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Who is to blame for a lack of moderation? How about us?

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Posted: Saturday, January 15, 2011 12:00 am

America's politicians are not working together very well, as is obvious everywhere and nowhere more so than in California. We lament this, but live with it. And therein is a tragic disconnect.

We have elected these folks. We have re-elected these folks. We have accepted their ideologically-driven rhetoric and positions. Maybe we need to take a look in the mirror and ask what we, the voting citizens, are doing that is enabling these politicians. Because this situation looks an awful lot like enabling parents whose children are running amok with drugs and tearing up the lives of both children and parents.

Ideological positions are fine in college when lofty rhetoric is fun to debate. But these positions are simply not sufficient for the real world. They provide guidance when considering issues, but they are not sufficiently nuanced to allow dealing with the complex issues facing our country and states and cities. Ideology leads to all-or-nothing fights. But on most issues, all-or-nothing cannot be had nor is it the most beneficial solution.

We no longer seem to live in a time in which compromise comes naturally. California seems the worst of the examples. Position A is that there shall be no increase in taxes, regardless of the situation. Position B seems to be that spending shall not decrease, regardless of the fiscal situation. One can quibble with this characterization of the situation in Sacramento, but it seems generally fair. And it has resulted in trying to honor both of these, mainly by supporting education by spending money to be raised in the future (i.e., by selling bonds).

We, the citizenry, bear some of the responsibility for this gridlock because we do not require that those we elect be non-ideological. We do not require that those we elect have any political courage. We do not vote against ideologues, but return them to office.

The tax issue may be the most dangerous of the ideological positions. First, it is very appealing to be against raising taxes. Lots of reasons can be given for the positions: It is my money, I should keep it. The government just wastes it anyway. And so on.

The problem is that the current taxation level is simply a quirk of time. It is the result of a myriad of past decisions made to solve problems of those past times. The levels of taxation may have fit then, but do not necessarily fit now. Whenever the government takes on new tasks, there is a requirement for additional funding. That means more taxes.

George W. Bush may have been the gravest violator of this truth. He cut taxes very early on in his administration. But he seems to have spent the rest of his administration taking on new tasks for the government: the so-called war on terror; the invasion of Afghanistan; the invasion of Iraq; the prescription drug plan. He turned the largest federal budget surplus into the largest federal deficits.

He does not deserve blame alone: Congress went along with all of these. Had the Democrats not gone along, these increased tasks could not have been initiated. And we went along: we liked the decreased taxation. We supported the military and security ventures. We like cheaper medicines. There is plenty of responsibility to assign and we deserve our share.

Which leads to the question of what to do about it. We, the citizenry, did not do ourselves proud in the most recent elections, judging by the preliminary results. We seem to have elected more ideologues and drove some moderates from public life.

Ironically, the California electorate may have taken the first steps away from this ideologically-driven politics. We passed measures aimed at eliminating (or at least reducing) gerrymandering, which should make it less easy for ideologues to be elected; and we eliminated the necessity of a huge super-majority to pass the state budget.

We the citizenry must recognize that it is going to take some time, some years, to work out of the mess we have participated in building. We must recognize that we have taken the easy way out by allowing the mess to accumulate. We must, individually, recognize that the ideological positions of "no more taxes" and "no decreased spending" are inadequate and thus we must support candidates who, while they might like no increased taxation or reduced spending, are willing to compromise so that the system works and we do not continue toward financial disaster.

Maybe this all means asking hard questions at meetings with candidates ("If faced with a huge deficit, will you be willing to vote for a temporary tax increase to help eliminate that deficit? If faced with a huge deficit, will you be willing to at least temporarily reduce spending on your favorite programs?")

Surely it means that we must accept that there will be some tough times and that it will likely hurt our individual pocketbooks and benefits.

There is a sports adage that when times get tough, the tough get going. We have not lived up to that. We need to do so and not rely on the politicians alone.

Dave Wellenbrock is a semi-retired attorney living in Lodi.

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