Newsletter Articles

Governing California

I’m just a lowly city council member.  I haven’t been Speaker of the Assembly, or a State Senator, or Governor, and I’m certainly not the President, so all I can talk to you about is what I’ve observed at the local level.  In particular, I suggest that Governing California requires that we understand two different perspectives – one from inside government looking out, and one from outside government looking in.

My view of the inside government comes from talking with my own city staff, the staff of regional bodies and agencies I have served on, and from ACC-OC policy committees where we interact with city, county, special district and legislative staff on a regular basis.

From inside government, the key characteristic to notice is a systemic lack of faith.  I’m not talking about the kind of faith you find at church, though lack of that kind of faith is probably worth discussion too, what I mean is that people inside government don’t believe that those outside government will do the right thing unless they are told what to do by government, and then forced to do it.

Here’s an example from a recent council meeting in Laguna Niguel.  First, let me say that the staff in Laguna Niguel is excellent.  I think they do a very good job keeping our customer satisfaction numbers extremely high, but just a few meetings ago we discussed a sign ordinance and staff thought it was very important that we require signs not be less than 18 inches off the ground because people might not be able to see them.  Really?  We need to tell people not to build signs so low that people can’t see them?  Another great example comes from my two toddlers.  We have 2 teenagers and two toddlers.  If I put the toddlers in the exact same carseats that my teenagers rode in, I would be guilty of child abuse!  What was perfectly good for them is apparently inadequate now, and I remember laying on the floor in the backseat of my Dad’s Oldsmobile when I was growing up and I made it through just fine.  Other great examples of these laws are the car seat laws child bicycle helmet laws.  Some jurisdictions even have laws about what must be included in your child’s lunch when you send them to school.

Why do we have these laws?  Because someone thought we would be safer if we had them, and they may be right, but at what cost?  Our staff reports are really good at identifying how much money and staff time it will take to implement a new program, but are really bad at quantifying how much our quality of life will be diminished by the loss of freedom.

Those of you who know me have probably heard me say this before, but it bears repeating.  Freedom and safety are on opposite sides of a spectrum.  On the one hand we have total freedom – the state of nature, every man for himself, survival of the fittest.  It is a very unsafe place, but very free.  On the other hand is a padded cell and a straight jacket.  Absolute safety, even from yourself, but no freedom.  Every society has a spot on the spectrum where it resides.  Our Founding Fathers picked a place very close to freedom, in fact too close, which is why the Articles of Confederation didn’t work.

Ever since that time, we have been progressing toward safety.  Every day the State Legislature is in session, someone needs to prove that they have accomplished something so they seek out some new cause to write a bill about, or some new victim to save.  Every time they do, they inch us closer to safety and farther from freedom.

Suggesting that government not do something, or not regulate something, especially something that we already regulate, is tantamount to causing the very thing they fear to come to pass.  An elected official who suggests removing a regulation will be demonized in the press and punished in campaign mailers come election time.  People will die, children will go hungry and old folks will be turned out on the street.  It is hard to fight against safety.

But there is a cost to safety, and the price we pay is in freedom and ingenuity, and creativity, and success, especially in our business community.  Every time you tell someone they can’t do that, or put more barriers up to them doing something, or increase the costs they have to bear to do it, you make them more likely to just give up.  Then they become like the people in post communist countries.

Where the regimes fell and the regulations were lifted we expected to see a vast resurgence of free enterprise and democracy, but in many places it didn’t happen.  Why?  Because people still didn’t believe they would be able to push through the bureaucracy to be able to accomplish their dreams.  They still thought someone was waiting around the corner who would get them if they tried.  They are paralyzed, and that’s what we are doing to our people, especially our small businesses.

 Who makes the choice of how much freedom to sacrifice for safety?  For years, elected officials have written laws and government agencies have poured out regulations that move us toward safety.  They think they are doing what the people want. When elections show that no one gets reelected for making people less safe, does that mean the people want to exchange their freedom for safety?  Not necessarily, and that’s the second perspective.

The second perspective is from those outside government.  The problem is that they no longer believe they can influence what happens in Sacramento, or in Washington.  When they don’t believe they have an impact, they disengage.  Why bother spending time and money when it will make no difference?  That is what you’ve seen with both the increase in decline to state voters, low voter turnout, and the generally abysmal satisfaction numbers with the state and national legislatures.  People don’t like what is happening, but they don’t feel like they have any power over the process.  This comes with several very serious side effects.

The first is the lack of productivity, creativity and innovation I mentioned above.  Business slows when regulations constrict, and that is what we have seen.  The second, is less easy to see.

Our city has two adopted military units, a Marine Battalion out of Camp Pendleton and a Naval Frigate out of San Diego.  Both units have recently returned from deployment.  I can tell you with great certainty that those people do not risk their lives, spend months away from their wives and children to protect our building codes.  They do it to protect our freedom.  When the Greatest generation spilled their blood on the beaches of Normandy, it was not to preserve the right of SCAG to form an RTP with a new SCS that would reduce GHG emissions.  It was because they wanted to continue to be free.  If their government at home was not interested in protecting their freedoms, I wonder if they would have been willing to fight.

So you see, the true societal cost of the cumulative effect of reducing our freedom is a threat to the very existence of our society.

OK, so protecting freedom is important.  We all say we want to live in a free society, but do we really?  What does that mean?  The very essence of freedom is allowing people to make stupid choices.  Most people won’t, but some will.  If all you allow them to do is make choices you agree with, they you haven’t really given them any freedom at all. But we don’t want them to make stupid choices.

How do you help people not make stupid choices?  Information.  I’m a big fan of disclosure laws.  Not laws that are really substantive laws cloaked in disclosure language (disclose all the reasons why you should pay your CEO less) – but laws that require transparency so that people can make good choices.  Requiring corporations and nonprofits to disclose their financial information and conflicts of interest to those who may do business with them or own their shares is a good thing, and helps people make good decisions.  When we give people power and information, they will become engaged again.  When they understand it, and own it, and they will be willing to fight and die to protect it.

“That’s not practical,” you’ll say.  You can’t let 40 million people have 40 million different opinions about what to do.  True enough, but that is why decision-making must happen on as local a level as possible.  Make laws at the lowest possible level where the issue can be practically addressed. 

How are these principles applied to California?   It isn’t hard, we just need to ask a few simple questions:

Is it possible for parents to decide what their children should be taught, where they should be taught, and by whom?  Yes, so move the power to local school districts and require schools to produce performance results and expense ratios.  Is it possible for cities and counties to decide what social services to provide to their citizens?  Yes.  Is it possible for cities to decide whether they will post agendas in advance, with or without the Brown Act?  Yes.  Can cities decide whether they want project labor agreements or whether they will offer defined contribution or defined benefit retirement plans?  Yes. Yes. Yes.

We should end the property tax roundtrip, the ERAF shift, the triple flip, the inter-fund borrowing.  We need to stop trying to solve problems that are better solved by the nonprofit community by putting our trust in nonprofit organizations, like the Orange County Rescue Mission, who will step in and solve the problems of poverty far better than government ever could.

So, to sum up, both perspectives support the same conclusion:   Those governing California need to understand that there is a better way. They do not need to create one size fits all mandated top down solutions – they need to

  1.  let people be free,
  2.  provide them with good information, and
  3.  move power down to the lowest possible level. 

That’s what I think California needs.  A better way to think about governing.


Modern American society is infected.  It carries within its veins a disease of it’s own making: we are too comfortable.  All we want is to be safe and comfortable so that we can enjoy the vast number of luxuries and entertaining distractions available to us on a daily basis.  The existence of those luxuries and entertainment are not in themselves the problem, they are the sign of a successful society in which most people can consume large quantities of entertainment while still satisfying their basic needs for food and shelter.  Again, it is not the consumption of entertainment that is the problem, but the change in people’s goals.

The goal for many used to be something like this:  “I want to improve my own personal productivity, creativity and success so that I can be the very best that I can be, and I’ll consume entertainment along the way as a healthy distraction.”  Now, the goal of many is:  “I will work only enough to support the cost of my hobbies, luxuries and entertainment and retire as soon as possible.”  Fun and escape are the point, and the subject of much more mental energy than the productive work they perform.  There is nothing wrong with planning a well earned vacation, but when the best creativity and effort is not or cannot be used at productive work, therein lies the problem.

The result of this change is monumental.  No longer can we expect these people generally to work hard and be creative to get ahead or make a better life for themselves.  Now, we expect them to do as little as possible to get by and try to game the system whenever legally permissible to do so.  That is the essence of Comfortablitis.

Fortunately, this condition is not born in people, it is created.  Our youth hear stories in high school and college of how they can be successful.  They dream of creating a business from nothing on the internet, or becoming the next American Idol and they believe they can do it.  They start their journey with boatloads of optimism and energy, only to have that drive sapped away by constantly banging their heads against bureaucratic walls monitored by people who are infected – who do their jobs without thinking.

“I may be a bureaucratic wall monitor, but I’m not a bad person,” you might say, “I do my best and try to help people through the process.”  More people are employed every day as wall monitors.  Even so, there are millions of good people who want to contribute good ideas and do their best, but they are not asked to think, and their creativity is not welcome.  They may be able to make changes around the edges – they paint the wall, or put up signs on how to go around it, but they can’t tear down the wall. The wall is there for a reason, it must be.  In some cases, the reason is so far removed that nobody remembers how the wall got there, and they certainly have no power to remove it.

What is that reason?  Safety.  The walls are generally created by someone who saw an actual or perceived threat to their safety and created a wall to protect against it.  Licensing requirements for doctors, lawyers or drivers keep people out of those professions or off the street until they demonstrate a certain level of proficiency.  The FDA makes drugs pass through extensive testing before they can be offered to the public.  Our children are forced to wear bicycle helmets.  All are walls that are there for a reason.  Sometimes we even put up walls of protection ourselves, such as when we hedge our investments, buy insurance or push away from a friend who becomes a bad influence.  All these things are efforts by ourselves or others to protect our safety, and they are not all bad, but they all come at a cost.

Safety is an essential part of our communities, and our nation.  It is the bedrock upon which all our other freedoms are based.  If we are not safe from attack abroad or crime from within, we cannot enjoy any of the other freedoms we ostensibly possess.  What is strange about this relationship is that in many ways, freedom and safety are polar opposites.

On the one hand, we have absolute freedom.  This is often referred to in political writings as the “state of nature. ” It is the dog eat dog – survival of the fittest – may the best man win – world of total anarchy.  You are free to do whatever you want with no rules at all, but you are always at risk that your neighbor, who also follows no rules, will deprive you of everything you hold dear.  On the other hand we have total safety.  The image that comes to mind is a padded room with a straight-jacket.  You are completely safe from everyone and everything, including yourself, but you have no freedom at all.  You have no fear of losing anything, but you cannot enjoy any of it either.

Neither of these situations sounds very appealing, does it?  No, we require a happy medium.  We need enough safety so that we can enjoy our freedoms without fear, but not so much safety that we fear for our freedom.

Most soccer moms want safety more than freedom.  Their job is to protect their children, so safety is appealing.  Politicians never lose when they talk about public safety.  Who is going to let innocent children die because they don’t wear helmets?  Safety is popular because it appears to be pure good without cost, but there is a cost.  There is always a cost.  People don’t adequately understand what they are giving up in exchange for that safety.  To some greater or lesser extent, they are giving up freedom because freedom is risky, and when you give people the freedom to make bad choices, some will. The only way to prevent those risks, is to take away the freedom.

So who protects freedom?  It is the entrepreneur.  It is the energetic young student who wants to build the next great company.  It is the creative and ambitious among us.  They are the ones who desperately need freedom to be successful.  They are the ones who bang their heads against bureaucratic walls as they try to achieve their dreams.  They are the embodiment of the American dream, but their numbers are dwindling.  Each time we take another step toward safety at the expense of freedom, we erect another wall – the wall that causes another freedom fighter to become disillusioned and give up.  It is so easy to become infected with Comfortablitis.  It is far easier to stop fighting and turn on the TV.  There’ s bound to be a game on tonight.

Take the antidote before its too late.  Turn off the TV and go change the world.  It will require some risk, but risk is the only way you will discover who you really are, and can become. Next time someone tries to convince you that there is some great risk we need to save ourselves from, ask yourself, “at what cost?”