Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brown on the budget

I tried to take a look at Jerry Brown's website, this time at his proposals for dealing with the budget. But I quickly got confused. The author of the budget plan trumpeted their 'long and well deserved reputation for being cheap'. Well, it clearly isn't Meg Whitman, who has just broken records for spending the most personal funds on buying an election in American history (a sure sign that her ideas are so bankrupt that she needs her money to do the talking for her). But could it really be Jerry Brown who was trumpeting old praise from the American Conservative, which apparently once sang the praises of Brown, to the effect that he was 'much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan'? Why would someone who's running on the ticket of a progressive party be comparing themselves to the man famous for attacking public education, slashing social spending, and relentlessly assaulting the rights of labour to organise to protect their jobs?

'My philosophy', Brown writes, 'has always been one of frugality and living within our means'. But I'm still confused about some things. What exactly does this mean? It's one thing to fly around on Southwest to trumpet your man-of-the-people image. But does this mean that we scrimp on education funding and find ways to subcontract responsibility to the private sector? That we run schools and other services on the kind of for-profit model that works so abysmally in the healthcare sector and incentivises the kind of rank greed that led to the financial crisis? Brown sounds a lot like the Republicans in the assembly and senate who take the view that a budget is an end unto itself.

And the haziness doesn't go away. Under 'My Plan', Brown writes that 'Since World War II, California has experienced numerous recessions and our economy has always come back stronger than ever. I am confident that this will be the case again, especially if we build on our strengths and promote the kind of innovation for which our state has always been known'. Commendable optimism, but hardly a plan, or even a sketch of a philosophy. He notes that now is not the time for disinvestment in education. But if we're going to get out from under our deficit without raising any new revenue, and also roll back spending (strange commitments coming from a Democrat), how will we be able to increase investment in schools?

Brown's solution to budget deadlock is equally unrealistic. He pledges to 'personally engage the legislators, in large and small groups (both Republicans and Democrats) beginning in November ... My goal will be to work with all the Republican legislators to ensure that they produce and come forward with their best offer of a funded budget proposal'. But here he assumes that the Republicans are a) interested in negotiation, and b) have room to negotiate. Let's not forget that these people have signed the deceptively-named Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which means that can't vote for any revenue increases unless they violate what sounds like a primeval blood oath.

That leaves cuts as the only alternative, and this means that education, state parks and jobs are likely to continue suffering. Why would the Republicans negotiate with Brown when they already run the state from the minority thanks to Prop 13 and its enshrinement of minority rule (and let's remember...Brown re-wrote a well-crafted attempt by George Lakoff to end the two-thirds rules, and has been a defender of the unworkable Prop 13).

Brown offers more reforms of the budgetary and appropriations process, and notes many spheres in which cuts should take place. And he is right about many of these. But the problem remains the narrative. It is piecemeal, but the themes around which it is beginning to cohere are worrisome. The mantra of cuts (even if they are judicious ones rather than the slash and burn approach that the Republicans would like to take) is almost certainly over-optimistic about what these kinds of savings can deliver. It also takes people's eyes off what should be the real focus: what kind of society we want to live in, and what kinds of services we think should be universally accessible. And it plays into the hands of the Republicans by contributing to their narrative: that government is the problem, and that less of it is better.

Which is true, if you are independently wealthy, an oil magnate, a large corporation or an irresponsible lender. But only partially true. Because of course, these people rely on government too: the free market state of affairs they demand isn't, as suggested, the natural, default social and economic environment. It is artificially created by government intervention and legislation on behalf of the wealthy. So what the Republicans are demanding (inadvertently supported by Brown's mantra of cuts) is not less government, but a redirected government: a government of the few, by the few and for the few.

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