In an 1814 short fable by the Russian poet Ivan Krylov, the Curious Man spends three hours in a natural history museum and tells his friend that he has “seen all there was to see and carefully examined” and found “everything so astonishing.” His friend then asks him what he thinks about the elephant. The man retorted: “(D)on’t tell anyone – but the fact is I didn’t notice the elephant!”
This is the origin of the expression “elephant in the room”. It means, as the Cambridge Dictionary explains, “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people don’t want to talk about.” There are many reasons why people ignore £10,000. a creature that stands in their way, but often involves cowardice. It’s too difficult — or controversial — to discuss how it got there and how to get rid of it.
This is an obvious allegory for the state government of California. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed a new bond measure to fund programs to address the state’s homelessness crisis. California already spends several billion dollars a year on this problem. Places like Los Angeles spend as much as $1 million per unit on housing for the homeless, but the problem is getting worse.
Last year, California spent about $136 billion on its public schools. The latest data shows a dramatic drop in test scores, with only a third of students in the state meeting math proficiency standards. If you’re inclined to blame shutdowns solely on the pandemic, consider that a 2019 study found that only 30 percent of students are proficient in reading.
Across California, pension costs continue to rise, eating up a bigger share of local budgets and crowding out public services. Despite a previous $97.5 billion budget surplus, California has been unable to fix its creaky transportation system, improve the performance of public schools, ensure adequate water supplies during the recent drought, deal with police misconduct, provide safe and user-friendly transportation systems, and , well, as you wish.
Just try to name one California agency that is known for its efficiency and high level of service. (That’s a trick question.) Nevertheless, the Legislature and the governor are spending enormous amounts of time and resources trying to solve these intractable problems through various tax hike proposals, bills, reforms, oversight commissions, inspectors general, auditors, lawsuits, and bond measures. Yet the public never sees substantial progress.
The reason is that everyone politely avoids the giant fathead. I mean the state public sector unions, which – thanks to their enormous financial power and legions of members – control the Capitol. The California Teachers Association is the most powerful voice in education. Police and fire unions are the best-funded and most muscular political players at the local level. The prison guards’ union has excessive influence over prison politics.
Unions aren’t entirely to blame for California’s myriad problems and crises, but they provide damning veto power over any reform idea that could realistically improve public services. Consider how vocally the teachers’ unions have opposed the reopening of schools. Legislators rarely propose any idea that would antagonize any union in an easily opposed state. Imagine running a company where employees can immediately override any suggestion that could help consumers or reduce operating costs.
“Through their extensive political activity, these civil service unions help select the very politicians who will act as ‘management’ in their contract negotiations — effectively hand-picking those who will sit across from them at the bargaining table,” noted Daniel DiSalvo in 2010. article in National Affairs. No wonder California’s municipal firefighters earn an average of more than $200,000 a year—even though the state complains about an inadequate number of firefighters.
Unfortunately, no one in power even mentions these obvious obstacles as they seek to reform any aspect of any public service. The progressive Democrats who control Sacramento are tightly tied to public sector unions, so they sidestep the elephant even as it stomps (and poops) on their favorite programs. They are on the side of this well-heeled special interest—and on the side of workers who earn unfathomable compensation packages—even though it hurts the poor.
Republicans will happily condemn the CTA and SEIU, but they have a “no elephant” approach when it comes to police unions—protecting abusive cops the same way teachers’ unions coddle their incompetents. Like all unions, police and prison guards actively lobby for higher taxes and derail even the most modest proposed changes to the way their departments operate. Policing is a tough job, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve oversight and review procedures.
“Accountability is fundamentally non-existent in American government,” wrote Philip K. Howard in his new
Until we recognize that it is not natural for an elephant to dominate the room, the country will never solve its problems or improve its weak public services.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.