Jerry Brown's Exit Interview: Don't Say He Didn't Warn You

Dec 11, 2018
Originally published on December 12, 2018 11:07 am

If all the world goes to hell, don't say Jerry Brown didn't try to warn you.

"The climate [change] threat is real. It's a clear and present danger," the unconventional and legendary Democrat who will soon term out as California governor told NPR's Ari Shapiro Tuesday in an interview airing on All Things Considered. "And it's going to get here much sooner" than many people realize.

"It's damn dangerous," Brown said of a possible nuclear war destroying much of the world in mere moments. "And I would say most politicians are 100 percent asleep with respect to this particular issue."

He also discussed a booming economy that has nevertheless left many working Americans (and Californians) behind: "The engine of capitalism, which is so powerful — it has its negative, dark side as well as its bright and shiny side."

Brown spoke about climate change, nuclear proliferation, capitalism and more in the wide-ranging interview, as he sat in the breakfast nook Tuesday morning at the governor's mansion he renovated in downtown Sacramento. His two dogs, Colusa Brown and Cali Brown, frolicked alongside him.

He spoke in the waning days of a political career that has spanned more than 50 years, a record four terms as California governor — from 1975-1983 and since 2011 — and three unsuccessful runs for president, in 1976, 1980 and 1992. Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom will take over the world's fifth-largest economy early next year.

In his final years as governor, and particularly after Donald Trump's election as president, Brown sought to position himself as a worldwide leader on climate change. He has traveled to the Vatican, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and taken on a formal role with the United Nations. The man once mocked as "Governor Moonbeam" during his first stint leading California even hosted his own Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this fall that culminated in an announcement that the state will launch its own satellite to help track and reduce climate pollutants.

Brown worries, however, that the momentum from the Paris climate accord has waned and describes this month's United Nations follow-up climate conference in Poland as "abysmal."

At home, the governor has presided over some of California's largest and most destructive wildfires in history, including the Camp Fire that he and Newsom toured with President Trump last month.

Brown argues that the world, and in particular the Trump administration, aren't doing nearly enough to fight climate change.

"I'm sure that the political leaders will respond after we have four or five more disastrous fires and four or five more floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and all that," Brown said in Tuesday's interview.

"The problem is, the cost will be much higher and the political wreckage that much greater — because the burden of spending to recoup, to adapt and to transition to a noncarbon world will be much higher, much harder, and will be wrenching to the democratic political system," he says.

The governor also sees great danger in nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Earlier this year, Brown joined the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — the group known for its Doomsday Clock — as executive chairman.

"There's still a major threat — from terrorism, from other countries, from blunder," he says. "And people are almost totally asleep to that ever present danger. And within a matter of hours, human civilization could be extinguished. That's real."

Closer to home, Brown is concerned about the effects on his state of unbridled capitalism, a system he calls "productive" but "not perfect."

"Capitalism responds to incentives, to human desire, to restlessness, and even to put it more bluntly, greed," he says. "And that drives it forward. But it drives forward in a way that always overshoots its mark" and leads to recessions.

And as the economy evolves, with real estate prices shooting up and automation overwhelming the labor market, "a lot of people are now what they call redundant — or put more harshly, surplus — because the economy doesn't have a role for them. And that's where creative political leaders are going to have to find a way to tame capitalism, restructure it," he says.

In many ways, California has offered among the most stark examples of capitalism's pros and cons during Brown's final stint as governor.

When he returned to the state Capitol in 2011, California was still climbing out of the Great Recession and faced a $27 billion deficit. Brown spent much of his first two years persuading the Democrats who controlled the state Legislature to join him in making steep budget cuts.

"That took fortitude against the tendency of the Democratic Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that satisfies one of the key constituencies," he says.

The governor then campaigned hard for a ballot measure to raise the state's sales and income taxes. Proposition 30's passage in November 2012 proved a turning point in his governorship — both for the state and for Brown himself. Along with the previous spending cuts and economic recovery, the additional tax revenue has turned that $27 billion deficit into what is now a large surplus.

That gave him the financial and political capital for much of the rest of his agenda. He won nearly every major battle he chose to fight at the state Capitol: an extension of California's cap-and-trade system to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, a gas tax and vehicle fee increase to fund transportation projects, and overhauls of the state's school funding and criminal justice systems.

Yet on Brown's watch, California has become a much more expensive place to live. For millions of people, it's simply unaffordable. The state doesn't just face a housing crisis; many of its cities face homelessness crises. That, in turn, has led to a poverty crisis.

The governor chose not to seek an overhaul of the myriad state and local laws and regulations that raise the cost and lengthen the construction timeline of housing developments.

"We've done quite a lot for what the state can do," he says. "But there's a lot of resistance to changes, to density in neighborhoods that don't want density."

As for the state's high poverty rate, Brown points to several actions he took — many pushed by legislative Democrats — including a minimum wage increase, a state earned income tax credit for low-income workers, and an expansion of California's Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.

He has also spent a great deal of time and energy on reshaping California's criminal justice system — including the reversal of a tough-on-crime trend that he helped jump-start during his first stint as governor.

Brown signed legislation that shifted the responsibility for low-level offenders from the state to counties and campaigned for a 2016 ballot measure that made it easier for state inmates to be released from prison if they demonstrate good behavior.

Brown notes that the state has nearly tripled its number of prisons from 12 to 35 over the past two decades while its prison population rose from 25,000 to 173,000.

"How long do you want to lock somebody up?" he asks. "At what expense? And I would say we've gone way overboard and we have to very carefully pull back."

That Brown has accomplished nearly every goal he set out for himself during his second stint as governor is due not just to his own popularity but also to his fellow Democrats' lock on power in a deep blue state.

But he sees himself as a centrist. And although he scorns California Republicans as "irrelevant" for their embrace of Trump, he fears the state may shift too far to the left after he leaves office.

"The weakness of the Republican Party has let the Democratic Party, I think, go get further out than I think the majority of people want," Brown says. "So there's plenty of opportunity for Republicans if they just pause, look at the world as it really is, and try to come up with something in the tradition of Lincoln and Eisenhower and other great Republicans."

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When California Governor Jerry Brown took office in 2011, he had the weight of his predecessors on his shoulders.


JERRY BROWN: It's sobering and enlightening to read through the inaugural addresses of past governors. I don't imagine too many of you do that.


BROWN: They each start these inaugural addresses on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same reoccurring issues - education, crime, budgets, water.

SHAPIRO: That's from his 2011 inaugural address, and he could have been referencing his own earlier speeches because Jerry Brown first served as California governor from 1975 to 1983. Later, he was mayor of Oakland and California's attorney general before he returned to the governor's office.

Now as he prepares to leave office at the age of 80, we invited him to talk about his legacy, about shaping the politics of the most populous state in the country for almost 50 years. I started by asking him about the economy, specifically about leaving the state's finances better than he found them.

BROWN: We know we have a $14 billion surplus, a rainy day fund, that's locked in for uncertain times in the future. We have a $15 billion spendable deficit right now and that deficit surplus. So, yeah, there's a lot of money here. We're talking closer to 30 billion.

Now, what did I do or didn't do? I did rein in the spending, and that took fortitude against the tendency of the Democrat Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that satisfies one of the key constituencies. But basically, we're living in the heart of the most dynamic economy in the world, Silicon Valley, home of Apple and Google and Intel and all these different companies. I know I'm going to miss some.

But the gross domestic product in California has grown 800 billion. That's just the growth. So we're about fifth-largest economy in the world, and that completely overshadows state government activity.

SHAPIRO: Is this economic success a double-edged sword? I'm wondering whether you think that the budget success and the economic growth have contributed to some of the big problems California faces right now with income inequality and unaffordable housing?

BROWN: Well, capitalism is not a perfect system. It's a very productive system, but no one said anything about equality or protecting the environment. Capitalism responds to incentives, to human desire, to restlessness and even, to put it more bluntly, greed. And that drives it forward, but it drives forward in a way that always overshoot its mark.

And unfortunately, the productivity that is generating all these trillions of dollars is not stable, and it will decline. And that will cause layoffs and tuition increases and program cuts. And everyone will all of a sudden wake up and say, whatever happened? That's one thing from the point of view of the government.

Of the economy, with all these rich kids making millions of dollars in Silicon Valley, they're bidding up the price of real estate. And the automation is such that a lot of people are now what they call redundant because the economy, it doesn't have a role for them. And that's where creative political leaders are going to have to find a way to tame capitalism.

SHAPIRO: Do you regret not having done more to create more affordable housing over the last eight years?

BROWN: I don't know - I don't see what - what other avenues - we've done quite a lot for what the state can do. But there's a lot of resistance to changes, to density in neighborhoods that don't want density. In many ways, I don't blame them.

The relationship between income and housing has been growing unfavorable for decades, and now it's at its highest peak. So how do you change that, absent a deep recession? That's a real puzzle. I don't think you can mandate lower prices 'cause people want the value in their homes. I don't think you can build housing and pay for it by taxing hard-pressed, middle-class people, among others, to pay for it.

So I'd say this remains an issue and a topic that I know people will address. But if you want to come back and talk to me in four years, I assure you we're going to have the same problem that we have today.

SHAPIRO: You've also made the environment and climate change a big focus during your time in office. I mean, you were talking about environmental issues when you first became governor in the 1970s, and during the Trump administration, you've become a sort of global diplomat on climate change.

Do you believe that politicians will take the hard steps that we have frankly failed to take since you started talking about these issues almost 50 years ago?

BROWN: Well, look, I hope they will. The evidence doesn't warrant real deep confidence. We're making little steps. The Paris Agreement was an important step, but given what's happening at the conference in Poland, which is the follow-up to Paris, that's abysmal. And the United States and Saudi Arabia and Australia and Russia, they're all combining to celebrate fossil fuel oil. U.S. is talking about coal.

So, look, the climate threat is real. It's a clear and present danger. With some confidence, I can say, based on the scientists that I speak to - and I speak to a lot of them - the climate danger and damage is much greater than people are talking about. And it's going to get here much sooner.

I'm sure that the political leaders will respond after we have four or five more disasters, fires and four or five more floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and all that. The problem is the burden of spending to transition to a non-carbon world will be much higher, much harder and will be wrenching to the democratic political system.

SHAPIRO: Another big focus of yours in the last eight years has been criminal justice. And when I look at the arc of your career, it seems to me that when you first took office in the 1970s, there was this big tough-on-crime movement. And today, so many of the policies that you've pursued as governor seem to be aimed at undoing many of the policies from your first eight years in office.

Do you think that you've been able to do enough to correct what you see as your own mistakes from earlier in your career, if in fact that's how you would characterize it?

BROWN: Yeah, I'd characterize it as that. That's not the only way to describe it. But certainly, the adoption in California and throughout the country of fixed sentences that were then escalated on a regular basis to the point where America has the most incarceration per capita, at least during certain years, than in any country in the world, including Russia or China. So we really went overboard.

Now, in California we went from 25,000 people in prison to 173,000, from 12 prisons to 35. That's way over. But pulling that back is slow - a slow slog. So we've had some bills to take back some of the draconian sentences.

But then, how much? How long do you want to lock somebody up at what expense? And I would say we've gone way overboard, and we have to, very carefully, pull back. And that's happening in California. It's happening across the country. We've got a long way to go.

SHAPIRO: OK, so next month you hand over the governor's office to Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco. What advice do you have for him?

BROWN: What advice? Well, I would say a nice methodology in political management is to imagine what could go wrong and what could go wrong in the worst way possible. And after you imagine that, then take careful steps to avoid it. You got to think not about all your little pet programs, of which there'll be plenty, but what are the things that could go awry.

And there are big things that can go awry. You can have scandals. You can have a major earthquake. We had the fires. They're a huge disaster. But you've got to stand back and try to look over the horizon and say, OK, what are the things that might not go right? How do we correct that? How do we deal with it ahead of time? And then what is most important? And also, I would say, what can you really do? Because you might don't want to be chasing rainbows and turn up with an empty hand.

SHAPIRO: California Governor Jerry Brown, thank you so much for joining us today.

BROWN: OK, my pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.