Sacramento Über Alles

Jerry Brown's plan to revive California through government alone


Elections between Republicans and Democrats usually come down to a barely discernible difference between two shades of lawyer, but the race for governor of California presents a rare clear choice: one candidate who knows nothing about government versus one who knows nothing except government.

It's not clear which option is worse. But the candidates' official policy positions suggest not just how different, but how equally unsatisfying, Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown are.

Meg Whitman's disinterest in practical politics is well established. She has barely voted since becoming an adult. Her ideas for California—which we looked at in detail recently—lean toward managementese and blithe, nebulous (though largely true) generalizations. Whitman's handling of campaign issues—from her former housekeeper's accusations to her non-solution solution to the public pension crisis—bring her dangerously close to the caricature Jerry Brown has been trying to draw: the private sector innocent, who comes into government unprepared to deal with its vast obstructive strength.

One thing you can say for Jerry Brown: He's not innocent about politics. It's hard to think of any candidate in the country with more experience of the pleasureless, maddening power of institutions, and knowledge of the limited capacity of leaders to manage public policy. The rhetoric of frustration has powered Jerry Brown from his "Era of Limits" governorship in the 1970s, through his scolding and ascetic campaign for president in 1992, and into his platform in the 2010 gubernatorial race. "From my experience in starting and running [two charter schools in Oakland], I have gained first-hand experience in how difficult it is to enable all students to be ready for college and careers," he writes in a characteristic passage from the Education section of his campaign site.

Brown's dour disposition lends him a straight-talking affability, and it has occasionally led to good things. The Era of Limits expressed itself mostly through the long-overdue cancellation of many public works projects. During the 1992 race Brown campaigned in support of a flat tax. In this campaign, he has shown a more detailed understanding than Whitman of the public sector pension crisis. His platform touts an old American Conservative description of Brown as "much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan" (a true-enough description, although neither governor had much to brag on there, and the disastrous, deficit-plagued Arnold Schwarzenegger may turn out to have done a better job of restraining the growth of government than either Reagan or Brown).

Brown's budget platform, in fact, contains many fiscal-prudence classics, including zero-based budgeting, an enhanced rainy day fund, sales of state property, cuts in discretionary spending, and at least one thing that doesn't sound like a Schwarzenegger retread: a sustained legal campaign to get the state and municipalities out of the many "consent decrees" lawsuit-happy freeloaders have imposed on the government. His budget-reform proposals go on for eight wonkish pages.

I am hardly the first person to point out that Mike Royko's long-lived "Governor Moonbeam" epithet is probably the least fitting description of Jerry Brown ever coined. The best description of the perennial politician (if you leave out the Dead Kennedys' portrait of Brown as a fascist dictator in "California Über Alles") is still Chris Bray's tribute in, written just after Brown's stunning 1998 victory in the Oakland mayoral race. As Bray noted then, Brown's flaky-like-a-fox reputation has foiled all opponents:

It wouldn't be hard to use up an entire column on Brown's odd ideas and arguable failures. And it would be kind of fun to use up an entire column on his cranky-tortoise persona (one Times reporter gleefully described Brown as a "badger") and withering diatribes that arrive, unannounced, from an unidentifiable part of the man's highly unusual mind. (See for example the dressing-down he delivers to a classroom full of college students, captured in the wonderful documentary Feed, after they admit that they've never even heard of Marshall McLuhan.)

But it's also hard to overlook the fact that "Governor Moonbeam" earned his nickname during not one but two consecutive terms in his state's highest office, terms that followed his service as California's elected Secretary of State; so he was, you understand, silly, crazy, ineffective, embarrassing, and repeatedly embraced by a majority of the voters—including, in 1978, the majority of the voters in conservative-stronghold-of-conservative-strongholds, Orange County, which includes the home district of former US Representative Bob "B-1" Dornan. Makes all the sense in the world—and explains why leftie writer Alexander Cockburn once wrote that Brown "has one of the most consistently decent, innovative records in US politics," the full exploration of which would take even more columns than the cranky-tortoise stuff. Note also that Brown built up a budget surplus while earning those plaudits from the political left, explaining this interesting fact to reporters with two words: "I'm cheap."

The problem is that there is more to California than its government, and Jerry Brown does not see any of that. Shipping, innovative high-tech, abundant agriculture, and a vibrant entertainment industry are what make the Golden State golden, but you won't hear about any of them in Brown's "Jobs" discussion—which is posited entirely on the idea that Sacramento can tax-credit and regulate its way into employment growth. Brown's jobs platform—which is in fact a plan for massive environmentally correct infrastructure development (under a "Green Jobs Czar," of course)—is almost surreally removed from the day-to-day reality of an era when Melrose Avenue and downtown Fresno have almost as many "For Lease" signs as functioning businesses. According to business relocation expert Joseph Vranich, the rate at which businesses are leaving the state has tripled in the past year, and with his proud record of suing companies as attorney general, Brown is making that situation worse.

Usually, California is considered a bellwether state, but the 2010 election reverses that dynamic. The rest of the country has soured on promises of jobs for the future and shovel-ready projects, and in elections all over the United States voters seem prepared to throw in with Tea Party crackpots rather than endure any more quack remedies from the Obama Administration's brain trust. In California, however, we're partying like it's 1997, with a moderate-to-pulseless Republican going up against a policy-wonk Democrat who even the venerable lefty Willie Brown suggests is closer to government employees than to voters. Jerry Brown looks likely to win, and to do a competent job of managing the state government. But what California desperately needs is less government.

Tim Cavanaugh is a Senior Editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: Reason Writers Around Town: Michael C. Moynihan on the Rosenbergs in The Wall Street Journal

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  1. Post Godwined before word one. This may be a first.

  2. One thing you can say for Jerry Brown: He’s not innocent about politics.

    He’s no virgin, that’s for sure… More like the high school whore; you know, the one that teached the guys sex and gave them the clap. Yeah, that kind.

    1. Personal experience?

      I for one was good friends with the high school whore.

      1. Nah, moved to another city before I had the pleasure . . .

        1. You got screwed.

          1. No, I didn’t. Fer sure.

      2. We all were, dumbass.

  3. But what California desperately needs is less government.

    What it needs is a good earth-shattering earthquake.

    1. Ooooh! The state rending, split in two, slide into the brine, Nevada shoreline kind. See here, you’ve given me wood.

  4. “[V]oters seem prepared to throw in with Tea Party crackpots rather than endure any more quack remedies from the Obama Administration’s brain trust.”

    Skeptical, Hate-Everyone Libertarian Cred secured for 30 more days. Your next Statement of Disdain is due on 11/20/10.

    1. Yes, I am confused, they hate those who come closest to the Libertarian creed [Tea Party] but embrace Jerry Brown. I think he will win, but I come to the opposite conclusion as the writer. I see it as the last nail in the coffin. I do agree the Republican is a waste of time. Why do Libertarians save the most hate for those who come closest to the Libertarian creed? I will never know, and I pay dues to the party, and have for years.

  5. Threadjack:…..latestnews

    “Police later said they would have shot to kill had the chimpanzee gone down on four legs like a dog.”

    OK I made that part up.

    1. “Witnesses reportedly said that at one point, Sue gave KCMO Animal Control officers the middle finger. She then pushed a trash can into a police car and then cracked the patrol car’s windshield with her hands, according to the station.”

      I would like to contribute to her defense fund.

    2. But the real news here is that the people who shot the video with the police car in it haven’t been arrested.

  6. I watched about half an hour of their debate on c-span last weekend. Brown’s a man who loves him some teacher’s union. And government projects in general. He does have a lot of fire in him, and having spent his entire life in politics he looked stronger on stage than Whitman. Seems like the perfect captain to steer a sinking ship into an iceberg.

    1. Seems like the perfect captain to steer a sinking ship into an iceberg.

      Best one-sentence summary of California politics and the Brown campaign, evar.

      1. Word.

      2. “Seems like the perfect captain to steer a sinking ship into an iceberg.”

        $327 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

        No, not the federal government–the State of California.

        We’ve already hit the iceberg. The boat is taking on water… Kalifornija’s already sinking.

        And you know what the worst thing about the prospect of another round of Governor Moonbeam might be…?

        He’s likely to make Barack Obama look like a moderate by comparison.

        That’s right. Don’t think you’re immune in Texas. In 2012, if you call Barack Obama a radical on anything, people will be using Governor Moonbeam as their reference point–and Obama will look like a moderate by comparison.

        Moonbeam was recently living in a commune! No, I don’t mean he was living in something like a commune–I mean exactly what I said…

        He was living in an f’ing C-O-M-M-U-N-E.

        1. Yes, but only for the easy nookie.

          1. There was allegedly some of that.

            I suspect he put it in Oakland, quite frankly? Because Wild Bill Clinton had recently put his office in Harlem.

            Yeah, I think he thought it was trendy. Seriously, I don’t think anybody should wish Jerry Brown on anybody. Mayor of Oakland? Okay, but it’s not like you could screw Oakland up that much worse… But California hasn’t done anything to deserve this.

            This will be a curse for generations to come, “May you have a Moonbeam for your governor!”. I’d rather suffer a plague of frogs or locusts or flies.

            I didn’t think there was anything that could happen that would make me want to register Republican. There is no telling how stupid government in California is about to get.

            The sky’s the limit.

            1. He did screw up Oakland by disbanding the Gang task force which was doing a good job, now gangs rule the streets there again.

              1. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was possible…

                My bad.

                So, Jerry can even make Oakland worse!?

                I’d hate to think what he could do to Detroit.

  7. “I am hardly the first person to point out that Mike Royko’s long-lived “Governor Moonbeam” epithet is probably the least fitting description of Jerry Brown ever coined.”

    Just for the record, that epithet wasn’t “coined” so much as it was exposed.

    My understanding is that’s what Linda Ronstadt called him. That was her pet name for him…

    His girlfriend called him “Moonbeam”. If you got to know him? That’s who he is.

    And I wouldn’t say personal qualities like that should make or break a candidate–if it weren’t for Governor Moonbeam constantly making the case that he sees California’s problems as yet another step in his personal journey, I’d hardly bring it up.

    Exhibit 1:

    “From my experience in starting and running [two charter schools in Oakland], I have gained first-hand experience in how difficult it is to enable all students to be ready for college and careers…”

    If I were a poor kid in Oakland, I wouldn’t think much of being seen as yet another step in Moonbeam’s personal growth cycle–and if my business tanks under the oppressive weight of Moonbeam’s government?

    Telling me what he’s learned about himself from the experience really isn’t gonna make any difference to me.

    Unless he wants me to hate him?

    1. Scarey Jerry’s first bid for govenor was torpedoed when his admition that he DIDN’T have sex with Linda Ronstadt barely beat her public statement that under NO circumstances did she EVER sleep with the pud.
      Makes perfect cosmic sense.

  8. The problem is that there is more to California than its government, and Jerry Brown does not see any of that.

    Hmmm, I wonder why that is.
    The wacky wonderful Wiki reports

    Electoral history of Jerry Brown, 24th California Secretary of State (1971-1975), 34th Governor of California (1975-1983), 44th Mayor of Oakland, California (1999-2007) and 31st California Attorney General (2007-present). Brown was also a candidate for 1976, 1980 and 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination (finishing second, third and second respectively).

    Oh that’s why. He’s been running for office his entire adult life.

  9. How small the universe of libertarians with a good word for Jerry Brown is!

    It turns out that AmCon article Jerry refers to was written by….

    ….Reason Managing Editor Jesse Walker?

    And now you know the r-r-rest of the story!

    1. I’m going to tell people that it isn’t that you guys like him; it’s that you don’t hate him as much as other people do.

      1. …just for my own relative sanity.

  10. through his scolding and ascetic campaign for president in 1992

    “Take Back America”

    Take it back from whom, Mr. Brown?

    1. Who knew Teabaggers had a time machine?

  11. (See for example the dressing-down he delivers to a classroom full of college students, captured in the wonderful documentary Feed, after they admit that they’ve never even heard of Marshall McLuhan.)

    Why then, wasn’t Jerry Brown dressing down a conference room full of California’s best teachers, demanding to know why a room full of college students didn’t know who Marshall Mcluhan was?

    1. This seems like a good place to mention an instance of Brown’s Moonbeamness. Around 1980 (IIRC) I saw him on MTV, and he said that the high cost of college was due to a plot to make it too expensive for minorities. No kidding! Who knew higher education was such a hotbed of racism? I nearly fell out of my chair.

  12. Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call LA
    The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
    Any fucking time. Any fucking day.
    Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona bay.

    Some say a comet will fall from the sky.
    Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves.
    Followed by faultlines that cannot sit still.
    Followed by millions of dumbfounded dipshits.

    Some say the end is near.
    Some say we’ll see armageddon soon.
    I certainly hope we will cuz
    I sure could use a vacation from this

    Stupid shit, silly shit, stupid shit…

    One great big festering neon distraction,
    I’ve a suggestion to keep you all occupied.

    Learn to swim.
    Learn to swim.
    Learn to swim.

    Mom is going to fix it all soon,
    Mom is coming round to put it back
    The way it oughtta be…

    Learn to swim.

    Fuck L Ron Hubbard and
    Fuck all his clones.
    Fuck all these gun-toting
    Hip gangster wannabes.

    Learn to swim.

    Fuck retro anything.
    Fuck your tattoos.
    Fuck all you junkies and
    Fuck your short memory.

    Learn to swim.

    Fuck smiley glad-hands
    With hidden agendas.
    Fuck these dysfunctional,
    Insecure actresses.

    Learn to swim.

    Cuz I’m praying for rain
    And I’m praying for tidal waves
    I wanna see the ground give way.
    I wanna watch it all go down.
    Mom please flush it all away.
    I wanna see it go right in and down.
    I wanna watch it go right in.
    Watch you flush it all away.

    Time to bring it down again.
    Don’t just call me pessimist.
    Try and read between the lines.

    I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
    Welcome any change, my friend.

    I wanna see it all come down.
    Suck it down.
    Flush it down.

    TOOL, perhaps the greatest rock band of the last 20 years?

    1. Aw that’s beautiful maaan, just beautiful. Gimmee a toke.

    2. Their CD art and packaging certainly are.

    3. The only problem with these lyrics is that I’d have to listen to TOOL to hear them. I think the name of the band most accurately describes its front man.

  13. Whitman’s handling of campaign issues?from her former housekeeper’s totally bogus and Allred-driven accusations[…]

    There. More accurate.

  14. But what California desperately needs is less government.

    But what you’ll get is more Jerry Brown. Although, any man who was gettin’ with 1979 Linda Ronstadt deserves at least some respect.

    Lord of the flies… anyone? Anyone? Hmm?

    1. Wasn’t gettin man, wasn’t gettin. See above.

      1. So you’re saying that Jerry Brown did not sleep with that woman?

        1. Nah, it was Jerry and Linda sayin he didn’t sleep with that woman.

        2. no homo?

          1. Of course homo. Why do you think Linda didn’t boff him?

            Ok, there’s the stupid ass thing too.

            1. She was doin’ hells angels but she wouldn’t do him… that says something about the cat.

  15. Why does Reason have an article about California every other day? There are a few other states in the country.

    1. Because almost all of those articles are written by Tim Cavanaugh, who lives in CA and apparently thinks that covering that state is his Reason beat, the way police brutality is Balko’s, food is KMW’s, and getting high is Sullum’s.

    2. Yet every time “Reason” runs an article about the elections in CA, they fail to mention *any* of the LP candidates. So much for free minds and free markets.

    3. Because it’s on the leading edge of fucked-upness amongst US states?

    4. Because it’s fun to watch a train wreck.

  16. 1. Those states are what we call “flyover” country.
    2. Tim Cavanaugh lives in L.A. as does (or did) Matt Welch. Therefore, as journalists, they’re on the front lines of a state with the worst fiscal crisis in the history of state fiscal crises. How California handles, or fails to handle this crisis, may be the canary in the coalmine as to how other states go.

    For instance, Washington is always about 10 to 15 years behind California. Whatever stupid shit California is doing, Washington will pick it up ignoring all the glaring faults along the way, using the similiar refrain every progressive uses to justify why we should do something “Because Europe does it”.

    1. Isn’t Brian also in California? So that makes three. It’s like why we have a series of TV bits on Cleveland, because Drew and Nick are from Ohio.

  17. to do a competent job of managing the state government. But what California desperately needs is less government.

    One needs to do what’s in the second sentence in order to do what’s in the first sentence.

  18. The government employee unions will never negotiate down until it’s absolutely necessary.

    And if will never be absolutely necessary so long as Jerry Brown is in office.


  19. Why hasn’t Jerry ever held a job?

    1. Would you hire him?

      1. Depends on the job. If I were rent-seeking, I’d grab him. Willy Brown and Matt Gonzales (losing mayoral candidate) have made a fine living through their ‘connections’.

    2. He doesn’t need to work.

      He comes from wealth and privilege.

      The Browns are almost like California’s answer to the friggin’ Kennedys. I know, who’d a thunk a “Governor Moonbeam” would reinforce the stereotype of an elite liberal–but there he is!

      An elite liberal.

  20. I guess the author couldn’t title this column CALIFORNIA UBER ALLES because the Dead Kennedys did a song by that name over 30 years ago. Ironically that song was about Jerry Brown too (they later did an upgraded version about Ronald Reagan.)

    1. When I first showed up around here, circa 2003, I felt it necessary to explain to people that I was a “libertarian”…and what that meant!

      Yes, it’s a reference to DK. Yes, the art up there was taken from the sleeve for the California Uber Alles single…

      Yes, the song is about Jerry Brown. That’s why they titled this post and practically every other post for the past five years about Jerry Brown as “Uber” something.

      Welcome to the club.

  21. “Holiday In Cambodia” and “Terminal Preppie” are my favorite Dead Kennedys song. “California Uber Alles” is kind of lame, lyrically. It’s like Jello Biafra was half-heartedly trying to be an equal opportunity offender, not just bashing people on the “right” (which for him is just about everyone who is not Jello Biafra.)

  22. California thinks it’s a bellwether.

    One of California’s problems is that it’s never really come to grips with the fact that it’s not 1961. It’s still selling itself — to itself as much as anyone — as if Gidget is in high school and walking the uncrowded beaches after driving down nearly-empty roads.

    California is no longer a bellwether. Go to any other state and you will find that most Americans who give California much thought, think of it only as a symbol of what they don’t want their state to become.

  23. Now that we all agree that Jerry and Meg are both miserable choices, why do they continue to get ALL of the press time? There are SIX candidates in this election. I’d say two of them are vastly better, two are worse, and then there’s Jerry and Meg in the middle.

    Quit voting for the lesser of two evils. You still end up with an evil. Try voting your conscience, and put some actual good candidates into major offices for a change.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to be pleased with who the governor is, rather than less unhappy?

  24. especially for the UGG Sundance II Boots. In our site, there are two kind color.

  25. Dead Kennedys isn’t real punk

  26. Is there an available copy of the portion of “Feed” mentioned in this column?

  27. Is there an available copy of the portion of “Feed” mentioned in this column?

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  29. I like the article because it is not only the informative ?but also the interesting.

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