Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The case for Jerry Brown for Governor of California: A megapost!

Boy, this got longish! Okay, I'll just try to get through all this.

A week or so ago, I finally just gave up in the face of the Meg Whitman's constant internet presence and visited her website. Personally, I've been skeptical of both Jerry Brown's and Meg Whitman's candidacies, and I don't think either of them either understands what needs to be done or has much of an interest in doing it. Everyone knows about the dysfunctional 2/3 budget requirement that makes every budget into a titanic struggle, which is a legacy of the Reagan years and Prop. 13, or the initiative process that lets gobs of money be spent without offsets or oversight. But while California is invariably thought of as some sort of ultraliberal, hippy-dippy state that spends too much on welfare programs or whatever, there are plenty of other things in our government like the 2/3 rule, relics of a past that nobody is particularly interested in changing. A big part of the problem is that we have lots of unduly harsh sentencing laws for a variety of things, a legacy of 16 years of tough-on-crime conservative governors during the 1980s and 1990s. The three-strikes law is merely the tip of the iceberg here. One of my local Sacramento-based news nets has a pretty striking fact here:
Right now, California spends $8.6 billion, or 11 percent of its budget, on state prisons. That works out to an average $52,363 per year to house an inmate in prison, according to the California Department of Corrections. That's $143 a day per prisoner.
That's right, and the headline says it all, "State spending on prison inmates outweighs spending on K-12 students." Clearly, this is the correct priority. Over ten percent of the state's budget is spent on prisons, largely because the Democrats that run the state are a bunch of worthless humps who don't want to be "soft on crime" and don't want to make an issue out of it. As is customary, Republicans deny that there's a tradeoff between guns and butter and Democrats are too wimpy to even make the argument. That crime is down country-wide to such an extent that even the City of Compton is livable now matters not at all. Police and prison unions are super-powerful, and that's pretty much that. The situation has gotten so bad that the courts have ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding. Legalizing marijuana might take some of the pressure off, and it looks likely to pass in an initiative in November, but there are hard battles that need to be fought here, and nobody is particularly interested in fighting them.

So reading Meg Whitman's page on public safety (found right here) is pretty much the exact opposite of what we need in this critical (but underrealized) issue. It starts bad ("I'm going to be a tough-on-crime governor.") and gets worse. The ideas are basically these:
  • Supporting Three Strikes
  • Defending the death penalty
  • Opposing gun control
  • Building new prisons and opposing early release
  • Opposing the legalization of marijuana
The last one is particularly odious, trotting out the most tired cliche about pot ("gateway drug") that I'm frankly amazed she actually had someone write. Look, I'm a Democratic partisan, but I realize that one-party rule is usually a bad idea and I'd love it if the state had a Gary Johnson-like governor that brought sanity on issues like these. Whitman is no Gary Johnson, to be sure. But to actually recite such a hoary and idiotic cliche like this? Ugh. And the rest of these items are nearly as bad. The Three Strikes blurb has the usual boilerplate about keeping violent criminals in jail or whatever, but there's still the little problem about people getting sentenced to life because they shoplifted something worth twenty bucks, which is hardly infrequent. There's no way a judge can overrule the sentence either. I'm not surprised Whitman supports capital punishment, but given that the state's budget crisis is so bad, and that the Death Penalty Information Center says that abolishing capital punishment in California would save the state over $120 million a year (which is not chump change by any means) why not just do away with it? After all, there's no difference to public safety between killing a prisoner and just sealing him away for life. The rest of this is just as insulting: I'm no anti-gun crusader, and I'm sympathetic to Whitman's position here, but looser gun control does not enhance public safety, it reduces it. Unless you think the Wild West was a paragon of public safety, of course. And I don't want to even talk about the prison item. Whitman's solution to our overcrowded prisons is to build more prisons, instead of changing the policies that are imprisoning too many people and costing too much. Brown doesn't have a particular crime agenda on his website, merely this list of things he's done as AG. It's not a terrible list, but even if Brown merely maintains the (ultimately unmaintainable!) status quo, it'll do less damage than letting Whitman actively make things worse. Advantage: Brown.

Education is another big problem here in California. Our state routinely lists at the bottom of the 50 states (Thank God for Mississippi!), in large part because of the poorer areas of the state (pretty much anywhere more further inland than L.A. or S.F.) as well as the typical inner-city education problems in Los Angeles. Here, Whitman's fact sheet is mostly ho-hum. More money to the classroom is an education policy cliche and hardly a solution. Rewarding outstanding teachers is fine, but not that novel. I have no problem with charter schools or grading schools based on quality. Converting failing public schools into charter schools is an idea I haven't heard before and could be interesting. Putting $1 billion into the state's university systems is fine, but cutting welfare to do it isn't. And I wholly support bypassing the long credentialing process to let qualified people teach. That much of this agenda will require fighting the teacher's unions makes it tough for me to believe that Whitman, a Republican, would actually be able to do it. Just like it was easier for Republican Presidents to sign peace agreements with China and the Soviets during the '70s and '80s, it's easier for Democrats to take on the teacher's unions, not that they always do it. But in any event, for a candidate who has emphasized education to such a significant extent, this list seems so by-the-numbers and humdrum, that it seems to betray a lack of passion for changing the educational system. There's nothing new here, and nothing incredibly visionary. It's lukewarm and uncompelling, though I guess that's a step up from her actively terrible public safety material.

Brown, on the other hand, might have won my vote with this alone:
We must also reverse the decades long trend of transferring state support from higher education to prisons. We can do this without sacrificing public safety. For example, as Attorney General, I recently blocked a proposed $8 billion prison hospital expansion—which was unnecessarily expensive and which would have added substantially to our state’s deficit. By relentlessly pursuing similar cost savings, we can channel needed funds to our higher education system.
He gets it. Plus, he talks about community colleges, burdensome standardized tests, school principals' importance to reform, and in much more detail than Whitman can muster. Brown wins this one, no contest.

I'll briefly mention the Prop 8 case. Brown wants to drop it and let gays and lesbians get civilly married and Whitman doesn't. Your mileage will vary here, but it's a point in Brown's favor to me.

Of course, the economy is pretty important here in California, and it's worse here than the average. Whitman has some decent ideas, but it's all mostly small-bore. Eliminating the $800 business start-up tax isn't going to help the economy too much, as I would hope someone starting a business would have more than $800 to spend starting out. Cutting capital gains (presented here as a job creator, weirdly) doesn't seem likely to actually save many jobs, but I guess it's a Republican litmus test these days. (In related news, the Director of the Congressional Budget Office agrees with me.) In fact, almost all of the job creation efforts are tax cuts of some sort or other, and it's all conventionally Republican. Brown wants to actually take some actions to restructure the economy, mostly by actively promoting green energy, which is something California still leads at, as well as some of the same tax cuts Whitman wants to do. There are specifics here that sound good, and much of it revolves around new standards to encourage free-market innovation. Sounds good to me. Whitman's cutting of capital gains means that the money has to come from somewhere else, and some unmentioned welfare reform program seems to be the golden goose. In this state? I think not. I've got to give it to Brown here.

So, now we get to Whitman's proposals to cut spending. Great! Only one sheet of ideas, though, with the rest of it campaign boilerplate. What are her new ideas? Well, they are:
  • Instituting a strict spending cap
  • Defending the 2/3 budget requirement
  • Turning Sacramento into a part-time legislature
Seriously. That's all. Whitman is a conventional Republican if nothing else. Item #1 is redundant. We have a spending cap--it's called the amount of revenue we have! California, like most states, has a balanced budget requirement. This pretty much sets a cap on how much we can spend. Of course, Whitman wants to set a cap based on making government spending a specific percentage of GDP, which is the flip side of liberals' old penchant for price floors and ceilings on things like air travel and what not. Setting arbitrary caps is bad policy in my opinion--we should decide what we want the state to pay for and go from there. Whitman's way is invariably based on the notion that pretty much everything the government pays for is equally worthless, so we might as well treat it all equally by just setting a firm limit on it. Of course, future progress might well make government spending as a percentage of the economy rise or fall dramatically independent of budgetary decisions--for example, if inner-city L.A. has an New York-style turnaround in the near future, spending on social services would drop significantly since they would be far less necessary. Or maybe some sector of the economy would experience a technological breakthrough that would make living a lot less expensive. Private sector spending would go down, and government spending would proportionally go up, even if little new spending even occurred. So, this is completely stupid in every way. Item #3 would save a couple hundred thousand dollars at most, and is more a campaign gimmick than anything else. "If serving in Sacramento were a part-time job, maybe we wouldn't have so many full-time spenders at the Capitol," makes absolutely no sense to me at all. And you just know you're in for a line of bullshit when you start to hear talk about "citizen legislators" and how "professional politicians" are ruining everything. Look, I have no problem with citizen legislators. The reason we have so few of them is because modern-day politics costs money. A lot of money. If you have a system like ours, where raising money for television spots is the big expense, people with more money are going to be able to compete better than people without it. Of course, if Whitman supported some form of public financing of campaigns, then we might see more average folks getting into politics. But California voters voted down the pilot program for this in the primary election and Whitman presumably echoes the new Republican stance of huge, endless, and unmonitored expenditures on campaigns. For a current example, absolutely no U.S. Senate Republicans voted for even something as innocuous as the DISCLOSE Act, which would merely make it required for political organizations to say who is giving them money without even putting a limit on it. This is where they're coming from. And I won't even talk about her defense of the 2/3 requirement, which Whitman says lets legislative Republicans shake down the 65% of Democrats for whatever they want institutionalizes corruption gives the state GOP enough leverage over policy so that they don't bother to move to the center keeps taxes low. I'm not in favor of raising taxes indiscriminately, but supermajorities frustrate accountability and promote corruption. If budgets could pass with a simple majority in California, spending would certainly be quite a bit lower, since getting 2/3 of the legislature to sign off means that everyone gets all sorts of goodies inserted in there in exchange for their vote. But Whitman knows her audience well, and here, as most everywhere else, proves herself to be a joke. Brown's plan doesn't get us to where we need to go, but there's a lot in there that seems realistic and at least sane.

I could go on (Whitman's environment page isn't too bad, to be fair), but enough is enough. It's true that campaign literature doesn't exactly translate into a governing agenda, and I'm sure a lot of Whitman's items are things that the base wants more than she does. The same might well be true of Jerry Brown's agenda. But if this is basically all I have to go on, the choice is clear. Sure, Jerry Brown is running for governor because he wants the job and thinks he can win, but at least this guy is putting out a lot of specifics that, even if they don't all happen, at least reflect a passion for wonky detail and institutional reform. After reading Brown's material I'm quite a bit more comfortable with his candidacy and have a pretty clear view of where he wants to take the state, and I'm mostly fine with it. He's not nearly radical enough, but in many respects at least he'd be a step forward. And he actually bothers to put plausible, substantive ideas on his site, which might not be sufficient in the long run, but at least reflect a fundamental respect for the public and voters. I'm not fully sold on the guy, but his stock has gone up significantly on writing this. Whitman, on the other hand, offers hardly any specifics, has mostly old and uninspiring ideas, defends the worst aspects of California governance, and offers not a clue of what her "New California" would look like, aside from being likely as dysfunctional and sclerotic as the old one. What's more, there's little reason to believe she'd have any more influence with the state's Republicans than Arnold has had, a situation which has not exactly been a roaring success outside of the 20% of Californians who still like Schwarzenegger. I now think I get why Jerry Brown wants to be Governor. I have no idea why Meg Whitman wants the job. And since she doesn't speak to the press at all and seems to think that she can buy her way to the governor's mansion, I can't particularly say she's done anything to earn it.

In the words of another press-avoiding female Republican, thanks but no thanks.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.