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

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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."

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