In an interview with All Things Considered‘s Ari Shapiro, California Gov. Jerry Brown reflects on his nearly 50-year political career as he prepares to step down in January. Brown, who will have served four terms as the state’s governor, discusses how politics has changed in his lifetime, income inequality and affordable housing, the environment and climate change, criminal justice and what lies ahead in California politics.
Ari Shapiro: Let’s start with the big picture. Do you think that in your lifetime politics has changed for the better or the worse?
Gov. Jerry Brown: You know, it’s easy to say it’s changed for the worse because there’s certainly a lot of evidence for that. But if you look over a longer historical time horizon — certainly the fighting between Adams and Jefferson and the Federalists and those who opposed them, the agrarians — there is a lot of nastiness. I mean, people called Lincoln all sorts of names. So we’ve had periods, in fact quite often, where politics degenerates into very bitter and very sharp name-calling. So I’d say we have a, democracy has this as one of its components and we see that today all over the world and in Brazil and the Philippines and all sorts of places that have democracies.
I would say, though, that the legitimacy, the respect for institutions, is definitely substantially weakened. And I would say that the two parties are certainly polarized. Whether it’s greater than at the time before the Civil War, I’ll leave that to historians. But between the two parties, there is a real sharp cleavage. It’s a Grand Canyon of distance and gap, because Republicans talk different, think different, associate with different people in much of the country, live in very different places, than Democrats. And the older brand of moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats, forming a certain vital center, that’s out the window. So I think there are a lot of differences, but I hesitate to too sharply define where we are.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the divide between the parties because for the last eight years you’ve had the advantage of strong Democratic majorities in the California legislature. And I’d like to talk about what some of your priorities over those last eight years have been. Beginning with the budget, you inherited a deficit of about $27 billion. Today there is a surplus, with a $14 billion rainy day fund. How much of that do you think was only possible because you had big majorities of your own party?
By the way we not only 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. We’re talking closer to $30 billion.
Now, what did I do or didn’t do? I did rein in spending. I did — and then that took fortitude against the tendency of the Democratic Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that, you know, that satisfies all of the key constituencies.
But basically we’re living in, you know, the heart of the most dynamic economy in the world, Silicon Valley, home of Apple and Google and Intel, and in the state larger has Qualcomm and all these different companies. I know I’m going to mention, miss some, but the gross domestic product in California has grown $800 billion. That’s just the growth. So we’re about $2.8 trillion right now, fifth-largest economy in the world. And that’s nuts. That completely overshadows state government activity. This is part of the global economy, with the flows of capital innovation, trade and then all the other ingredients.
So you’re saying the surplus is not because of the legislature, the surplus is because of the companies that happen to be in California?
Well, it’s two points. It’s the wealth being generated by all the many actors in California, some of which I mentioned, but it’s also due to the tax framework. If we were in Nevada or Texas, we wouldn’t have generated this money because they don’t have an income tax. So there’s a capture of a lot of this wealth through the tax system, and that’s been the product of Democratic majorities, or in some cases, the people themselves who voted a couple of times to increase the tax on the wealthiest 1 percent.
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.
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 overshoots its mark. And that’s why every few years or every so often, in fact 10 times since World War II, the country and California goes into recession. Sometimes very deep recession.
So, this is kind of a zigzag, up and down, and unfortunately — and you hinted this in your question — that 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. Of course, that is happening in Boston and New York as well and London and Paris. But the real estate is really going up, and the automation is such that 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 there have to find a way to tame capitalism, restructure.
You say “creative political leaders will have to find a way,” but you’ve been California’s political leader for the last eight years. Do you regret that you weren’t able to do more to fight this housing crisis?
I’m talking about taming capitalism, that’s a global phenomenon. That’s something [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] is trying to do. That’s something the prime minister in England is trying to do with the Brexit challenges.
So we have our subset of problems, and you start to mention homelessness and other things, the rising cost of housing and other vital needs in life. But we do our part.
And in California, we’ve increased, we’ve brought 5 million people onto health insurance, publicly supported health insurance. We have a school system now that directs a third of its funding disproportionately to low-income families. We have earned income tax credit, which is a subsidy to working families that only enjoy low incomes. So we increase the minimum wage — it’s $11 today, it’ll go to $15 — so we’re doing a lot of things and the next governor will do more on homelessness and poverty and all the rest. I’m just saying that the engine of capitalism, which is so powerful, it has its negative, dark side as well as its bright and shiny side.
You’ve also made the environment and climate change a big focus during your time in office. I mean you are 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?
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 — the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, well, U.S. 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 disastrous fires and four or five more floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and all that. 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 it will be wrenching to the democratic political system.
We’re hearing on the program today from some people who lived through the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. What do you think can be done in the immediate future to prevent 2019 from being as deadly as 2018 has been for California?
That’s a good question. The fires are going to get worse. They’re not going to get better. It’s very simple. Drought over time takes out the humidity, and with no moisture, what is nice vegetation and pretty trees becomes kindling wood, and it just explodes with any kind of lightning or human error with a match or a cigarette or some kind of an energy, power pole or something. So, that’s the way it is. People, what we can’t do is manage the forest better. We’re not gonna do that overnight. We have millions and millions of acres, that’s not going to happen. We have massive grass in Southern California. You’ve got to deal with that. The wild lands there are very great to hike in, but as the summer heat intensifies and we get into the fall, Santa Ana winds, it’s very dangerous.
So look, the disaster planning has to increase, the management of our lands — that has to intensify and that’s going to cost, you know, if not hundreds of millions, probably billions. So and then each person has to take responsibility and learn where they are and what they can do to reduce the vegetation. Find an escape route. Things are — we’re in a new abnormal, and I’m not going to give you a nice little, “Everything’s fine, just do A, B and C, and you’ll be safe.” No, we’re in great danger, and the danger will intensify. And I’m sure that politicians will respond, but probably too slowly.
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?
Yeah, I 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, sometimes annually, 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. It’s somewhat like the price of housing. The capitalist engine produces the flow of money — earned, borrowed, brought in from afar. And that drives up the price of housing. The same thing — but that’s the overshoot, now you got to deal with it. The overshoot on, we’ve got a crime problem in the ’90s, pretty serious gangs, cocaine, shootings, so now they respond.
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, slow, a slow slog, because it’s just hard to undo. So it’s happening around the country. We’ve had some bills to take back some of the draconian sentences. But the prosecutors, I mean they live for locking people up as long as possible, and they’re not helpful. Some of the sheriffs and the police are a little more reasonable. But you have a whole group of people. And rightfully, people are victimized. These are horrible crimes. 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. But we’ve got a long way to go.
Let me just give you the most extreme example. Murder [sentences] on average was about 11 or 12 years, on average, it could be higher or lower in the ’70s. Now it’s about 50 years and that’s going down now. So that’s that’s the key point. It used to be seven to life and then the person who goes to jail, goes to prison, and the parole board would then, after seven years, look at him and might let him go in 10, 12, 20, 30 or 40 years, or maybe never. That was the rehabilitative model, depending on an expert parole board.
We changed that to fix sentencing, and when we went to fix sentencing, the term for murder went, in some cases, to 60 and 70 years and robbery and three strikes and all the other things down the line, they also dramatically increase. Not two or three times, but four and five times. So now we have a massive spending in the general fund budget is a little under 10 percent on prisons. It used to be a little over 2 percent when I was governor. So I think there has to be a rational appraisal and the development of more thoughtful ways of sanctioning and punishing people. Crime and punishment are fundamentals. They’re around since, you know, since the time of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. So nothing new here. It’s not going away.
But how, for what crime should you inflict what kind of pain? How long in the cage do you keep people? Who do you execute, if you do? And what other deprivations can we inflict? And is the purpose of that vengeance? Is it some kind of expiation? Or is it deterrence? Is it public safety? It’s all of that. So this is a very deeply historical and profoundly moral question that we’re dealing with.
I just think about the fact that you’re 80 years old, at the point in life where people think about what they might have done differently. It’s such a rare opportunity to actually be able to go back to the policies that you regret having implemented decades ago and try to make a difference and and do things differently.
Well, I’m doing it differently, but I do want to say that I adopted a thick sentencing in 1978. I had some questions at the time, but for a lot of reasons, I did it. But as soon as that bill went into effect, the legislature started changing the law that I had signed, and they changed it virtually every year thereafter. In fact, until just this year. It never stops. Because when you go from an expert parole board that is deciding when someone should be released to a legislator, running for office, or a prosecutor, running for office, the appetite for more punishment can never be satisfied. So, yes, by taking, by diminishing the role of the parole board and putting it in the hands of the legislature, that did cause trouble.
And then, in California we have the initiatives, and we’ve had 21 elections on crime bills. I’d say about 17 of them are toughening bills, put people in jail, easier and longer. So it’s a complicated story. It’s a very important story. And I am glad that I’m able to correct some of the things. But the things I am correcting, for the most part, have been done in the last 20 years.
Gov. Brown, I’d also like to ask you about the Republican Party in California, which was a minority before the 2018 elections and lost even more ground last month. There have not been this few Republicans in California’s congressional delegation since the 1940s. What do you think the GOP in California should do next?
Well, I think the GOP has got to recognize that it isn’t just representing, you know, people that look like me and are my age, they’ve got to get in touch with younger people, people of color, immigrants. They have to learn about the environment.
And in fact, some of them are. When we were doing a very important climate change bill to put restrictions on the emission of carbon, we got eight Republicans — seven Republicans in our lower house one in the state Senate, who joined with me. And without their votes, at least in the lower house, we couldn’t gotten the bill, and those seven Republicans came to me on their own and said we think our party has to deal with climate change, we’re disappearing. So the leadership of that Republican Party did recognize the problem and they took steps to do something about it.
The problem is each of the ones who voted “yes” on this climate action bill, they were challenged, a couple who were defeated, and they became pariahs in their own party. Now, the ones who survived are making their way back, but the party has become the party of Trump.
All of Trump’s issues, and they’re probably gonna get worse and worse, have been owned and embraced by the vast majority of Republicans. That’s why they lost seven congressional seats. Even Orange County Republicans, who will disagree with Democrats on a lot of things, can’t stomach Trump’s behavior and the things that he’s talking about. So it didn’t fly. Even in rural California, where, you know, counties where I lost running against Meg Whitman, they voted for a Democratic congressman, I think, because the Trump factor. So the Republicans have been growing irrelevant for the last 20 years and now with Trump they’ve accelerated their irrelevance. So they’ve got to get back to Lincoln, to Earl Warren, who was the governor of California in the ’50s and ’60s. And you know they’ve got to embrace a much more cosmopolitan. Think about Eisenhower. Think about Gerald Ford.
There’ve been a number of Republicans who’ve been wise, who’ve made an important contribution. And I think the Democrats have no lock on wisdom or on sustainability or on the things that people want to identify with. So there’s a big opening, and you know, the Republicans, their problem, is at least in California, they only know how to say “no.” Now on the other hand, the Democrats’ problem is they only know how to say “yes,” even to harebrained schemes. So there is plenty of room for wise people that talk sense to the American people and to the people in California.
Next month you hand over the governor’s office to Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco. What advice do you have for him?
I would say while 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’ve gotta think not about all your little pet programs, of which there will 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. You can have what we had, the fires. They’re a huge disaster. And then we have all sorts of other things.
But I’d say you have to watch what’s popular of the moment, becaus , you know, the media has their frenzy, there’s a certain storyline that people follow. And then politicians follow that and contribute to it. But you gotta 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 are the basic things? What is most important? And also I would say, “What can you really do?” because you might not want to be chasing rainbows and turn up with an empty hand.
Before we let you go, I would like to play you a clip from your 2011 inaugural address. This is when you came back to the office after having been away for many years.
Audio Clip: It is a big job ahead. The rising cost of energy, the depletion of our resources, the threat to the environment, the uncertainty of our economy and the monetary system, the lack of faith in government, the drift in political and moral leadership—is not the work of one person, it is the work of all of us working together. I ask your help. Thank you very much We have lot of work to do. Let’s get to it. Thank you very much.
So as you prepare to leave this office after four terms as governor, what do you see as your biggest unfinished project?
Well, first of all those issues that I spoke about — education, water, budgets — those are conditions, you live in those conditions, it’s like, you know. You’re born, you grow up, you get old, you die. These are conditions and you try to make the best you can of it. It’s not a bunch of problems to be solved. It’s conditions to be understood and to be managed. And when I see unfulfilled, I do think that prison systems and the criminal justice system and dealing with drug abuse and mental illness, all that, poverty, we’ve got to deal with that and I’m going to be working on that.
But the other two big things that is profoundly important to California and America and the world is the ever growing danger of climate disruption. That’s happening, and the world leaders are abysmally failing to confront it at the level they have to. And then the nuclear threat that I’m going to work with as chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. There’s still a major threat from terrorism, from other countries, from blunder. 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. And when you see the tensions with Russia or with China or between Pakistan and India and the Middle East, it’s damn dangerous. And I would say most politicians are 100 percent asleep with respect to this particular issue.
If you’ll indulge me before we let you go, I have two small follow-up questions that my editor would like me to ask. And they shouldn’t take long. The first is: Do you regret not having done more to create more affordable housing over the last eight years?
I don’t know. I don’t see 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 reason why we’ve got housing that’s been unaffordable, it’s been going on for decades. 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 because 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.
The other quick follow-up, if you don’t mind. When you were talking about what Republicans need to do to prevent Democratic one-party rule stretching into the indefinite future. A lot of Democrats would see what you’ve described — indefinite one-party rule for the state of California — as a dream come true. Do you think that’s something the Democrats should aim for? Or is there a value to having a strong Republican Party in the state?
No, I think there’s plenty of value. It’s like having a free press. You need someone to disagree, to criticize, to offer an alternative, and that’s what the two parties can do. We’ve had a majority party, but I’ve been the governor who knows how to say no. I think it’s difficult to say no. The next four years, it’s going to become even more difficult, because the weakness of the Republican Party has let the Democratic Party, I think, get further out than I think the majority of people want. So there’s plenty of opportunity for Republicans, if they just pause to look at the world is really is, and try to come up with something in the tradition of Lincoln and Eisenhower and other great Republicans. As far as the Democrats, I think, don’t get overconfident because pride always becomes comes before a fall.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, thank you so much for joining us today.
OK, my pleasure. Thanks.