Politics & Policy

Can California Top Its Most Ironic Political Stories of 2019?

Gavin Newsom speaks to reporters during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign in San Diego, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Never underestimate the Golden State: A review of the past year’s highlights

I  still get buzzed when I recall that a majority of Californians looked at what Gavin Newsom allowed while mayor of San Francisco — rampant homelessness, transportation gridlock, failed public projects, a widening income gap, sidewalk needles, and human, er, waste — and decided they wanted that for the whole state. They elected him governor in 2018 and now complain that California is going to hell.

If you’re a Californian and a lover of such irony, almost every dark day in 2019 was marbled with delight. It’d be easy to pick on San Francisco — so let’s start there, with news that locals want to whitewash a mural at George Washington High School.

In the mural, the 1930s radical painter Victor Arnautoff depicts our first president as a racist slaveholder and bringer of death to the continent’s indigenous people. It was very subversive at the time. But today, merchants of identity politics have declared the mural offensive — not to the first president or the nation (which it is), but to high-school kids who might be triggered by images of slaves picking cotton or of General Washington stepping over the corpse of a slain Indian.

Today’s fight over Life of Washington pits old-school lefty artists who understand the First Amendment’s value in shocking the bourgeoisie against a new generation of lefties for whom history — and language — must come with earmuffs. Bonus points for San Francisco: The town unveiled last month a massive mural of Swedish child climate activist Greta Thunberg near Union Square.

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Speaking of climate change, 13 California cities and one county have banned natural gas in new-home construction in order to reduce greenhouse gases. Henceforth, new homes in these communities will require all-electric hookups. Problem: Electricity in California is often generated by (wait for it!) natural gas.

These new regulations also make new-home construction more expensive (check out the prices on induction stoves) and therefore exacerbate the state’s home-affordability crisis — double irony points! And here’s the triple irony play: The U.S. already leads the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions — in large part because of the rising production and use of natural gas. So, cutting access to natural gas means you hate Mother Earth.

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In January, members of the Los Angeles teachers’ union walked out of their classrooms for the better part of a week. They had no alternative, said United Teachers of LA president Alex Caputo-Pearl: Increasingly unable to pay the costs of living in the nation’s second-largest city, teachers needed a big pay hike.

The Los Angeles County Board of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent said the union’s proposed pay package would bankrupt the district. But never mind the math: LA’s political establishment wilted and approved the pay hike.

Then, confronting the predicted budget crisis, Caputo-Pearl immediately switched gears — pushing for Measure EE, a district-wide tax on property. But, see, everybody — even a teacher — has to live somewhere, and if you raise property taxes, you’re ultimately raising their cost of living. Perhaps understanding this, LA voters in June absolutely killed Measure EE.

Following that slap-down, Caputo-Pearl and his allies in government unions decided to go statewide: They’ve qualified for the November 2020 ballot a proposal to end Prop 13 protections for owners of commercial property. That of course would raise costs for commercial property owners, who would, in turn, pass along the higher costs to consumers — including teachers and their students’ families. Is Caputo-Pearl really this funny, or is this some kind of abnormal-psych thing?

***

On the left, the conversation about health care runs the spectrum from left to farther left. My favorite: The California Nurses Association wants free health care for all, including undocumented residents.

But the CNA’s vision of “free” health care would run into the reality of a nursing shortage the CNA itself created. Through its control of a low-profile agency called the California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN), the CNA is working to cap student enrollment in private nursing programs.

Stomping on successful private nursing schools may satisfy the union’s instinct for class war, but, writes Steve Greenhut, “it’s certainly counter-productive, and it may be beyond its authority: There is nothing in the BRN’s mandate that allows it to determine the number of nursing graduates.”

***

Remember Kamala Harris for President? She’d probably like to forget. Here’s the irony: She might have campaigned as the tough-on-crime Democrat that she was as a San Francisco district attorney and then state attorney general. Instead, baffling almost everyone, she sprinted left, embracing the looniest of progressive platforms and platitudes — then abruptly rejected those Ps & Ps, and then just as quickly picked them up again. She was, as they say, on many sides of all issues. The identity-politics crowd wasn’t having it; she never marshaled support from black voters, lefties, or other progressives, and her moderate supporters fled for more-dependable candidates. Just before she shut down her campaign in early December, a UC Berkeley survey showed California Dems wanted her gone. National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke offered the best Kamala obituary: “Everything that is wrong with American politics is summed up in Kamala Harris. She’s a weathervane. She’s dishonest. She’s a coward. She’s condescending. And she’s a phony. She’s the answer to no useful or virtuous question. Nothing good has come from her election. She has nothing of value to offer America . . . Good riddance.”

***

On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court ended a 40-year injustice. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court declared that state and local governments violate the First Amendment rights of their employees when they force them “to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities.”

But a year later, California Policy Center’s poll of government employees revealed that just 33 percent of public-sector union members were familiar with the Janus case. When we gave those workers a short description of Janus, 70 percent supported the high court’s decision — and 38 percent of public-sector union members said they were at least “somewhat likely” to opt out in light of Janus.

That ignorance is no accident. It’s the goal of an illegal campaign, crafted by government-leaders like those in the California Teachers Association and their accessories in Sacramento, to blunt workplace freedom. In the run-up to Janus, they passed a pig’s trough of new laws designed to prevent public servants from even hearing about their First Amendment rights.

My personal favorite ironic moment: On the very day of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus, then-governor Jerry Brown signed SB 866, prohibiting public officials from saying anything that might “deter or discourage” government workers from joining a union. That’s right: In response to a Supreme Court decision affirming workplace freedom in our city halls and school districts, these self-declared defenders of the working class hammered and sickled the First Amendment.

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Silicon Valley has created a culture designed to give the impression that, in erecting electronic Towers of Babel, their tech geniuses have eradicated geography, bias, class, nationality, race, gender, and age. That sort of magical thinking led Google (to take just one example) into a blind alley in which rank-and-file employees began to act as if they’d been hired to direct the business. Put a beanbag beneath their butts and a free espresso in their hands and these kids are suddenly leading employee walkouts and calling CEO Sundar Pichai a fascist. Now Google has hired an anti-union firm to blunt the utopian movement it created. O, Death, where is thy sting when irony is clearly the more superior weapon!?

A similar dynamic at Uber and Lyft led this year to a union-organizing effort among drivers that featured a campaign to support Assembly Bill 5. Signed into law by Governor Newsom in September, AB 5 requires Silicon Valley companies to treat their independent contractors as employees — with scheduled hours, higher taxes, and a raft of other restrictions. The unintended consequence: When AB 5 goes into effect on January 1, the very flexibility that appealed to many ride-share drivers will be gone and the companies’ business models gutted. But who funded the political campaigns of the Sacramento lawmakers who drafted the bill and of the governor who signed it into law? The very companies now choking on AB 5. Funny, am I right?!

And while we’re talking about irony and AB 5: Vox Media, the New York–based group of online publishers that depends on freelance writers and photographers, has axed its California freelancers because of AB 5. Is it ironic that the bill that was supposed to defend vulnerable workers defended them into the unemployment queue. It is. But it’s also fun because “The website that once proclaimed, ‘Gig workers’ win in California is a victory for workers everywhere,’ is now suffering from that very ‘victory,’” writes Madeline Fry. “In September, when the California Senate passed a bill that capped freelancers at 35 paid pieces per year, Vox said the regulation would give workers ‘basic labor protections.’” Fry’s conclusion: “More government regulation is always great in theory. Then it gets applied to you.”

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Most California voters love taxes, especially when they believe that those paying are people they don’t know — or do know but despise. That’s how we got the nation’s highest top marginal tax rate, 13.3 percent for incomes of more than $1 million. Those of us voting against the increase (in 2012 and again in November 2018) predicted what would happen next: Families with that kind of money would find better tax accountants — or would simply move out of state.

We were right: According to a new study, “Among top-bracket California taxpayers, outward migration and behavioral responses by stayers together eroded 45.2% of the windfall tax revenues from the reform.” Translation: Sacramento is taking in substantially less than it projected.

***

In one of my favorite stories of 2019, President Donald Trump threatened to unleash the hounds of the Environmental Protection Agency on San Francisco over that city’s Third World homeless encampments. “They have to clean it up,” Trump said. “We can’t have our cities going to hell.” Whatever you think of the guy, you have to admit it’s ironic — and inspired — trolling. Bay Area politicos who pride themselves on their sensitivity to the global environment but can’t clean their own streets are now staring down the barrel of the federal agency they’ve fetishized? I’ll take two helpings, please!

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Among California’s most bonkers conspiracy theories is the “mystery gasoline surcharge” advanced by UC Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein (not to be confused with one of four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). It’s only slightly more nuanced than this: Californians pay more for gas than the rest of America, and that’s because of corporate greed.

Borenstein is half right: We Californians do pay more for gas than our counterparts in every other state in the union. But the sources of that high price have far less to do with Big Oil than with Big Stupid — a catalogue of self-inflicted state taxes that total about 80 cents per gallon. Add to that the psychedelic web of environmental regulations (like the state cap-and-trade program and the twice-yearly switch in smog-abating fuel blends) that raise the price further and you begin to get the picture.

Understanding this — and then hearing Gavin Newsom, state attorney general Xavier Becerra, 19 state legislators , and U.S. senator Dianne Feintsein soapbox on the dangers of Big Oil — brings me pure, uncut holiday joy.

***

Watching the politicians blaming the state’s utilities for equipment failures that sparked the state’s deadly wildfires this year was like watching the Bill Murray of Groundhog Day stumble into a scene from the Book of Revelation. “It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change,” Governor Newsom roared. “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.”

But Newsom went a step farther this time, suggesting that the solution is a government takeover of utility companies. See, state officials already run California’s utility companies. The powerful Public Utilities Commission, a board of political appointees you wouldn’t trust with a toaster, determines in exacting detail the management of such complex companies as Pacific Gas & Electric.

For years, the PUC has steered California’s utilities away from fire safety and toward a menu of green initiatives, lucrative but wasteful overbuilding, and the vulnerable, long-distance transmission of electricity from states where it’s easier to build plants and still legal to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Irony, thy name is California.

Will Swaim is president of California Policy Center and cohost with David Bahnsen of National Review’s Radio Free California Podcast.

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