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Created: 1999-10-16
Last Modified: 1999-10-16
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Dialing for Dollars

J. Bradford DeLong
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/
delong@econ.berkeley.edu

October 1999


"Hello. My name is Brad DeLong. I'm the parent of two kids at Burton Valley. I'm volunteering tonight to call people to ask for their support for Measure E, the parcel tax measure for local Lafayette schools."

Note the words parent, volunteer, local. I'm not Washington calling: I'm your neighbor. This isn't big government: this is volunteerism. This isn't for some federal construction boondoggle: this is for the school in your neighborhood.

This isn't the high politics I used to do: "Yes, Mr. Congressman. Your Republican opponent next year will say that you voted to raise taxes. But did you know that only 3,246 (estimated) households in your district will pay those higher income tax rates? And that 13,245 (estimated) households in your district will benefit from the enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit?" This isn't the long-range politics that I try to do: trying to become one of the "academic scribblers" to whom "madmen in authority" are listening when they hear their voices in the air. This is low--but very real--politics.

"The parcel tax is already on the books, but by law it must be renewed by the voters every eight years. It needs a 2/3 majority. It is worth $800,000 per year for the schools. Election day is November 2. May I please count on your support?"

God damn Howard Jarvis to all eternity. What business does the state have, anyway, telling us how we govern ourselves--that we need a 2/3 majority vote to spend a little bit more money on our schools? It turns what is a slam-dunk into a vote too close to be taken for granted.

"Would you like us to send you more information to help you make up your mind?"

Oh, we are going to win anyway. Parents of kids in school--and of kids who used to be in school--vote and vote yes. People who don't have kids in school can be persuaded to vote yes in large numbers by pointing out that $150,000 of their house's value is the reputation of the school district, and that reputation would be easily lost by a couple of school funding rejections at the polls.

"Thank you very much for your time. Be sure to vote on November 2nd. It's your most important right."

And voter apathy is our friend. We're not at all interested in arguing with "no" voters. We're not very interested in convincing "undecided" voters. We're interested in turning out "yes" voters. In an odd-numbered year voter participation will be perhaps 55% (instead of the 80%+ of a presidential election year). There is much to be gained by energizing the base--and much to be lost by energizing the anti-base.

But it takes energy. Ten people on the phone bank. Two-hour shifts each night for a month and a half. Almost all the voting households in the school district will be contacted. Perhaps a person-year of political energy and effort will be devoted to ensure an extra $6,400,000 investment over the next eight years in education for the children of the upper-middle-class citizens fo Lafayette, California.

I look around at the other earnest parents--school board candidates--school administrators--staffing the phones. And I think: here we have ten people who have paid an extra $150,000 each to have a house in this school district. How many people who could be potential PTA leaders in other communities do we have crammed into this room? They care about the quality of the schools where they live, and about the quality of the schools their children attend. But the most straightforward--and easiest--way to achieve these--limited--goals is to vote-with-your-feet for an upper-middle-class community where you can turn out 80% voting majorities for local school taxes. And that is what we have done.

But there is no doubt that the structure sucks. Two decades after Proposition 13, the dead hand of Howard Jarvis continues to rule. It has cast us in the role of Sisyphus, trying over and over again to roll the same small boulder up the hill while all around us the landslide washes the mountain itself into the sea.

For there is a much better alternative possible world that we have lost. It is a world in which it only takes 1/2, not 2/3, of votes to pass a local school tax. It is a world in which California schools are much better funded and California teachers better paid. It is a world in which the ten of us on this phone bank are spread out over more communities making a difference in school funding, rather than huddled in one town where a critical mass has achieved political dominance.

It is a world in which the schools are better on average, and in which there is a somewhat more convincing simulacrum of equality of opportunity.


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

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