When I sat down at 7pm to watch the first and likely only debate featuring California’s gubernatorial candidates, I half expected Governor Jerry Brown to pull a Zen routine, and refuse to say anything at all, leaving his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari (memorably characterized as “the 35 year-old dingbat from Goldman someone put in charge of handing out $700 billion bailout dollars”) to fulminate endlessly.
But in the end Brown did open his mouth, ensuring that viewers were bombarded with no end of homilies from both of the candidates.
Brown is running unabashedly on his budgeteering, which in an act of characteristic irresponsibility, he turned over to voters in 2012, setting a dangerous precedent and refusing to provide the legislature and executive with the discretion they need in order to govern absent any tighter integration of California’s initiative system into our broader governing structure.
When trumpeting California’s pyrrhic “comeback”, Brown kept referring to all of the things “they” were cutting: funds for libraries, parks, schools, universities, public welfare, support for the elderly, the poor, and the young. The catch, of course, is that he spent the first two years of his governorship being the person doing that cutting. Instead of entering office on the coattails of a raft of initiatives or a reform program he could have supported, he spent two years bludgeoning Californians mercilessly. We are only beginning to calculate the punishing costs of Brown’s relentless austerity program, a program which should make him the ideal Republican candidate rather than the representative of an ostensibly progressive party.
Neel Kashkari is very good at describing some of the problems that California faces—high tuition at universities, beleaguered schools, astounding poverty levels—but runs into some spectacular disconnects when he attempts to explain what he will do about these things.
Kashkari’s most honest moment came when he endorsed Scott Walker’s attack on unions and the working class, making effectively the same argument that Rick Perry in Texas does. Namely, that the way to go is to turn California into a kind of wasteland where massive employers can be assured that there will be no shortage of cheap labour, labour to whom they will owe nothing in the way of rights or responsibilities. Like Perry’s Texas, likely to be followed by Walker’s Wisconsin, this would be a state with chronic underemployment in which people work without protections or leverage to defend the value of that labour against the class of plutocrats for whom the likes of Perry, Walker, and Kashkari themselves work. For all his talk of compassion, Kashkari wants to create an economy dramatically skewed towards the needs of the rich and powerful.
Environmental issues featured in passing, and Brown stuck up for California energy standards, and argued that the state shouldn’t be blackmailed by oil companies who threaten to sabotage those standards by passing on the costs of their own irresponsibility to consumers, in spite of their record profits. And what is true of the oil companies is true of California’s largest businesses, which in spite of the pittance they pay in property taxes—thanks to Prop 13, something which didn’t get so much as a mention in the debate—are constantly blackmailing the state to receive favours and support that working Californians could only dream of.
Immigration, and the issue of the massive migration of young Central Americans into the United States came up, and found Kashkari at his most hypocritical. “My heart goes out”, the candidate sniffled between clumsy crocodile tears, before arguing that we need to “treat the kids with compassion and care” and “send them home”. In this as in his attacks on teacher tenure and seniority, Kashkari joins his party, which makes an art of attacking the people who, as individuals, are not responsible for larger, structural problems. But it’s easier—particularly if your bills are paid by the elites of a new Gilded Age—to attack those who are weak than to address the sources of the problem, which can generally be found in the injustice and social and economic inequality that your sponsors help to generate.
Kashkari also identified himself as a member of that exclusive club of politicians who can’t chew gum and walk at the same time, so convinced are they of the hopelessness of pursuing multiple policies—investing in California’s children and providing some security for children fleeing violence and hardship elsewhere—at the same time.
For all of his yammering about fiscal responsibility, Kashkari also proved obdurate on the questions of crime and punishment. Ignoring evidence from elsewhere in the world that anti-recidivism programs (which generate some costs before they yield massive savings and a healthier society) work, Kashkari advocated for expanding California’s already grossly-oversized prison population. Such a move ignores the ills generated by the economic inequality he professes to despise, and will break the back of our state as we struggle to marshal our economic and moral resources.
I’m on the fence about high-speed rail. I’d love to but have yet to see an explanation of how it can be made an affordable, usable route to get Californians off of the highways and away from jet fuel in an era of cheap flights and cheap gas. But Brown offered as good a defence of the project as I’ve heard, looking beyond Kashkari’s field of vision which only extends to early November of this year. Brown made the case that California’s demographics will require either an expansion of I-5 or massive expansion of airport runways and facilities, and that high speed rail will be—as costly as it is—cheaper than either of these other inevitabilities.
The test of such a system will be as to whether it—as opposed to an expansion of existing public transit infrastructure—can deliver people where they need to go in an affordable manner. On this as on many other issues, Brown sounded far better informed than Kashkari, who engaged—whatever you think of the train—in cheap histrionics, exhibiting little knowledge of the history or trends that shape our state.
Indeed, Kashkari seemed intent on channeling the most absurd elements of the GOP when he proclaimed that he “wants the government out of our lives”, an effort at salesmanship to which Brown rejoined, “I guess you learned that on Wall Street”.
One issue I was particularly interested to hear discussed, as someone whose life has been profoundly shaped by California’s public universities, was the state of those institutions, and the questions of access and affordability that bedevil the youth of our state.
Neel Kashkari cited the UC’s efforts to attract out-of-state students, its high tuition, and its impacted classes as some key problems, and argued that enrollment should be shrunk or stabilized (it wasn’t clear) to focus on graduation rates. I think that as a state with a very young population we can ill afford to roll back the numbers who are admitted to our universities. And Kashkari, of course, is of the Magic Wand School of politics, wherein you can devote resources to universities without actually explaining where those resources will come from.
If he was elected, he argued, he would “change the incentives”, exhibiting a frightening degree of ignorance about who runs the universities, and how little clout he and the legislature have—thanks to his party’s disinvestment from UC in particular—over the Board of Regents, some of the state’s most powerful and least accountable citizens.
Brown was predictably bland on the question of higher education, saying that middle class scholarships, tuition freezes (which the Regents are unlikely to respect for much longer), and online education are the necessary panaceas. This language, of course, belies Brown’s own attacks on UC students, who he compared to Kashkari’s Wall Street cronies when he refused to give them a “bailout” (i.e. fund UC as per the state’s responsibilities).
California’s students—like so many of our citizens—face an unenviable choice in this election.
Kashkari, perhaps unaware that ours is a state which looks unkindly on corporate flunkeys, trumpeted his Wall Street ties and argued that his time in Washington equips him well to “bring people together”. But D.C. is not California, and Kashkari’s naiveté will do him no favours in Sacramento, where his party marches—as Arnold Schwarzenegger found to his dismay—not to the commands of their constituents or their executive, but to the beat of Grover Norquist and his oath-swearing economic radicals who are opposed to “taxes” and “government” in principle, and demand that Republican legislators forswear the use of their little grey cells by signing destructive pledges.
Kashkari is very obviously clueless about our state’s political structure if he thinks that his D.C. experience will equip him with the knowledge or the tools to break California’s deadlock. That deadlock transcends the skills of any single politician given that its nature is structural, rather than personal.
Conspicuous by its absence was any discussion of California’s yawning democratic deficit, most compellingly documented by Mark Paul and Joe Mathews in California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.
This deficit, more severe than any financial shortfall we face, prevents us from aligning our direct democracy with our more conventional political structures. It prevents us from devising a rational tax system that can draw greater and more consistent revenue to fund the public sphere for a growing and more demographically complicated state. It prevents our electoral system from yielding results which reflect California’s voters in general, no less the diverse regions and strands of progressivism, liberalism, conservatism, and right-wing fundamentalism (which, yes, I think should get a hearing in proportion to its numbers rather than its backers' wealth). And it ensures that Kashkari’s party of fundamentalist crackpots dominates government from the minority thanks to undemocratic supermajority requirements that put the state on autopilot towards disinvesting from the public sphere that sustains the health, welfare, development, and education of our citizenry.
But there was one area in which Kashkari was absolutely right to criticize Brown. And that was when he declared that “the time for incrementalism is long since past”. Brown’s refusal to tackle the underlying structural problems that plague our state have characterized his entire political career. He is to all appearances either a true cynic, or else genuinely believes that our states ills are of the chronic variety, which require large doses of the civic nationalism he attempted to stoke on stage tonight, and little in the way of serious reform.
And so when Californians vote in two months, they will be choosing between one candidate who doesn’t want to govern and another who doesn’t know how. Because if anything was on display tonight, it was Jerry Brown’s stunted imagination and Neel Kashkari’s twin characteristics: his ignorance of the state and its institutions, and his belief in the virtues of the cruelty and inequality that define the modern Republican Party’s program.