Joe Mathews: ‘More for less’ is a terrible bargain for Californians

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at an April drought summit with agricultural, environmental and urban water agency leaders from across California.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at an April drought summit with agricultural, environmental and urban water agency leaders from across California. Associated Press file

Pay more and get less.

That’s the bad new California deal that underpins so many daily transactions. The price of life’s necessities keeps going up, even as our money buys less of them.

Watch your water bill rise even as you take shorter showers and let the lawn die. Pay more for electricity even as you switch to energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. Borrow twice as much for tuition at a state university even as you struggle to find enough classes to graduate in four years.

More for less defines our collective spending. We raise local taxes so that the cuts in library hours or the police force won’t be as bad as originally planned. The state is paying more to house fewer criminals in its prisons. We pay more in tolls to cross the same decaying bridges.

And don’t get me started on California schools. We raised state taxes in 2012 to help education, but you’d be hard-pressed to see that money in more classes or instruction time at your kid’s school. Public schools constantly demand more money from parents to compensate for budget cuts or cover costs. At this fall’s back-to-school night at our local elementary, parents were pressed to donate $125 for classroom supplies.

This “more for less” ethic seems out of step with a time when so many consumer goods – and almost anything involving technology – give us more bang for the buck. “More for less” is especially frustrating for those in professions – like journalism – where people work more but are paid less.

“More for less” in California is the consequence of long-term trends and public policies. Generations of frugality and underinvestment have created scarcity in public services. The response is conservation, which is expensive in two ways. For one, higher prices can force people to use less. For another, successful conservation can force prices up.

The drought provides the most prominent example. The state asked us to conserve water, so we buy less water from the agencies that provide it. But that means less money for water providers, who raise rates to make up the difference.

There has been too little pushback against this “more for less” reality. And our politicians have been skillful at selling both higher payments and fewer services as a civic virtue. Gov. Jerry Brown, who is especially good at this kind of spin, said at a June event on water that “you have to find a more elegant way of relating to material things. You have to use them with greater sensitivity and sophistication.”

That’s beautiful bunk. There is nothing sophisticated or sensitive about charging someone more for less of the same thing. And at the risk of being inelegant, I must point out that it isn’t fair to be adding new minimum costs for life’s basics in a state with the nation’s highest poverty rate.

California is a proudly progressive place where majorities are wisely willing to pay more in taxes. But let’s not be fools. We need a clear, collective stand: When we must pay more, we must get more.

The right time to establish a firm “More for More” public ethic would be next year, as we consider several ballot measures to raise taxes. Ask yourself as you read about each tax: Will this new levy really produce more revenues that can be tapped to pay for the schools, health and other programs we all depend on? Or will it merely take money from our pockets and siphon it to the narrow causes of the initiative sponsors, as so many of our measures do?

More-for-less schemes are not just bad policy. They inspire cynicism and undermine trust – and make it harder to get people to pay for expensive new investments California actually needs.

Joe Mathews is California & Innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.