Jerry Brown’s karma

What we might expect from the governor-elect

Artwork by Joann Lindelof

Tom Hayden is an author, anti-war activist and former member of the California state legislature.

I asked my friend Angela Oh, defense attorney and Buddhist priest, what she thought of the karma of Jerry Brown. Pausing only for a moment, she replied that “his karma is to inherit the collapse of so many institutions his father built.” Infrastructure decay. Traffic congestion and pollution. Water shortages. More prison inmates than state university students.

Since Brown rebelled against his father’s legacy during his “small is beautiful” phase, it’s tempting to accept Oh’s analysis. But there are several differences this time: First, the booming revenues of Pat Brown’s era are not likely to return any time soon. The current deficit estimates range in the $20 billion to $28 billion range, California’s debt has doubled in seven years and our credit rating is the worst of the heavily populated states. Brown’s old prophecy of a coming “era of limits” has come true.

Second, our productive industrial economy has been outsourced or automated. Brown’s prophecies of globalization—in which he proposed a “North American Common Market”—have proven true as well.

Third, Brown’s central pledge to build a more energy-efficient economy with 500,000 green jobs will be difficult to fund.

Fourth, some of the historic crises are Brown’s responsibility, not the legacy of his father. Brown’s implementation of Proposition 13 by spending the state’s surplus created an illusion that there was no revenue crisis. And his hard-line anti-crime philosophy, beginning with his support for mandatory-minimum sentencing in 1975, eventually resulted in a prison gulag of 150,000 inmates costing more tax dollars than the state university system and five times the state’s budget for environment and natural resources.

Fifth, the crisis has been inflamed by Democrats “fascinated by supply-side economics,” according to a leading analyst of the budget in Sacramento. Recent corporate tax breaks, the source says, were “largely backed by D’s.” Two-thirds of the structural shortfall is due to tax cuts enacted by the Legislature during the past 15 years, according to the California Budget Project.

To his credit, Brown has been holding televised teach-ins and town meetings on the budget quandary. At a UC Los Angeles forum on December 14, his message that there will be deep cuts proposed in his January budget was consistent with his longtime frugality. But he also wants fairness. Remember, Brown has a Catholic sensibility that frowns on privilege and ostentatious strutting. “Those who are the most privileged have to lead” in cutting back budgets and perks, he said, noting that he was cutting his own office expenditures by 20 percent. A few minutes later, he upped that figure to 25 percent or more. “There are limits to inequality,” he also added, because “it tears at the social fabric.” The language about sacrifice from the top was vintage Brown. His new symbol will have to be something other than the Plymouth, which symbolized the frugality of his first term, and stopped being assembled in 2001. His choices include the American Chevy Volt for $33,000 with rebates, or the Japanese Nissan Leaf at $25,000. My guess is he goes for Detroit instead of globalization.

Artwork by Steve Duroncelet

In early December, I asked Brown spokesman Steve Glazer when we might hear more about his vague campaign promise to “not raise taxes without a vote of the people.” Glazer said only that Brown’s current plan is to educate the stakeholders on the true magnitude of the budget crisis, and to propose cuts in services in early January. Don’t get ahead of the story, he cautioned.

It was federal military and highway spending, and the government-funded invention of the computer, that spurred Pat Brown’s era of growth. But the prospects of new federal assistance these days are dim to say the least. On the contrary. California pays far more to the federal government than it receives. In 2005, the most recent year for which there is data, Californians sent nearly $50 billion in “fiscal transfers” to bail out America. The state’s taxpayers pay $15 billion annually for Afghanistan alone, enough to employ 196,000 elementary-school teachers or equip 5 million households with photovoltaic electricity.

It’s possible that Brown will take to blaming Washington’s priorities for California’s ills, but not any time soon. For now, he wants Californians to see themselves in the mirror.

At some point, Brown could launch a populist campaign against the institutionalized greed and avarice that have ripped open $19 billion in annual tax loopholes from a supplicant Legislature. He could hammer the point that these tax breaks take a majority to pass and two-thirds to ever close. He could point out that tax breaks have a way of becoming permanent, with no review of whether they created economic benefits. He could call for reinstatement of the top income-tax bracket under Ronald Reagan, which might net $3 billion to $4 billion annually. He could remind Californians that Proposition 13 was meant for homeowners, not as a bonanza for bank merger con men and acquisitions manipulators. He could fight to lower the voter margin for passing school and infrastructure bonds to 55 percent. Such a populist agenda might pass the Legislature and win voter approval where needed, but that’s not him, at least not now.

Or he could get tough with the universities, demanding greater oversight and educating the public to the lavish six-figure administrative salaries and perks while students still struggle to find classes small enough in which to be seen and heard, frequently taught by underpaid and unengaged graduate students serving as cheap labor for the professors. He could appoint regents and trustees who see the world from an undergraduate point of view. Instead, he is likely to agonize only briefly before he decides on more tuition increases (with no provision for their repeal when the economy improves.

Green jobs and renewable resources are the area where Brown might reappear as a visionary global leader if he begins to solve the budget problem. He will draw on past models of tougher auto-emission standards and Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry as examples of “investing in the future.” Brown has been derided by Republicans and the media for 30 years for being ahead of the rest of the country on these issues. One hopes that he expands his current teach-in to examine the costs and benefits of an energy-efficient future as part of an alternative economics that stops treating the environment as a giant storehouse.

Assuming that the governor genuinely believes his call for “shared sacrifice,” he will have to re-examine his role in the mind-boggling prison buildup of the past three decades, which began with his ardent advocacy of mandatory-minimum sentences and has led to an overcrowding crisis described by federal courts as “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The current prison budget is at least $10 billion, and rapidly rising. The number of inmates has risen since the ’70s from 27,000 to as high as 160,000.

Artwork by Jason Crosby

In the past two years alone, 112 inmates have died due to the lack of medical care, according to the federal courts. That’s one preventable death every eight days. Then there’s an inmate suicide rate twice the national average. How are such deaths tolerable to a governor who opposes the death penalty?

And yet it was Jerry Brown arguing in the U.S. Supreme Court last month against reducing overcrowding in state prisons that have been under a state of emergency since 2006. Well, not exactly Jerry Brown. Instead, the Attorney General Jerry Brown hired an $1,100 an hour Washington lawyer named Carter Phillips to fight the case for him. And this week it was Jerry Brown, as governor-elect, complaining about those intrusive federal judges who “want us to spend more money.”

Perhaps the governor-elect is like many politicians who oppose the death penalty on principle, then compensate to appear “tough” by locking up everyone possible. Brown was also stung badly decades ago when three of his very progressive state Supreme Court appointees were thrown out by California voters. Brown’s karma may be to become the defender of a system where hundreds of inmates die from state negligence. The Supreme Court decision will come sometime in the next six months.

So how to sum up? The shadows of the past hang heavy over Jerry Brown, but he is capable of reflecting and reinventing. He may mimic the Republicans and assuage the elites for a time, but they did not elect him. Quite the reverse: Californians elected Democratic state officeholders and legislators in a sweep this year, while the opposite was occurring everywhere to the east of this state. It would confirm the futility of politics to millions of voters if Brown and the Democrats abandoned their principles to follow a Republican approach in a state where Republicans were repudiated.

That’s not to say that Brown will revert to the Democratic past. He needs to escape the limited box where taxes and spending seem the only tools, but cannot really measure the quality of our lives. So here is my suggestion: He should develop a California Quality of Life Index.

Choose 10 (or 20 or 30) quality-of-life measures that already exist. We know, for example, that California stands 51st in the ratio of librarians to students, below 50 states and the District of Columbia. We are 23rd in per-pupil spending on public schoolchildren. We are only behind Louisiana and Texas in rates or total numbers of incarcerated people. Add another few categories and include them in an annual address by the governor. Send the Quality of Life Report and recommendations to legislative committees for review and action. This would be a process pushing us toward our chosen ideals. (When I proposed such schemes when I was in the Senate, the proposals were pooh-poohed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, who asserted that the comparative quality of life could not be measured.)

It’s time for Jerry Brown to begin making our institutions accountable for the quality of life more than the quantity of things. He might reflect on, and share in some future speech to Californians, these words of Robert Kennedy from 1968: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”