Friday, August 16, 2013

Less Zen, More Zest

I’ve got a suggestion for the Los Angeles Times.  In this era of urgent austerity and universal belt-tightening (except, that is, for the wealthy), they could save some time and effort by recycling a headline they used to describe the actions of California’s Governor, Jerry Brown a couple of days ago.

The piece, of course, was about how intellectual and unconventional and zany Brown was and remains.  The Governor is certainly not above showing off his smarts, which is a bit unusual in an age when most politicians are eager to show that they’re just as dumb as the lowest common denominator by way of demonstrating the common touch.

And ‘unconventional’ is equally accurate.  Most governors understand that their duty is, well, to govern.  Brown hasn’t quite wrapped his mind around this, and whether he’s refusing to outline a political platform for voters, declining to address the state’s debilitating structural dysfunction, or passing the buck for crafting a budget to the voters via an initiative, most of his actions seem geared towards evading responsibility, putting off decisions or, ideally, getting someone else to make them for him.

He’s a classic opportunist...seeing where the wind was blowing on Prop 8, he refused to defend the measure as Attorney General or Governor.  Presented with a legally-different but principally-similar situation where Prop 13 was concerned, Brown embraced the plutocratic measure dressed in populist robes with an evangelical fervour, and it has proved central to the unmaking of California.

The Governor is, we are told, constantly planning his next move, and we’re always enjoined to be waiting for something big, something spectacular, something transformational.  That “something”, in the context of Brown’s bid to intervene in California’s unsustainable political morass, turned out to mean the construction of a short-term fix in the form of Prop 30, which did exactly nothing in terms of addressing structural breakdown, economic inequality, or the democratic deficit which so famously mangle our state. 

Instead, it turned over a significant part of the budgeting process to voters via initiative, adding yet another level of unsustainability to our Frankensteinian system.  In so doing, Brown created a situation in which he could claim strategic genius if the measure passed, and shake his head quietly at the poor judgment of voters if it didn’t.

In their book California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How we can Fix It, Mark Paul and Joe Mathews convincingly argue that state government has become structured in such a way that it cannot possibly work absent serious, comprehensive structural reform.  Brown, who has spent decades playing the political game in California, must surely know this.  But instead he spends his days meditating on abstractions and working out how best to bamboozle voters so that his poll numbers can survive to fight another election without having to do any of the serious business of governing.

Brown is perhaps uniquely situated—because of the trust large numbers of voters unaccountably place in him, because of his familiarity with the state’s structure, and because he doesn’t really have much to lose—to tackle the issue of reform and articulate an affirmative vision of California’s society.  He’s had nearly three years to gather his thoughts—forty years, if you start the clock with his lacklustre and un-ambitious first term—and now we could use a little action.

In sum, Governor Brown, we could use a little less Zen and a little more zest. 

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