The Corner

California Nightmare

The Mamas and the Papas are long gone, but if they were somehow reunited it is doubtful they could convincingly portray California as a dreamland any more. Picking on California is easy these days, but this week seems off the hook. I’m here this week for the kids’ spring break, hoping to thaw out after the unpleasant eastern winter just past, but the weather out here on the central coast is very un-Californian: foggy and drizzly and cold. I blame global warming.

Meanwhile, the hope that Jerry Brown would somehow do a Nixon-to-China move (heck, I’d settle for an Andrew Cuomo–to–Albany move) on California’s rapacious public-employee unions were dashed yesterday when he signed off on a sweetheart deal for the prison guards’ union, allowing them to accumulate more vacations days in the baseline for their pensions. California’s prison guards — sorry, I mean “correctional officers” — were once regarded as the Republican union. During the 1980s and 1990s the correctional officers union tended to support Republican candidates for governor and the state legislature for the simple reason that Republicans in those days had the quaint idea that the way to fight crime was to lock up more criminals, which meant building more prisons — a lot more prisons — and that meant more jobs for prison guards. California’s prison population quintupled between 1980 and 1995. But the prison-building program that Gov. George Deukmejian set in motion in the early 1980s is long over (now California just overcrowds the existing prisons), so as soon as the first Democrat (Gray Davis) came along promising higher pay and more benefits, the prison guards switched sides. This should be a lesson to Republicans who think they can cultivate any public employee union.

But the real sign of California’s relentless decay this week comes from the private sector: the disgrace of the Los Angeles Dodgers. One of the many drawbacks of living on the east coast is that all the west coast baseball games always finish too late for the morning paper, and by the second day all you get is the box score. So news of the embarrassment of the Dodgers doesn’t show up prominently in the eastern media. The current owners of the Dodgers, the estranged, divorced McCourts, have come a cropper, as the cricket correspondents might say, and hence the Dodgers fiscal situation is in the crapper. McCourt had to borrow money from Fox TV, the Dodgers’ local broadcaster, to make payroll last week. Major League Baseball’s front office has intervened to take control of the club, the first step, it would appear, to arranging new ownership for the AIG of baseball.

In my youth in L.A., the Dodgers were one of the great constants of the universe, and a de facto totem of conservatism. I believe they still hold the record for the longest serving infield in baseball history (Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey), and quite unlike Steinbrenner’s Yankees, their managers rivaled Castro for tenure in office. Between the late 1950s and the late 1980s the Dodgers only had two managers: Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda. The team generated an extraordinary number of its stars, especially pitchers, from its farm system rather than from the free agent market. At one point in the 1970s, the Dodgers had four rookie-of-the-year winners in a row. Ticket prices were moderate; Dodger games were the best entertainment value in town. All of this was the fruit of the steady O’Malley family, which is still hated in Brooklyn for moving the Dodgers to LA-LA land in the late 1950s. L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a long-time conservative stalwart, suggested this week that the O’Malleys be brought back to run the Dodgers, but the O’Malley family isn’t interested. That’s probably because they never wanted to sell the Dodgers in the first place. And therein lies the public policy angle.

The O’Malley family was compelled to sell the Dodgers, their only significant asset, back in the late 1990s because of the death tax. Selling the team was the only way they could take steps to avoid a huge prospective death-tax liability upon the death of Peter O’Malley (which would have compelled the sale of the team at that point).  Ever since the O’Malleys sold the Dodgers, ticket prices have soared, and the team has generally disappointed. They have hired and fired managers at a Steinbrenner-like rate. Laid-back Angelenos, who used to be renowned (and reviled by hardcore fans elsewhere) for leaving the game in the 7th inning, have suddenly become surly like any eastern fans; on opening day this year a Giants fan was savagely beaten in the Dodger stadium parking lot. Yet another example of the stupid and far-reaching negative effects of the death tax.

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