Jerry Brown’s California Dream: The Rolling Stone Interview
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Jerry Brown’s California now stands like a parallel universe to Donald Trump’s America: a land of tolerance, high immigration, tight gun control and world-beating innovation – combining a soaring economy with plummeting greenhouse-gas emissions. In recent months, Brown has signed a new gas tax to fund more than $50 billion in repairs to the state’s roads and bridges, and he extended California’s cap-and-trade program, which has raised $4 billion for clean energy, electric cars and high-speed rail.
Brown is a towering figure in California. He is closing out the last of four terms as governor – completed in two eras, bracketing 28 “out” years in which he served stints as a progressive radio host, mayor of Oakland and state attorney general. The son of Pat Brown, California’s governor from 1959 to 1967, Jerry Brown at first rebelled against politics, taking a vow of obedience to enter a Jesuit seminary, before carving a path of public service that’s been anything but acquiescent. Pushing 80, Brown has a bit more than a year left in a political career that saw him mount three presidential bids – the first in 1976. Across the decades, there are through lines, including an abiding commitment to fiscal discipline, renewable energy and thinking big. “I like to combine ideas and action,” Brown tells me.
He greets Rolling Stone in a sharp gray suit and natty silk tie, a black Fitbit on his wrist. His coffee-dark eyes still sparkle. It’s a late-summer, near-triple-digit day in Sacramento, where the Corinthian columns of the state Capitol are shaded by palm trees and sequoias. When Brown returned to this city in 2011, California’s finances were a horror show; on the presidential stump, Mitt Romney compared its economy to Greece’s. But with a combination of tax hikes and temporary belt tightening, California eliminated a $25 billion deficit, paid off $32 billion in debt and has stocked away a rainy-day fund that will soon top $8 billion. Along the way, Brown signed bills that granted driver’s licenses and access to college loans for undocumented immigrants; required background checks to buy bullets; raised the minimum wage to $10.50 – heading to $15 by 2022 – and put California on target to hit 50 percent renewable power by 2030.
Contrary to Republican dogma, Brown’s brand of progressive, green economics hasn’t killed jobs – it has spurred the creation of 2.34 million. In the past five years, with just 12 percent of the U.S. population, California has driven one- quarter of America’s economic growth. The state’s greatest challenge today is a downside of a hot economy: an affordable-housing crisis and a spike in homelessness.
The flame-keeper of America’s progressive policy agenda, Brown has also emerged as an essential global leader in the fight to arrest climate change. Where President Trump sees a “hoax,” Brown describes an “existential crisis.” He was an influential presence at the Paris Climate Conference and visited China to calm the waters the week after Trump pulled out of that deal. Working with 187 other city, state and provincial governments, Brown has forged the Under 2° Coalition – representing more than 1.2 billion people – committed to holding global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.
“The world is watching very closely what the state of California does – not what Washington does – on the issue of climate action,” says Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the California Senate. The son of an immigrant mother, de León represents downtown L.A., and comes from another world than Brown. But de León insists those differences spur a productive give-and-take. “He has the ability to not be entrenched in his views, but actually expand,” he says of Brown. “When you get to a certain age, people don’t do that. He does.”
Entering the governor’s chambers requires navigating around a life-size bronze bear. The 800-pound sculpture, installed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, lends an odd Disney California Adventure aesthetic to the Capitol. Brown’s entourage includes his dog, Colusa, a corgi named for the county where his family ranch sits in the north of the state, and where he will retire at the end of his term. As Colusa snoozes near the governor’s feet, Brown speaks in an impressionistic style: words and phrases missing here and there, leaving gaps you have to bridge just to keep up, even as he’s lofting references to Daoist poets, German Marxists and the Book of Revelation.
Brown remains a bundle of contradictions – a radical with a deeply conservative streak, a man who can decry the “destructive power of global capitalism” while standing at the helm of the sixth-largest economy in the world. He is grounded in politics as the art of the possible. But get him rolling and the old “Governor Moonbeam” shines through – promoting a vision for America that, he acknowledges, given our current political climate, might as well come from “another planet. Not even planet Earth!” he says. “This is the other side of the moon!”
When you took office in 2011, you faced more than $50 billion in deficit and debt. Many people in your position would have trimmed their sails, just focused on the economy. What gave you the confidence, in that moment of crisis, to push forward on big ideas?
Because they were possible! Why would I take a job, as you say, “trimming my sails”? What would be the point, at my age, of doing that? Or at any age! I am in office because I like to do things. I like to combine ideas and action. I have ideas that are expansive, and sometimes innovative – and then to do ’em is the whole point.
We had a very strong majority of Democrats, and that allowed us to do things. And each one of those things we needed to do! Either you do Obamacare or you don’t. So it was very binary. And certainly doing it seemed more positive, more building to the future. Same thing is true on the renewable energy – we pushed hard on these things.
With a combination of higher taxes and reinvestment, you’ve not only balanced the books, but – contrary to GOP ideology – your state has grown faster than the national average. What can California’s experience teach the rest of America, versus, say, the lesson of Kansas?
A lot of politics is based on belief. I’m not talking about belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I’m talking about more trivial beliefs: Lowering taxes will create jobs. Regulation will stifle innovation. Those are beliefs that people have in their little minds – we all have these movies playing in our heads – and they act on ’em. “Free enterprise! The market is God! The magic of allocation based on the price signal – nothing can be better. It’s perfection.” They believe that! That’s why they don’t like climate change. We have to put a price on carbon with regulation. That goes against that belief system. It’s saying, like, “There is no God. The free market is not sovereign. There are other interventions that will help make a better market.”
The guy down in Kansas [Gov. Sam Brownback] said, “I can lower the taxes, and I will get more revenue, and whooo!” [Reagan-era economist] Arthur Laffer’s curve will just [throws up hands as if sprinkling magic dust]. But it didn’t work that way. You have to be very careful.
California stimulates innovation through regulation. When we require cleaner engines, cleaner engines are produced. And the cost of cleaner engines goes down, because the California car market is so big. Or renewable portfolio standards [requiring clean-power generation]. That stimulates photovoltaic and renewable energy. Well-thought-out regulation is a key ingredient in innovation.
Now regulations can cause a problem. Yes, raising the minimum wage too quickly in some areas may cost jobs. But in California, because of the dynamism of the economy, we can absorb taxes and regulations.
Your career has spanned more than four decades. And you’ve spent time in the wilderness. What political wisdom have you unlocked that’s enabled this remarkable run on your return to the governorship?
[Whispers conspiratorially] It’s called timing.
I’m riding the wave of economic recovery. Now, it’s true that if you spend enough time at something, and you’re paying attention and you’re curious and you listen, you can learn a lot. I’ve been doing that longer than anybody in California. It gives me a certain familiarity with the work.
You just put together a two-thirds majority coalition – getting Republicans to cross over – to extend California’s cap-and-trade program. This is serious governing. Has that become easy for you?
Cap-and-trade looks good to the industry because it is an impersonal market that gives a great deal of flexibility and it will be a lot cheaper for many industries to comply. And that’s why they all supported [extending it]. That was helpful. Without the Republicans, we could not have done it. [But a few] Republicans came to me and said, “We believe climate change is an important issue, and we want to do something.” We were working together. That helped!
I do believe that external events play a big role. I’m more of a structural . . . [holds up two fists]. You have structure [wags one fist] and agency [wags the other]. Those are the two abstractions. I’m much more on the structural. Another word is context. You have to have the right context. You can’t just, out of the blue, do something. Everything has to fit.
There’s a Chinese saying, a Daoist saying: wu wei. The idea is “nothing against the grain.” [Smooths his hand over the grain of the wooden coffee table in front of him] Go with the grain. Don’t try to go against the grain. That’s very Daoist. It’s such a great thought. Go with the grain. I learned that from Gary Snyder. I didn’t invent that on my own. That’s from Gary Snyder, the poet. Do you know who he is?
Well, you should know! He’s a very important California poet. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and was the head of our California Arts Council. That’s where I heard that phrase.
It’s Rolling Stone’s 50th year. . . .
My 50th year in politics. I joined the “peace slate ’68” – was started in ’67. It was a slate of candidates to run against Lyndon Johnson that later adopted Gene McCarthy as our candidate, and then of course Bobby Kennedy got hit. It was a whole different world. Vietnam War. But anyway . . .
In 1992, you set up a campaign office briefly in the Rolling Stone offices.
We came in. You’re right!
What do you remember of that?
That was our New York office. I remember Jann Wenner had a little beard, didn’t he? Is Jann Wenner still there? He must be old. How old is that guy? [Laughs]
He is younger than you!
The only thing I can remember of Rolling Stone was the photo of Linda Ronstadt, lying on her bed. I recommended against that picture.
She’s been in poor health.
Are you still in contact?
Yeah. Yeah. She’s in San Francisco. Well, Parkinson’s. A lot of people have Parkinson’s. Not good. But she’s . . . [pause] It’s a very slow-moving disease. . . .
Do you ever think back to your 1992 platform and go, “I had that spot-on”?
I did say that Washington was a “confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consultants” – and they all need to go. It was overdone. I never gave another speech like that. But that thing about “Take Back America” – definitely.
There were big, populist themes in there.
That was the mood in 1992. And that was Bernie’s thought in 2016. And that was Trump’s thought. That theme of, “the system is not working. We need to transcend this mired status quo that’s not delivering the goods.”
How do you understand the crisis of the Trump presidency?
The crisis. What do you mean? The crisis that there is one? Or his crisis?
How do you approach his presidency?
I think the fact that Orange County voted for Hillary – and Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin voted for Trump – is very telling. There’s a certain segment of the population that’s been disadvantaged. Their hopes have been dashed. The very spectacle of Trump connoted “This is change.” And in Ohio, in these districts, they said, “I’m gonna vote for that, because I don’t want another four years of what I’ve had. Because look where I am: Wages going down. Losing these jobs.”
Trump was a response to this discontent. The problem is to execute on that. It would be difficult – even with the best of will, and with real, astute understanding and skill. But Trump is now talking to this very hardcore base. You can’t have a governing coalition based on a hardcore 20 percent that irritates many more than that.
Is Trump’s governing strategy a dead end?
Aside from the morality of what he’s doing, he’s not trying to build a governing coalition. He’s putting his faith in this base. He thinks that what got him elected will make him successful. He doesn’t understand – if I can paraphrase [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein, who said in the Tractatus: What you need is a ladder to climb up. But when you’ve gotten up to the roof, or wherever it is you’re going, throw away the ladder. So whatever got Trump elected, throw that away, and start building a coalition across parties. His base wouldn’t like that. And he’s looking at that base. But it’s so narrow that it’s self-defeating.
Politics is addition, not subtraction. Democracy can only function if the minority has confidence that their voice is being heard. Trump doesn’t know that. When you win, you haven’t won 100 percent. You’ve only been given this opportunity. You have to bring in the people who didn’t vote for you in some way. . . . Trump won, but he’s not governing. And I don’t think he will be able to govern.
Yet the Trump spectacle rolls on. . . .
He’s found the machine of Twitter as a positive. He’s dominated the media. But you can’t dominate a global context. To some degree, you’re riding the waves. You’re not creating the waves. Trump doesn’t understand that distinction: between the context and him, or the structure and his agency. His capacity for affecting reality.
Many people of color feel unsafe in this country because of Trump’s praise for white supremacists, his executive actions targeting immigrants. What’s California’s responsibility to protect – whether it’s Dreamers or others – people who find themselves targets of this administration?
Trump is saying and doing things that threaten millions of people. And it’s very unfortunate. And not fair. And not helpful to the cohesiveness of our society. Millions of people are here, undocumented. That’s true. And their status needs to be codified. For them, but also for us. In California, we have somewhere between 1 million and 2 million people working and contributing to our society. And just to scare the hell out of them with raids – by showing up at schools or courthouses, to handcuff them and put them in jail for deportation – is not a very human way to proceed.
In California, we are protecting people who work by giving them legal recourse if their employer tries to intimidate them because they’re undocumented. Same is true of people who get stopped for a petty offense. We don’t want them to be automatically sent over to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. We’re putting up millions of dollars to defend the young people – the Dreamers.
California is respecting the federal law, but we are doing our part to make sure that federal officials don’t run amok. At the end of the day, the federal law is supreme. If the president wants to hire enough immigration agents, he can grab a lot of people and move ’em out. But that’s disruptive. It violates basic human norms. And the political feelings and beliefs – both in California and around the country – will ultimately push back against that, and stop it.
Is Trump fit to serve?
President Trump has said so many outrageous statements, and he’s shifted his position so often, that he is undermining public confidence in the leadership of America. And that reaches beyond our shores to many other countries. On his present trajectory, it is hurting the country. And I just hope he might shift his tactics and get closer to the norm of being a president.
Do you have any hope for that?
I always want to look at the brighter side of things. But his latest performance at the U.N., where he threatened to annihilate 25 million people in North Korea? Instead of casting rhetorical missiles out at that part of the world, we ought to find every way to prevent being threatened – to have dialogue with China, with Russia, with Japan, South Korea. And with North Korea. And do it in whatever way will get the job done.
With so much under assault from Trump – environment, rule of law, basic compassion – what is the role of the states in leading resistance to what’s going on?
I don’t think we’re at the point of “resistance.” I hesitate to use this word that I identify with the French Underground and Albert Camus. “Resistance” conjures up World War II – underground, danger, death. That was some serious shit. This other thing is serious too. But it’s not the same. We should have our issues. Our ideas. Build our alliances. Oppose! And affirm! I’m pursuing climate-change policies, labor policies, health care policies that fit with what Californians want, what I think is a good way to go. Affirm the good. Instead of just resisting the bad and the stupid and the frivolous.
You’re exerting global leadership on climate change. What are the most important next steps?
The important thing for California is to bring down the cost of electric cars. [Editor’s note: Californians drive 350 billion miles a year.] The automobile – if you add in all the life-cycle costs – it could be 50 percent of the greenhouse gases in California. So that is the most difficult, and the most important. We [renewed] the cap-and-trade program, and we are making hundreds of millions of dollars available – subsidies to buy electric or zero-emission vehicles.
Around the world? We need the exchange of ideas – at the technical level as well as at the political level – done by the United States and done by other countries. And we’re not doing that! Because Trump doesn’t take it seriously. But it’s much more serious than people are talking about. What happened in Texas is a good example of extreme weather events that most climate scientists say are going to be the norm. I see it as coming fast. And as Houston demonstrates, boy, when the weather goes bad on you, what the hell are you going to do? Like this hot weather. [Sacramento was expecting temperatures up to 110 degrees in coming days.] If this hot weather lasted a couple of months, we’d have uncontrollable forest fires. We already do!
That’s going to wreak havoc on our lives and our economy. So we better do what we can to prevent it. But we’re on a trajectory not to do enough. We’re not taking the steps. And no one is talking about it. The fact that climate change is inexorably coming down the road? Not news? To overstate the case: The end of the world is not news.
And the states: Florida taking out the words “climate change”? Trump is removing it from documents. This is insane! There’s a vacuum, and it’s very hard to deal with long-term. So California has a role to play. We have to face these oncoming changes even in the face of a very impaired governing process.
Is that the idea behind the climate summit you’re hosting in San Francisco next year?
The Global Climate Action Summit will bring together subnational entities – states and provinces as well as cities and corporate executives – to discuss and disclose all they’re doing to meet the Paris Agreement and beyond. That’s important, given the undermining by the Environmental Protection Agency and the president himself.
I’m doing the Under 2° Coalition. We have 187 subnational jurisdictions, representing over a billion people. The Under 2° Coalition started from a simple idea: That if California keeps adopting these advanced regulations and taxes, we’re going to be completely uncompetitive. We’ve got to get a lot of people doing what we’re doing!
Is the cap-and-trade system here in California a global model?
Can a combination of cities and states and corporations make up for the lack of national leadership?
No. We can’t make up for the lack of national leadership. We’re coming together – we have 14 states and Puerto Rico in a Climate Alliance. So that’s a positive. We’re filling the vacuum. But that’s only temporary. The president and the Congress, their denial of climate change is bad for our country and the world.
We’re at a point that’s very serious. And our response is tepid. Relative to what is needed. This is not good. In Revelations, God says, “Because you’re neither hot nor cold, I spit you out of my mouth.” That’s the Protestant version. In the Catholic version, it’s “I vomited you out of my mouth.” That’s tepidity. In the Jesuits, we were told that there’s nothing worse than tepidity. You gotta be more zealous, more passionate, more committed; we’re not – about climate change, or nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear accident, or blundering into some horrible nuclear exchange, is greater than it’s been since the height of the Cold War. Those are two big issues. Then you could go into cyber, governance, inequality. Pretty much, that’s it: You gotta solve those five things. Oh, yeah, and then jobs in the age of robots and the global economy. That’s a biggie.
Looking at the Democrats, what do you make of the raw divide between the Bernie supporters and the Hillary supporters – the idealists versus the pragmatists of the party?
It reminds me – and this will be a very obscure reference – of the Social Democratic Party in Germany before World War I. It was a Marxist party that was composed of two groups. The revisionists who did not want to have class warfare but wanted to win parliamentary seats and form alliances with other parties. They also had a radical wing who wanted the great takeover: The proletariat would take over and all of a sudden there’d be this nirvana of a new form of government. Eventually, the revisionists squashed the radicals.
Do you think the Bernie wing of the party is too pie-in-the-sky – too much “against the grain”?
I don’t know that there is a Bernie wing. I’ve run for president and often excited lots of people, but after the election is over, new issues, new personalities emerge. There is a widespread desire for a progressive political program for Democrats. The country has devolved. Many Democrats feel that inequality has to be addressed seriously, that health care has to be extended to everybody, and that our foreign policy needs to be survival-oriented – instead of bellicose and confrontational.
We need the activist spirit! How we then fit that into governing – that’s always a challenge. You can’t be so mundane as to be totally practical. But you can’t be so utopian as to build up unrealizable expectations. Where between those two poles the leader finds himself or herself defines a successful or mediocre president.
What’s the way forward for Democrats?
They have to embrace unifying themes. But everyone is pulling apart with all these different issues. I hesitate to even name them. We can’t divide. We need to unify. Not just to win. But to govern.
The biggest policy divide right now is over the idea of single-payer health care. There was a “Medicare for all” bill that died in the California Assembly. Would you have signed that bill?
It didn’t get to me. I did support single-payer when I ran for president. It’s become an idea of fairness and health care as a right. I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but I would say to my friends who feel strongly about this: It needs a lot of careful consideration. It’s a big undertaking. To operationalize that at the state level is difficult. The federal level, there’s more room; you might control pharmaceutical costs. We only have one example of putting it to the people, in Colorado. Got 21 percent of the vote. Vermont passed it, but they couldn’t make it work, and they gave up on it.
Single-payer health care in California would be about $400 billion a year. You’d need more revenue. About $100 billion more? If you had everybody on board, you might be able to create something like that. But the [new California gas] tax – which is only $5 billion – got one Republican vote, and it’s already causing a recall. Now we’re talking 20 times that? Is that serious?
Sen. Sanders has gotten a lot of support from top Democrats for his national Medicare-for-all platform. Is this the wrong issue for Democrats to be rallying around?
The critical issue is the structural inequality that is still growing. A universal health care program would mitigate that to some degree but still leave gross gaps in the safety net and leave virtually untouched this increasing structure of inequality. So I think the economic challenge needs to be front and center.
I also think Obamacare needs to be defended in the short term, because there’s a real threat that Republicans in Washington could deeply undermine that program. That’s a clear and present danger to millions and millions of people.
So what should the Democrats’ economic platform be?
What lost the election – at least in those four states – related to economic security. It’s going to be difficult to deal with that. With the global economy, you may need more government intervention to cushion the shock. Income supplements, or whatever. There was talk in the 1960s about “demo-grants” and the government actually helping. Nixon [proposed] family assistance. Nobody talks about that anymore.
Are Americans going to need that – given the “age of robots” that Elon Musk and Silicon Valley want to bring us?
It ought to be on the agenda. We need some different ideas if we’re going to hold society together. A lot of the power and wealth is coming from income that is disproportionately finding its way to the top. This is one of the paradoxes. The incentives demanded by those at the commanding heights are ever-increasing – and never enough. You have to keep paying your CEOs more and more. But because of the global economy, the average guy is in competition with China and Mexico – their wages have to stagnate. That’s the dilemma. For example, in Mexico, [workers are paid] $5.50 an hour at auto plants just as productive as those in Detroit. How are you going to deal with that? Protectionism has a lot of problems. Income assistance is something that needs to be looked at carefully – as part of a program of transition, whether that be in the coal industry or other parts of the manufacturing sector that are being undermined by global competition. We need to get at it sooner rather than later. But there’s no basis for that. Because the market-as-God – or as one guy called it, “closet dictator” – is dominant.
How can Democrats better appeal on values?
The real belief is in an America that is open and accommodating and supportive of families – in ways that it is not today. You need common themes that may not win the vote of Republicans but will enlist their support through the period of an administration. The people are nervous.
Trump tapped into that anxiety by scapegoating immigrants. A quarter of California’s population is foreign-born. What are the benefits of having a huge immigrant population? And what are the challenges, in terms of economics and language?
The good news is population growth; the bad news is population growth. The good: California is a dynamic economy. That’s because people are coming in here. Look at Silicon Valley. They’re not all born in San Jose or Palo Alto. If we relied on that little narrow jurisdiction? We wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s global.
We have people who come from Mexico that are in every walk of life. That has built our economy. It is supporting our tax structure, our pension system. Now the negative is: How quickly can you assimilate difference? And what holds us together? If you don’t get a common theme, you sometimes get demagoguery based on demonizing the stranger in the land. And you’re seeing it with Trump and all his rallies.
So I’d say integration is challenging. Language: We have 100 languages spoken in the public schools. But it’s a good challenge, and we’re rising to it.
California is a rich state, but there’s a tremendous amount of poverty here too. How does California address, in this boom time, that inequality?
We raised the minimum wage. We expanded the Obama health care. We support measures, small though they may be, to help people on housing. We have aggressive enforcement of labor law, hours of family leave. We also have the local-control [school]-funding formula – where we are putting disproportionate resources behind schools that face challenges from poverty or immigration. So we’re reacting and trying to compensate.
But the government intervention in the face of the destructive power of global capitalism is modest. The overwhelming capitalist flow of money and people is what it is. Everybody moves into San Francisco, New York, London, Beijing, Tokyo. Drives up the prices. That’s the main reason for that poverty, because of the price of housing. Can we control that? Only within limits.
Homelessness has also spiked in California. Is there more the state can do?
Part of it is mental health. We used to have 30,000 people locked up against their will because they were mentally disturbed. Now we might have 1,000, but our population is two and a half times larger. By rights, we should have 75,000 people in mental institutions, which no longer exist. So they’re in tents and in jails and in prisons. Or wandering the streets. That’s a challenge. There’s a dark side to all of this affluence.
Your father was a builder as governor. You’re tackling big infrastructure projects. Why is that so unusual in America today?
We can’t even invest in the basics like bridges or freeways. There’s a failure of imagination that leads to a failure of nerve. Look at the New York subway – to me, that is emblematic of everything. What happened? They say they can’t fix it. Why weren’t they fixing it all along?! They didn’t put the money up. In California, we have $59 billion in deferred maintenance. We finally got [a way to pay for it] with the gas tax! And the Republicans – as their number-one priority – are recalling one of the people who voted for the gas tax. Which is long overdue and absolutely needed by any stretch of the imagination. But fixing stuff is not shiny new objects. What we want is shiny objects.
Shiny objects can be tough too – your high-speed rail.
They don’t like that either. Anything big is bad. “The market is good, government is bad. And don’t ask me to pay for anything that can’t be done in a year. And, by the way, we are going to be the global leader. We’re the indispensable nation – and we’re going to cut our taxes.” Now you tell me how that works? That is a formula for total failure.
High-speed rail is moving forward with a lot of difficulty.
I’m being sued at every step of the way. We’re winning all the lawsuits.
Why is that so much harder here than it is in other countries in Europe or Asia that have been doing this for decades?
Because there’s no vision. It’s kind of a mystery. The Republicans were for it. [House Majority] Leader [Kevin] McCarthy [of Bakersfield] was for it – until Obama gave us money. Then it became bad. As part of the [GOP] belief system: “Democrats bad. Democrats party of government. We’re the party of free enterprise, we’re the good guys. We believe in God. We believe in the free market. And these other barbarians are going to ruin everything. So: Bad!” We got caught up in that belief system.
I don’t get it. The congestion is real. We should be doing far more. I lived in Japan for six months. Take that train from Tokyo to Kamakura, where I was living? One hour exactly. Set your watch. That would be very good to have. Can we do that? It’s very challenging.
Trump campaigned for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending. At least in principle, Democrats don’t disagree with that platform.
A trillion’s not a lot of money. And Trump is going to do a flimflam with Wall Street. Goldman Sachs will find the money from somebody, take a nice little fee for it, and we’ll have a toll road and pay it all back. And the government [wipes hands in the air] – magic. It will be free. Well, that’s not the way the world works.
You’ve got to invest. But investing, to the public, has the ring of taxes. So it would be better for America to go down the drain than we raise taxes. What is it the guy said? Galbraith! “Private affluence. Public squalor.” That’s the philosophy. “Tax is the Antichrist. That is all evil.”
The Republican Party – they only have one unifying theme between the libertarians and the religious fundamentalists and the old-fashioned Republicans: no taxes. If they lose that they may disintegrate. So they’re holding on to it. But holding on to it means that America has to be crippled. And that is the Republican philosophy.
And the perfect example: Trump unveiled his big tax cut. In a year when the deficit is already $690 billion. So where do you get the money? You’re cutting your revenue when you’re already borrowing! So, “I want a big tax cut; I’m going to China to borrow the money.” Nothing could be more crazy, and yet you won’t hear an objection.
You’ve spent a lot of time in China. What have you learned from the Chinese?
Whatever you want to say about how they run themselves – they’re not only building at home, they’re building abroad! Do we have a “One Belt and One Road” [China’s project to create a modern Silk Road connecting China to Europe]? Are we building freeways or subways in Africa or Asia? No! We’re not even building them here! We’re not building abroad, and we’re not building at home. And we think this is the way? Well, I don’t think so. If you want to be a great country, you’ve got to invest.
Who is building all the electric cars? China is really investing! They’re making everybody share their technology. They control photovoltaics. They control wind. We’d better get going. But I don’t think that may fit in the political process. That may not even be cognizable, what I just said.
In fact, this whole interview I don’t even think is reportable. I don’t even know how you’re going to write a story. It’s nothing to do with [our] politics. It’s zero. It’s on another planet. Not even planet Earth! This is the other side of the moon! No functionality in our current political setup.
What happened to the GOP in California? Orange County was the cradle of modern conservatism, but the party has collapsed even there. Is the national party in any danger of following suit?
Some of it was the alienation of Latino voters by Pete Wilson, the [former] Republican governor. It’s also hostility to the environment, to gay marriage. A certain not-very-modern atmosphere characterizes the Republicans. That’s hurt them with young people – and their fall in popularity has been continuous for more than 20 years. So the national party should take note.
Have you run into challenges with the marijuana legalization passed last year?
It’s a bold experiment! It’s a bold experiment. We don’t know how many people will be stoned, how long. Is it going to reduce the influence of criminals and cartels? Or is it going to lead to just another – you know: There they go! [Droops his head back on the couch, pretends to be a stoner.] “Well, I’m gonna have another joint; don’t worry about climate change.” [Makes huge inhaling noise as he pantomimes smoking a doobie.] “It’s all great.”
What would you recommend to other governors?
[Colorado Gov. John] Hickenlooper says it’s working pretty good. He has more experience. I would say the devotion and the zeal of the marijuana people is extraordinary. And far exceeds the mainline church community’s, as I encounter it.
What music are you listening to?
I saw Neil Diamond. He packed the arena. Neil Diamond was darn good! A lot of the songs – you know what they are! He’s one of the last of the last. He was around in ’67. That whole period started when I just got out of law school. I remember seeing Bob Dylan in Gerde’s Folk City. 1963.
Is there any advice that you’d give now to yourself starting out as governor in 1974 – something central about politics?
I should have planned my presidential campaign more carefully. That would be my advice. But on the other hand, I had a lot of good experiences doing different things, which I might not have done.
Is there any advice your dad gave that you carry with you?
He was very supportive, proud and excited when I was elected governor. But I grew up in an age where parents were not hovering over you, coming to your school or watching your games. There was an adult world. And there was a kids world. This whole business of parents having all this interaction with their kids, that’s a new cultural pattern that was far more infrequent in the Forties and Fifties, when I was growing up. Obviously, I emulated my father because I became governor and attorney general like he did. But I don’t remember him offering a lot of advice.
I have a hard time, after this conversation, thinking of you on your ranch as a retired person. What’s next for Jerry Brown?
Well, first of all, I have to understand the animals and the archaeology and the geology, the trees, the insects, the rattlesnakes, and the wild boar and the elk and the fauna and the flora. There’s a lot to govern up there. A lot of complexity – and I’m going to work on that. But I’ll be available for assignments. I don’t think I’ll be quiet.