It's a wonder that Gov. Jerry Brown's mouth isn't full of straw.
Because his state of the state speech was full of straw men -- various unnamed critics he accused of being against California, or being wrong, or being both.
Brown in particular took swipes at journalists, writers, academics and foundation people. I wondered if I should take it personally -- since I am a little bit of all those things.
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I'm guessing he wasn't thinking of Prop Zero, though we've been tough on him here -- not so much for what he's done but for what he hasn't done (pursued broader reform of the budgeting and governing system that so frustrates him and the state).
And while it's easy to dismiss a politician taking shots at "critics" and journalists for using a tried-and-true bit of populism, Brown went to the well so often in this speech that it's fair to wonder if something else is going on. Let's look at each of the insults:
Full text: "Every decade since the '60s, dystopian journalists write stories on the impending decline of our economy, our culture and our politics."
Reaction: "Dystopia", according to the dictionary, is "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives."
Brown argued that California isn't like that at all. The state has huge strengths, and its economic recovery has by some measures outpaced that of the rest of the country.
That's a fair point.
But anti-California screeds aren't a new development--they've been around since at least the '50s. The 1850s, when a writer named Hinton Helper had a national bestseller with an anti-California tome.
Whatever the history, predictions of decline are so common that a California governor shouldn't be worrying about them, much less bringing them up in a high-profile speech at a time of real crisis.
"DECLINISTS WHO SING OF TEXAS AND BEMOAN OUR WOES"
Full text: "Contrary to those declinists, who sing of Texas and bemoan our woes, California is still the land of dreams—as well as the Dream Act."
Reaction: This would seem to be a shot at Republicans, who like to say nice things about Texas and talk about how bad things are.
Brown has a point here about comparisons -- California is much better positioned than other states for the future, given its many strengths.
But -- and this is a big but -- the state's governing system is so inferior to that of other places -- Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, and, yes, Texas -- that we're sabotaging ourselves and not taking full advantage of our strengths.
One problem with Brown's record to date is that he has not been willing to take on change to the governing system, with the important exception of his effort to eliminate redevelopment agencies.
Full text: "Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed."
Reaction: OK, he is talking about me, and a majority of the state.
And some of the criticism has been over the top, but this isn't just carping. Independent observers, including the legislature's non-partisan analyst, have raised big questions about the poor planning and overly optimistic financial estimates of high-speed rail backers.
Brown was wrong to dismiss this criticism as the carping of people who don't like to build big things.
Many of those who criticize want to build big things, but wonder if $100 billion for a train from LA to San Francisco should be first on the list of big things.
"EXPERTS AND ACADEMICS AND FOUNDATION CONSULTANTS"
Full text: But that doesn’t stop experts and academics and foundation consultants from offering their ideas — usually labeled reform and regularly changing at ten year intervals—on how to get kids learning more and better.
It is salutary and even edifying that so much interest is shown in the next generation.
Nevertheless, in a state with six million students, 300,000 teachers, deep economic divisions and a hundred different languages, some humility is called for.
Reaction: Brown has a good point.
The industry of advice on education reform is a massive one, and there is a groupthink to the education reform community that is, at best, problematic. And changing a big state system of education is a bear of a task.
Brown rightly says the state needs to make sure power and ideas come from the local level, and his budget proposal takes important steps in that direction.
Still, he has shied away from the politically difficult step of returning tax-setting power to local school districts and local governments -- which is the essence of local control.
Taken together, these insults gave a bit of a sour after-taste to a speech designed to be positive, and focused on the future of California.
For Brown, the answer may be to stop reading so much of what other people saying -- and focus on fixing a governing system so the state can do the big things required to give Californians a brighter future.