Why California must accept more corruption

Faye Duncan sits in her bedroom at her midtown Sacramento apartment community serving low-income seniors. She said she was on a waiting list for 18 months.
Faye Duncan sits in her bedroom at her midtown Sacramento apartment community serving low-income seniors. She said she was on a waiting list for 18 months. Sacramento Bee file

Raise a glass and bend your mind around this California New Year’s resolution: In 2017, let’s become more tolerant of political corruption.

While the idea may sound strange, so are the ways we make decisions in California.

Over the last century, we’ve designed a highly complex government with the primary goal of preventing corruption by limiting the power and discretion of elected and appointed officials. All these obstacles have worked to a point. We have a low rate of public corruption convictions by American standards.

But perversely, in keeping our government clean of politicians’ small crimes, we’ve opted to accept large-scale, incapacitating societal wrongs. In California, among the richest places on earth, we tolerate America’s highest poverty rate, a massive and expanding shortage of affordable housing and dangerously decayed roads and waterworks. Our schools offer too little education and our tax system, by bipartisan acknowledgment, isn’t fair.

Yet attacking such big problems is considered wildly unrealistic. There are too many rules standing in the way of large-scale action. And if we got rid of those rules, we fear we would abet corruption.

That’s why we so desperately need a new attitude toward corruption. Samuel Huntington, the great 20th-century political scientist, observed: “The only thing worse than a society with a rigid, overcentralized, dishonest bureaucracy is one with a rigid, overcentralized, honest bureaucracy. A society which is relatively uncorrupt … may find a certain amount of corruption a welcome lubricant easing the path to modernization.”

California needs such lubrication. We must expedite the building of affordable housing, homeless housing, housing on lots already zoned for housing – even if it means paying off opposing interests and handing out exemptions to zoning and environmental laws like party favors.

The poor state of California’s roads cries out for some big deals, damn the environmental reviews. For years, the state has failed to address a $130 billion-plus backlog in road repairs. Raising taxes to cover repairs requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, and getting there requires buying votes with spending. Democratic leaders should resolve to do so in 2017.

In education, state leaders make a fetish of meeting the very low constitutional funding formula for schools instead of finding ways to lengthen our short school year (just 180 days) and offer students more math, science and arts.

The stakes of our anti-corruption fixation get higher in 2017, when California confronts President-elect Donald Trump. Politicians say they will fight Trump if he attacks California policies or threatens vulnerable people.

But California is at a disadvantage against the rich, powerful federal government. In Sacramento, some veteran political players argue privately that California should instead buy off Trump – either personally or in his presidential role – given his love of deal-making and his lack of interest in ethics. Of course, that would run up against Californian rules and sensibilities.

That’s why the change we need is not legal; it’s cultural. We must realize that big progress in governance usually involves actions that are not entirely forthright.

So as we greet 2017, let’s raise a toast to deal-making that brings real progress, even when it’s dirty.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at