Monday, April 23, 2012

California's Philosopher Prince


I might seldom agree with him, but amongst political figures, California Governor Jerry Brown is probably about as intelligent as they get.  So his injunction to the state legislature to “man up” and make the budget cuts he’s asking for doesn’t quite jive with the image of California’s Philosopher Prince that our Once and Once Again Governor tries to project. 

No less a figure than George Skelton of the LA Times, who is usually prepared to bend over backwards to excuse the Governor’s pathetic efforts to right our ship of state, laid fiercely into Brown for passing the buck to the legislature, very rightly noting that he dug his own hole by pledging not to raise taxes except by voter approval, eschewing the use of the powers that we vest our elected representatives with for a reason.  Hand-tying pledges of this kind are for the economic fundamentalists and anti-social zealots in the state’s Republican Party, not for a man who is supposed to be a mature veteran of our state’s political scene.

So Brown’s unerring ability to accomplish exactly nothing of substance begs the question: airhead, arrogant or ignorant?

His breezy campaign, carefree and careless, in which I recall not a single utterance of substance, suggests the first, and tallies with some accounts and remembrances of his first two terms.  Then, eschewing his father’s tremendous commitment to California’s social and physical infrastructure, Brown espoused an era of limits.  At its best, this looked prescient given the emphasis on alternative energy and restrictions on growth.  But more often than not it looked like a pretext for Brown to put the state on autopilot while running for President a couple of times.

His confidence that he could get the legislature to place a tax measure on the ballot for the public to vote on smacks a bit of arrogance, or at least a misplaced confidence that where everyone else had failed, he could reason with the card-carrying buffoons who compose the modern Republican Party, and who comprise a gleeful goon-squad for their corporate paymasters. 

The above would also be a point in favour of ignorance.  At the New Year, the Governor gave an interview in which he expressed surprise at the anti-tax dogmatism, suggesting that he’d not only not picked up a newspaper in upwards of a decade, but that he’d forgotten the coalition that used the discontent of homeowners with the tax structure to pass Proposition 13 in 1978 (during his first tenure as Governor) while shutting down an initiative that would have allowed for a more differentiated property tax (i.e. one which would protect those who need protection, and tax those who can easily afford to pay more, and which would differentiate between individual homeowners and large property owners).

This blog is not, as a rule, very well-disposed towards the Governor, but in the spirit of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, I’ll suggest a different potential explanation. 

I think I’ve drawn attention to these lines from Brown’s 3 January 2011 Inaugural Address before, but they’re worth returning to, because they’re both thoughtful and illustrative of the Governor’s thinking.  “It is sobering and enlightening”, he said, “to read through the inaugural addresses of past governors.  They each start on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same recurring issues—education, crime, budgets, water.  I have 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 remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together”.

Optimistic, in one sense.  But deeply fatalistic in another.  I’ve always been amused when hyperventilating commentators call Brown left-wing, socialist, or a tax-and-spend-liberal.  Because to me, the Governor’s defining feature is the almost total absence of ideology.  Oh, I suspect that he’s a decent fit in today’s cringingly cautious Democratic Party, in that he broadly supports public schools and universities, and thinks we shouldn’t totally abandon those who are sick or out of work or otherwise suffering.

But as I think the above passage helps to indicate, Brown doesn’t subscribe to the belief that you devise policy according to a particular ideology to solve problems.  Because to his mind, California’s ills—as exemplified by disinvestment from our universities, the scaling back of spending on public schools, the inability to generate revenue, the struggle to maintain an environmental ethic in the face of remorseless growth—are chronic.  You can’t solve them.  Instead you just manage them. 

Brown is very much about the process, which is one reason why he’s focussed all of his energies on the budget process, rather on the deeper moral questions about social responsibility underpinning that process.  One of his favourite words is “rigour”.  He recently declared, “I think the key is boundaries.  So maybe you put it this way: Imagination in some sense doesn’t have boundaries.  But if all you have is imagination, that’s akin to insanity.  The other side is rigor.  You want rigor, but not just rigor—that’s rigor mortis.  So it’s the interweaving of imagination and rigor that gets stuff done”.

He’s right.  And unlike most politicians who have a clear policy goal in mind but nothing resembling a method for arriving at it, Brown appears to have something like a method...but no aim.  His method is technocratic in the sense that he looks at the items in the budget and weighs their relative merit, then cutting those which seem less worthy of funding, no matter how much those cuts might hurt people, and without pausing to ask whether there are other questions we should ask ourselves before launching such deep cuts.  Methodological rigour is not, I’m afraid, any substitute for moral philosophy.  Particularly when, as in this case, it causes its practitioner to start treating a political tool (the budget) as an end in itself.

The depth of the cuts to education, social services, and public spaces and institutions should be a matter of serious concern.  The uncertainty that the budget process does tremendous damage to our schools, to say nothing of the havoc it plays with the lives of those depending on some measure of support from social services which may or may not exist next year.  And it could have been different, had Brown conducted himself responsibly in 2010 and 2011.  Fate gifted him with a Republican opponent who overestimated the extent to which Californians’ votes were up for sale and who shot herself almost weekly in the foot.  He was running in a year when Democrats swept every statewide office.  And he was running with many of the advantages of incumbency.

Brown’s carefully-honed persona (even those of us who weren’t around then have heard about the commercial flights, the Blue Plymouth, and the mattress on the apartment floor) would have equipped him perfectly to deliver a forthright, no-nonsense message to voters.

He should have reminded us that one chief executive after another had come to Sacramento promising to close the financial deficit that had characterised our state’s budgeting for many years in the past.  He might have drawn attention to the fact that past Governors had attempted to tinker uselessly with the process, and had proved totally unable to reconcile the social responsibility that we have to youthful, elderly, poor and sick members of our society with our existing political process.

He could have declared that the time for tinkering was done, and that he was prepared to tackle the problem at its roots.  But to do so, he should have told us, it would take time.  Therefore, in the interests of maintaining the bargain with our public institutions and services out of a recognition of the good they do for our state, we would maintain the current levels of spending for one year (another year of deficits would do far less damage than the cuts that he is now implementing), at the end of which time he could have a) called a Constitutional Convention to overhaul our political structure, or b) placed a comprehensive reform measure on the ballot with an aim to reconciling our institutions to our responsibilities.  If the Convention succeeded, or if the measure passed, then California could begin working out the details of its rejuvenated social contract.  If it failed, then Brown and the Republicans would have their mandate to take us back to the nineteenth century.

No one knows quite what a Constitutional Convention would look like, and such an effort could prove messy and indeterminate, although it might also stand the best chance of reinvigorating our politics and generating a state-wide conversation.  A comprehensive reform measure (read California Crackup for some sense of the spectrum of reforms necessary to make our state governable) might very well have had a good chance of passing, given Californians’ frustration with the status quo.

But Brown did none of these things.  He tied his hands with his stupid election pledge, he failed to get a tax measure on the ballot for the fall of 2011, and now finds himself implementing the Republicans’ radical programme of disinvestment from our public sphere, severing the social contract between one generation and the next, between the wealthy and the poor, and between individuals and their communities. 

That’s what you get when you combine a philosophy of governance with an absence of moral philosophy, a dearth of initiative, and a disturbing fatalism. 

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