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Pick Your Pain: More Taxes or Less Education

The news of looming cuts in California's education system is, an and of itself, depressing and frightening. Considered as part and parcel of a pervasive American tic -- the ability to be both aware of a problem but obstinately unwilling to do anything to solve it -- well, one can't help but be gloomy.

University of California, Berkeley

We see this across disparate areas of American life. At no point in recent memory, for example, have we been unaware of the dangers posed by climate change, student loans or death penalty. It's all very much above the rose and yet: global warming is inevitable, generations of students are financially screwed and it appears, once again, our vaunted system of justice is about to execute another innocent man.

What's happening in California is a similar myopia, writ small; the state is now close as hair to gutting its education system. Jerry Brown's solution, Proposition 30, along with Molly Munger's proposition 38 (see our April piece), is meant to replenish the state's education coffers. To do so, the state's highest earners have been asked to chip in a bit more taxes, without which the public schools and universities are facing an actual fiscal cliff:

Money raised by the measure — up to $8 billion next year — would be used mostly to prevent a $5-billion cut from primary and secondary schools and stave off a $250-million reduction in each of the state's two public university systems.

Or as Brown recently put it, "Shall those who’ve been blessed beyond imagination give back 1 or 2 or 3 percent for the next seven years, or shall we take billions out of our schools and colleges to the detriment of the kids standing behind us and the future of our state?"

Perversely, the answers are probably No and Yes, respectively. California voters are historically averse to tax increases and, in fact, "rejected the last eight statewide measures on the ballot, including a June proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes to fund cancer research." It's hard to imagine voters who won't fund cancer research care all that much about the health of the university system. The latest polling seems to bear this out.

What might happen if they fail? Well, California may just join the ranks of Mississippi, West Virginia and Louisiana. It's going to be a nasty surprise, even if -- much like those wild fires that burned through Colorado -- it should be no surprise at all.