We were innocently sitting in the front row the other day, listening to Attorney General Jerry Brown’s “fireside chat” (sans hearth or fire) with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, when Brown demonstrated once again why he is the most intriguing character in California, and perhaps American, politics.
And why – if he can reach enough of them – he is capable of making himself popular with the well-educated, middle-of-the-road, moderate, non-partisan, younger and middle-age voters who are the fulcrum of electoral victory in California.
Asked by Schmidt – whose questions were as smart and penetrating as any experienced political writer could ask – whether his “progressive” ideas from the 1970s and ‘80s are still relevant, Brown pointed to his interest then and now in renewable energy sources.
“At that time, we were talking about solar hot water. Now we’re talking about solar photovoltaic. But it’s the same thing — the introduction of new ideas,” he said.
“California is a state of imagination. And imagination is what we need to get out of the bind. We need to change the design. We need to introduce new ideas, and, quite frankly, I’ve always been interested in the creative mind.”
He then mentioned a teacher he’d once had, whom he later appointed as a regent of the University of California, and who had inscribed for Brown in one of his books, “The new comes out of the random.”
“The new comes out of the random,” Brown repeated with a smile. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Some people think I’m a little random. But unless you’re open to possibilities, you rarely come up with something new. If you are rigidly programmed, if you’re managing what is, you can’t create what really needs to be.”
Brown’s reference, Calbuzz learned later, was to “Mind and Nature,” by Gregory Bateson, the brilliant British anthropologist and systems theoretician (and former husband of anthropologist Margaret Mead), whom Brown, then 40, put on the Board of Regents at age 74 in 1978, where he served until his death in 1980.
“The immediate task of this book is to construct a picture of how the world is joined together in its mental aspects,” Bateson wrote in 1979 in “Mind and Nature.”
How do ideas, information, steps of logical or pragmatic consistency, and the like fit together? How is logic, the classical procedure for making chains of ideas, related to an outside world of things and creatures, parts and wholes? Do ideas really occur in chains, or is this lineal (see Glossary) structure imposed on them by scholars and philosophers? How is the world of logic, which eschews “circular argument,” related to a world in which circular trains of causation are the rule rather than the exception?
As if to prove Bateson’s theory of “circular trains of causation,” Brown described an important evolution in his thinking about the value of legislation.
Noting that he had “started a law called the Political Reform Act of 1974,” he later had the experience, as mayor of Oakland, of finding that “there was one of the provisions that would have stopped me from promoting economic growth.
“So I went to court and actually had part of the law that I wrote invalidated,” he said. “I think it’s a very salutary experience to both make laws and unmake them all in the same lifetime. Because, you see, every law has unintended consequences.”
To which, he later added:
Another thing I didn’t appreciate as governor, — ‘cause each governor signs about 800 to 1,000 new laws a year — and when you pass a law, somebody’s got to enforce that darned thing. It isn’t just “Do good.” It’s, “If you don’t do good, you can get sued and go to jail or pay a tax.”
And as attorney general, my office is often called upon to enforce these laws.
And businesses run afoul of many of them. And there’s just tens of thousands of ‘thou shalt not.’ And the density and the reach of the invasive, minute prescriptions is breathtaking. I’ve developed a very healthy distaste for legislation.
Now, with Jerry Brown one never knows (do one?) whether what he says will have any relationship to what he will do.
He ran for president not long after winning the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party; he decided to run for governor after telling people he wouldn’t leave his post as Attorney General. He was against Proposition 13 before he was for it. In one presidential campaign he wouldn’t take contributions over $100 because taking more was a sure sign of corruption; today he’s tapping every fat-cat donor he can find, hoping to have enough to compete against Meg Whitman’s multi-millions.
With Brown, certain commitments are elastic. Or as he told Calbuzz in March: “Adaptation is the essence of evolution. And those who don’t adapt go extinct.”
Still, Brown’s suggestion that he’s learned something about the unintended consequences of legislation has a certain verisimilitude or what Steven Colbert might call truthiness.
In part, that’s because Brown has shaped and observed California politics over so many years that he has an incredibly long (some might say long-in-the-tooth) view.
Asked by Schmidt to discuss the impact of Proposition 13, Brown, who re-iterated his pledge to support no new taxes unless the people vote for them, offered this compelling narrative:
Yeah, Prop. 13 passed in ’78. By the way, it attracted the highest turnout ever for a state primary election. And since that time, almost right afterwards, one ballot measure after another constraining the governor, the legislature, setting down more and more precise rules on how things need to be done
So what you have here is, you have a chess game of government with fewer and fewer moves. And that is driven by the frustration. So people have a widespread disgust at the mechanism of representation. So people then put on the ballot, often special interests, some attractive-sounding measure. And people vote for it.
But the more they embed the system with these constraints, the more difficult it is to perform, and the performance declines, and people want more and more initiatives to correct it. So we’re in a cycle, a rather destructive cycle. And to get out of that, first of all, we need to get beyond that.
And I think the way we need to get beyond it is to make the governing process more transparent, to make the key elements of government, the education, higher and K-12, the prison system, the water, the energy, the roads, the medical care, make those key elements transparent, accessible, understandable so people know, what are their tax dollars going for, what is it doing, and where are the areas where we can modify.
And, quite frankly, I think I can conduct that kind of transparent process that will reconnect the citizenry to their own government, something that I think has very much been lost in recent years.
Who knows if Brown has the skill, the focus, the commitment to actually break that “destructive cycle?” But he absolutely understands a key factor in rendering California ungovernable. Can he convince voters that he can both manage what is and create what needs to be? That’s no random question.