Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jerry Brown Confuses "Ideas" With "Problems"

It must be hard to be told as a politician that there is virtually nothing you can do to improve your chances of winning an election for a major office.  The real kicker would be pollsters and pundits indicating that your opponent could die and still triumph at the polls.


Such is the lot of Neel Kashkari, memorably described by Matt Taibbi as “The 35 year-old dingbat from Goldman someone put in charge of handing out $700 billion bailout dollars”.  After that brief but wildly successful career serving the welfare of the same plutocratic interest that tanked the economy in the first place, Kashkari got it into his head that he would make a good Governor of California.  Residents of the Golden State are inclined to disagree, favouring incumbent Jerry Brown by over twenty points.  It’s early in the campaign, but given the unpopularity of the GOP’s economic fundamentalism and its long and troubled reign over the state vis-à-vis undemocratic supermajority rules, voters are unlikely to experience a serious change of heart.

And some pundits suspect that even if Jerry Brown keeled over after a campaign rally (not that he’s likely to have to hold many of those), “there’s a good chance that most voters would pick a dead Brown (and, by extension, a live Gavin Newsom) over a live Kashkari”. 

It’s a pity that this insipid right-wing establishment candidate, who has nothing of interest to say about the public good that his party has spent the last couple of decades trashing, is the only challenger Jerry Brown will face in November.  Because Brown himself represents right-wing conventional wisdom about how to manage the economy at the expense of the individuals who comprise our society.

And Jerry Brown is also very confused. 

The same night that he won nearly 55% of the vote in a field of 15 candidates, 35 points ahead of the closest competitor, Brown was asked about a policy agenda for the election and the next four years.  The governor was typically dismissive, sniffing as he dismissed the premise behind the reporter’s question.

“It’s not just proposing new ideas”, the Governor replied (beginning around the 3:20 mark), “We’ve got a lot of ideas.  Now we gotta make them work.  We have problems about water and the drought, we have issues of public safety and the courts telling us we have to reduce our prison population.  We have a lot of low-income families that need healthcare and also need special help when it comes to school.  So all of that is already embodied in law, but I want to go up and down the state making sure we can operationalize it”.

I remember a college history professor enjoining our class never to use a vague pronoun like “it” when something more concrete and identifiable could do a better job of explaining your argument or premise to the reader, advice I do my best to practice and pass on to my students.  Of course, she was assuming that clarity was our ambition in communicating, and it’s a good job she never had Jerry Brown in the classroom.

Because the Governor’s statement is astonishing.  Not only are we unsure as to what the “it” at the end of the sentence actually refers, there is a basic confusion between “ideas” and “problems”, which most people will agree are not the same thing.  The confusion is more than grammatical, and will prove fatal to California if voters do not demand greater clarity from the Governor.

The idea that we have good solutions—“embodied in law”—to our problems with natural resource allocation, chronic poverty, underemployment, the impoverishment of our education sphere, our broken prison system, and our mangled political structure is risible.  The notion that all we need is for Jerry Brown to don his hard hat and swing up and down the state looking over municipalities’ shoulders to make sure all is in good working order is absurd.

Unlike my history teacher, Jerry Brown is not interested in clarity.  Most of his political career has been based around triangulation and obfuscation.  He overwhelms the press with juicy quotes and enough homilies to fill miles of column inches, counting on them not to notice that he has provided them with information either totally void of content or else with content that is entirely inaccurate or contradictory, as in this case.

The confusion of “ideas” with “problems”, and the total absence of “solutions”, fits with Brown’s cynical view of his role as Governor.  He sees his task as being to manage rather than mend our crippled state, his diagnosis having convinced him that our ills are of a chronic and incurable variety.  This conveniently lets the Governor off the hook, and fits in with his strategy of ballot-box budgeting, where he lazily passes the buck to voters without making any structural adjustments to integrate the approach with our system’s already-strained use of direct democracy.

Brown’s GOP rival is unlikely to have any interest or luck in holding the Governor to account for these faults, and so it will fall to those members of our society most affected or offended by Brown’s neglect of the poor, the young, the sick, or the weak to pressure him into doing his job.  But further responsibility rests with the media which has spent the last five years giving the Governor a free pass.  Journalists should start subjecting the Governor’s program of crippling austerity to greater scrutiny, and they could start by questioning his claim that we don’t need new policies or ideas to reclaim our state for the public. 

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