The wave is up, then the wave crashes—”
It’s Jerry Brown, whacking his hand on a long wooden table for emphasis. The attorney general for the State of California, son of two-time governor Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr. (1959 to 1967), himself a two-time governor (1975 to 1983), three-time presidential candidate, two-time Senate candidate, and former mayor of Oakland, is talking about the economic wave California rode from riches to rags.
It’s 9 a.m., and the sound echoes in this empty storefront loft tucked away in a gentrified warehouse district of Oakland, a campaign headquarters that also serves as a shrine to Brown’s past glories, full of faded magazine covers and election posters. With his shaved head and beakish nose, Brown, 72, has the look of an old buzzard, but one bristling with unpredictable energy. Whereas every other politician mentions the fact that California is the eighth-largest economy in the world by GDP, the man who would vanquish billionaire former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in the race for governor seems to back into the fact like he’s working it out on the fly. At first he tells me California is the second-largest economy, after China.
“What does China show, $1.3 trillion quarterly? Let’s see … multiply that by four … about $5.2 trillion. We’re—no, no we’re not. Shit. We’re $1.8 trillion. There are only seven countries bigger than that! Only seven. And we’re only 38 million people.”
From here, Brown proceeds to explain the present state of California, and the state of the union, in its entirety, in one tumbling monologue, like Jack Kerouac on CNN:
It’s a very productive state—and new things! Medical advances, iPhones. Different, um, stuff. It’s the software—so! Biotech, it’s here. Are there problems? Yes, there are problems. But are there problems in America, are there problems in Afghanistan, are there problems everywhere? There are problems. And maybe there are problems in China; we just haven’t seen them yet.
Difficult to deal with. Not as easy as it was when you’re tearing down orange trees and lemon groves and putting up savings-and-loans associations [slam!] and schools [slam!] and moderately priced houses [slam!]. That’s true. When you just push into the virgin land, it’s like the settling of the West [slam!], it just continued [slam!]. That’s not quite the way it is now. It’s a more tight system [slam!]. We’re caught in [slam!] 38 million people with [slam!] 30 million vehicles, with so much [slam!] pollutants spewing out, with so much oil coming in to feed it and a housing boom and there we are … We’re riding this wave. But we’re not in charge of the wave, and even Obama is not in charge of the wave, and even the Federal Reserve, Bernanke. Does he know what he—he studied the Depression! We have Krugman, says more stimulus, and we have Republicans, say, no, austerity is the path [slam!], just tuck it, suck it in, and go forward.
So we have a complete disagreement on how to proceed. But! In the middle of all that, $1.8 trillion. And it’s going up this year. We have a management challenge. We have a very polarized Legislature, just like in Washington. And the Republicans say, Yes’m, and the Democrats say, No’m, and they just sit there and they talk and they talk, the governor just talks and talks, and nothing happens. Okay. I got that. But, it’s still a rich state. And I really believe that at this stage in my life, I’m the man to fix it. I know it as well as any human being in California. And I’m in a position to do something. A dead-heat race! And if people want me to use my skills, my energy, my imagination, my integrity, I’ll do it.
If they don’t, it’s fine with me.
Jerry Brown wasn’t the only one. Everywhere I traveled in California, people talked—and talked and talked—about the sense that something is ending.
On the surface, the reason is plain: The State of California, as a fiscal entity, is in ruins. Crushed by the housing collapse of 2008, California is essentially bankrupt, with a perilous $88 billion in debt. With no money in the coffers, the state has offered IOUs to its lenders. Unemployment is at 12.4 percent, third highest in the nation. Once the state with the most envied education system in the U.S., California is now tied for last in national reading scores—and ahead of only Mississippi, Alabama, and Washington, D.C., in math. The road to Sacramento, among the nicer ones in the state’s once-glorious highway network, is a patchwork of crumbling black and gray asphalt lined with billboards for Indian casinos.