As journalists we never go into a historical film thinking that it’s only about the past. If a story doesn’t talk to us about our present day there’s no point in spending all that time. We started digging in to the story of Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 almost a decade ago because California was in the midst of a fiscal meltdown. The government was furloughing workers, parks were shuttered, schools were eliminating nurses and librarians and in some cases even shortening their school years. The Economist Magazine was asking if California was on the verge of becoming a “failed state.” We were just starting to raise a family in a state that we had always thought of as a kind of paradise, but that image of California was disintegrating. We were all talking about how California had imploded and we noticed that the discussions would often dead-end on Prop 13. Many people believe that Proposition 13 is the source of California’s dysfunction but very few people could really tell you much about what it was, or why we had it. We figured since so many conversations died there, it might be a good idea to use it as a jumping off point for understanding where we are now.
What I think we learn from looking back on this episode is that we have been in a four-decades long ideological war against government. California worked best when we believed in government as a partner in building the kind of society we all want to live in, and when we were willing to pay for it. Society doesn’t magically order itself into a dynamic and equitable landscape of opportunity without adequately funded and competently run government. Another way of saying this is the old adage that taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
Californians are usually ahead of the curve — we were in 1978 when we launched the national Tax Revolt and we were again in 2012 when we voted to raise our own taxes again. Prop. 30, which raised income taxes on high earners and sales taxes on everyone, was a sign that we were waking up to the damage we have done, not just by disinvesting from public schools, public transportation, infrastructure, health and housing, but also by framing our relationship with government as oppositional. Howard Jarvis liked to say that government was supposed to be "of, by and for" the people. But he was also the guy who first began turning us against ourselves by convincing us that the government was the problem and not part of the solution. I hope Californians today are done playing that game. We need government to be good and capable, and we need it to be accountable. But that starts with embracing our own responsibility as citizens, not expecting something for nothing and blaming government for all our problems.
Top Image: A shot of Howard Jarvis on a small television screen on a kitchen counter | Still from "The First Angry Man"