ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When California Governor Jerry Brown took office in 2011, he had the weight of his predecessors on his shoulders.
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JERRY BROWN: It's sobering and enlightening to read through the inaugural addresses of past governors. I don't imagine too many of you do that.
BROWN: They each start these inaugural addresses on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same reoccurring issues - education, crime, budgets, water.
SHAPIRO: That's from his 2011 inaugural address, and he could have been referencing his own earlier speeches because Jerry Brown first served as California governor from 1975 to 1983. Later, he was mayor of Oakland and California's attorney general before he returned to the governor's office.
Now as he prepares to leave office at the age of 80, we invited him to talk about his legacy, about shaping the politics of the most populous state in the country for almost 50 years. I started by asking him about the economy, specifically about leaving the state's finances better than he found them.
BROWN: We know we 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 here. We're talking closer to 30 billion.
Now, what did I do or didn't do? I did rein in the spending, and that took fortitude against the tendency of the Democrat Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that satisfies one of the key constituencies. But basically, we're living in the heart of the most dynamic economy in the world, Silicon Valley, home of Apple and Google and Intel and all these different companies. I know I'm going to miss some.
But the gross domestic product in California has grown 800 billion. That's just the growth. So we're about fifth-largest economy in the world, and that completely overshadows state government activity.
SHAPIRO: 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?
BROWN: 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 overshoot its mark.
And unfortunately, 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. And the automation is such that a lot of people are now what they call redundant because the economy, it doesn't have a role for them. And that's where creative political leaders are going to have to find a way to tame capitalism.
SHAPIRO: Do you regret not having done more to create more affordable housing over the last eight years?
BROWN: I don't know - I don't see what - 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 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 'cause 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.
SHAPIRO: You've also made the environment and climate change a big focus during your time in office. I mean, you were 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?
BROWN: 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. U.S. is 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 disasters, fires and four or five more floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and all that. The problem is the burden of spending to transition to a non-carbon world will be much higher, much harder and will be wrenching to the democratic political system.
SHAPIRO: 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?
BROWN: Yeah, I'd 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 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.
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 - a slow slog. So we've had some bills to take back some of the draconian sentences.
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. We've got a long way to go.
SHAPIRO: OK, so next month you hand over the governor's office to Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco. What advice do you have for him?
BROWN: What advice? Well, I would say 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 got to think not about all your little pet programs, of which there'll 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. We had the fires. They're a huge disaster. But you've got to 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 is most important? And also, I would say, what can you really do? Because you might don't want to be chasing rainbows and turn up with an empty hand.
SHAPIRO: California Governor Jerry Brown, thank you so much for joining us today.
BROWN: OK, my pleasure. Thanks.
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