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May 31, 2013
Guest Opinion: Gov. Jerry Brown as philosopher-king? Really?

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(May 31 -- By Ben Boychuk, Special to The Bee)

A mentor once told me one of the best things anyone could do in life is absorb the teachings of Aristotle's "Ethics."

I haven't followed that advice very well - it's been at least a decade since I last read the book. But I have a lingering notion that reading Aristotle is not only good for the soul, it is also helpful for understanding our governor, who often quotes the philosopher when it suits him.

Don't worry, I'm not about to inflict a lengthy exegesis of Aristotelian ethics on you, and I won't contrast Jerry Brown with Aristotle's "great-souled man." But as the philosopher teaches: "Rule will show the man." So it has!

To say Brown fancies himself as a philosopher-politician is hardly a novel observation. Brown practically encourages it. The current issue of The Atlantic, for example, features a glowing profile of Brown's "political reboot," in which writer James Fallows portrays the governor as that rarity among pols: a deep thinker.

"I find that a lot of people are more invested in position-taking than they are in the inquiry," Brown tells Fallows. "Generally speaking, I am in the inquiry. I live in the question."

Later, discussing teacher accountability, Brown says, "I'm skeptical of that - and of you, and Washington, and myself."

Heady stuff, no? There's more where that came from. Beyond burnishing Brown's image as a philosopher-king ruling a state teeming with small minds, Fallows' profile is part of a narrative - emerging just in time for the 2014 election - announcing a new dawn in the Golden State.

The story goes something like this: California has been through hell, with seemingly endless fiscal crises, a housing market collapse and a dysfunctional state government in the grips of political paralysis. But the state is coming back now, and all it took was Brown's wisdom and a massive tax increase to get things moving again.

To quote Brown totally out of context, "I'm skeptical of that."

Yes, the budget is balanced right now - thanks to a revenue windfall from people who took capital gains last year to avoid the overhyped "fiscal cliff," and from Proposition 30, which passed in November but took effect retroactively. Fallows discusses California's tax volatility problem, only to suggest a remedy would be to increase the burden by imposing a new levy on services.

Fallows downplays the state's debt, and gives short shrift to some of Brown's boondoggles, such as high-speed rail. He also errs with a weird claim that California allows deficit spending, which exacerbated the state's budget crisis. Not so. The state constitution requires a balanced budget - even if that means using every accounting gimmick in the world to get there.

California's problems didn't just happen by accident, and they won't be wished away. They are the result of deliberate policy errors made by politicians - Brown included. "It is absurd to make external circumstances responsible and not oneself," Aristotle teaches.

Here I need to take responsibility for an error of my own. Last week, I appeared on the "Coffee and Markets" podcast to discuss the Fallows article. It was an early morning interview, and I was uncharacteristically generous in my praise, noting that among Brown's many (non-Aristotelian) virtues as a politician is his willingness to look you in the eye when he sticks the shiv in you.

Then came a fumble. I attributed to Brown a quotation that was really a paraphrase of the gist of a vaguely remembered radio appearance. In my recollection, Brown went on the air in San Francisco sometime in 2009 with a pile of opposition research on Gavin Newsom, who was still running for governor, and told the host, "This is how we do business."

Except that wasn't what Brown said. Evan Westrup, Brown's press secretary, e-mailed to say I'd gotten it wrong, and that he wasn't even sure the governor had ever done such an interview. I was certain I'd read about it somewhere. But after a few days scouring my files and the Web, I've come up empty. So I owe the governor and the podcast's listeners an apology. I screwed up.

Westrup also challenged my characterization of Prop. 30's tax increases as a "bait and switch," with much of the money earmarked for education actually making its way to teachers' pensions. I'm hardly the first to point this out. As former Schwarzenegger budget adviser David Crane has argued, the California State Teachers' Retirement System needs an additional $4.5 billion a year to remain solvent. School districts are on the hook for that money. So while it's technically true most of the Prop. 30 revenue will go to districts, the lion's share will end up in CalSTRS' coffers, not in classrooms.

Our philosopher-governor is likely to run for re-election next year, and he might even win. "No one chooses wishful things, but only that things might be brought about by his efforts," Aristotle says. "Choice relates to things that are in our power and involve a rational principle." Who ever said Californians were rational?

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

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