Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Jerry Brown Condition


One of the most interesting comments I’ve heard from California Governor Jerry Brown was uttered at his inauguration.  It was a succinct philosophy of governance buried amidst platitudes, and came so quickly that you could almost miss it.  “What we face together as Californians”, Brown said, referencing education, crime, budgetary and water issues, “are not so much problems but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties.  A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains”.

This is a bleak view of politics and of public service, let alone of our society and culture.  But, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, it explains Brown’s governing style, which is managerial- as opposed to leadership-oriented.  Brown is not tackling California’s problems according to any philosophical or moral framework.

His latest significant move has been to attempt to get the ball rolling on pension reform for public employees.  Now goodness knows there are aspects of the pension system that could use an overhaul.  But the trouble with Brown’s approach is that, again, there is no moral philosophy behind the move.  He is playing into the hands of the increasingly-demented right-wingers who dominate California’s Republican Party by making one of the biggest debates in the coming years about what in the scheme of things is a fairly marginal issue, but which will become a referendum of sorts of organised labour and the rights of workers to collectively bargain.

I suspect that Brown knows that pension costs only assume the importance that they do in California because of the state’s political (as opposed to economic) bankruptcy.  There is plenty of money in the state, it’s simply misdirected, unequally allocated, and our legislature is prevented from moving to correct inequity of access to education, housing, and other services that create a basic floor on which people can plant their feet to live decent lives.

But instead of addressing skewed property taxes and minority rule as enshrined by Proposition 13, or making an argument about the need to create a solid social welfare system to prevent people falling through the cracks, or taking on the forces which are dismembering California’s public higher education, while putting our public schools and kids through the wringer by denying them adequate funding, Brown is setting up a showdown that will allow the Republican Party—the raison d’être of which is to erect a comprehensive corporate welfare system—to bludgeon public servants and unions.

Call me a cynic, but I suspect that the real reason Brown is tackling pension reform in this way—totally separate from the linked and ultimately more serious problems that plague state government and financing—is to be able to prove to his right-wing detractors that he’s not just another progressive who cares about the rights of workers, principles of equality and other such trivial matters.

Brown’s approach to politics—don’t say anything uncontroversial, throw one bone to the left and another to the right, refuse to take ownership of any issue, don’t articulate a belief in any moral framework, etc—is maddening.  His analysis of our problems is generally more spot-on than most public figures.  He can articulate the difficulties of state government, the threat the Republican Party poses to civil society, the mess that the blend of referendums, initiatives, supermajority requirements and constitutional straitjackets that comprises California’s politics makes of our ability to govern our state.  Just don’t expect him to do anything about it.

Jerry Brown isn’t into making political weather.  He’ll just pull out an umbrella if it starts raining, and tell Californians to do the same, ignoring the rising floodwaters all around us. 

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