Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

California Chief Justice Donald Wright (left) swearing in Jerry Brown as governor, January 6, 1975. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

California Chief Justice Donald Wright (left) swearing in Jerry Brown as governor, January 6, 1975. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jerry Brown: Zen and the Art of Pandemic Response

When "small is beautiful" becomes a deadly mantra.

Richard Eskow

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.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Richard Eskow

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works. 

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

FCC Cheered for Cleaning Up After Pai Awarded Contracts to Connect 'Empty Parking Lots'

"Ajit Pai ignored early criticism and rapidly awarded money to the likes of Elon Musk for building broadband bridges to nobody."

Andrea Germanos ·

Planet's Vital Signs Are Reaching Dangerous 'Tipping Points' Amid Climate Crisis, Scientists Warn

"We need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue—global heating is not the sole symptom of our stressed Earth system."

Julia Conley ·

Physicians Group Documents 'Severe' Health and Human Rights Impacts of US Expulsion Policy

"With each passing day, the Biden administration is trampling on its professed commitment to science-based policymaking and a humane immigration system."

Jake Johnson ·

As Delta Wreaks Havoc, Biden Faces Growing Pressure to Force Big Pharma to Share Vaccine Recipes

"Millions of people have lost their lives waiting for such desperately needed action."

Jake Johnson ·

At Times Square Rally, Activists Demand Congress 'Tax the Rich'

"If billionaires can afford to go to space, they can afford to pay their fair share."

Brett Wilkins ·