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Hiltzik: Jerry Brown schools a WSJ editor on being Jerry Brown

March 23, 2012|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Gov. Jerry Brown on a recent tour of a Boeing plant in Long Beach.
Gov. Jerry Brown on a recent tour of a Boeing plant in Long Beach. (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

Santa Barbara — Few things are more entertaining than watching a debating pro run rings around an opponent. Just ask the witnesses to an encounter staged Friday between Gov. Jerry Brown  and Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

The event was the keynote of the Journal’s annual three-day ECO:nomics conference for “green” investors. The Australian Thomson, Rupert Murdoch’s handpicked Journal boss, was seemingly intent on getting Brown to endorse some of the Journal’s editorial favorites, such as nuclear power and the controversial natural gas extraction technique known as fracking. Brown didn’t bite. Instead he played Thompson with the combination of Brownian vagueness and philosophical musings familiar to generations of political reporters in Sacramento and nationwide.

Thomson began, innocently enough, by citing a line from the state’s newly appointed poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. Brown threw him off by revealing that he hadn’t even known about Herrera until a week or so ago, but had assented to a pick from a state poetry panel. When Thompson fed him a Herrera quote about seeking “a life without boundaries,” Brown responded, “Imagination doesn’t have boundaries, but if all you have is imagination, you have insanity. The other side of that is rigor.” He proceeded to touch on the principles of Greek tragedy and his own Jesuit education.

Increasingly nonplussed but plainly aware that he had a tiger by the tail, Thomson bravely pressed on. Regarding fracking, which is not yet used in California, Brown told him that his experts had counseled him that “it’s not as bad as the environmentalists say, and not as safe as the oil companies say.”

And despite California’s reliance on its two nuclear plants for a sizable portion of its electrical source generation, Brown refused to throw his weight behind nuclear power. He observed that he didn’t need to make a commitment one way or another just now, since no applications for new nuclear plants have been filed by any California utility.

“I don’t come to a lot of opinions about things I don’t have to make a decision about,” the governor explained. (I am writing from memory.) But he did remind Thomson that energy initiatives he had put in place during his first terms as governor from 1975 to 1983 and again last year have made the state a leader in the promotion of green sources of electrical power, with at least one-third of capacity mandated to come from solar, wind and other renewables over coming decades.

Brown also easily countered a dig from Thomson about California’s reputation as an anti-business state. He observed that during his earlier stint as governor, business lobbies ranked California close to last among the states in its business environment, as they still do. In the interim, however, the state’s economy has grown from $350 billion to $2 trillion. That growth mandates a high level of services, which can only be provided by tax revenues (a Brown tax plan will be on the November ballot).

“The flip side of Silicon Valley and all this innovation is that the people have all these sophisticated needs and desires," Brown said. “Simpler states aren’t … as yeasty and innovative as California,” he concluded, to the delight of the California-centric audience.

With palpable relief, Thomson finally turned over the floor to questions. Audio of the conversation isn’t yet available from the Journal, but if a bootleg version becomes available, it should be required listening for debating students the world over.


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