Why we ought to be missing Jerry Brown (sort of)
“I’ve often used the phrase, from Thomas Hobbes, ‘Bellum omnes contra omnes.’ Or rather, ‘Bellum omni contra omnes. War of all against all.’ It will be – everyone will retreat to their corner and devise strategies on what California does,” Brown said during a 2011 presser in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis. He certainly explained things in a philosophical way.
Even when Brown ripped into a question, he had a good nature about that usually left the targeted reporter chuckling. At one Capitol question-and-answer session – my newspaper desk was on the front row, right under his nostrils – a reporter asked Brown why he was cutting the social-services budget. His answer was classic, as he channeled bank robber Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”
I’ve always had a soft spot for Jerry Brown, even though his father Pat Brown’s politics (not to mention Ronald Reagan’s) were closer to my cup of tea. When he was elected for a third term in 2010 to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger, I had worried – as did many others whose politics are right of center – that we’d get a reincarnation of the 1970s-era Brown, complete with his “small is beautiful” philosophy that disinvested in public infrastructure.
I even dug up his old “We the People” Berkeley radio addresses where he intoned on topics such as welfare reform: “The Republican members of the House and Senate indulged in a perverse excitement in sadistically cutting the very life-support systems out of millions and millions of defenseless people.” When I asked him about such statements in a phone interview in 2010, he told me that a radio show host’s role is to be provocative.
That was a reasonable answer, and indeed Brown was a much more reasonable governor than I had expected. Most of my conservative friends warmed to him, also, realizing that – for better or worse – Brown was the last adult remaining in Sacramento. In fact, Brown was so reasonable on everything, except for a handful of things for which he was unreasonable. His apocalyptic warnings about climate change are the best example of the latter.
Nevertheless, Brown kept the budget under control (sort of). Sure, he spent too much money (as has every other governor), but he was careful not to create unsustainable new spending programs. At his press conferences, he always put his huge charts front and center – the ones that reminded reporters that economic busts always follow boom cycles.
He even reformed public-employee pensions. On that point, Brown didn’t take it nearly far enough. But reading his explanation for the reforms, one came away with the realization that he and his advisers understood the depth of the problem (even if his 1970s-era governance helped create the problem). Brown even defended the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) in court in a way that tried to roll back the California Rule that limits future cutbacks.
I’ll always be grateful that Brown eliminated the state’s noxious, property rights destroying redevelopment agencies. Sure, he did that to grab more money in the midst of a budget crisis, but I’m totally fine with someone doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. And he stood up to the teachers’ unions efforts to obliterate California’s charter-school movement, which has done more to help poor kids than all the school funding in the universe.
So I quietly applauded when Brown spoke out publicly about the current state of the California budget, under his successor Gavin Newsom. The current governor is enjoying budget surpluses – not to mention unparalleled executive authority stemming from COVID-19 – that Brown could only have dreamed about. Instead of cheering his fellow Democrat’s spending frenzy, he offered needed words of caution.
“The word is volatility,” Brown told NBC News earlier this month. “Money comes and money goes. The federal government is going deeper into debt, they are spending money wildly. The state is now spending money. It is not sustainable.” It’s about time someone said as much. Perhaps his staff forgot to give Newsom those old charts.
At a time when the new governor is spending record amounts on homelessness, Brown also offered some common sense. “You are going to need mandatory drug treatment and mental health intervention,” he said. “You have to be willing to exercise control, discipline, authority… if you don’t, you just create what we have now.” This crisis is about more than building houses.
There are plenty of nits to pick with the former Brown administration, but let’s just say that Jerry Brown never was in danger of being recalled.