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HANSON: Assigning blame for California’s penury

Liberals should look at their policies, then in the mirror

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In "March in March" protests, thousands of students in California universities recently demonstrated in outrage over spiraling tuition costs. At the California State University (CSU) and University of California multi-campus systems, tuition hikes in recent years have far exceeded the national average. Meanwhile, universities slash classes, cut key research and rely even more on exploited and poorly paid part-time lecturers and graduate-student teaching assistants.

Yet against whom, exactly, are these cash-strapped students demonstrating? After all, their college faculties are unionized, largely liberal and sympathetic to their plight.

Campus administrators likewise want more state money for universities. But unlike the beleaguered faculty, their numbers by some calculations have increased 221 percent between 1975 and 2008. At CSU, there may be one administrator for every full-time faculty member. Why, then, were not the students calling for their administrators to return to the classroom, and thereby provide additional classes at reduced cost?

Do the students fault the governor and the Legislature for unwise spending priorities that have led to funding cuts and tuition hikes? Not really. Gov. Jerry Brown is a liberal Democrat. Both the state Senate and Assembly are also overwhelmingly Democratic - and have been for years. In fact, state officials largely spoke in favor of the student protests.

Are the students instead angry at the state's public employees, who, on average, make more and are better pensioned than their counterparts in other states? Or do protesters connect the state's escalating costs that divert money from universities to California's massive number of illegal aliens - whether in terms of the soaring costs of social services, the billions of dollars sent as remittances to Mexico or the incarceration costs of 30,000 Mexican nationals in the state prison system?

Does state money allotted to other discretionary areas, such as preliminary funding for envisioned high-speed rail and restoring salmon in the state rivers, come at the expense of students?

The cash-strapped protesters probably would not think so. Instead, they seem to believe that the causes of all their troubles are the proverbial "rich" who are not "paying their fair share."

True, in California any new taxes must be approved by a supermajority of two-thirds of the representatives in the Legislature. But that impediment to hiking taxes was passed years ago, and through a popular ballot proposition as a grass-roots reaction to perceived out-of-control taxes. In fact, while the governor is seeking ways to raise sales taxes and to hike taxes on the higher incomes, California's gas, sales and income taxes are already among the highest in the nation.

Just 1 percent of California taxpayers are already providing 45 percent of the state's income tax revenue, and such income taxes now fund half the budget.

But the number of upper-income earners in California has shrunk by a third between 2007 and 2009 alone. Wealthy Californians apparently are fleeing to nearby states with no income tax or have become less well-off after years of economic downturn, higher taxes and overregulation of business. Meanwhile, the number of California's Medicaid recipients grew at a rate of 70 percent of the general population increase over the past two decades.

In short, there are no longer enough rich Californians to tax further to make up the state shortfalls. Nor can Californians explain why nearby states, with far less natural riches and without state income taxes, seem to be no worse off than California.

Where, then, lies the solution to the students' protests? Without a rainy-day reserve fund or a growing economy, there are only a limited number of ways to solve California's chronic budget problems.

The state can keep cutting its once-generous entitlements and liberal social services, as well as public employees' salaries, to divert money to its colleges. Or it can keep raising fees for state services. Or it can start creating material wealth by encouraging development of the state's vast resources in gas, oil, timber, minerals and agriculture, whose production has been curtailed in recent years. Or it can lobby the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

Or California can raise taxes across the income spectrum to make up for the diminishing revenue from a vanishing 1 percent.

Yet protesting students probably would believe all those solutions were either unfair or unnecessary. The result is that we are left with mostly liberal students angry at mostly liberal policies of a mostly liberally governed state.

The once-utopian visions of 1970s California - unionized public employees, more state lands off-limits, more regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, vastly expanded social services, de facto open borders - have at last mostly come true, but apparently not in the fashion anticipated by most Californians of those long-ago times.

In cash-strapped Greece, when similar things happened, protesters blamed the Germans. But without Germans, whom can Californians blame but themselves?

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

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