Monday, November 26, 2012

Jerry Brown's Brave New World

California Governor Jerry Brown is famous for sending mixed messages.  He is, after all, the darling of baby boomer progressives who simultaneously scaled back on California’s social democratic experiment, paving the way, through his ineffectual response to Howard Jarvis’ special interest revolt, for our precipitate decline.  He is the man who promises leadership before passing the buck to voters.  He is the man who campaigned on knowing California like the back of his battle-scarred hand and then acted bemused when confronted by GOP pledge-taking fundamentalists.  Now he is the defender of public education who is telling the state’s public higher education sector—the world’s finest—to steel itself for more disinvestment. 

Think back nearly three weeks to the passage of Prop 30 and the Democrats’ supermajority victories in both Assembly and Senate in California.  Brown was hailed as a political genius, and Prop 30 was heralded as a comeback, a sign of the return of sane government, and a victory for education in the state. 

But was the passage of Prop 30 a triumph of progressivism in California?  Was it something to be proud of?  Hardly.  It does not mark a renewed investment in California’s education sector, and the margin of its passage was as narrow as its actual achievements are limited.  All that Californians did was look into the toilet where they’d been dumping their schools and universities for over a decade, ruminate on the sight for a few minutes, and decide to put off pushing the ‘flush’ button.

Brown spent the election season going around the state chastising commentators for “talking down” California, a strategy which smacks of desperation and disingenuity in equal measure.  The Governor’s hypocrisy has been thrown into sharp relief now that the onus is on him to articulate an affirmative vision of what some see as a newly-empowered governing structure should be setting out to accomplish. 

Amongst those anxious to encourage a re-investment in our public sphere were the leaders of the University of California and California State University systems, who requested increases in state funding.  Brown’s answer was typical.  He evaded the question of the responsibility of state government to its institutions of higher learning (at the same time warning them not to pursue fee increases—a case of wanting to have your political cake and eat it, too) while praising incoming CSU Chancellor Timothy White for taking a small salary cut.  While White’s move suggests that he is more in touch with the mood on campuses and across the state than some of his underlings, his move is nothing more than symbolic.  It is, however, the kind of move that Brown—the pioneer of gesture politics—can appreciate.

Brown’s admonitory language towards our public universities was telling.  Their appraisal of distance learning and new technologies, he warned them according to the LA Times, must be conducted “not in the gilded tones of academia but in the harsh reality of the marketplace and technologies”. 

This is vintage Brown.  A nice, meaningless turn of phrase, sure to go down well with the voters, given that it encourages the growing mistrust of higher education and of public institutions and draws a false distinction between academia and reality.  Then there is his characteristic emphasis on the need for “harsh” measures.  His is not the California of yester-year, a place where people dream about alternative futures or harbour ambitions to create a more perfect society.  Instead the emphasis is on making do with the paltry state of affairs in which we life and subjecting our public institutions to a paring down which we will feel in the health of our economy, in the strength of our society, and in the greatly diminished character of our culture in years to come.

Some tea-leaf readers have seen salvation from Brown’s grim vision in two developments: the uptick in talk about rational political reform, and the Democrats’ supermajorities.

While the pseudo-reform represented by Prop 31 deservedly failed in November, the general move towards the rationalisation of our political structure seems to be gaining steam.  The idea of at least some half-hearted stabs at reform has the backing of LA Times columnist George Skelton, Mr Conventional Wisdom himself.  Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg has made reform the rhetorical centrepiece of his plans for the next legislative session, perhaps in an effort to head off the suggestion that Democrats might actually try to do something with the power vested in them by voters.

But comprehensive reform would not be easy, and as Prop 30’s narrow passage suggests, Californians aren’t that into facing up to reality, making serious choices, or committing to the public good.  I heard a talk a few weeks ago from Mark Paul (co-author with Joe Mathews of the wonderful book California Crackup) in which he suggested that one alternative to the kind of ideas-driven reform outlined in his book (the institution of more representative voting systems, a systematic overhaul of the initiative system, and reconfiguring direct democracy, would be something as simple as Californians voting on whether or not to replace our overburdened constitution with that of Iowa. 

Bizarrely, I reckon this latter occurrence would be far more probable than any more inventive or creative scenario.  Indeed, it’s probably eminently possible because I think that Californians—at least on the basis of our behaviour at the ballot box—have ceased to think of ourselves as a people trying to live in an exceptional world.  Our exceptionalism was undoubtedly always more apparent than real, but the power of that once firmly-held belief and its subsequent abandonment shouldn’t be underestimated.  These days, after all, we seem to be keen to show just how small-minded, presentist, self-interested, and un-ambitious we can be.

If comprehensive reform remains elusive in an unmotivated social context, the Democrats’ supermajorities are unlikely to prove panaceas.  Assembly Speaker Perez, like his counterpart in the Senate, was quick to announce that there would be no short-term pursuit of tax cuts (and therefore no investment in our beleaguered institutions).  Perez went a step further and validated Brown’s hypocritical “no taxes without a vote of the people” pledge, a pandering promise which put him in the same boat as the Norquist-oathed GOP.  “The Governor’s been very clear”, the Speaker said, “that the only way to do taxes as long as he’s governor is through a direct vote of the people.  We’re not looking to figure out new ways to do things that we’ve said we’re not going to do”. 

Steinberg’s reforms, while a good start, seem to echo the consensus converging on the Governor’s dirty, irresponsible politics.  Prop 30’s “success” seems to be establishing this unbelievably convoluted method of governing 40 million people as the “new normal” based on the conceit that asking voters to approve each and every dollar is somehow more democratic, and that the electoral security granted legislators who pass the buck is worth the suffering that the uncertainty this system breeds foists onto those least able to support themselves in our state.

Our newly-empowered state leaders seem content to continue living in the post-Prop 13 world.  The signals they are currently sending demonstrate that they are content to muddle along in our diminished state, taking a morally-stunted approach to the public good, one based more on short-term self-preservation than on long-term public interest.  The world that the half-heartedness of these supposed progressives is creating is one which is increasingly harsh, ever bleaker for those who remember better days, and largely deaf to idealism.  It is a world whose leaders actively seek to repudiate the idea that collective action—even when that action “costs” some of us something material in the short-term—can create institutions, places, ideas, and frameworks which make for a more happy, just, and equal world. 

Ageing politicians are wont to speculate about their legacies.  Perhaps the legacy of Jerry Brown’s final political act will be the ushering in of this brave new world. 

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