Monday, July 16, 2012

California's Bamboozler-in-Chief

George Skelton has it right.  That’s not something I say often, but in two of his recent columns, the LA Times writer has been on target.  First, he blasted conservatives for continuing to pretend—when all the facts say otherwise—that California has a ‘spending’ problem and that we need to continue slashing our social services.  But he let one particular individual off the hook—California Governor Jerry Brown, the state’s foremost defender of irrational, unnecessary, and brutal austerity.

But Brown comes in for criticism elsewhere.  In Sunday’s column, Skelton laid into the Governor for practising “sleazy politics” with “chutzpah and arrogance”, resulting in “bad politics—sleazy and smelly”.  This relates to Brown’s bald-face abuse of Prop 25 to put his tax measure at the top of the ballot.  I once thought that Brown’s sole positive attribute was his basic integrity, but this leaves him looking not only inept, unmotivated and unprincipled, but also every bit as sleazy as his predecessors. 

Whether or not Brown’s machinations end up being illegal, they are certainly corrupt, and will give ammunition to the right-wing fundamentalists who are out to break the state.  It will also distract people from serious matters and sew mistrust in the Democratic Party.  But Brown, I suspect, doesn’t care.  He has loyalty to neither the party, its erstwhile values, or to any principle other than his own advancement.  To him, the party and its social democratic ideals are nothing more than a vehicle for his personal ambition.  Another example of Brown’s blend of dirty politics and laziness: his minions are readying themselves for a kamikaze mission against Molly Munger and her tax initiative.  This slash and burn style of politics, almost deliberately calculated to send both measures down in flames, wouldn’t have been necessary if Brown could have been bothered to work to create a single front during the nearly two years he had as Governor prior to November’s election.  Somehow, though, the Governor always gets away with playing dirty and being lazy. 

That’s because Brown is a political peacock, the last of a breed able and willing to intimidate the media, his opponents, the public, and his own party with a brash display of what passes for intelligence.  A cursory examination of the Governor in action illustrates both his method and the vacancy of his rationalisation.  A recent interview with the Pacific Standard’s Marc Cooper is a useful example of Brown’s almost nihilistic tactics. 

In the course of a conversation about the Governor’s tax measure, Brown remarked, “The Top 1 percent in the state increased its share of the income from 10 to 22 percent.  The bottom 80 percent of the state is declining.  That’s just a fairness fact”.  Brown’s invocation of fairness might be more convincing if he wasn’t in the process of eviscerating all of the state institutions which act to promote fairness.  He might be more persuasive if he wasn’t the man whose intransigence gave us the root cause of our state’s un-governability and the resulting unfairness: Prop 13.

Brown has been derided by serious reformers for continuing the band-aid mentality which characterised his predecessors: pretend that you can fix the state’s problems by taking baby steps in all directions.  Cooper asked him why he didn’t embrace the kind of serious reform—the kind that would actually allow the Governor and legislators to have a serious discussion about our priorities and the welfare of our institutions.  The answer?  Vintage Brown.

“Yeah, I’d rather have a broader tax, there should be ways to have a more rational tax, but that is not viable.  It’s not going to pass the Legislature, it’s not going to pass by initiative.  It’s a non-starter.  So the only choice is even more cuts or the tax I’m proposing, or one very close to it”.  Time and again in the interview, Brown made this point: that nothing is viable.  Cooper’s next question: “Californians have spent 20 years giving the thumbs down to higher taxes.  What makes you think all of a sudden things have changed”.  Brown: “First of all, we don’t know how open they are to it until we get to the election”.

For someone who prides himself on his knowledge of the classic logicians, it’s clear that Brown’s grip on logic is as feeble as his grasp of the state’s needs.  One second, everything’s impossible.  The next, we don’t know that it’s impossible until we try.  Why can’t he apply the same line of logic he’s using in defence of his woefully inadequate tax measure to something more serious and ambitious?  Laziness, I suspect.

Brown continued to pull the carpet from under his own feet as he defended his pathetic, piecemeal effort to right California’s ship of state.  “The constant reductions”, he said, “—the university, public schools, police, other public services, library hours, all that.  Enough already”.  But if it’s “enough already”, why is the Governor pushing more reductions while failing to address the problem?  What we’ve really had more than enough of already is Brown’s self-serving, pontificating smoke and mirrors.

Eventually, Cooper mentioned California’s most stupid and sacred cow: Prop 13.  But Brown doesn’t think addressing Prop 13 is a good idea.  Why not?  A principled objection, you might suppose.  Willing support for the measure, you might think.  Brown’s response: “I just don’t want to go there”.  Well, that’s nice, Governor.  Let us know when you feel like doing your job, and we’ll get back to you.  We’re happy to wait while you dazzle yourself flaunting your plumage.

Pressed on reform, Brown offered this mangled reply: “Reform is always on the table, but people who say they’re going to transform whole systems have to be careful...Because things are rarely transformed”.  He then started talking about perfection, which allows him to plug his Jesuit training, and the interviewer (as they always do with Brown) lets him get away with a spectacular conflation...of that which is “better” with that which is “perfect”.  Reform, of course, has nothing to do with creating a perfect state, but rather with creating the conditions that allow us to decide what kind of state we’d like to live in, and what we need to do to get there.    

I’m not such a big fan of the recall system, but if there was ever a Governor who deserved to be recalled, it is surely Jerry Brown, if for no other reason than that he simply refuses to perform is job. 

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