Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brown's Lack of Initiative

There is a guy staying at the Nairobi YMCA who, from a distance, bears a remarkable resemblance to California Jerry Brown.  I nearly started hectoring him the first day I saw him before I realised my entirely understandable error.  He would have been one startled Antipodean if I’d begun badgering him about Prop 13 and cuts to education and other public services!

As regular readers (the chronically bored) might know, I’m no big fan of LA Times columnist George Skelton, but one of his latest pieces does a good job of breaking down the three competing efforts to get measures on the ballot this fall to rescue California’s finances—and more critically, our education system and possibly some other services.  I suspect that Skelton is right in saying that if all three measures make the ballot the chances of any of them passing are substantially reduced.  And as he says, it should be painfully obvious to all parties involved that there is nothing to be gained and very much to be lost (by the average Californian, at least) by working so tenaciously at cross-purposes.

Skelton tells us who is backing each of the measures (one is the Governor’s own effort), describes the kind of revenue that each would raise and where it would likely be directed, and gives some indication of the longer-term security for schools and other programs and institutions that each measure might afford.  What neither Skelton (who seems to lean towards the Governor’s proposal) nor any of the other initiatives’ various supporters is willing to say aloud is that none of these proposals is a solution.  None of them address the real problem in California.  Each is a band-aid which would cover up the festering sore that is our broken political system for five years at best.

The reticence to address California’s underlying problems is unfortunate, to say the least, and in the next few years we will likely find ourselves once again in the position of making drastic cuts to what remains of our University, College, and School systems, in addition to other social services and to our State Parks.  In the year or two it inevitably seems to take to hammer out a solution to take us another year or two down the road, we will severely damage our public institutions and services, before listening to our political leaderships cheer themselves hoarse for having arrived at another mangled compromise that has more bearing on their egos than on the future of California.

None of the three tax plans acknowledges the absurd restrictions that Proposition 13 places on politicians’ abilities to generate a sane budget or raise revenue (it places no such restrictions on the state Republican Party’s ability to undercut our universities, shred our social services, slash our school funding, or shut down our State Parks).  None of them so much as acknowledge that allowing a decades-old measure (sponsored by real estate interests and passed by voters irritated by the lackadaisical governance of one Jerry Brown) to deny our state the flexibility that virtually any modern government would take for granted is madness itself.

I suspect that when Jerry Brown rouses himself from the zen-like ruminations that we all assume occupies most of his waking hours, he will get around to calling for his measure to stand alone on the ballot.  He will claim (again, reasonably) that we stand a better chance of getting one of the three measures passed if in fact only one of them appears on the ballot.  Less reasonable is the assumption that it should be his

After all, Brown waited long enough to decide that he couldn’t rely on the goodwill of California’s witless Republican legislators to get a relief measure on the ballot.  He did nothing during the six odd months when he was officially running to be Governor, and nothing during the couple of weeks when he was actually campaigning for Californians’ votes.  Nor did he begin to get the ball rolling after he won a convincing victory over CEO Meg Whitman in November of 2010.  In fact, he did very little during the first year of his governorship besides hold endless meetings with Republican leaders and legislators, the outcomes of which any fool who has picked up a newspaper in the past couple of decades could have predicted.

Various in-state pundits (who shall remain nameless for the simple reason that they are the usual suspects) predicted in the days following Brown’s re-election (because we—or those of you old enough at least—have seen this sorry story before) and in those surrounding his inauguration that this was a new Jerry Brown.  He was mature, he was dedicated to his job, and he had shaken off the old sense that he was a little bit lazy. 

But what we’ve seen for the last twenty months, since Brown launched his bid for the top spot, has been very much the old Jerry Brown.  In a rather loving hit-job on Governor Moonbeam’s reputation titled The Man on the White Horse, his one-time employee, J D Lorenz, described how for Brown, inaction and indecision are actually strategies of governance.  He shies away as much from concrete statements of policy as from staking out any principled ground.  His strategy is to create an impression. 

An impression of, well...it’s hard to put your finger on it...

That’s just it, of course.  It’s sufficiently nebulous to appeal to enough people to get him elected, and non-committal enough that he doesn’t offend anybody much.  It’s a fine strategy for winning 51% of the vote in an election.  But as a philosophy for governing, it points the way to failure.  Brown’s first two terms were utterly unmemorable and totally without ambition.  Their greatest legacy was to give us Prop 13, which currently bedevils California. 

We’re in danger of seeing more of the same, and perhaps it is the Governor who should step sideways and make space for a ballot initiative backed by people who are going to fight for it with something like vigour and conviction.

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