Today's date:
Winter 2012

The Lords of Think Long

Mark Paul is co-author with Joe Matthews of “California Crackup.”

Sacramento—The Think Long Committee, the group put together by the homeless billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, has finally delivered its reform “blueprint” for California. Whatever else you think about the proposal, give Think Long some credit for whimsy. At this point in the 21st century, in the nation that gave birth to the modern republican form of government, nobody expects the House of Lords.

And yet that is, in effect, what Think Long proposes. The centerpiece of its plan is a new branch of state government, to be called the Citizens Council for Government Accountability.

The name is a nice Orwellian touch, since the Council would be totally unaccountable and not citizen-like in the least. Unelected and answerable to no one, the body would be made up of 13 of the better sort of Californians—“distinguished residents of California,” Think Long calls them—the kind of political has-beens, aging dons, retired judges, corporate grandees, influence peddlers and wealthy funders who make up Think Long and who, in the United Kingdom, get rewarded by the government with life peerages and a red seat in Lords chamber. Nine councilors would be appointed by the governor and four by the legislature to serve staggered six-year terms, which could be renewed once.

In function, the council would be hermaphroditic, containing both executive and legislative parts.

On the executive side, the council would partially replicate the governorship in a plural form. Armed with subpoena power and a staff exempted from normal civil service rules, the lords would be tasked to do things we already expect a governor to do: plan for the state’s future and oversee its management. (In another bit of doublethink, Think Long assures us this does not create new bureaucracy when that is precisely what it does, even duplicating the work currently performed by the state’s Little Hoover Commission.) The lords would be “an extended voice and proactive watchdog for the long-term public interest and for quality control of government.” (Yes, they really do write that way.)

On the legislative side, Think Long’s proposal would create a second, unelected quasi-legislature in Sacramento to detour around the real legislature. The lords would be authorized to put statutory initiatives and constitutional amendments on the ballot without going through any of the messy business of democracy or politics. The council would need neither the approval of the people’s elected representatives, nor the petition signatures of the people themselves (this latter provision making Think Long’s proposal an early entry for the California Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 list of “job killers” for its likely effect on paid signature gatherers).

What about California requires the state to adopt a plan so strange to American constitutional and democratic tradition? On this point, as on so many others, Think Long is heavy on fix, light on analysis of what’s broken and why. Its blueprint says little more than that this radical departure is needed to “ensure accountability and to balance the short-term politics of Sacramento.”

Yet it doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to call this into doubt. Let’s just imagine how Think Long’s council of lords might work in practice:

California voters have elected a new governor. She is of the opposite party of her predecessor and wants to pursue a sharply different agenda. By design, however, the council of lords will be overwhelmingly appointees of the prior governor and will have a majority of the opposite party throughout her first term. How would the politics play out?

In this hypothetical, we do not have to rely on imagination alone. After all, America has some experience with plural executives.

Alexander Hamilton | In the state constitutions written during the Revolution, the patriots, suspicious of anything that smacked of monarchy, even a popularly elected governor, carried over the British colonial practice of executive councils, committees of the high and mighty to share executive power. During the ratification debates over the United States Constitution, opponents of the document, invoking the specter of tyranny, argued for adding a similar executive council to hem in the president.

The Framers fiercely and successfully resisted the change. From their experience they concluded that a plural executive would weaken the energy of the presidency, sow dissension, empower cabals and, above all, destroy accountability.

So, in our hypothetical, you do not have to be a cynic, only a political realist like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, to suspect that the lords might continue to push the prior governor’s agenda, putting initiatives on the ballot that contradict or undermine her actions. Or perhaps they might use their powers of oversight and investigation to harry her administration. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 70, a plural executive provides no escape from short-term politics:

“Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments....An artful cabal in that council would be able to distract and to enervate the whole system of administration.”

And, remember, in the scheme proposed by Think Long, the lords would be free to pursue such mischief without fear of political consequence.

Far from ensuring accountability, the Think Long proposal holds no one accountable for anything. By creating an alternative to legislative lawmaking, it further dilutes the legislature’s responsibility and power. By instituting a second executive agenda-maker in Sacramento, it complicates the voters’ ability to assess who is supposed to do what. “[T]he weightiest objections to a plurality in the Executive...,” Hamilton wrote, is “that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility.” That is equally true of plurality in the legislative, as we show in California Crackup.

You can’t read Think Long’s proposal for a council of lords without suspecting that the council is a mirror for Think Long itself—a way for this particular group of lords, having convinced themselves that they are wise and farsighted and public-spirited beyond the ordinary run of citizens or politicians, to turn themselves into a governing institution. (Call it, as Hamilton did, the “indispensable duty of self-love.”)

But modeling can work both ways. We can judge whether we want to empower a group of lords by looking at the conduct of Think Long.

James Madison | And here the key data point is the other centerpiece of the Think Long “blueprint,” a tax package. At time when the nation is roiled by protests over the rising inequality of wealth and income, Think Long wants to raise the overall level of taxes in California while reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

Our would-be lords—in James Madison’s words, “those who, from particular interest, from natural temper, or from the habits of life, are more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society; and having debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves, it follows with them, of course, that government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force”—are not just whimsical. They are drearily predictable too.

New York, for example, had two such committees: a Council of Revision, which held the power to revise and veto legislation, and a Council of Appointment, which controlled all appointments to state and local office. Such councils were written out of most state constitutions as democracy rose in the 19th century; in a few states, like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, they survive as elective offices.



A Response to Mark Paul

Mark Paul’s wariness of a “plural executive” is well taken. In a democracy, it will tend, as Hamilton feared, to drain power and accountability from the executive and promote dis-consensus instead of decisiveness.

Of course, there are cases in which a plural executive works quite well, for example, in China, where the discipline of a one-party system forges unity and consensus within the Politburo. The legitimacy of the Party itself is based on a kind of systemic accountability. If it doesn’t perform, its authority erodes.

In any event, that is not the role of the Citizens Council. It is rather a proposal for a genuine non-elected upper house, not of “lords” but of citizens with expertise and experience in California public life who would be insulated from the short-term, special interest pressures of elected officials, so they can focus on the big picture and the long-term.

Beholden to the immediacy of electoral politics, the governor and constituency representatives have little incentive to develop and sustain a strategic agenda for the common good.

What we need today is not just institutions that check and balance the executive, which was the concern of the Framers trying to avoid the mistakes of monarchy, but that counterbalance the short-term mentality of the voting public and special interests.

Like America as a whole, the challenge California faces today is how to govern in a consumer democracy where all the feedback signals—markets, politics and the media—are short term.

Empowering the Citizens Council to file ballot measures directly without the high costs of signature gathering and media buys is one way to restore a voice for the long-term public interest in politics, especially since the Supreme Court has ruled that well-funded organized interests from public unions to corporations, can dominate elections in the name of “free speech,” drowning out the voice of ordinary unorganized citizens.

Further, the deep interdependence and competitive pressures of globalization in the 21st century are a far cry from the kind of world faced by the landed gentry and simple rural economies of the 17th century. Managing the systemic links of interdependence requires a complex grasp of policies beyond the competence of the ordinary voter.

Consider in this context the challenge of inclusive economic growth. While persistent high unemployment, growing inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class in California, like the United States as a whole, has been exacerbated by the current recession, that is not its root cause.

According to Nobel economist Michael Spence, the cause is a structural erosion that has been underway for at least the last 20 years: a combination of rapid technological advance, which displaces jobs, particularly for those with lower levels of education, and the rise of the emerging economies, notably China, that has shifted the global share of employment and income from manufacturing away from the US.

Like the US as a whole, California needs a strategic agenda to address this structural challenge instead of drifting along and hoping for the best.

For Spence, the way get back on track is to jettison the “cyclical mentality” of the advanced economies that assumes we will bounce back after the recession and adopt the “structural mentality” of the emerging economies aimed a building up the foundations of inclusive growth through investment in education and world class infrastructure.

Just as China has adopted this strategy as it moves toward a middle-class transition, so we must adopt it in order to achieve a middle-class restoration.

The goal is good governance in the long-term public interest. And that requires a new institutional counterbalance to the short-term, special interest political culture in both Sacramento and Washington that alternates between the paralysis of partisan gridlock or quick fixes that make government more dysfunctional. That is the role the Citizens Council is meant to play.

—Nathan Gardels