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At SIEPR, Jerry Brown looks to California’s future and ponders its past

Nov 2 2018

Gov. Jerry Brown talks about the state and national economies during SIEPR’s Policy Forum with Stanford senior Olivia Martin. “You can’t be at the peak forever."

Photo by Holly Hernandez

California and the nation’s economy may be on a roll, but Gov. Jerry Brown cautioned Friday that federal policymakers and his successor in Sacramento will need to be on guard for an inevitable downturn.

“Don’t be too exuberant. Get everybody ready,” Brown said. “The economy is a cycle, and right now we’re at the peak. But you can’t be at the peak forever.”

The outgoing governor’s remarks were made at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) only four days before Election Day, when voters will decide on his successor — Democrat Gavin Newsom or Republican John Cox.

Brown, who has served four terms as California’s governor — two in the 1970s and ‘80s, and two this decade — reflected on how much has changed in California’s 168 years as a state.

The state’s population has swelled to 40 million people, and with that comes challenges of housing and impacts to the environment, he said.

“There’s certainly a carrying capacity,” Brown said. “If we’re going to have more people, we’re going to have to live much differently than if there were fewer people.”

Brown was the keynote speaker at SIEPR’s Policy Forum, a bi-annual event that brings together policymakers, scholars and business leaders to discuss pressing challenges facing the nation. Friday’s Policy Forum, titled “What’s Next for California,” drew more than 250 attendees, many of them students.

Brown pointed to climate change as a major issue and decried the Trump administration’s handling of it.

California — a leader in combatting greenhouse gas emissions — will have to “keep the flame burning,” Brown said, drawing laughs from the audience with his mixed metaphor.

“We have to keep the level of knowledge, concern and commitment, constantly building,” he said.

Olivia Martin, an economics major and chair of Stanford in Government, the student group that co-sponsored the event, joined Brown in a conversation on stage and facilitated questions from the audience.

With Brown’s forthcoming role as executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — the Chicago-based organization best known for its Doomsday Clock that measures the threat of global annihilation — Martin asked, “What should students be losing sleep over?”

It’s not just nuclear threats that can lead to potential catastrophic outcomes, Brown said.

“Humankind is creating massive new powers — not just algorithms, but new technologies with enormous impact,” Brown said.

“We need the wisdom and knowledge to handle increasingly destructive machines,” he continued, and there is still a lot to do on the climate front.

Brown will leave office in January, having signed nearly 20,000 bills during his tenure. During his remarks at SIEPR, he said legislators don’t always get it right — himself included.

When it came to prison sentences, for example, Brown said, the laws he signed in his earlier gubernatorial terms contributed to the state’s crowded criminal justice system. The recent bill he signed that eliminates cash bail — making California the first state to do so — should help ameliorate that.

Stanford students at the forum said they appreciated the governor’s insights.

"It was amazing to have such a candid perspective from him — on the mistakes he's made and the big issues of the day," said Jacqueline Li, a Stanford junior majoring in economics.

Brown’s comments echoed other forum panelists.

Jonathan Coslet, chief investment officer of TPG Global and a SIEPR advisory board member, discussed how potential “wildcards” could affect the economy and increase the volatility of financial markets.

“The economy will slow in 2019, and we’ll have a moderate recession in 2020,” he predicted. “That’s just human behavior, and that’s what happens with economic cycles.”

Five panel sessions were on the forum’s agenda, zeroing in on California’s finances — including how rising pension and retirement costs could crowd out public services. Panelists also tackled other major issues facing the Golden State, ranging from high taxes to the lack of affordable housing.

See the full agenda and list of speakers here. Videos of the Policy Forum sessions are available on SIEPR's YouTube channel.