Jerry Brown will determine if California is like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears

In a recent article printed by the Wall Street Journal and reproduced at Fox News, writer Allysia Finley opines that California is the “Lindsay Lohan” of states – a washed-up, former politically glamorous state which now is simply too far gone to be saved by anything but a long, hard stint in rehab/jail/bankruptcy. Finley writes:

     “Listen up, California. The other 48 states—your cousin New York excluded—are sick of your bratty arrogance. You’re the Lindsay Lohan of states: a prima donna who once showed some talent but is now too wasted to do anything with it…You’ve racked up nearly $70 billion in general obligation debt, and that doesn’t include your $500 billion unfunded pension liability. Your own analysts predict you’ll face a hole of at least $80 billion over the next four years. Your government’s run by a brothel of environmentalists, lawyers, public-sector unions and legislative bums. When they’re not taxing or spending, they’re creating regulations and commissions like the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and the California Blueberry Commission. Many businesses would leave if it weren’t for your sunny climate.”

Needless to say, the article’s gotten a fairly divided reception along relatively predictable party lines, with conservatives (including national powerhouse commentator Rush Limbaugh) trumpeting it as unpleasant truth, and liberals decrying it as unfair, sensationalized and excessively bitter. Unfortunately, this partisan response, while it’s no doubt comforting for those who don’t like to think ill of their own kind, obscures the elephant in the room – that even if California’s state government is acting like one of the many famous substance-addled starlets who populate the streets of Hollywood, it’s not clear what phase of that starlet-style decline the state is going through. Or, put another way, is California going to be a permanent embarrassment to the American experiment that never takes its medicine a la Lindsay Lohan, or a temporary embarrassment that makes some counterintuitive choices but ends up making come back like, say, Britney Spears?

The answer isn’t obvious, nor is it necessarily partisan. It’s easy to forget that over the years, California’s thorny record with governance has led to both “Lindsay” phases and “Britney” phases taking place under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Incoming Governor Jerry Brown isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, the person one would peg as the type to lead a state back from the brink of fiscal collapse by making the necessarily politically difficult choices, but nor was his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the type one would peg to sink a state into a fiscal morass via all sorts of fashionable spending, financed by weak revenues when he took office. And Brown’s already showing signals that as a leader, he might take a different and almost (dare we say it) more conservative approach to the budget.

Exhibit A: recent stories dealing with incoming Governor Brown’s decision to eliminate the office of Secretary of Education from his cabinet. In a state where education is often seen as the third rail, with about 40 percent of the budget going towards it (and that doesn’t count funding for California’s far more impressive colleges and universities), eliminating this thoroughly redundant position (everything the secretary does is also done by the statewide superintendent) is more than just a rare bit of efficiency-maximizing sense – it’s also heavily symbolic. And if the symbolism can be read accurately by this author, then Brown clearly intends to take on entrenched interests in California politics, and unlike Schwarzenegger, he might stand a decent chance of doing so for reasons that have almost everything to do both with political convenience.

It’s an oft-cited bit of political wisdom that only the avowedly anti-communist Richard Nixon could open China. The same thing could easily be said of Jerry Brown, if he decides to take on spending in California. Brown has absolutely no ideological or political incentive to do anything about spending, nor indeed to do anything but try to make up for holes in the budget by increasing fees, taxes and other revenue gimmicks. But Brown also faces a state where reality dictates that some punishing economic rehab is necessary, and having served for so long within the shamefully Lindsay Lohan-ish Schwarzenegger administration, he has probably read the writing on the wall about what’s necessary to get California working. Schwarzenegger, despite being the first Republican Governor to get elected since Pete Wilson, lacked both the ideological and political will to take these steps, and it’s not clear that he could have taken them even if he did want to, since the California legislature has always been more concerned with thwarting ideological opponents than with productivity.

Brown has a more hardened understanding of California politics than Schwarzenegger, and opposing him would be politically inconvenient for the majority Democratic state legislature. As such, Brown has a clearer path to reform than his predecessor.