Brown sees perdition as our condition

As a new governor takes over amid a flurry of promises and activity, and the tired, boring old governor exits the scene, it’s easy to forget that the old guy also came in amid a torrent of activity and interest.

Jerry Brown is talking about shifting control from Sacramento to local governments and about wrestling with the state’s deep problems in a tough manner. It seems like just yesterday that newly elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, after bouncing an unloved governor in a historic recall election, was promising to reform Sacramento and blow up the boxes of government.

Jerry Brown (L) is sworn in as the 39th governor of California by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (R) as Brown’s wife, Anne Gust-Brown (C), looks on January 3, 2011, in Sacramento, California. Jerry Brown l begins his third term as governor 28 years after serving his last term.

Just like Schwarzenegger, Brown has said some things that sound encouraging. Who doesn’t applaud the idea of an honest budget? But there’s little chance for reform, given that the new governor is even less committed than the old one to challenging the way Sacramento spends your money.

Brown is against tax increases, unless the public approves them, which is warning that we will face tax-raising ballot measures. Brown’s shift in control to localities likely will be followed by plans for expanded taxing authority for those local governments. His call for pension reform is too vague to comment upon, but there’s little chance he will upset the public employee unions that elected him.

The most telling sign that Brown is also a phony reformer was revealed during his inaugural address. These, perhaps, were “throwaway” lines, in that they were meant to encourage Californians rather than instruct us in the direction of his new administration. Yet these words speak volumes about how Brown views the economic and fiscal situation in our beloved state.

“I have thought a lot about this, and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties,” the governor said. “A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains. It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together.”

It’s true that people will always fight over government budgets and spending priorities, but California’s situation – a $28 billion budget deficit, enormous unfunded retirement promises to public employees, crumbling infrastructure, persistent high unemployment – are not just inherent difficulties. They are caused by bad public policy, by legislators who continuously expand government beyond our ability to pay for it. It is caused by politicians, such as Brown, who view government as the solution to problems, and who have given public sector unions too much power and money.

The national economy is in tough shape, but these problems are not spread evenly across the nation. California is in worse fiscal straits than many other states because it has embraced policies that are worse than those in most other states. We have among the highest tax rates in almost every category and the most stringent regulatory regimes, which makes this an extraordinarily tough place to start and expand business.

At the inauguration, Brown referred to the remarkably high productivity of the state’s workers. That was offered as proof of California’s enduring spirit, but it’s a mere reflection of the state’s tough business climate. In high-cost, high-regulation states, businesses and their workers must toil at peak efficiency or else they won’t have a prayer of competing.

We all know about the state’s many unfunded liabilities or debts.

Are these merely the passive results of the human condition or a problem borne of bad public policy? The state spends more money than it takes in, year after year, in good years and bad ones. The state makes promises that it cannot fulfill – or at least that must be fulfilled on the backs of our grandkids. The state’s school systems have shocking dropout rates, especially in poor areas. The government spends a small fraction of its budget on infrastructure, which helps explain why the roads are so congested.

Are these issues really beyond our control or do they reflect poor choices?

I’m dismayed that Brown believes our state’s problems happened by chance, that we’re the victims of a permanent human condition rather than the masters of our own destiny.

Of course, there is some truth in what he said, although not in the way he meant it. Greed is part of the human condition. There always will be rent-seekers, as economists call them, in the form of interest groups, unions and corporations, seeking favors from the government. Recall the old free-market truism about dispersed costs and concentrated benefits. The costs are spread out among taxpayers, who don’t have the time or energy to fight every effort to tap their wallets, whereas those who gain from the state have every reason to hire lobbyists and lawyers.

That’s part of the human condition, but it’s not as if nothing can be done about any of it. Tyranny also is part of the human condition, but our founders came up with a governmental system that kept it at bay. Theft and murder are part of the human condition, also, but certain policies make such behaviors more likely and other policies make them less likely.

All I’m saying is California’s government has embraced policies designed to exacerbate all the problems that Brown believes are mere conditions. We need some government, and there always will be some governmental waste, but many of California’s most serious problems could easily have been avoided with sound public policy choices.

Brown at his inauguration pointed out all the many important services government provides, but I didn’t hear him (and I rarely hear it from Republicans, either) talk about better ways of providing those services or the excesses in the governmental bureaucracies created to administer them or the deep corruption within the current system.

And so nothing much will change other than your tax burden, which might go up. Perhaps in California that is an enduring condition.

Next week, I’ll analyze one potentially promising idea Brown has raised – decommissioning redevelopment agencies.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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