I’d been trying to track down the most-talked-about player in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, but I didn’t have a phone number and I’d heard he’s too old to have email or a cell. I’d just about given up when the phone rang yesterday.
"It’s me, the Surplus," the voice said.
"You mean, Jerry Brown’s Obscene Surplus, from before Prop 13?" I asked.
"You’re a Californian-you know any other surpluses?" he answered.
Below is the transcript of my interview with the surplus.
Q: How are you feeling about the governor’s race?
I know the papers say it’s dull and the candidates don’t have any real plans, but let me tell you something: I’m loving this thing. And I can’t thank Jerry enough for running again. He’s helping introduce me to a whole new generation of Californians. I’d been feeling kind of forgotten. I love California, but people in your state have short memories.
Q: What do you make of the ads? Brown is taking credit for you, and Whitman says Brown inherited you and destroyed you. Which is it?
OS: Neither candidate really describes me right, but you know what: I’m used to being a political football. The honest answer is that I was produced by California, and all that wonderful manufacturing and aerospace and the infrastructure and especially the education system that made the state grow and made me grow with it.
Now Jerry protected me and let me grow. He might have let me grow too much. You know some people thought I was provocatively big. That’s why people started to call me the Obscene Surplus. I’ve never liked Obscene as a name.
OS: Obscene sounds kind of dirty. I’m no family values guy – I’m a product of the ‘70s after all, and it’s my belief that disco never really went out of style – but I don’t think there was anything particularly indecent about me. I was just very large. I ask my friends to call me the Super Duper Surplus.
Q: OK, Super Duper, what do you make of Brown saying in his budget plan that you were really a "rainy day fund" that he kept in reserve for changes in budget conditions.
OS: It’s a total insult to call me a rainy day fund. Rainy day funds are tight, disciplined little dudes, with special accounts, and rules for how you put money into them and for how you spend them down. A good one is 10 or 15 percent of the budget. That’s puny.
I didn’t conform to any plans or rules. It was the ‘70s man-I grew haphazardly and all over the place, and there was never any plan to spend me down. And I was big — $5 billion on a budget of $14 billion or so. That’s 1/3 of the whole budget-I was bigger than the University of California and Cal State systems put together!
Comparing me with a rainy day fund is like comparing Shaq with the tiny dude on Fantasy Island who yelled at the plane. By the way, maybe I’m dating myself here, but I really miss that show.
Q: Was it wise of Jerry to let you grow so big?
Well, even fiscal prudence can be overdone. The problem you get when a surplus gets as big and as super duper as I was is that everyone wants a piece of you. And that makes people really mad. Mad as hell in some cases.
You know how a great-looking guy walks into a room, and all of the hot women leave their husbands and boyfriends and wander over to talk to him. Well, back in 1977 and early 1978, I was that great-looking guy. And the pissed-off husbands and boyfriends were the California voters.
Q: A lot of people say the voters were so angry about your size that it was one reason why they voted for Prop 13. With property tax rates going up, was it bad strategy for Jerry and the rest of the government to let you get so big?
OS: Well, there’s some truth to that, but it’s only part of the story. Californians had gotten accustomed to assessments that were too low on their homes, in part because many of the assessors were crooked. So when they cleaned up property tax assessment and got honest assessments, everyone’s tax bills went up. I can’t be blamed for that.
Also, it’s important to remember that California’s growing wealth and popularity led to higher property values and taxes. In a way, the same growth that created me also fueled Prop 13 and led to my disappearance.
Q: Now you got spent after Prop 13 as a way to bail out local governments who lost property tax revenues and the power to tax. How did you feel about that?
OS: That part still bothers me. Now clearly, I was too large and I should have been spent down a little bit. But the full-scale bailout of the locals was wrong. I understood the political realities – politicians in an election year aren’t going to stand by and watch local communities get hurt to that extent – but I’m a big believer that people need to live with the consequences of their votes.
But that’s the problem with Californians: they’ve stopped being willing to pay for the government services they want. Your state’s voters are really irresponsible. And as a result, they’re now stuck with my rotten nephew, Persistent Budget Crisis. Take it from me: that kid is like the party guest who won’t leave.
Q: So what are you up to these days?
OS: I retired to China several years ago. You know, a lot of the old American surpluses have relocated here. There are so few surpluses in the U.S. these days that you kind of stick out, and it’s uncomfortable. Here in China, we blend in. I don’t mean to excuse dictatorship, but this country sure does know how to treat cash reserves.