Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Jerry Brown Enigma

I’ve been accused by parties who shall go unnamed of using this blog to unfairly bash California Governor Jerry Brown once or twice.  Or maybe three or four times.  Possibly five or six...

I very much doubt that Brown is bothered by my criticism.  But be that as it may, I thought I’d try to take a more ‘fair and balanced’ approach to Brown, largely through the combination of observations over the past couple of years and his interesting interview with Candy Crowley (see here and here) that ran on CNN earlier this month.  [Warning—it is raining this morning, and the University Library is closed, so this might get long.]

One of the same accusers suggested that I was somehow predisposed to loathe Brown, but that isn’t the case at all.  Prior to around 2009 I hadn’t paid much attention to Brown, and had mostly familymembers’ opinions to go on.  Democrats and one Obama-voting Republican, they all remembered Brown somewhat nostalgically, particularly his tenure as governor and Oakland Mayoralty—perhaps speaking to the ability of his lips to whistle a good progressive tune in spite of what his hands were doing; perhaps due to the fact that there had been so little comfort for progressives since: Deukmejian, Wilson, Schwarzenegger.

I don’t as a rule think that political profiles are terribly useful (though they’re often very colourfully-written and enjoyable to read—this one will undoubtedly be the exception), but Brown is a particularly interesting (infuriating might be the better word) public figure in part because he is—and this is a cliché—very difficult to pigeonhole.

Part of this stems from his obvious thoughtfulness and intelligence (there!  I said something nice about the man!).  For all that people wax lyrical about President Obama’s ‘thoughtfulness’, I have never heard our President utter a non-platitudinous statement, a controversial thought or anything much that made me stop and think.  It’s not, I’m sure, that he isn’t capable of such thoughts—he’s probably just extremely careful to ensure that they don’t emerge in public—a sure sign of how pathetically limited our political discourse has become.  Brown on the other hand, gives the impression of actually having sat down and thought about things.  And when I say “sat down and thought about things”, I don’t mean sitting down with a group of political consultants to look at polling data and pull some tortured policy-position out of that witch’s brew. 

Few inaugural speeches are anything other than fluff, but one line in Brown’s, given in January of this year, made me re-watch the speech so that I could write it down.  Reflecting on the inaugural addresses of past Governors, he noted that all of them “start on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same reoccurring issues...education, crime, budgets, water.  I’ve thought a lot about this and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems, but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties.  A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains”.  It’s not a very comforting thought (that the best we can do is manage a series of irresolvable dilemmas), nor is it one that I’m sure that I agree with (a re-thinking our relationship with natural resources, the land and our environment could, I believe, offer long-term solutions to our water problem, for example).  But it does reflect a philosophy of governance that is largely absent in most politicians, and one which begins to explain Brown’s own approach.

It’s difficult to find the common threads in Brown’s philosophy, particularly because he has done so many things over so many years—or perhaps more accurately, we’ve seen many editions over four decades, because unlike his father, a champion of public works and big social democratic projects, Brown has never had a signature policy.  He is perhaps best-remembered for his mantra of “living within our means”, for implementing Proposition 13 with the same zeal with which he’d opposed it, and for creating the Jerry Brown persona based on his personal frugality (the Southwest flights, the fabled blue Plymouth, dispensing with Ronald Reagan’s unseemly taste for wealth and glamour).

And yet in his interview with Crowley, Brown declared himself a very firm Rooseveltian, arguing strongly for the power of government spending and investment as the way to end today’s recession.  Brown drew a contrast between fiscal conservatives and serious investors through government (those in the “future business” as Brown’s old adversary Bill Clinton used to put it)—he portrays Republicans as members of the myopic former group and liberals (his word) as ascribing to the latter.  I doubt that’s a line he developed and poll-tested in consultation with a team of consultants, but it is a good one.  It draws a nice and somewhat novel contrast, portraying the supposedly entrepreneurial interests as engaging in nothing more than basic greed. 

And yet his rhetorical embrace of a Keynesian or Rooseveltian spending program doesn’t match the ferocious cuts regime he is forcing on California—cuts to elderly care, cuts to early childhood programs, cuts to healthcare, cuts to K-12 education, cuts to social services for the socially marginal, cuts to our state’s incredible higher-education system, cuts to public transport.

Nor does his conventionality where state budgeting is concerned match other facets of his past.  Because he should perhaps be better-remembered than he is as the Presidential candidate who ran on an anti-corruption platform in 1992, refusing donations of over $100 and deriding PACS.  He is probably the closest thing we have around today to a high-profile incorruptible politician, and his demonstrable history of disappointing progressive allies one moment and infuriating right-wingers the next made Meg Whitman’s claim last fall that he was a union pawn one of her more patently absurd claims.

But where did this Brown go...with his passion for addressing inequalities of power and wealth, his willingness to address corruption and call the powers that be out to their faces?  Is his willingness to defend social democracy while hammering away at its foundations dishonest?  Or does he believe that he is so constrained that he has no alternative?

His answer came when Crowley asked him whether he is, as pundits have suggested, “mellower” than before.  This was one of several moments in his interview when the Governor looked bemused at her line of questioning (I suspect the bemusement is his best attempt to hide his disgust at the vapid line of questioning—his dog, ‘Jerry’ Duty, conversing with royalty, whether he’s ‘mellower’).  His response, in his trademark gravelly voice, was that “I’m older”.

But if he looks older than when he took the gubernatorial reins for the first time at the age of 37, he has the same trademark vigour, the same characteristic twitching of the shoulders which makes him look like a man constrained by the smallness of the people around him.  But his physical energy and willingness to philosophise about government has never really been matched by policy innovation.

But his own sense that he has matured as a politician explains his caution.  It’s one part his old philosophy—“We have to live within our means”—and one part resignation—“that’s the way the world works”.  The problem with this view is that California as a community isn’t broke...there’s money all around.  And Brown alludes to this (blaming the profits of corporations, industries and managers, arguing that in an economy of $2 trillion, finding an extra $10 billion “does not seem excessive”) while never fully incorporating it into his argument or saying flat out that California as a society is not running a deficit...it is simply that, to paraphrase an old saying, all the wrong members of our state family are making the money and pulling the levers of power.

He has a highly realistic sense of what is legislatively possible, and if it doesn’t seem to be helping him to develop a plan to address unemployment or a strategy for winning Republican votes, it at least has the merit of making him sound like an adult, and prevents him from making the idiotic blanket statements and promises characteristic of today’s political ilk (except for in that worst of policy mis-steps driven by short-term electioneering: his promise to not raise taxes without a referendum).

But there is something grim about Brown’s realism.  He seems to believe that it’s up to the people to come to their senses and ride to the rescue of their own state, and if they won’t, that there isn’t anything he can or is willing to do about it. 

The contrast between high-minded idealism and a kind of brooding ‘realism’ is nothing new in Brown.  People’s mis-reading of his history was on display during the 2010 campaign, when state Latino leaders backed him by calling attention to the fact that he had marched with Cesar Chavez.  But Brown’s embrace of agricultural labourers’ cause during the 1970s only came because of the huge pressure United Farmworkers’ members brought to bear on state politics—a chronology Brown himself might have included in his spirited 1992 address to the Democratic National Convention, in which he noted that every major change brought about in the twentieth century could only have occurred because of grassroots movements, fired by a sense of injustice and possessed of the willingness to put pressure on the formal political machine.

But Crowley wasn’t interested in dwelling on Brown’s mixed political past, and pressed him further for his take on the economic crisis facing the United States in 2011.  Retrenchment, Brown insisted again and again, was the only alternative to investment, and will be the price we pay for failing to be socially innovative and for neglecting our human capital.  Again, here he is drawing sharper lines than the consensus-seeking Obama, and is willing to come out and say that one of these approaches (the one, it so happens, that he is implementing), retrenchment, is bad, and that the other, investment, is good.  But also that there’s nothing he can do about it. 

“There is no magic bullet other than stimulus” he said, “and stimulus has been stigmatized by the Republican leadership, and they want America to go through this straitjacket...that’s the gamble”.  And a costly one it’s proving. 

Crowley took him back to California’s unemployment—amongst the highest in the nation.  Brown predicted that it would rise further, which does indeed seem like to be the case.  Brown suggested (Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, take note) that there really isn’t anything that California can do in the short term, because the only place that stimulus funds and the big projects they create can come from is the federal government.  California can look for a long-term social and economic overhaul (with energy featuring most prominently for Brown), but its effects will be some time in coming.  “That”, he argued, “is what states do.  If Congress wants to curb the demand for goods and services through the public sector, that’s what we’re going to get...we can develop ways to help people, but we can’t create money or create a Rooseveltian spending program”.    

But Brown doesn’t, unlike many progressives, seem to believe that we can avoid cuts—he isn’t interested in the premise that a budget is nothing more than a tool that we should use as needed to implement those policies that we think square with our moral responsibilities to our fellow citizens.  “The only way you can justify more spending—which is more borrowing”, he said, “is to enact now changes in the entitlements.  Medicare, Social Security, military spending.  We’ve got to credibly save in the future by current law while still stimulating.  That’s the problem: you have to be able to cut back and to spend at the same time.  And that seems to be too sophisticated for some of those Conservative folks in the House of Representatives”. 

Brown also suggested, with characteristic disdain for what would be the talking points of most partisan Democrats, that it shouldn’t be any surprise that we are facing unemployment, because the character of employment before 2008 was driven by the housing and financial bubbles.  This is true.  Our decision to structurally appease the housing, financial and energy industries means that until we make a conscious choice to re-orient our economy in some particular way, those jobs aren’t going to miraculously return.

Brown, hoping to avoid the cuts that will be triggered should expected revenue in California not materialise (and July’s revenues were much lower than estimated), is banking on a measure on the ballot in the coming year.  But the sad thing is, I don’t think people will vote for tax increases, however logical those increases might be.  It’s as though that’s why people put legislators there...to do the things they might know to be right, but can’t bring themselves to do.  People will voice support through polls or phone calls for legislators raising revenue, or for the programs that the revenue in question would save, but it’s much more difficult for them to tick the box on the ballot that will directly take a few more dollars out of their own pockets—even if they stand to benefit from the collective investment of those dollars.

Crowley asked Brown what he would most like to accomplish (legislatively) in the coming years.  Returning to his mantra in the ‘70s, Brown answered, “I’d like to get California to balance its books.  I also would like to regain our national, even international leadership in renewable energy”. 

At one point Crowley began a question by saying, “Not to get into anything too philosophical...”  But that is precisely the kind of conversation, you get the impression, that Brown would like to have.  And maybe it is why as Governor he is so incapable of dealing with the Republican Party, which he excoriated for its seemingly unbreakable grip on its “ideological obsessions, particularly the no-tax identity”.  And Brown is very right to call the “no tax” position an identity, for that is what it has become.

Whether because of temperament or because he had been removed from the revenue questions of state politics for decades, I think that Brown genuinely believed that he could lock himself in a room with Republican legislators, debate with them for hours on end, exchange philosophies of government, and talk their way around to consensus of one kind or another.  In that, he was very like Obama.  But you can’t reason with people for whom the means (taxation) have become an all-consuming ideology.   

At the last Republican Primary debate, Mitt Romney declared proudly: “I don’t believe in raising taxes”.  I’m not even sure I know what that means, and it would be clearly impossible to have an intelligent conversation with someone willing to say such a thing.  Rick Santorum said, while arguing against taxation, “We need to get the economy growing.  That doesn’t mean taking more money out of it”.  The breathtaking ignorance about the role of government—it is part of the economy, it is an investment, it can act as a stimulus—is a substantial impediment to the kind of dialogue necessary to breaking through the poltical impasse in which the country and California find themselves today.  And when candidates were asked whether, given ten dollars of cuts for every dollar of tax increases, they would still walk away from a deal, every single one of them raised a hand.  It’s easy to laugh at this kind of totally obscene idiocy, but we’ll be crying soon enough if these people take the Presidency and the Senate. 

So this makes you pro-tax? Crowley asked Brown.  The Governor rejected the label, pointing out that the conversation shouldn’t be about taxation per se, but about the consequences of failing to raise revenue.  That Republicans, the ineffective sector of the Democratic majority (seemingly in the ascendancy) and the media always want to turn the debate into a “to tax or not to tax?” conversation suggests that we are losing our ability to ask first-order questions.

We should not begin by having an argument about whether or not we want government, whether government should be “big” or “small”, whether or not we want taxation, at what level that tax should be set.  Those are silly: if we want to live in civil society, we are going to have a government and we are going to need that government to raise revenue.  Rather, we should start with a conversation about the kind of country we want to live in, the kind of society we envision, and what responsibilities we have for each other within that society.  We shouldn’t be sitting around trying to decipher the Founding Fathers' intentions while facing an economic storm unleashed by forces those men couldn’t have conceived of, while living in a country that looks utterly geographically, socially, economically and politically different from the one they created.  We should, in some respects, be prepared to re-fit our country and state along lines that make it seaworthy for the twenty-first century.

Brown was right to reject the “to tax or not to tax?” binary, but it’s a pity he didn’t run on a more sophisticated platform.  He (and the state) are paying the price now. 

The bleakness that seems to feature in Brown’s political philosophy as a whole was also on display when Crowley asked him about national politics.

“I’m alarmed at where America is.  You look back in history, and all the elites and ruling families in Europe in 1914 were feeling pretty good about themselves...blindness is compatible with good breeding, good education and good relationships.  Well, we don’t even have that now in much of Washington, so I would just say we’d better be very careful where we’re going”.

 For someone who was famous as state Attorney General for having cordial relations with a Republican Governor and Republican legislators, Brown unmistakably sees the threat from Republicans as critical: “The Republicans are gearing up to destroy the President, and the President will have to respond in a very powerful way, and the result for America could be calamitous”. 

Crowley asked Brown whether he thought that Democrats bore part of the blame for the political impasse in Congress and in California, allowing that as a Democrat he would probably be less inclined to share out responsibility.  But Brown has never been a partisan, in part because he has never been ideologically at home in the traditionally social democratic party (he left the party in the 1990s), his current protestations aside. 

His response settled on the uniqueness of our own moment: “This is not just another political squabble...we are at a crossroads...if the republicans cannot give up some of their ideological baggage and if the Democrats cannot find a way to create common ground, the country is going to face some decline, and I think the only way out of that will be a very vigorous election where people lay out the stark alternatives, not muffle it like politicians like to do...I think we need a very clear, decisive election, and I think the filibuster needs to be a real filibuster...they should have to talk like they did during the civil rights days, where they talked for 64 days and then the filibuster was broken, but that it was held for only the most important matters and not for secondary judicial nominations.  You can’t govern a society with a 60 vote requirement”. 

Crowley pressed him on what strategy Obama should adopt to illustrate the stark options facing the public.  Brown declined to offer advice, resorting to what commentators have caricatured as his Zen-Master approach (on display during the interview when he spoke repeatedly about summoning “inner power” and the “pathways” we must collectively take): “[The President] has to dig down into his own soul and connect with the people of America at this hour of peril.  This is real peril, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about the United States before”.

So it’s possible? Crowley asked.

Yes, Brown allowed, “But it may be that because of the propaganda or the state of indulgence where we are...maybe the truth cannot be spoken in a way that makes it a successful campaign, and if that’s true, then we are really in for it”. 

This is dark talk indeed from the man who has been around state and national politics since his father became a district attorney in 1943 and who only one year ago was campaigning on the promise of restoring the California dream and the state’s sense of boundless optimism, and is perhaps a mark of how unsettled our times are. If he runs for re-election, he probably will not get my vote.  But he is a serious public servant who has given a lot of thought to the governance of the most populous, complex state in the country, and who should be taken seriously.

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