I was in Sacramento — California’s state capitol — last week. I won’t tell you about the conference I went to, because I’m pretty sure nobody is THAT interested in punitive damages, or federal habeas law, or new developments in juvenile dependency law. Suffice it to say, law geek that I am, I had a wonderful time and came away knowing a lot more about a lot of things I used to know a lot less about. Plus, I got to watch TV, which is great, because we don’t get any channels on our television. We just get netflix movies.
Now I’m going to tell you all about what it was like watching television in my hotel. (Hotel (n): a place where they make the beds in the morning for you and nobody dumps the contents of their lunch box on your shoes. Also usually has a big, big TV.)
Anyway, one night I watched the California legislature work its magic on the budget crisis we’re currently enduring here in California. You want to know an amazing fact? My television had a total of FOUR channels on which you could watch the State Senate and the Assembly yammer away about the budget before they basically threw up their hands and came up with the brilliant solution that the way to raise more money to balance the budget would be — are you ready for this? Okay. THEY’D JUST GET PEOPLE TO PAY MORE OF THEIR TAX BILL EARLIER IN THE YEAR. You heard that right. They’re not going to raise taxes or ask the governor to get a part time job at Starbucks. They’re just going to punt and have us pay most of our taxes in the first six months and then in June they’re going to uncover their eyes and see if it all worked out. I don’t know about you, but that’s just idiotic. Okay. The truth? It’s ‘way more complicated than that, which is why it’s a good thing I’m not in the Assembly or the Senate, because it is actually just very hard to balance a budget when you are, basically, broke.
But I know what you’re really asking, which is this: Why are there FOUR channels covering the work of the California legislature? I mean, there aren’t even any ads on these channels, so they’re not making any cash from all those channels (shouldn’t they consider some ads? I mean, if the Starbucks job doesn’t pan out for Arnold?). I had some time to think about this because I wasn’t making beds or cooking. In the end, I decided that our legislature may not know how to anticipate a budget crisis, but they’re all over the need for backup television coverage of their work. You know, in case of an emergency. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I’d do in an earthquake is tune into the state assembly cable access channel. And if one of the channels didn’t work, well, think how enormous my gratitude would be to have another one to go to.
Anyway, everyone in California knows we have a huge budget problem. This news is reported in local papers and radio news and also on television (because I watched some of it) in a basically factual way. The reporting of this news is about as boring as the four access channels. Still, the people we send to Sacramento to represent us can at least stay awake in the middle of this fiscal crisis, which required that they be alert at midnight the night I was watching. It’s serious business. If they don’t solve it, schools, poor people, people with medical problems, to name a few, well, they get hosed. So, I felt it important that I watch a little of this channel, because it is, after all, MY fiscal crisis. I learned some basic things about the budget crisis while I was watching. And then, the next day, I went to a panel discussion in which Darrell Steinberg, who’s going to be the new Senate leader in California, talked about how hard it is to get a budget together when you have no money and a lot of rules that limit how you can spend the little you have and raise any more. That was good to know. You can figure that out, you know, if you read a little of the reporting on the budget and watch a little television, because he’s said this before, and so have other people.
Now, I’d like to talk about the television news. After spending the day being scintillated by tidbits of information about how punitive damages should be reviewed on appeal, I came back to my room, lolled around on my bed and watched CNN, CNN Headline News (TWO CNN’s!? Why? Oh. Emergencies), all the networks, FOX, MSNBC, and some other versions of news bearing different but remarkably similar combinations of letters.
At first, I thought what all people who watch TV news for the first time in years probably think: my god! Why are these people so RUDE? Why are they YELLING? Why are they LYING? Why don’t they have charts up and some professor whacking on the chart with a pointer (but not yelling, because he is a professor and very calm about all this) telling people how the two candidates’ economic plans are not the same at all? Why are they spending so much time talking about who’s going to win and so little time about what they’re going to DO? And then I watched reality TV for a while, thinking it would be a good break. The problem with that? The news and reality TV are exactly the same — yelling, rudeness, lying. It’s about your outfit, your hair, and whatever untrue salacious thing you can sling in the direction of the other side. And then you vote. In a system that looks like it might not actually be totally fair.
Why is this stuff more interesting than how you ACTUALLY balance a budget? Or how you actually keep the economy afloat? I think the answer is not that complicated, although it is a two part answer, which might make it seem complicated. But have no fear. It is not.
PART l: It is more interesting to talk about the human condition, i.e, hair, clothes, car and home ownership, past drug use, hunting habits, and the fact that candidates to political office might belong to churches that have pastors who shout stuff from the pulpit that’s crazy, than numbers and details. Numbers and details? BORING. They even bore me, and I am a geek.
PART II: It has always been thus. I have no proof of this at all, and do not feel I need to back this up with anything other than my wide reading in history and literature (okay, just novels) because this is a BLOG. Still, I do think I’m right. People have always been distracted by stuff like this, because that’s just the way people are. I mean, the French Revolution was about being pissed off at clothes and hair as much as it was about fraternity and equality and the third thing I can never remember. Liberty? The American Revolution: think of your favorite beverage. Then think how you’d feel if, say, Posh Spice said, in a snotty tone of voice, that you’d have to pay more to get it off the boat. Sure, we hold things to be self-evident. But we also don’t like being told what to do by people far away. (And yes, I know she lives in LA. Still, in my book where she lives is still Far Away.) And, even though it has always been thus …
PART III (oops, I need a third part): I’d also like to propose that people know that this crap they’re yelling about at CNN and MSNBC and FOX isn’t what really matters. I also think people do have ways of figuring out the stuff that does matter, at least in a democracy. I know, I know: If people are watching all this reality tv/television news, then how are they figuring out which candidate has the best ideas about how to make this a better country to live in? Well, they could ask me, I suppose (the answer is Barack Obama, but then you knew that already, didn’t you?). But if they didn’t ask me, I do think that most people are exposed to other, quieter sources of information: a friend who gives them a great article they read in a magazine that’s pretty factual, a local newspaper article that compares a campaign’s statement about what’s true with what is actually true, for example. And many, many Americans watch debates, where the candidates are not actually asked personal questions, but substantive, policy-type questions.
What’s interesting, I think, is that people don’t need a whole lot of information to get to their answers. For example, if someone lies about something and then does it again, and the news people point that out before they go back to yelling about the polls, and then they read that a candidate can’t even remember the name of the President of Spain (which the average American can’t remember either, but then it’s not going to be their job to remember, is it?), and then maybe makes fun of people who work in the community, like their son, who works for Catholic Charities teaching kids how to read, and then the candidate flubs again and lies a little more — Well, that’s not a person you want to solve a huge economic crisis or a bad war, even if he does promise you he has a plan.
I also think that people learn from their past voting mistakes (although it can take them a long time to admit they made a mistake, as Marie pointed out in the comments and I made sure to mention up here because she is right about this). I remember when Bush won last time, Mark Shields said something about how the Republican victory this time around was a phyrric victory — that if we give the country over to this lunatic a second time, the inevitable disasters will befall us (check) and, essentially, it will be a very long time before our country trusts a Republican again. And I think that’s true. Yes, I know it’s a close election. Obama is young, even though he’s obviously really smart. And he’s African-American and that is a hard thing for some people in our country to accept. I happen to think he will be one of our country’s greatest presidents. But I am completely fine knowing that many people will vote for him because they’ve decided that the last two times they voted they messed up and they’d better try the other side this time. Even if it takes them a couple of election cycles, people do fix some of the stuff they screwed up badly the last times they voted. At least, I sure hope they do!
Now, if you want to know about punitive damages, just ask me. I’m on a roll.