On Monday, September 24th, the Rose Institute and the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum jointly sponsored a talk with California State Controller John Chiang. Chiang spoke of his time as Calfornia’s Chief Fiscal Officer during the late-2000s recession and the difficulties surrounding the handling of public dollars of the ninth-largest economy in the world.
The collapse of Wall Street and the housing market signified significantly lower revenues for the state. Chiang, identifying California’s three primary sources of revenue (personal income, sales, and corporate taxes), noted that the resulting budget imbalance from lower revenues meant that the State could not meet all of its payment obligations. Recognizing California’s Constitutional requirement to pay its obligations (if the Controller writes a check that bounces, s/he is charged with a felony), Chiang took the drastic measure of delaying over four billion dollars in income tax refunds and other payments owed to businesses in early 2009. That summer, Chiang’s office had to make the difficult choice of issuing IOUs to its bond holders for the first time since the Great Depression.
Citing the enormity and complexity of this type of decision as an example of the tremendous responsibility of holding office, Chiang, acknowledging his audience’s young age, emphasized the importance of early involvement in leadership. Chiang referenced his time at the Internal Revenue Service as important to his realization of leadership’s importance: while he knew his services as a tax specialist at the IRS were needed, he felt his work was not fulfilling because he didn’t feel like he was truly “making a difference or helping someone.” In particular, Chiang offered the advice to “learn for learning’s sake”, cautioning an approach that is too pre-professionally focused.
Before the talk at the Athenaeum, Chiang made an appearance at the Rose Institute where he talked about his background growing up as the son of immigrants from Taiwan and how he was inspired to go into public service.