Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Jerry Brown is Really Thinking

The LA Times Blog has a long unedited, monologue by Governor Jerry Brown that gives a great deal of insight into this complicated figure. In terms of the University of California, one issue that is discussed is why he has not appointed three regents. Brown has the following to say on this important topic: “I haven’t appointed anyone to the regents yet. Well, who should I appoint? That’s a good question. What are they going to do? I’ve appointed some people to the Cal State and I’ve appointed some interesting people on the state board and I’m looking, but what impact does that make? If you want to make change, can the state board make an impact? Can the Cal State make an impact? Things are very conservative in how they run. Before when I used to go to the regents, I’d go armed and I was attacking. But it’s totally marginal. You can’t influence ... So now it takes more time, you’ve got to be more subtle, you need more allies. You need a long-term game plan.” In short, Brown seems to be saying that he has not appointed anyone since the board is so conservative or insulated from any influence, including the influence of the governor.

Brown adds that it is hard to make any choices because of the need to cater to so many interest groups means that the effects are always watered down: “I also know these boards are not affected by one or two people, so there’s no rush. There are a lot of people I know. Blum I know, the lady who’se the president, she was the president of one of the movie studios. They’ve got people there. But I’m looking for different … But I know that three appointments can’t make (a difference). It really takes ten. But by the time you get to ten, and you listen to this group and that group, and I gotta take care of that and you have diversity and this influence person – by the time you get your ten people, they’re so different that you have no impact anyway. So this idea that you can influence by your appointees, you have to take care of all your various constituencies and then you end up replicating what is. And that’s why things don’t change very much. . . If you want to do something that you know is good but is different, the last place you’re going to get it done is UC. The second to last place you’re going to get it done is Cal State. And the place more likely would be the community colleges, because they’re more flexible.”

Not only does the governor think that appointing three new regents might have no real effect, but he also wonders if ten new regents would change anything.
It should be clear that someone has to convince the governor about the importance of having regents who actually know about universities and higher education. However, Brown does not seem motivated to change things even though he realizes that there are many problems with the current higher ed system.

Part of Brown’s reluctance to appoint new UC regents can be traced to his post-ideological view of government: “you have one group that says the answer is to see government as the problem and block it and try to reduce it as much as you can. And the other says the problem is the accumulation of capital and the power of corporations and what we need to do is strenghthen the hand of government and make it more intrusive, more invasive and more impactful so as to achieve more well being. And that’s really the choice…” By tying the liberal view of government to the idea that government is perceived as being intrusive and invasive, Brown shows how many contemporary Democrats have bought into the conservative demonization of “big Government.”

Yet, Brown is also aware of how misinformed citizens are about the ways governments spend their money: “What makes the choice hard is there is this zone of government waste which I have seen polling suggest people think is 40 percnet. Well, 40 perent of a 90 billion general fund is 36 billion. So there is a 36 billion dollar bank of waste that the public wants us to spend before we cut universities, elderly, roads police, all other stuff. Because of that relatively widespread belief … people say why should I pay for a tax even though it is not on me or it is very little when we have this bank we can go to. Go spend the waste bank. And the problem is the waste bank is not available. It’s window is not open in a way that I can access.” From his pragmatic perspective, Governor Brown realizes that people think there is a huge pool of hidden or wasted resources, which the government can use if it wants to.

While Brown knows that the populace is misinformed, he does not appear to be willing to use his position to educate the people of California and let them know the truth about the state’s finances. Just as in the case of the University of California, this is where we need real, bold leadership to clarify the truth and to propose an effective alternative. At one point, in this interview, he does show a recognition about some of the problems facing the university, but he soon backs away by returning to the issue of governmental waste: “I think they can do it more efficiently at the university. I’ve got a whole book showing how the university is spending money it doesn’t have to. Certain kinds of research, sports, gardeners, a lot of things. But there isn’t a waste bank of 36 billion in California. Not even close.” This is a strange free association: the governor jumps from discussing how the university spends its money to the question of perceived government waste as if the two are the same thing. He appears to be saying that since rumors of government waste are wrong, then the analysis of how universities spend money on expensive side-projects must also be wrong.

In another discussion of university spending, Brown repeats his conflicted sense of spending and waste: “Does a chancellor need 350,000? 500,000? I don’t think you do. Well is that a waste? Well if you paying more than you need, it is a waste. But then they say the market is that and if we don’t pay it, we don’t get it.” While Brown clearly sees the problem with paying administrators excessive salaries, he also entertains the university’s claim that they can only attract and retain excellent people by offering them market value. What Brown does not ask here is why it is only star administrators who are deemed worthy of market-based salaries. Like so many contemporary Democrats, Brown has internalized both the free market rhetoric of the Right and the liberal discourse of a meritocracy where only the elites are entitled to a good wage.

In some ways, Brown is too aware of how some people view the government, and his concern for these views limits his political vision: “Everywhere you go human institutions have flaws. But here is the relevant point here: government is perceived as unique in the flaws that it has. And there is a certain hostility. Government has become the object people can look to as the source of our suffering and our problems and in that context it is hard to get people to say gee give more money to this entity you see as the cause of suffering or dysfunction.” While it is clear that the forty-year effort of the Republicans to demonize the government has been very effective, shouldn’t someone like Governor Brown work to counter this narrative?

It is clear that Brown is plagued by his acute awareness of how competing interests block any real change in politics: “There is no procedural quick fix…We don’t live in some immaculate world with no stain of interest. Everybody is interested. ..Everybody looks to see how the rules favor their interest. So there is no neutral grouping here. Not like constitutional convention of our founding fathers. We have a constitution. We have a legislature. We have tens of thousands of laws and practices. You can only make a few changes. Any change you make, if you go one way maybe trial lawyers like it. If you go one way, maybe insurance companies and doctors like it. There is no quick easy big fix. It is incremental. Step by step.” Perhaps this pragmatic approach is appropriate for “normal” times, but in our current crisis, we need something on the order of FDR’s New Deal to really make a difference.

In one of his most telling free associations, Brown discusses his central thinking about education: “One thing, well it’s not like, for example, lets take STAR tests. Steinberg doesn’t like it. Wants to reduce the STAR test. So in one way I like the STAR test because the kids gotta know arithmetic, they have to know how to write, they gotta know some English, they have to know science. So that’s somewhat mechanical. But on the other hand, every individual has different interests. I think it’s important that people go to school and they learn history, they learn philosophy, they learn music. They don’t get trained, but they get exposed to a much bigger world. So this is an issue: How much should be training, lockstep, standardization, fill in the blank and anyone who deviates from that is bad. There’s a bit of that coming out of Washington. On the other hand if you’re so lax and you just chit-chat in class, that’s bad too.” Once again, the governor is conflicted over the main competing narratives that surround education in the United States. While he is rightly critical of standardized tests and standardized teaching, he also wants to make sure that students learn the basics and that teachers do not spend their time simply free associating in class.

This conflicted view of education is matched with Brown’s awareness of how learning and teaching involve so much more than memorizing and testing: “I had a teacher, Mr. McCurdy he later joined the Jesuits. One of his questions on one of our exams was, I want you to write your impression of a green leaf. OK. I wrote something pretty banal. And I’ve been thinking every time I walk out here and I look at these green leaves, what’s my impression? Am I just dead? What can I feel? So he created a thought about imagination, impression, you can’t put that on a STAR test.” Here, Brown shows himself to be a deep and creative thinker who has profited from a creative and independent teacher.

Perhaps what we learn from this gubernatorial free association is that the governor is a non-ideological politician who is both open to competing discourses and crippled by his awareness. We also know from the way that students and unions pushed his tax initiative in a much more progressive direction that collective action can promote positive social change. It is clear that if we want something to change in this state, we will have to be the motivating force.

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