Dan Walters

Opinion: ‘Reality lag’ plagues our politicians

It’s customary to attach the honorific “leader” to those who hold high political office, implying that they are drum majors at the head of the civic parade.

More accurately, however, politicians are the cleanup crew that follows the parade, dealing with matters that social and economic conditions spawn.

Not only are politics reactive, rather than proactive, they are characterized by what one might term “reality lag.” It takes an astonishingly long time for those in office to recognize, much less respond to, issues that need attention.

Take, for example, a recent hearing in the Legislature on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposals to crank up programs to meet “workforce needs.”

Even though California has not fully emerged from the Great Recession, those who study its labor markets see a looming shortage of trained and trainable workers in the future because – surprise, surprise – the huge baby boom generation is retiring out of the workforce in droves.

The official estimate is that California will have 6.3 million job openings in the current decade, and the vast majority will not be newly created jobs but rather vacancies from baby boomer retirements.

Baby boomers’ disproportionate societal impacts have been obvious for decades, and demographers and labor economists have been talking about the need to educate and train their replacement workers for years.

But only now, halfway through the decade, have the Capitol’s politicians awakened to the issue. In fact, they’ve been passively complicit in the dismantling of California’s once-extensive array of high school vocational education classes, and only recently have shown interest in re-establishing what’s now called “career technical education.”

But that’s just one example of reality lag. Every major issue kicking around the Capitol has been starkly evident – and ignored – for many years, to wit:

▪ Even before drought struck, we were facing structural water shortages and needed to build new storage and conveyance facilities, but successive governors and legislatures punted.

▪ Our highways have been steadily deteriorating for decades because of underfinanced maintenance. Transportation officials have issued regular warnings about it, and have been regularly ignored.

▪ Where were the politicians when academic achievement in K-12 schools was declining to Mississippi-like levels?

▪ Likewise, the state budget’s increasing volatility, stemming from an increasing reliance on a relatively tiny group of high-income taxpayers, has been evident for years, but was ignored.

▪ Widening income disparities – and allied issues such as poverty and affordable housing shortages – also evolved over time. Yours truly wrote a book 30 years ago that explored California’s likely evolution into a two-tier society.

Leaders? Not even diligent followers.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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