Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jerry Brown: Governing by the Seat of his Pants

I used skype the other day to call my parents.  It was my first time, so it was initially a bit alarming but then very nice to see them, my sister and aunt all perched on a couch in Hayward right there in front of me, my view occasionally obstructed as my aunt’s dog rocketed around in front of the screen, displeased at being left out of the conversation.  My mother observed that in my gloomy evening Lusaka I looked like someone delivering a hostage message. 

Giving me a bad time, my dad brought up California’s recent budget, noting that California Governor Jerry Brown had achieved an on-time and balanced budget.  Not wanting to spend my short time online with them frothing at the mouth about our Incredible Prevaricating Governor, I rather high-handedly referred him to my blog and changed the subject.

But the story-telling that is doing the rounds about California’s budget and the state of our politics aside, events of the past few days have demonstrated much of what is wrong with both Governor Brown’s approach to governing the state, as well as what is troubled about our polity in general.

I refer, of course, to a small budget item: namely the un-doing of California’s public records laws.  The budget package contained a provision which, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, made “it optional for local governments to comply with several key provisions of the California Public Records Act”.  The Bee described the impact as follows: “Local governments could choose whether to help members of the public craft their records requests to increase the chances they will obtain what they are seeking ... The measure would eliminate a requirement that governments respond within 10 days with a determination about whether the records are wholly or partially disclosable.  It would also eliminate a requirement that governments provide a legal justification for not releasing documents”.


The rationale is the same which has driven every major development in the state in recent years, from disinvestment from schools and universities, to the withdrawing of care for the elderly and disabled; from the shuttering of libraries and community centres, to the sloth in maintaining public infrastructure: fiscal responsibility.

As we know by now, “fiscal responsibility” is a short-hand used by politicians—traditionally the Republican Party, but increasingly by the right-leaning Democratic Party as well—for “social and communal irresponsibility”.  In this case, it is about allowing Governor Jerry Brown to burnish his reputation as a cheapskate (state government reimburses local government for the cost of providing information to the public), and to talk about making cuts to create a balanced budget.  But his reputation will glitter at the expense of California’s democracy and the rights of the public.

George Skelton of the LA Times offers up a stinging indictment of Brown’s opportunism, noting that the casualisation of accountability mechanisms is in keeping with the Governor’s style.  As criticism mounted in other quarters, the Assembly Speaker broke with Brown and Senate president Darrell Steinberg, the latter two suddenly claiming that they would substitute a constitutional amendment in 2014 for legislation already in place. 

Later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Brown “abandoned” the plan, and it sounds as though plans for a June initiative are being made.  It remained unclear to me from the article,  however, what would be the fate of the existing measure.

Pundits have been fond of praising the new Jerry Brown as a more mature, deliberate, and responsible politician than the 1970s edition.  The Governor has also developed a reputation for openness and accessibility, but that reputation has largely come from granting audiences to bedazzled national papers and magazines which then churn out fluffy pieces praising Brown’s eccentricity.  Skelton, on the other hand, maintains that the small size of Brown’s public information staff inhibits the accountability of a governor who “rarely holds news conferences”, limiting the access of the more critically-informed California press.

The machinations of the last week around an issue as seemingly-elementary as public access to information seems to demonstrate that the Governor continues to embrace a slack-jawed, idle-minded approach to doing politics.  The reflexive recourse to the ballot box as a “fix” to his dilemma shows the same destructive tendency embodied in Brown’s recourse to Prop 30 last November, when he passed up an attempt to rationalise California’s mangled political structure by taking up the cause of structural reform.

Democrats, of all people, should be ashamed for embracing such a measure, however temporarily.  The philosophy progressives espouse requires that institutions of government serve the public interest.  We argue that access to education at all levels, healthcare, social support, and public spaces should be universal and equitable.  It is hard to make this case when politicians representing ostensibly-progressive parties began behaving in an entitled and distinctly un-democratic fashion.  Obama’s fulsome embrace of the NSA’s shady spying and shadier lies fed to Congress is setting progressivism and social democracy back at the national level.  Brown and other Democrats should take care that their fiscal fundamentalism doesn’t do the same in California.

They should also recognise that Brown’s “by-the-seat-of-his-pants” style of mismanagement isn’t doing the Golden State any favours.

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