Re-reading Jerry Brown’s 2nd Inaugural


My friend John Myers of KQED and the blog Capital Notes noted yesterday how much of Jerry Brown's first inaugural address in 1975 could be repeated today.  But the most interesting address for thinking about what Brown faces today is his second inaugural.

It was given in January 1979, after his November 1978 re-election and the June 1978 passing of Prop 13, the first step in the creation of the dysfunctional fiscal system that governs the state today.  Among the highlights:

Brown's assessment of the state at the time as a place of great highs -- but huge distrust of government: "We have the most advanced technology, the most stringent environmental laws, a strong legal commitment to equality, the highest transfer payments to those who depend on government and the most advanced labor laws.

"Yes the mistrust of our public institutions and mere anxiety about our future economy are more the order than the exception.  Three quarters of the people do not trust their government.  More than half of the eligible citizens in California again decided not to vote in the last election.  Why? Why the anti-government mood? I asked this same question four years ago and now I believe I understand.  Simply put, the citizens are revolting against a decade of political leaders who righteously spoke against inflation and excessive government spending but who in practice pursued the opposite course."

Brown talks about how formulas govern too much of the state budget. The problem is even worse today: "The economists will argue about the fine points but the people know that something is profoundly wrong when 75 percent of government spending decisions are automatically decided by past formulas and not present lawmakers."

Brown, who opposed Prop 13 when it was on the ballot in 1978, now sees it as righteous. He also criticizes, as "false prophets," those who seek to increase government spending to deal with the lesser revenues from Prop 13: "There is much to learn about the unprecedented primary vote and victory of Proposition 13.  Not the least of which is that the established political union, and corporate powers are no match for an angry citizenry recoiling against an inflationary threat to their homes and pocketbooks.

"While it is true that the tax revolt has increased the privileges of the few, it has without question inspired the hopes of many.  Plain working people, the poor, the elderly, those on fixed incomes, those who cannot keep up with each new round of inflation or protect themselves from each subsequent round of recession, these are the people who are crying out for relief."

"But in their name and in the name of misfortune of every kind, false prophets have risen to advocate more and more government spending as the cure – more bureaucratic programs and higher staffing ratios of professional experts.  They have told us that billion dollar government increases are really deep cuts from the yet higher levels of spending they demand and that attempts to limit the inflationary growth of government derive not from wisdom but from selfishness.  That disciplining government reflects not a care for the future but rather self-absorption.  These false prophets, I tell you, can no longer distinguish the white horse of victory from the pale horse of death."

Brown emphasizes this last point again, by saying that government spending does not create happiness and that it is time to balance the state's books. "It is time to get off the treadmill, to challenge the assumption that more government spending automatically leads to better living.  The facts prove otherwise... Government, no less than the individual, must live within limits.  It is time to bring our accounts into balance.  Government, as exemplar and teacher, must manifest a self-discipline that spreads across the other institutions in our society, so that we can begin to work for the future, not just consume the present."

In essence, Brown said in this speech that Prop 13, the tax revolt, and the system it spawned (with contributions from liberals and conservatives) should be accepted. It should not be fought. The question for Brown today is whether he thinks he was wrong way back then. Should that system now be remade? Or should it again be accepted -- and should Californians, after big cuts, learn again to live with even less?

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