The Folly of Protest in California

If your goal is to influence budget decisions, there are few things less likely to make an impact than a protest at the state Capitol. The big budget decisions of this year are not being made by our elected officials; those decisions have already been made by voters, via initiatives and constitutional amendments that mandate spending, limit taxation, and tie the hands of our elected leaders.

So as a direct action, the big, noisy protest that teachers' unions and others on the left are staging in Sacramento this week is sure to fail. Protests work when they target power, and there just isn't that much power in the Capitol.

The best these protestors can hope for is to get attention for how problematic the budget is -- and to educate a public on the likely costs to public education of the current budget path. This is necessary, but there are other, better ways to deliver the message and use protest and civil disobedience. (To find out the specifics, read this).

Yes, the protestors will talk about how they are demanding that two-thirds of the legislature approve temporary tax extensions -- which, they say, will forestall cuts to education. But this is a poor argument, on a couple levels. Politically, protests by the professional left may make it harder for Republicans -- and at least two GOP voters are necessary in each house of the legislature to raise taxes -- to compromise. Among the divisive participants in protests is likely to be the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who suggested last week that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was a hoax.

And as a budgetary matter, the temporary tax extensions don't offer all that much protection. Those proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown expire in five years, so any relief is temporary. And even with these taxes in place over the past two years, there have been deep and hurtful budget cuts. Extending them may prevent even deeper pain, but temporary tax extensions are a poor substitute for the top-to-bottom governance and budget reform California needs.

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