Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Governor Jerry Brown's 2014 State of the State Left Much Unsaid

I tuned in to California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech a few minutes ago, and was disconcerted to see Gavin Newsom slouching in front of the camera in the state Capitol, babbling about interconnectedness and the need for technocratic, apolitical solutions to human, political problems.  It seemed that he was doing the warm-up act for Jerry Brown.  

Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Hackneyed phrases tumbled out of his mouth with a vigour that suggested that if we could but harness the Lieutenant Governor’s massive ego we could power the state—nay, the nation—without having to burn so much as another particle of fossil fuel.  The “tech genie” was now “out of the bottle”; we were rafting on the “white waters of change”; we were contemplating “organic job creation”; and we were quoting Winston Churchill…something about cows and tent poles.
His glistening mop aside, Newsom seemed tepid.  He is undoubtedly bored with his job as number-two to a number-one who won’t return his phone calls in a system of government that makes the lieutenant governorship nothing more than a way-station. 

Governor Jerry Brown, by contrast, was bouncing on his feet when he took the podium, and lost no time in getting a series of laughs at Newsom’s expense, slapping down the Lieutenant Governor when he declared that “there is no substitute for experience”.

Brown launched into an ode to “California’s comeback”, delighting in wonderment at “what a comeback it is”.  He cited job growth, the budgetary surplus, and minimum wage increases, without acknowledging that these gains are temporary and based on comparatively anomalous moments of political contingency that are unlikely to be replicated with anything resembling regularity.

Brown likes to see California’s ills as chronic but manageable diseases rather than treatable problems.  He cited a series of “long-term liabilities” including pensions, retiree healthcare, roads and infrastructure, and future risks related to the behaviour of the federal government and natural disasters.  But he refuses to contemplate the kind of structural adjustments to our political system that would empower legislators and, indeed, the Governor himself, to actively manage these problems.

Brown gave significant credit for our supposed “comeback” to California’s voters, praising their passage of Prop 25 (which ended the supermajority requirements for the budget, but not the supermajority requirements for revenue increases) and Prop 30 as evidence of our great wisdom.

Prop 25, Brown claimed, “ended the gridlock”.  It is in peddling this sort of fiction that Brown is at his most dishonest.  As documented most thoroughly by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their reform treatise California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We can Fix It, California’s system of government comprises a set of contradictory guidelines and strictures that even Houdini couldn’t escape.  So long as the likes of Prop 13 goes unaddressed, and so long as we fail to recognize the danger of a system of direct democracy which operates so dreadfully out of synch with our formal political sphere, that gridlock goes totally unaddressed, no less “ended”.

I’ve never been one to criticise Jerry Brown for being old.  But in the latter part of the speech he began to go a bit loopy.  Perhaps he was just over-caffeinated.  One of Gavin Newsom’s words was “hyper-connectivity” or something along those lines.  Newsom is “hyper-annoying”.  The California Republican Party is “hyper-destructive”.  But Brown was just plain hyper.  “Boom and bust is our lot!” he thundered from the podium, quickly lunging to cite Genesis, which was written down when Brown was but a wee lad.

It was when he beamed cheerfully that he had playing cards for us that I knew he was having his Clint Eastwood moment.  Playing cards?!  With his dog on them!  I didn’t follow his logic (I think there might have been a joke involved, but humour is not the Governor’s forte), but began to wonder whether our state is being run by a corgi.  Brown is a fan of the classics, so perhaps instead of consulting pigeon entrails, he places bills before the corgi: “One bark for yes, two or no, okay Sutter?” 

The remainder of the speech was a blur of disconnected thoughts which had none of the eloquence I associate with most of Brown’s set-piece speeches.  If there was a thread tying them together it was Brown’s pet theory of Subsidiarity which amounts to a declaration that problems are someone else’s responsibility. 

Brown claims to be promoting a drive for the localisation of political power and responsibility, but each such measure is off-set by a degree of centralisation.  The local control funding formula for schools is countermanded by the embrace of Common Core.  The transfer of some prison responsibilities to local authorities is offset by the sub-contracting by the state to corrupt prison companies which demand that the state pay them even for empty prison cells. 

“Life is local”, Brown declared, “and so many of the things we try to do here in the state capitol” can only be handled locally.   And yet we face a drought which requires centralised decision-making to safeguard and apportion our water resources and ensure that this water is safe to drink and healthy for the habitats through which it flows.  How could we achieve Brown’s ambition to drop gasoline consumption without central regulation? 

Perhaps unsurprising given the manner in which his austerity drive has contributed to the problem, Brown had virtually nothing to say about economic equality.  Nor did he touch on the way in which well-funded schools and affordable universities could contribute not just to a strengthening of the workforce and the creation of jobs, but also the levelling of the playing field which is today dominated by a comparatively small number of people to whom the wealth generated by our state’s community has accrued.  The omission is curious given efforts to provide universal pre-kindergarten education and the fact that the University of California Regents are meeting in San Francisco to discuss the state of their beleaguered institution today.

Brown ended his speech calling for vision, discipline, and the ability to persevere.  But the speech was a chaotic grab-bag of thoughts, mirroring our mangled polity.  It was surprisingly devoid of vision, showed little evidence of much care or discipline, and gave little indication that this Governor has the desire to tackle the social and economic problems which currently inhibit our ability to endure and persevere as a healthy society.  

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