Among the myriad ballot measures being presented to voters on Nov. 8 will be two competing propositions, 78 and 79, regarding prescription drug discounts. These two propositions are an excellent example of how flawed our initiative system has become. Voting both of them down will send a message to politicians and special interests groups to stop wasting our precious time.
In recent years, the voters of California have been asked to decide important issues at the ballot box that are best left to the legislature. In the past, we have had to vote on proper limits for school funding, what percentages of the state general fund is supposed to go to cities and other arcane subjects.
This year we are asked to choose between propositions 78 and 79. Both establish a system to lower prescription drug costs. Both make drug discounts available to low-income residents. Both are way out of my league.
Why am I voting on this? I don’t know anything about the pharmaceutical industry. I have no knowledge of how drugs are priced in the first place, much less how one would go about reducing that price.
Moreover, I could not begin to learn about these subjects in the short time before the election. To do so would take hours of study every day for the next two weeks. Needless to say, I do not have that sort of time. I am too busy writing my opinion in articles like this one.
I am probably not alone in this regard. The average voter is not likely to pour through stacks of pages that make up the text of the competing measures in order to determine which one is the better administered program.
And that is assuming that they would be able to make that determination, given the dense lawyer-speak the propositions are written in. I feel barely adequate in understanding the language used in these laws, even though it is written in plain English. The only reason I can understand as much as I do is because I have no life and read these sorts of things all the time.
The average person is too busy holding down a job, watching over their kids and making sure their spouse is happy to take the amount of time necessary to parse through the different clauses and subsections contained in the law. It’s not like they’re stupid; it’s simply a matter of priorities and time.
Not even a retreat to basic principles will help in this matter. Generally, I can use some broad political themes to vote on ballot measures or candidates (e.g. “taxes are bad” or “government should be big enough to drown in a bathtub”). The problem is that both of these measures are unpalatable to this conservative writer. They both involve government in an area (commodity prices) that is best left to the marketplace. One measure seems less coercive than the other, but that’s all that can really be said.
Liberals will have the same problem. Lowering drug prices, especially for the poor, is a great idea. But which government boondoggle to vote for to vote for is the question.
The voters without a consistent political philosophy (the majority) will fare the same as the ideologues, merely by default.
What to do? Well, we could ask the opinion of a group of men and women who not only have the spare time to understand these complex issues, but are actually paid to do so.
Yes it’s your friendly neighborhood legislator to the rescue. Or it would be except for the fact that they all seem to be out for a very long lunch. Furthermore, they won’t expect to be back in the office until, say, sometime next year.
Sadly, the people we pay to represent us prefer ducking difficult issues rather than tackling them head on. This is why propositions such as 78 and 79 are left for us to decide. That way, if the law is a disaster, legislators can cluck their tongues and tell us it was our own fault. They will also add some fatuous comment about how they can’t get anything done since the people keep mucking around with the initiative process.
I say we make them earn the cost of their offices, salary and staff. Let’s vote down both initiatives and give the ball back to the legislature. My guess is that they will punt.
Sean Paroski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.