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Jerry Brown: Zen and the Art of Pandemic Response

People from all walks of life, including many leftists, were electrified by the meteoric rise of Jerry Brown, who first became California‘s governor in 1974 and returned to that office in the 21st century.

It’s easy to see why. Brown was, and is, a politician unlike any other. Jesuitically trained and possessed of a monastic yet hip-seeming personal austerity, he came to office with a penchant for old cars, mattresses on the floor, and deep conversations with Zen priests.

He also had a penchant for austerity economics. Regrettably, Brown was ahead of his party’s curve in that respect. Now, that tendency has hampered California’s response to the novel coronavirus.

Many spiritual teachers warn their students about asceticism: that It is too easy to become enamored of it, that it is can become spiritual indulgence, and that can lead you to impose hardship on others in its name. Sleeping on the floor is easier when you’re a governor’s son. 

Brown was reportedly fascinated by economist EF Schumacher’s experiment in Buddhist economics, “Small is Beautiful.” Schumacher’s book was a mixed bag of ideas, ranging from democratically decentralized workplaces to a critique of large-scale economies. But for Brown it seemed to ring as a clarion call against government scaled to any major size. 

Lifesaving programs like Medicare and Social Security are products of a large central government and would have been impossible without it.  So, too, would the technology that seemed to enamor Brown so much, from satellites to computers and the internet.  Each was birthed in large-scale government research and development, which In later decades was typically followed by major cash transfers to the private sector: for production, manufacture, and—when companies weren’t directly benefiting from government contracts—to royalty-free profits from government-developed tech.

But big government’s role in nurturing these cash-rich Buddha fields—each capable of inspiring soliloquies worthy of H.G. Wells—sometimes seemed to have been forgotten when confronted by Brown’s apparent determination, echoed later by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to wage spiritual war against “big government” itself—and therefore against those things that big government does best.

States have genuine fiscal restraints. They can’t “print money” in a crisis. But those restraints always seemed to resonate with Brown’s monastic tendencies a bit more than they should. “Less is more” became a mantra in the 1970s, too, as the concept of minimalism spread from architecture to other human activities. It has a place in a well-balanced world. But, in this case, less turned out to be, tragically, less.

When the pandemic arrived, the state learned that the mobile hospitals and ventilators purchased under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in preparation for the bird flu had been dismantled after Brown took office. As the Los Angeles Times reports,

“… a fiscally minded Democratic governor, Jerry Brown … came into office facing a $26-billion deficit. And so, that year, the state cut off the money to store and maintain the stockpile of supplies and the mobile hospitals. The hospitals were defunded before they’d ever been used.”

Medical equipment, including ventilators, were given to local hospitals and health agencies, but without any funds to maintain them. The respirators expired, unused and eventually discarded. Brown’s administration failed to restore the program even after the state ran a budget surplus of more than $6 billion in his final year as governor. 

The Times reports that the state saved no more than $5.8 million per year—that’s “million” with an “m”—by cutting off the medical supplies and shutting down the mobile hospitals provided by this program. That’s an infinitesimal fraction of the state’s $129 billion—that’s “billion” with a “b”—budget. 

“Small is Beautiful” can become “Small is Deadly” in a heartbeat.

From Covid Days, a journal of the plague months.

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