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

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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."

American Austerity

Said Mark DiCamillo, director of the non-partisan Field Poll in California, which has tracked the opinions of state's voters for 60 years, "I think if you're going to see unrest at all, you would see it first in U.C. students."

They're the ones, he said, on whom austerity will have the most direct impact. At the moment, college is in recess.

"You might expect to see demonstrations when they get back in session -- not riots, but a continuation of the tuition demonstrations we saw last year," he said.

Any comparison to Greece, he said, would be "way exaggerated; certainly not appropriate."

Field's polling shows that California voters are becoming more optimistic, not less: In March, when the state's deficit stood at $20 billion, they thought "the sky was falling, the state was ungovernable." In June, the deficit had been cut to less than $10 billion and tax revenues were increasing more than expected. Poll respondents saw the state's economic problems "as being less severe."

Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said it's not that Americans couldn't someday as angry as the Greeks are now. It's that if and when they ever did vent, they'd show it a different way, at the ballot box. Plus, he said, the citizenry in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France and other European nations have different expectations of their governments. Socialism has led them to expect public benefits as their birthright. No such expectation exists in the United States.

What if the budget crises in California, Wisconsin or other hard-pressed states got even worse? What if austerity measures became even more acute?

Even then, Jane Junn, professor of political science at the University of Southern California, assigns a low probability to Molotov cocktails being thrown.

"The last time we had riots was the Rodney King decision," she said of Southern California. "There was a real villain that time around. Economic policy isn't the same thing. It's too esoteric to get people that riled up."

California's latest budget cuts, she noted, will land hardest on the middle class -- the segment of the population "least likely to riot."

The U.S. system, unlike the Greek, has redundancies built into it: If a state cuts back on some local benefit, there may be a corresponding federal program that keeps right on dispensing. And let's not ignore the fact that it's summer, which she calls "a very slow season" politically.

"If there are people in the streets," she predicted, "they'll be out there celebrating the 4th of July."