SACRAMENTO – In a short 1814 fable from Russian poet Ivan Krylov, the Inquisitive Man spends three hours at a natural history museum and tells his friend he “saw everything there was to see and examined it carefully” and found it “all so astonishing.” The friend then asks what he thought of the elephant. The man retorted: “(D)on’t tell anybody – but the fact is that I didn’t notice the elephant!”
That is the origin of the phrase, “the elephant in the room.” It means, as Cambridge Dictionary explains, “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.” There are many reasons people ignore a 10,000-lb. creature blocking their way, but often it involves cowardice. It’s too hard – or controversial – to discuss how it got there and how to get rid of it.
This is an obvious allegory to California’s state government. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed a new bond measure to fund programs to deal with the state’s homelessness crisis. California already spends several billion dollars a year on the problem. Localities such as Los Angeles spend as much as $1 million per unit on housing for homeless people, yet the problem keeps getting worse.
Last year, California spent approximately $136 billion on its public schools. The latest data shows dramatic drops in test scores, with only a third of the state’s students meeting math-proficiency standards. If you’re apt to solely blame the pandemic shutdowns, consider that a 2019 study found only 30 percent of students proficient in reading.
Throughout California, pension costs keep rising, grabbing a larger share of local budgets and crowding out public services. Despite a previous $97.5-billion budget surplus, California has been remarkably unable to fix its creaky transportation system, improve public-school performance, provide adequate water supplies during the recent drought, deal with misbehaving police officers, provide safe and user-friendly transit systems and, well, you name it.
Just try to name one California agency that’s known for its efficiency and high levels of service. (It’s a trick question.) Nevertheless, the Legislature and governor spend enormous time and resources trying to address these intractable problems through various tax-increase proposals, legislation, reforms, oversight commissions, inspector generals, auditors, lawsuits and bond measures. Yet the public never sees substantive improvement.
The reason is everyone is politely avoiding the giant pachyderm. I’m referring to the state’s public-sector unions, which – thanks to their enormous financial might and legions of members – control the Capitol. The California Teachers’ Association is the most-powerful voice in education. Police and fire unions are the best-funded and most muscular political players at the local level. The prison guards’ union has an inordinate influence in corrections policy.
Unions aren’t entirely to blame for California’s myriad problems and crises, but they provide a heckler’s veto to any reform idea that could realistically improve public services. Consider how vociferously teachers’ unions opposed school reopenings. Lawmakers rarely propose any idea that would antagonize any of the state’s easily antagonized unions. Imagine running a business where the employees could immediately quash any proposal that might help consumers or reduce operating costs.
“Through their extensive political activity, these government-workers’ unions help elect the very politicians who will act as ‘management’ in their contract negotiations – in effect handpicking those who will sit across the bargaining table from them,” noted Daniel DiSalvo in a 2010 article in National Affairs. No wonder California’s municipal firefighters earn on average more than $200,000 a year – even as the state complains about an inadequate number of firefighters.
Sadly, no one with power even mentions these obvious roadblocks as they seek to reform any aspect of any public service. The progressive Democrats who control Sacramento are attached at the waist to public-sector unions, so they sidestep the elephant even though it’s trampling (and pooping) on their favorite programs. They side with this well-heeled special interest – and with workers who earn unfathomable compensation packages – even though it hurts the poor.Republicans will thankfully blast CTA and SEIU, but they take a “don’t see the elephant” approach when it comes to police unions – who protect abusive officers the same way that teachers’ unions coddle their incompetents. Like all unions, the police and prison-guard varieties actively lobby for higher taxes and derail even the most modest proposed changesin how their departments operate. Policing is a tough job, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve oversight and revamp procedures.
“Accountability is basically nonexistent in American government,” wrote Philip K. Howard in his new book, NOT Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions. “Performance doesn’t matter. … Police unions, teachers unions, and other public sector unions have built a fortress against supervisory decisions. Political observers rue union power but treat it as a state of nature.”
Until we acknowledge that it’s not natural for the elephant to dominate the room, the state will never fix its problems or improve its ailing public services.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.