August 2008 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation crunched the numbers a bit differently, calculating the annual cost of uncompensated care at a more conservative $56 billion annually. The Kaiser study found that only about 2 percent of uncompensated care was passed through to insurance policyholders, as against Families USA’s 8 percent. But this was cold comfort to anti-government opponents of health reform, because Kaiser also found that the cost to government of uncompensated care was $43 billion, as against the $30 billion that Families USA calculated for both government and charity. According to Kaiser, fully 75 percent of the cost of uncompensated care gets billed to taxpayers. Spread evenly among the roughly 138 million taxpayers in the United States, the uninsured cost the average taxpayer about $312 annually.

Noah also points out that the government “fluctuates in its commitment” to paying this cost. From 2004 to 2008 it spent two hundred fifty million per year simply to reimburse hospitals for the treatment of illegal aliens. Then it let the program expire. The government stepped away.

But that’s a minor issue:

Through some combination of higher taxes and higher premiums, the rest of us end up paying for the uninsured – either $43 billion in higher premiums or $43 billion in higher taxes.

And facts are facts:

Illegal immigrants represent about 15 percent of the uninsured, but for various reasons (they’re younger, they lack access to government programs) they don’t represent 15 percent of uncompensated care; it’s more like 10 percent, according to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research group. Using the Kaiser data, the center calculates that providing uncompensated care to illegal immigrants costs taxpayers $4.3 billion annually. Had the center used the Families USA data, it would have calculated that providing uncompensated care to illegal immigrants costs policyholders $4.3 billion annually. That comes to either $31 for the average taxpayer or $100 for the average policyholder.

Either way you lose. And Noah thinks this makes no sense:

By excluding illegal immigrants from the new health insurance exchanges, the Senate health care bill passes up an opportunity to relieve taxpayers and/or policyholders of this cost. They are literally denying uninsured illegal immigrants the opportunity to pay for their own health care by purchasing health insurance.

So Wilson’s impassioned nativism, as it were, has added over four billion to the cost of health care reform. He won, really. He actually got what he wanted. And he won’t vote for the thing anyway. Maybe he’s a Californian at heart.

Noah doesn’t even address the issue of public health – make sure illegal immigrants get no healthcare, even if they pay for it themselves, and you assure communicable diseases, like, say, the swine flu, spread wide and spread fast. Germs and viruses don’t much care who is worthy to participate in which variant of which funding mechanism. They’re rather democratic about that, actually.

So, people ask why California, why Southern California, why Los Angeles, why Hollywood?

Why not? The whole nation has become just as vacuous, and we have better weather.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Near-Infinite Vacuity

  1. Rick says:

    “So [Joe] Wilson’s impassioned nativism, as it were, has added over four billion to the cost of health care reform. He won, really. He actually got what he wanted. And he won’t vote for the thing anyway.”

    So whatever, it has been asked, became of candidate Obama’s promises of bi-partisanship?

    The answer is, like they say in the ad campaign for Prego spaghetti sauce, “It’s in there!” — even if you have to look for it. Just because no Republicans (or once it’s over, maybe hardly any) will be voting for the final bill does not mean it’s not a bipartisan effort, since the legislation has been carefully crafted with all Republican sentiments accounted for.

    But the question remains, was it worth it? In other words, if no Republicans were going to vote for it anyway, should the Democrats have just ignored the incessant grumbling of the other side?

    The answer is, probably not. As the bill was written to get the whole “caucus” on board (which means every Democrat, including the conservative ones, plus two independents), it probably would have ended up looking about the same.

    As for California?

    Someday, you guys out there will need to swallow your pride and start looking around the country to figure out how other states do it right. The state needs a new constitution that dumps all those damn referenda, then goes back to basics, figuring out how to both collect money and, correspondingly, spend it on those things that need to be done.

    And as for “better” weather? When I was growing up there, I couldn’t wait to move to some state that had more than just one season. Sometimes it’s nice to wake up and see snow in your front yard.

    And maybe that’s part of your problem — having no seasons, you all go through year after year, with your brains stuck in idle, not being able to find a way to jiggle the gear shift of your minds and move forward.

    Maybe California should consider moving itself to New England. Breathing nippy air as you shovel your driveways might be just what’s needed to get blood moving to your collective wrong-coast brain again.


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