California Slashes Services: Why Aren't Citizens Up in Arms?

VIDEO: Protests paralyze city as Greek economy teeters on collapse.
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Within hours of one another this week, legislators in Greece and California both announced plans for fiscal austerity.

In Greece, violent rioting followed immediately.

Public reaction in California remains to be heard, but experts on American politics and society say that though protest is certain, Americans' reaction to austerity measures are usually found at the ballot box, not on the streets.

America, in its history, certainly has had violent riots, said Paul Tiffany, a senior lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley's Hass School of Business. But none, even during the Great Depression, was prompted by austerity, he said. Americans have clashed over Vietnam and slavery -- not poverty.

"People are unhappy, obviously," Tiffany said of his fellow Californians. "But you won't see revolution. There's an abiding respect for process. People will wait until the next election and take out their vengeance. They'll take to the polls. They won't be raiding the arsenal to attack city hall."

In Greece, lawmakers moved forward a controversial packet of measures that would cut spending and raise taxes by $40 billion. Some $70 billion in government services would be privatized. Police in Athens fired tear gas to defend Parliament as an angry mob hurled rocks, bottles and any other weapons they could find.

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In California, after months of wrangling, the legislature passed an $86 billion budget, plugging what had been a $9.6 billion deficit by means of a mix of spending cuts, fees and higher-than-expected tax revenues. Related legislation would shift state prison costs to local governments and would open the door to more cuts in school and social service budgets, should state revenue projections come up short. Cuts in March already had slashed billions of dollars from state welfare, Medi-Cal and in-home support services.

Californians of every description voiced their anger.

"Every Californian should be outraged," said Yvonne Walker, local head of the Service Employees International Union, in a formal statement. The austerity measures, she said, would cut "vital services Californians rely on."

The head of the state's law enforcement association called the new cuts "absolutely astounding," and predicted they would force the elimination of 600 law enforcement positions. The reduction, he said, would amount to an invitation to drug gangs to invade California.

At the University of California, which had already seen $500 million in cuts in March that led to higher tuition charges and prompted angry student protests, the president's office said a further $150 million removed from the budget would de-stabilize higher education.

"I think we're already seeing something like Greece," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Institute for America's Future, a progressive advocacy group.

"We don't have that tradition in our country," he said, referring to violent rioting in the streets. "But it's not to say it couldn't happen if people feel lied to, if there's a sense that sacrifice isn't being shared, or if the medicine prescribed to help the economy actually winds up hurting it."

Something like that already has been seen in Wisconsin, Hickey said, where popular ire at Gov. Scott Walker sprang not just from his having gone after public sector unions but his having beforehand given "tax cuts to the wealthy."

On the federal level, Hickey pointed to Republican-advocated budget cuts.

"Republicans have been promising that massive cuts to government programs would create jobs and help the economy," Hickey said. "But if cuts kill growth and the economy gets worse, just as in Greece, people will be very angry."

On the national level, he said, "Democrats should insist on one-to-one tax increases and budget cuts, not the three cuts-to-one tax increase the Republicans propose."

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