Joe Mathews: A meditation on life and taxes

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California's capitol building. Photo credit: Pikist/CC 2.0

It’s hard to know if the ballot measure to undo Proposition 13 will have its intended effect

Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews wants to believe in Proposition 15, the November ballot measure that would get rid of limits on taxing commercial properties. Those limits were set by Proposition 13 more than 40 years ago, and Mathews has long argued that the historic measure decimated California schools and has hamstrung state government in all sorts of ways. But after a visit to Jarvis’s old house - now a Buddhist center - Mathews says he’s feeling better about his uncertainty.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Howard Jarvis and the Dharmapala

Want to stop worrying about California’s future? Go say a prayer at Howard Jarvis’ house.

No historic plaques mark the five-bedroom home at 515 N. Crescent Heights Boulevard in L.A. But this is where the famed anti-tax activist Jarvis lived, and organized Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-limiting initiative that still dominates California politics.

With another fight over Prop 13 underway—November’s Prop 15 would lift Prop 13 limits on taxing commercial properties—I decided to drop by the house—and got an unexpected lesson in how California always changes, even if its ballot initiatives never do.

Jarvis’ gray house is now Nechung Dharmapala, L.A.’s Tibetan Buddhist Center. The home, is painted orange, and has a wheel representing the Dharma over the front windows, and a stupa outside the front door. Inside, bedrooms are occupied by two monks. And the high-ceilinged living room where Jarvis conducted angry politics has become a sanctuary for lessons on the renunciation of ego and the possibility of enlightenment.

The home’s political past and religious present might seem discordant, but the more I contemplated the place, the more I saw continuities. Indeed, 515 N. Crescent Heights is a double-monument to the perils of revolutions and the paradoxes of protection.

Prop 13 was the product of a conservative political revolution promising protection—against rising taxes, and housing prices. The paradox is that Prop 13 hasn’t protected us from California’s high taxes or extortionate housing prices.

Nechung Dharmapala’s is associated with Tibet’s Nechung monastery, headquarters of the State Oracle of Tibet, who embodies the deity Pehar, “The Protector of Religion.” Pehar couldn’t stop Chinese communists from destroying Nechung after the 1949 revolution. But therein lies the paradox. The communist attacks actually spread the faith. Tibetan Buddhists fled, taking their teachings worldwide, and all the way to Jarvis’ door.

Jarvis bought the 1925 house in 1941 for $8,000 and stayed through three marriages. During the Prop 13-era, Jarvis smoked cigars in a big chair, with visitors like Jerry Brown on sofas. “There were some curses, but no prayers,” recalls his aide Joel Fox.

When Prop 13 passed, capping property tax increases at 1970s assessment, the 2005 tax bill was below $1,000, on an assessment of $75,854. In 2006, after his wife died (Jarvis passed in 1986), it was reassessed at $1.25 million.

The house sold in 2008, and was for sale again in 2013—as Tibetan Buddhists were searching for an L.A. sanctuary. Nechung bought the house in 2013 for $1.38 million. In Jarvis’ living room, resident teacher Geshe Wangchuk, expert in Buddhist philosophy, sand mandalas and butter sculptures, now presides. During the pandemic, Geshe Wangchuk shifted weekly teachings online. This summer’s lessons leaned on “The Three Principal Aspects of the Path” by 14th century teacher Je Tsongkhapa. One passage intrigued me:

When appearance dispels the extreme of existence,

And when emptiness dispels the extreme of non-existence,

And if you understand how emptiness arises as cause and effect,

You will never be captivated by views grasping at extremes.

I wondered: Can minds really be that open? Does avoiding extremes require uncertainty about you own existence? And could such enlightenment apply to California’s contemporary extremes?

The Nechung L.A. team knew nothing of Jarvis. Talking with Nechung’s board secretary, I tried explaining Prop 13, and Prop 15. But my explanations were just questions. Might Prop 15 produce billions for schools, or will its exemptions be exploited by wealthy property owners? Might this measure make a symbolic strike against Prop 13—or will Prop 15 just reinforce Prop 13’s power?

But if I understood Geshe Wangchuk, having more questions than answers is OK. Because uncertainty about the future—for a person, a proposition or a home—might be the best attainable answer. As Je Tsongkhapa taught 600 years ago: “If the entire object of grasping at certitude is dismantled, at that point your analysis of the view has culminated.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews