The Agenda

Rethinking Jerry Brown

Last year, Joe Matthews, an expert on California politics with a knack for storytelling, wrote a fascinating article on Jerry Brown, the former governor of California who is running for that office again this year for The American Prospect. During the 1970s, Brown was a quirky thinker who embraced some aspects of libertarian thinker, as Matthews makes clear:

His governorship, beginning in 1975, was built around the idea that politics was a dubious enterprise. Brown spoke in aphorisms that were part Confucius, part Chauncey Gardiner. He made a virtue of inaction. “You don’t have to do things. Maybe by avoiding doing things you accomplish quite a lot,” he declared in his early days as governor. His favorite reply to questions about his policy plans? “What we need is a flexible plan for an ever-changing world.”

This sounds very appealing to me. Yet there was a serious contradiction in Brown’s thinking:

To supporters, Brown was fashioning a new form of low-impact liberalism, emphasizing caution and the wisdom of breaking from the Great Society ’60s. He appointed progressives to California’s sea of boards and commissions, championed wind and solar power before it was popular, and expanded collective-bargaining rights, most memorably for farm workers. His youth (he was 36 when he took office) and appealing biography (the governor’s son who spent time in seminary and practiced Zen meditation and thus learned to think differently) offered some cover for his more conservative economic views. [Emphasis added.] 

In essence, Brown’s “more conservative economic views” were about expanding the power of government in opaque domains — unaccountable boards that impose costly regulations — while shrinking it in those transparent, easy-to-understand domains, like highway construction. And most importantly, he dramatically empowered the state’s public employees. 

Progressives, both then and now, argue that Brown’s brand of anti-government liberalism fueled the Prop. 13 fire. If government isn’t all that important, what does it matter if you cut taxes? Brown had frozen highway construction, criticized funding for adult education and food stamps, and slashed social services. “I am going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms,” he said in one encounter with reporters.

What reforms, governor?

“I don’t know yet.”

What reforms would survive the power of unions that will defend generous compensation over structural changes designed to improve the quality of construction? Brown was right to want to impose spending discipline, as operational discipline tends to follow. But operational discipline can’t follow if administrators don’t have the autonomy they need to engage in the trial-and-error process of improving efficiency. Public sector unions as currently constituted stymie that trial-and-error process. 

To be sure, Brown advocated capping raises and, after a revenue shortfall, a wage freeze for public employees during his tenure. But collective bargaining rights made such efforts all but impossible.

One gets the impression that Brown’s economic conservatism, if you can call it that, was based on faulty premises:

As it happens, the only thing worse than Prop. 13 itself was its implementation. Brown and the legislature bailed out cities and counties that lost revenues under the law — and thus established the dysfunctional system of budgeting that plagues California to this day. Tax and spending decisions once made by city councils and school boards were centralized in Sacramento. The state Capitol became a giant piggy bank, with interests on the right and left using lobbying muscle — and the initiative process — to carve out special protections for their funds, leaving less for broad public investments. At the rare moments when Democrats tried to make such investments, Prop. 13′s two-thirds requirement for taxes allowed Republicans, even when they were in the minority, to block them. [Emphasis added.]

This kind of centralization has been the real legacy of Prop 13, not some kind of cataclysmic reduction in revenues. As William Voegeli has explained, the average property-tax rate in California is 11 percent lower than the U.S. average. And other taxes are much higher:

A recent article in the California Journal of Politics and Policy by Colin McCubbins and Mathew McCubbins shows that, adjusted again for population growth and inflation, total state and local tax revenues in California were higher ten years after Proposition 13’s enactment than they were just before—and that they were half again as high in 2000 as in 1978. Census Bureau data show that California ranked tenth in the nation in 2007 in terms of per-capita receipts from all state and local taxes (property, income, sales, and excise taxes) paid by individuals and corporations. Per-capita receipts from individual and corporate income taxes were 64 percent higher in California than they were in the rest of the country: $1,764 in California, $1,077 elsewhere. All told, California’s governments received $4,731 per resident from all taxes, 14 percent more than the $4,160 average outside California.

One gets the impression that as governor, Jerry Brown married the worst ideas of the right and the left. Brown reduced “spending” while increasing the centralization of authority in Sacramento and regulation through unaccountable boards and commissions, raising the effective burden of government on Californians while concealing it. 

And now, as Jerry Brown runs for governor, he’s actually celebrating the fact that he enacted collective bargaining rights for public school teachers.

These thoughts are prompted by David Ragsdale’s recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the California gubernatorial race, which I strongly recommend. Depressingly, Ragsdale explains why Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown will both have an extraordinarily difficult time taming public sector unions. 


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