It isn’t financial bankruptcy; it’s cultural bankruptcy.

This line from Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose, California hits a point of Catholic social teaching that goes too often missed and it appears in an amazing, must-read essay in Vanity Fair by Matthew Lewis titled “California AND Bust.” Lewis, whose wonderful writing style disarms what ought to be a terrifying assessment of our nation’s financial crisis, tells us that the depth of the economic woes will and are being felt by local municipalities more so than by big, federal or even state-level treasuries. The big guys, it seems, are passing the bankrupt buck down to the lowest level where mayors are more directly accountable to citizens.

Mayor Reed

Mayor Reed

As the federal government struggles, it draws more from the states by cutting funding. The states draw more from the cities by cutting funding. The cities, however, are stuck, and after emulating the obscenely irresponsible practices of the state government – through unrealistic pensions plans and benefit packages – there is nothing else to do but to cut staff, and they do as in some places their debt commitments have become crushing.

Lewis interviews former governor Schwarzenegger of California who got an inkling in 2007 that something was going wrong with the economy. In the eternal effort of that state to balance their ridiculous budget he was told in October of that year that all-of-a-sudden tax revenue was low by about $300 million. In November the figure was $600 million. In December, California had lost $1 billion in revenue. Why? The housing market had already begun to crash there and property taxes as well as personal income taxes were drying up. Arnold knew something was wrong… seriously wrong… and he also knew Californians would do nothing about it.

Lewis recounts how Schwarzenegger had tried to work with his congress in the early years of his tenure as the “Governator.” He tried to address the debilitating debt they faced, but the response he got, one which I remember reading about at the time, was essentially “get lost,” and that was from his fellow Republicans. When he appealed directly to the people of California, they defeated his referendums by wide margins. What could he do?

I recall quite distinctly visiting my brother in the Bay Area a few years ago and asking him what was up with the state of California. Surely, folks there understood that the current situation would not last forever. Without much hesitation my brother said, “The voters of California have been very clear with their politicians. They want more services, and they do not want to pay for them.” It seems the politicians have tried to live up to the mad demands of their constituents, and they have created a monster.

What does the turmoil look like on the local level? Mayor Reed is in San Jose, but the city of Vallejo actually declared bankruptcy this past summer. Their entire city hall staff is two people, the mayor and his secretary who, Lewis tells us, has to lock the door to the office when she uses the ladies’ room. There’s no one else, after all. Outside city hall there is a foreclosure barker, a guy yelling out addresses and details about properties. People stand or sit on their lawn chair waiting to pick up a good deal. In a telling exchange, Lewis sidles up to the scene in front of city hall and asks a couple people what’s going on. Suspicious, people only give him dirty looks and one says, “Why should we help you?” Why, indeed.

At the heart of the stories of San Jose’s Reed and Vallejo’s Mayor Phil Batchelor is the problem of employees. In short, they cost too much. As both Republicans and Democrats like to say, every family knows how a budget works. You need to take in more than you spend so that you can cover your expenses, save, and pay down debts. Apparently, this rule doesn’t apply to Californians who live in weather so unreal they think themselves so particularly blessed that the laws of the physical universe do not apply to them.

Lewis describs Arnold's reckless bike riding.

Lewis describs Arnold’s reckless bike riding.

In many California municipalities, and this is actually the case in cities all over the U.S., public sector employees, typically unionized, have demanded outrageous compensation, benefit as well as pension packages. How outrageous? The highest paid public employee in the state of California is the head parole psychiatrist. His/her salary? $838,706. I know California is expensive…but honestly.

In one example from Lewis’ essay – which some have challenged – we read that in the city of San Jose a prison worker could start his career at the age of 45, retire at the age of 50 and expect to be paid almost exactly the same amount as when he worked until the day he died. Now, granted, being a prison guard has got to be one of the most mentally and physically demanding jobs there is. But to retire at 50 after 5 years of work and get 90% of your salary until the day you die… that’s just smells bad to me.

How does this happen? One could blame unions, and certainly their monopoly of labor is part of the problem, but I agree with Reed whom I quoted at the top. This is happening because of a cultural bankruptcy. This is less about an economic system that failed as it has to do with dishonest, dishonorable people looking out for themselves. This was partly my point before when I wrote about unions. As Catholics we support unions in principle. But the real-world manifestation of unions sometimes leaves much to be desired, and this is simply because unions are run by people too.

For instance, Mr. Lewis interviews a firefighter, Paige Meyer. Well, he’s not just any firefighter. Turns out he is the chief, and he loves fighting fires, so much so that he actually moved to Vallejo so that he could fight more of them. He’s almost died doing it, but he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. This is a man who loves his work.

Meyer admitted, though, that he was embarrassed by the behavior of his union leader. Not that he trusted the Mayor’s office either. They repeatedly lied in negotiations too. But after all the work of the union leaders to secure for their firefighters the best of this or that, at the end of the day over half of the force was let go. Why? Well because as is so often the case with human endeavors – even the most idealistic – our eyes become much too big for our stomachs. The union structure as it has evolved is in the business of demanding for the sake of demanding and so less interested in working with anyone. A California politician – who is subject to term limits anyway – is not about to scuttle his limited political influence by getting in a public spat with the firefighters, police, or teachers’ unions. This is a recipe for corruption in a culture of corruption…which is why it is not so surprising that a culture like ours produces union leaders who believe that what they have is never enough.

In one of the episodes Lewis relates, the police secured a stellar deal with the city after a long-fought back-and-forth only to be outdone months later by the firefighters, who’s victory outraged the police to such a degree that they demanded even more from the city… which of course caved. Unions, then, have ceased to be the grand defenders of laborers, the protecting force against black-lung and the company store. They have been reduced to petulant schoolchildren who would rather see the whole system collapse than allow the schoolyard chum a smidgen of better fortune. It’s the culture stupid, and it’s killing us.

Naturally, the city managers who gave in to the demands are no less culpable. As Schwarzenegger noted during the interview with Lewis, when he would confront politicians with the common sense solution to a ridiculously corrupt situation they would respond:

‘Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won’t do it.’ I couldn’t believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.

We may be tempted to conclude that all of these folks, the union boss, the career politician are just congenital heels, incapable of thinking beyond themselves. To that I would just remind us that A) there but for the grace of God go I, and B) in this culture of ours sin is a stern and imposing mistress.

Our culture has removed the spines from men and women of adult age by enabling their adolescent ids to take over all regular brain function. For years we have been fed a steady stream of television programming whose characters are so morally vacuous that we think “a show about nothing” is an improvement.

Turn on the TV. I dare you. Cable programming revolves around the mangled souls of young and not-so-young people boinking everything in sight with little consequence beyond an occasionally feigned twinge of guilt (usually tossed aside) or the hysterical outbursts of jilted women… because apparently – or so I’ve learned from cable dramas and “reality” shows – any woman who actually expects a man to be faithful is living in unreality.

…not that I have cable. Recently, I was on a business trip to one of our depressed cities in the U.S. and found myself flipping through cable channels in the hotel room. We don’t have cable in my house because we don’t have time to watch much, and I’m not paying outrageous fees every month so that my kids can watch drivel and then be solicited to bother me – their parent – about buying more drivel. It’s just not going to happen.

Apart from the obscenely common and graphic sexual license that is paraded at every hour of the day, there was show after show of beautiful people with the most beautiful things all trying to “get theirs.” And we wonder where and how this culture of I’ve-got-to-get-mine comes about?

This all reminds me, as many such things do, of what Bl. Pope John Paul II said in Centisimus annus on the 100th anniversary of Rerum
. He wrote:

If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health. [emphasis in original]

If we tell men and women that their baser wants and desires are what are real and not their pesky free intellects or consciences, then, shazam!, men and women will consume to the point of harming themselves and others. This seems patently obvious to some, but believe me it is not. Nor is it obvious to some that, as much as our progressive friends dislike judgmental moralisms, demands for a just economic system are really just a public outcry for a moral framework for economic activity.

Again, from Centesimus annus:

Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities. [emphasis in original]

Economic systems don’t make choices about the fundamental nature of the human person. People do. This is precisely why it is a moral people we need to be concerned with. Statecraft, in other words, is only as good as the moral character of those who do the crafting. Wealth creation is only as moral as the creators. So, note please the words about the “producers” and “people in the mass media in particular.” There is a corruption in the economy, and it is apparently acute in California, and I think it no coincidence that that state is the home of such economic dysfunction and simultaneously the world-wide Mecca of mass media.

I know I like to write and think and talk about economic this and economic that. The Catholic social teaching is full of fascinating bits and bobs that help us apply principles. But again I’m reminded, as I have been with this essay by Michael Lewis, by Mayor Reed and even by “the Arnold,” that in the end, the social doctrine of the Church really means to save men’s souls, to make people better versions of themselves, or – as Gaudium et spes would put it – to make achieving human fulfillment easier and more complete so as to include the moral and spiritual portions of the human soul, because all the rest is useless unless we’ve recognized that Christ is King. Long live the King.