Michael Lewis - "California and Bust" from Vanity Fair

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goes211
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Michael Lewis - "California and Bust" from Vanity Fair

This article hit the daily digest a few weeks ago but was it not really discussed.  I have been a fan of Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Blind Side, Money Ball,...) since reading Liar's Poker in the mid 90's.  Although I was not working in the markets in the 80's, Liar's Poker still resonated with my experience working in the Financial Markets during the 90's. 

It has long been said, where California leads, America follows.  If that is still the case, and the story the article is paints is true, America has some real problems to look forward to.  It seems like a perfect storm has lay waste to state governments and its not clear how they can be repaired.

http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/11/michael-lewis-201111

California and Bust

The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops—the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo fire chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.

By Michael Lewis

...

Two years into his tenure, in mid-2005, he’d tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. “To me there were shocking moments,” he says. Having sped past a do not enter sign, we are now flying through intersections without pausing. I can’t help but notice that, if we weren’t breaking the law by going the wrong way down a one-way street, we’d be breaking the law by running stop signs. “When you want to do pension reform for the prison guards,” he says, “and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible, and it happened over and over: people would say to me, ‘Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won’t do it.’ I couldn’t believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.”

He came into office with boundless faith in the American people—after all, they had elected him—and figured he could always appeal directly to them. That was his trump card, and he played it. In November 2005 he called a special election that sought votes on four reforms: limiting state spending, putting an end to the gerrymandering of legislative districts, limiting public-employee-union spending on elections, and lengthening the time it took for public-school teachers to get tenure. All four propositions addressed, directly or indirectly, the state’s large and growing financial mess. All four were defeated; the votes weren’t even close. From then until the end of his time in office he was effectively gelded: the legislators now knew that the people who had elected them to behave exactly the way they were already behaving were not going to undermine them when appealed to directly. The people of California might be irresponsible, but at least they were consistent.

Home of the Free . . . Lunch

A compelling book called Cal­ifornia Crackup describes this problem more generally. It was written by a pair of journalists and nonpartisan think-tank scholars, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, and they explain, among other things, why Arnold Schwarze­neg­ger’s experience as governor was going to be unlike any other experience in his career: he was never going to win. California had organized itself, not accidentally, into highly partisan legislative districts. It elected highly partisan people to office and then required these people to reach a two-thirds majority to enact any new tax or meddle with big spending decisions. On the off chance that they found some common ground, it could be pulled out from under them by voters through the initiative process. Throw in term limits—no elected official now serves in California government long enough to fully understand it—and you have a recipe for generating maximum contempt for elected officials. Politicians are elected to get things done and are prevented by the system from doing it, leading the people to grow even more disgusted with them. “The vicious cycle of contempt,” as Mark Paul calls it. California state government was designed mainly to maximize the likelihood that voters will continue to despise the people they elect.

But when you look below the surface, he adds, the system is actually very good at giving Californians what they want. “What all the polls show,” says Paul, “is that people want services and not to pay for them. And that’s exactly what they have now got.” As much as they claimed to despise their government, the citizens of California shared its defining trait: a need for debt. The average Californian, in 2011, had debts of $78,000 against an income of $43,000. The behavior was unsustainable, but, in its way, for the people, it works brilliantly. For their leaders, even in the short term, it works less well. They ride into office on great false hopes and quickly discover they can do nothing to justify those hopes.

...

The problem, he explains, pre-dates the most recent financial crisis. “Hell, I was here. I know how it started. It started in the 1990s with the Internet boom. We live near rich people, so we thought we were rich.” San Jose’s budget, like the budget of any city, turns on the pay of public-safety workers: the police and firefighters now eat 75 percent of all discretionary spending. The Internet boom created both great expectations for public employees and tax revenues to meet them. In its negotiations with unions the city was required to submit to binding arbitration, which works for police officers and firefighters just as it does for Major League Baseball players. Each side of any pay dispute makes its best offer, and a putatively neutral judge picks one of them. There is no meeting in the middle: the judge simply rules for one side or the other. Each side thus has an incentive to be reasonable, for the less reasonable they are, the less likely it is that the judge will favor their proposal. The problem with binding arbitration for police officers and firefighters, says Reed, is that the judges are not neutral. “They tend to be labor lawyers who favor the unions,” he says, “and so the city does anything it can to avoid the process.” And what politician wants to spat publicly with police officers and firefighters?

Over the past dec­ade the city of San Jose had repeatedly caved to the demands of its public-safety unions. In practice this meant that when the police or fire department of any neighboring city struck a better deal for itself, it became a fresh argument for improving the pay of San Jose police and fire. The effect was to make the sweetest deal cut by public-safety workers with any city in Northern California the starting point for the next round of negotiations for every other city. The departments also used each other to score debating points. For instance, back in 2002, the San Jose police union cut a three-year deal that raised police officers’ pay by 18 percent over the contract. Soon afterward, the San Jose firefighters cut a better deal for themselves, including a pay raise of more than 23 percent. The police felt robbed and complained mightily until the city council crafted a deal that handed them 5 percent more premium pay in exchange for training to fight terrorists. “We got famous for our anti-terrorist-training pay,” explains one city official. Eventually the anti-terrorist-training premium pay stopped; the police just kept the extra pay, with benefits. “Our police and firefighters will earn more in retirement than they did when they were working,” says Reed. “There used to be an argument that you have to give us money or we can’t afford to live in the city. Now the more you pay them the less likely they are to live in the city, because they can afford to leave. It’s staggering. When did we go from giving people sick leave to letting them accumulate it and cash it in for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they are done working? There’s a corruption here. It’s not just a financial corruption. It’s a corruption of the attitude of public service.”

...

By 2014, Reed had calculated, a city of a million people, the 10th-largest city in the United States, would be serviced by 1,600 public workers. “There is no way to run a city with that level of staffing,” he said. “You start to ask: What is a city? Why do we bother to live together? But that’s just the start.” The problem was going to grow worse until, as he put it, “you get to one.” A single employee to service the entire city, presumably with a focus on paying pensions. “I don’t know how far out you have to go until you get to one,” said Reed, “but it isn’t all that far.” At that point, if not before, the city would be nothing more than a vehicle to pay the retirement costs of its former workers. The only clear solution was if former city workers up and died, soon. But former city workers were, blessedly, living longer than ever.

...

Back in 2008, unable to come to terms with its many creditors, Vallejo declared bankruptcy. Eighty percent of the city’s budget—and the lion’s share of the claims that had thrown it into bankruptcy—were wrapped up in the pay and benefits of public-safety workers. Relations between the police and the firefighters, on the one hand, and the citizens, on the other, were at historic lows. The public-safety workers thought that the city was out to screw them on their contracts; the citizenry thought that the public-safety workers were using fear as a tool to extort money from them. The local joke was that “P.D.” stands for “Pay or Die.” The city-council meetings had become exercises in outrage: at one, a citizen arrived with a severed pig’s head on a barbecue grill. “There’s no good reason why Vallejo is as fucked up as it is,” says longtime resident Marc Garman, who created a Web site to catalogue the civil war. “It’s a boat ride to San Francisco. You throw a stone and you hit Napa.” Since the bankruptcy, the police and fire departments have been cut in half; some number of the citizens who came to Phil Batchelor’s office did so to say they no longer felt safe in their own homes. All other city services had been reduced effectively to zero. “Do you know that some cities actually pave their streets?” says Batchelor. “That’s not here.”

...

Too Fat to Fly

The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.” Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. “The only problem,” he says, “is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.” Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. “When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress,” says Whybrow. “In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.”

...

What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end? “We could regulate ourselves if we chose to think about it,” Whybrow says. “But it does not appear that is what we are going to do.” Apart from that remote possibility, Whybrow imagines two outcomes. The first he illustrates with a true story, which might be called the parable of the pheasant. Last spring, on sabbatical from the University of Oxford, he was surprised to discover that he was able to rent an apartment inside Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away. The fat pheasant became a tourist attraction and even acquired a name: Henry. “Henry was the biggest pheasant anyone had ever seen,” says Whybrow. “Even after he got fat, he just ate and ate.” It didn’t take long before Henry was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.

The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.

...

When people pile up debts they will find difficult and perhaps even impossible to repay, they are saying several things at once. They are obviously saying that they want more than they can immediately afford. They are saying, less obviously, that their pres­ent wants are so important that, to satisfy them, it is worth some future difficulty. But in making that bargain they are implying that, when the future difficulty arrives, they’ll figure it out. They don’t always do that. But you can never rule out the possibility that they will. As idiotic as optimism can sometimes seem, it has a weird habit of paying off.

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earthwise
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California dreamin' or nightmare

 

Goes,

I read this article in it's entirety when it appeared in the DD. It's quite a revelation to see how thouroughly corrupt and dysfunctional our political system is; the 'sausage making' is disgusting. I'm sure that, even though this was a spotlight on California politics, it's equally as bad if not worse on a national level. We're toast.

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Travlin
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Outstanding

 

Goes

The article you cited is outstanding. The quote below is the essence of our problems. Most people who ran things, even most average folks, used to have a sense of limits and responsibility. Over the last 30 years I have increasingly felt the adults have all gone away and left the children in charge. It is a change in character, or lack of it. No matter how good a system you have it will crash if the people who run it and those who support it are foolish. I can’t see how we can escape the second ending.

“The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.”

Travlin

goes211 wrote:

This article hit the daily digest a few weeks ago but was it not really discussed.

Michael Lewis wrote:

What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end? “We could regulate ourselves if we chose to think about it,” Whybrow says. “But it does not appear that is what we are going to do.” Apart from that remote possibility, Whybrow imagines two outcomes. The first he illustrates with a true story, which might be called the parable of the pheasant. Last spring, on sabbatical from the University of Oxford, he was surprised to discover that he was able to rent an apartment inside Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away. The fat pheasant became a tourist attraction and even acquired a name: Henry. “Henry was the biggest pheasant anyone had ever seen,” says Whybrow. “Even after he got fat, he just ate and ate.” It didn’t take long before Henry was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.

The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.

...

When people pile up debts they will find difficult and perhaps even impossible to repay, they are saying several things at once. They are obviously saying that they want more than they can immediately afford. They are saying, less obviously, that their pres­ent wants are so important that, to satisfy them, it is worth some future difficulty. But in making that bargain they are implying that, when the future difficulty arrives, they’ll figure it out. They don’t always do that. But you can never rule out the possibility that they will. As idiotic as optimism can sometimes seem, it has a weird habit of paying off.

 

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Woodman
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 The smaller municipalities

 The smaller municipalities and communities I work with on projects are generally still frugal while willing to invest in long term value.  It seems the larger an entity becomes, from large cities and states to the Federal government, the less individuals have vested personal interests and a sense of responsibility for the money from others that they spend.

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SingleSpeak
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When will reality prevail?

 

I live in California. I see the living-beyond-your-means mentality. A couple of weeks ago, I see the governor, who is fully aware of the financial situation of the state, sign a bill allowing public tax funds to be granted to illegal residents to attend college. I am aware of the unsustainable pensions being paid to former state employees and the promises made to the current state employees.   I have friends working for the state and local governments that are expecting pensions beyond what I make while working (and probably beyond what they make while working). 

I see CALPERs unable or unwilling to admit that expecting a 7.75 % return on investment year over year is very improbable, or as I see it, impossible. The fact that these people either can't do or refuse to do the math is disheartening.

I believe the situation will continue to gradually become worse as the productive businesses and people leave the state one by one for friendlier and more honest treatment. I have no intention of working and giving my income to the state so that the former government workers can play golf all day.

We have become as a state what the U.S. is becoming as a country- we have voted ourselves into bankruptcy and it appears that the only remedy will be cessation by unsustainiblility. But, even then, I'm not sure the lesson will have been learned. We may just regroup and do it again.

Where is John Gault now? I need to know.

SS

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FAlley
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+1

Great article. How Kalifornia plays out will be telling for other parts of urban America (though I still believe that the rural parts of the Midwest, Southwest and North-northwest will have a different narrative).

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signalfire
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Dang it, now I want chocolate cake!

All California has to do to become an economic powerhouse again is to tell the feds to back off, legalize marijuana and put a reasonable tax on it, stop spending a fortune on drug interdiction and also legalize growing hemp.  Hemp could literally save this country's sorry you-know-what, but we're probably too rife with ignorant and hypocritical politicians to do it. 

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Doug
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signalfire wrote: All
signalfire wrote:

All California has to do to become an economic powerhouse again is to tell the feds to back off, legalize marijuana and put a reasonable tax on it, stop spending a fortune on drug interdiction and also legalize growing hemp.  Hemp could literally save this country's sorry you-know-what, but we're probably too rife with ignorant and hypocritical politicians to do it. 

I graduated from HS in Iowa where, during and before WWII, there was a factory and farms that produced rope, principally for Navy ships.  The hemp escaped the fields and now grows wild everywhere.  It's an annoying weed in the ditches.  Apparently since it was bred for strength of fiber, it lost its intoxicating properties, or so I've heard.

Doug

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