Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Legalizing Marijuana, Electric Cars, and What’s Going on with California?

Featuring Sen. Robert Hertzberg

How has the experiment to legalize marijuana gone? Do schoolchildren need more sleep? Why is California suddenly doing all the things? Plus, bans to usher in a future of electric cars, bail reform, and tackling homelessness with Senate Majority Leader Emeritus Robert Hertzberg.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are now in season three of our podcast, What Could Go Right?, having a series of conversations with stimulating people about why the world may not be falling apart, an idea that should not be, on the face of it, particularly radical, but in our unhappy pessimistic times seems rather extraordinary as a claim that the future may not only be better than we think, but we may be living in the world of our hopes and not of our fears at some undetermined point in the not too distant future. And today we’re gonna talk a little bit about how states in the United States can be really constructive laboratories of democracy, which is what they were supposed to be all along. And while it is certainly true that some states are laboratories of democratic ideas that some parts of our democracy don’t like so much, people in Texas may not like what people in California are doing and people in New York may not like what people in Texas are doing and on and on down the line. And so it has ever been, it just seems to be even more acutely so today. And the negative way to look at this is that we are beset by partisan divides that are rigid and intense. And the positive way of looking at it is that states are places of great innovation and may innovate rather differently at any given time. So we’re gonna talk a bit about California in specific a little later on with Senator Bob Hertzberg, who is the outgoing senate majority leader of the California State Senate, and currently running for Los Angeles county supervisor. So , Emma, what, what should we talk about that has gotten a little less notice, that’s under the radar?

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So this is something that both has to do with our California discussion and, you know, across the nation more broadly. I would like to talk about pot [laughs], which is actually originally your idea. So I’m presenting it as mine, but I’ve taken it. [laughs]

[Audio Clip]: Roughly 40% of Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal, but because of the drug’s federal status, cannabis businesses struggle with banking and pay extremely high tax rates. So will lawmakers here in Washington address this divide?

ZK: So legalization, right? Wide swaths of the country are legalizing marijuana. A few are even talking about now legalizing other drugs that have been scheduled substances, right?

EV: Yeah, or at least decriminalizing.

ZK: Yep. And that’s a really radical shift from even 15 years ago where it seemed unlikely, to say the least, that there would be any pullback from and questioning of the multi-decade war on drugs. And I suppose if you think that these substances are so dangerous and so societally destructive that it requires massive federal and state police and enforcement funding, then you probably view legalization on mass as a really bad thing. But even if you believe that those things are really bad things, if you look statistically, that there’s no question that the war on drugs at a state and federal and international level has been a colossal failure as the new president of Colombia, the country, not the university, remarked in talking about his new relationship with the United States, that he’s happy to work with the United States constructively on building a robust democracy in Colombia, but that the war on drugs as a way of doing so has been a colossal failure, then it’s all a much more positive development.

EV: Yeah. I mean, what’s interesting about the war on drugs right now is the lack of news around the war on drugs, right? Like that’s how we know that it’s petering out. You know, if you look at, like, for instance, Biden’s positions in the ’90s, he was definitely into the whole war on drugs thing, HW Bush was, Obama was, and his platform when he ran this time around was let’s peter it out. And we were talking about bipartisanship last time. And we sort of had implicit in the conversation that bipartisanship is a innate good, but there was a lot of bipartisan agreement over the war on drugs. And now there’s actually a bipartisan agreement to stop putting these punitive laws in place around drugs. I’ve sort of fallen on the side that like, if alcohol’s gonna be legal, then certainly why not weed? There’s certainly far fewer car crashes that go on per year from potheads, and I say that lovingly, than from alcoholics [laughs]. So that’s where I stand on things. How about you?

ZK: Look, I think there’s the libertarian part of this, which has always been the case, which is should you create a society where people are allowed to do harm to themselves as long as there are laws about them doing, you know, active physical harm to others? And I think we’ve tried to do that with drinking, right? Drunk driving is illegal because it can kill other people. It’s not primarily illegal ’cause you can kill yourself, although there’s those aspects of it. And then there’s just the pragmatic, which is whatever we’ve done for the past 30 years has not demonstrably worked except to incarcerate a lot of people and create a really, really expensive ecosystem of Draconian laws and Draconian enforcement. And, look, the one thing that is still a major obstacle here is that even though there’s been a lot of state legalization of marijuana, there is still not federal. So it’s federally illegal, state legal. And there are some people who are really adamant about, look, federal government shouldn’t enforce these prohibitions on marijuana if states make it legal. The problem there is that opens up a whole complicated can of what about gun laws? You know, we do have a system in the United States where there has to be some default to national and some default to state. And you’ve gotta be careful about what principle you articulate because while it may be true that some people feel like, hey, you know, California makes and New York State makes marijuana legal, the federal government should default to that, but then you can make the same argument about gun laws, right?

EV: Yeah. I’m with you on that. I definitely hear you about the messiness of what to do at a federal level and I hadn’t thought about that previously, but, you know, back to this states as laboratory discussion that you brought up in the beginning, the other interesting part about this is that the legalization experiment in some of these states is actually going really badly. You know, the people who tried to get into the marijuana business say that it’s so hard to follow the rules correctly, the taxes are so insane that most people are still buying their marijuana from, you know, unlicensed [laughs] dealers.

ZK: They’re still a massive illegal weed trade because it’s easier and cheaper. You know, if you pass a law to legalize something that also has an intensely powerful, illegal market, you won’t make legal competitive enough to compete with illegal. So it does raise these other questions of, are you creating your own set of problems by trying to rigorously regulate while making something legal in the name of we shouldn’t be enforcing Draconian laws? ‘Cause then you just enforce a different set of laws. They may be civil rather than criminal, you may incarcerate fewer people, but you still create this really confusing thicket.

EV: Yeah. I mean, certainly thinking about it from a consumer perspective, right? Because part of this overregulation issue is that it’s just cheaper to go buy it from that guy that bikes to your house and, you know, comes to your apartment and drops off whatever you ask them to drop off, at least that’s what was happening in New York when I was still in New York. In that sense, if consumers are not choosing to buy it legally just because of the price and nothing’s gonna happen if they’re buying it illegally, certainly [laughs] you could call that a failure. So I’m curious, you know, if states like California that are seeing people who are trying to get into the business complain, whether they’re going to adapt to this at all or react, or if that states, you know, we’ll talk about this later with Senator Hertzberg, that tend to copy laws from California are paying attention to those lessons also, if they’re just gonna copy them wholesale.

ZK: Yeah. I mean, that’s the other question about that laboratory of democracy, which is, do states actually learn from each other? So what other news do we have for today?

EV: Before we talk to Senator Hertzberg, more specifically about his state, seems to be a influx of new legislation coming out of California. You know, there are some of the big ones that I’m sure that we’re gonna get into with the senator, you know, the banning of new combustion engine vehicles by 2035, that’s a huge one.

[Audio Clip]: The state of California, you’ve heard it before, passed a new rule banning the sale of all gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

So there’s still some time.

There’s some time.

EV: But there are also these other like smaller experimental ones that I’m not sure a lot of people have heard about if you’re outside of California. For instance, that they’re going to start the school day later.

ZK: Yeah. This is a big one, right? That schools around the country, you had all these stories of kids waking up at 6:00 AM and having to get their school bus at 6:20 or 6:40, and then there were these studies that say young developing minds, sleep is way more important. And if you get in the way of that, unless they’re going to bed at eight o’clock at night, which, you know, is every parent’s dream and every child’s nightmare, then you create this really kind of counterproductive loop of underslept, less attentive, which then leads to overdiagnosing of ADD and other disorders. So you create this sort of cascade effect simply by starting way too early. And there’s been a reform movement that says, hey, wait a minute. [laughs] we could avoid a lot of these problems that are so manifestly everywhere by simply starting a few hours later.

EV: And I saw some of the backlash saying that it’s gonna be more difficult for parents to drop off their kids before work. But on the flip side, you know, I know some people that, you know, their kid’s gotta be in school by 7:30 AM, which means they’re waking up at God knows what hour to bring their kids to school. So I’m not really sure that I see that as a potent critique as it were. I see it more as maybe in an indictment of people’s jobs that they can’t give them the grace to get their kids to school before they come into work.

ZK: Or that we don’t have systems that have better childcare and a whole other—

EV: Yeah.

ZK: A whole other issue. Or maybe we should just start the work day later and everything will just keep going later and we’ll end up like Southern Europe.

EV: No, no, I don’t think we’re gonna end up like Greece where people work from 10:00 to 11:00, have a coffee, go to lunch, work from 3:00 to 4:00. Anyway, something else, you know, just to mention, before we talk to the Senator, is California is amongst a handful of states, it’s, I think, 14 states, around that number, that have just passed rules around solitary confinement.

[Audio Clip]: Nearly 50,000 US prisoners were held in isolation. They spent an average hours of 22 hours a day in solitary, often for more than two weeks at a time. A New bill in California hopes to cut down on that time. It’s called the California Mandela Act.

EV: So now in California, you can only be in solitary confinement for a consecutive period of time of 15 days. And there’s also a limit around how long you can be in solitary confinement over the course of a year.

ZK: Right, ’cause it’s seen as cruel and unusual, an inhumane punishment.

EV: I mean, when you hear the stories coming outta people that have gone through it, I can’t imagine being locked in a room somewhere, not being able to talk to anyone, not seeing anyone, not having any human interaction at all for weeks upon weeks seems extreme. And I’m curious to see if that gets passed across more states as well because it does seem to be a little bit of a trickling in, like I said, around 15 of the states have passed legislation around that now.

ZK: Yeah. So, again, this is one of those areas where will state-level reforms and new laws lead to a national change in attitude? And wading into difficult waters, you know, one of the things that was true of Roe v. Wade, when it was passed in the ’70s as a Supreme Court decision was that many states had already moved in that direction. So there is an argument for states kind of leading the way for social change, and that was true for gay marriage as well, rather than that change coming from Washington and then being imposed on states that don’t otherwise support it. So I kinda like this idea that we should continue to focus more on what states are doing, but look, it’s a hard story. Local newsrooms have had their budgets eviscerated, if they even exist at all anymore, nobody’s that interested in reading local news. You know, I I’m guilty as charged. You know, I don’t, like, pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in Albany, living in New York, and I, you know, barely was aware of the fact that Albany was the capital of New York until I was X age. I thought New York City was the capital of New York. It’s like a hard sell in terms of what should we pay attention to, but it’s a pretty important one.

EV: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, just to add a little personal anecdote around that, when Roe v. Wade was overturned, you know, we wrote about it in the newsletter and I had to go in by hand and go to all of the states, a newspaper from each state to make sure I knew what was going on, because if you actually followed the national coverage, they were all pulling data from one particular institute that had done some sort of federal survey, but was actually incorrect. So it was an interesting little lesson in, okay this is my job, so I have time to do this, but who else does? So read your local newspapers, guys. [laughs]

ZK: All right. So let’s turn to our conversation today.

EV: So today, we’re gonna be speaking to Senate Majority Leader Emeritus Bob Hertzberg. He was first elected to the California State Assembly in 1996. He then served as the 64th speaker of the California State Assembly. He left government briefly to go out into the private sector as a clean energy entrepreneur. And then he returned to state government in 2014, where he began to represent District 18, which is the Greater LA area. He’s currently running for reelection to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

ZK: So let’s talk with Bob Hertzberg. Thanks so much for joining us, Senator Emeritus Hertzberg, soon to be, we hope, what’s the honorific term for supervisor of LA County? What will we, in theory, call you in a few months?

Bob Hertzberg (BH): Well, you can say former speaker, former majority leader, supervisor of Los Angeles County. 2 million people, they get something like more than 14 state governors or something. It’s a huge place. The county is over 10 million, but just the Supervisors District is, the communities represented, 2 million folks.

ZK: I’ll have to call you Supervisor?

BH: That’s right.

ZK: Okay. So before that, let’s talk about state politics.

BH: Okay.

ZK: And we had a conversation before about, you know, states, as laboratories of democracy. This is supposed to be the way states and federal government works. You know, states are supposed to innovate, see if things work, test them out, see if they gain traction nationally. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a state where there’s more of a laboratory right now than California, right?

BH: But it’s what makes it so much fun to be in the state legislature, ’cause you can get stuff– you’re not in Congress where it takes decades to get anything done and it gets so watered down, you actually can get things done. I can give you so many examples of things. Like right now, the whole privacy discussion is so much centered around the work that we did here in California. And I spend much time on privacy, you know. The issue on abortion that we had with Hobby Lobby case came out of California, dozens and dozens of examples. It really is what makes the work so interesting and fun.

EV: And in the last month, there’s been like a slew of legislation. Is that because the legislative period was ending? I didn’t realize until afterward, I was like, wow, California’s like, every day I wake up and they’ve passed [laughs] a new piece of legislation.

BH: Part of it’s the timing, part of it’s, you know. As speaker and as majority leader, the best part of the legislative session’s the last two weeks when everything gets done. Before that, it’s just a bunch of back and forth, the noise and the like. But what we did that was interesting this time, well, two things, I think the dynamic that impacted the legislature. Number one is for the last couple of years, the pandemic made it very difficult to legislate. We couldn’t go on the other chambers, committees were done remotely, our bill loads were down by, you know, instead of having 30 bills, we had 5, which, by the way, is a good thing. And there was a lot of compression to get stuff out. So there was that dynamic. And the second was the governor really pushed hard on a whole environmental package. We had been working in the Senate for about 10 months on a climate group, which I was part of, and the governor came in at the end and put a whole host of things together. Now we have 40 bills. That’s 40 bills and $54 billion on climate. It’s a pretty significant step forward.

EV: So, I mean, one thing that’s certainly in the news right now is the ban on combustion engine cars coming up in 2035. California’s the first one, if I’m not mistaken. And then I think something like 17 states might copy. And I’m curious, you know, there’s certainly a lot of excitement around it for obvious reasons, climate reasons, but there’s also, you know, people have concerns. There’s the concerns of is the infrastructure in place to be able to support EVs. How are you gonna drive, you know, a six-hour drive [laughs] and charge the car if there are no charging stations? There’s the issues that haven’t completely been worked out with EVs themselves like can we recycle the batteries? How much does it cost to replace the batteries? What about, you know, child labor in the DRC? There’s the price tag of EVs. So all of this stuff, how do you see that, you know, resolving by the time that this ban comes around?

BH: Objection, compound question.

EV: [laughs] I know that’s quite a few concerns.

ZK: Be a good politician and answer the question you wanna answer and not the question that you were asked.

BH: [laughs] I’ll answer, ’em all. I’ll answer ’em all. Look, it’s gonna be hard. We don’t have the infrastructure, you know, full stop, we don’t. On these power poles we’ve got outside and in my home office here is a 4,000-volt transformer. We need 20,000-volt transformers. But you set these ambitious goals. You know, if you look at California where we had the renewable portfolios, I will give you perfect example. Back in ’75 when Jerry Brown number one, the first Jerry Brown, came in, he created Energy Commission and we immediately set all these standards on appliances, energy efficiency for appliances. It’s impossible, you can’t get it done, you can’t get it done. And what happened? It changed the country. Everybody changed the way they build appliances. We’ve seen the same thing with respect to tailpipe emissions. When I was speaker, we did a tailpipe emission law. All the big companies were going crazy. They’ve all been met. If you look at Ford, Mercedes, General Motors, down the list, they all have, I think it’s Mercedes, by 2035, only electric vehicles. So point number one is I think that shift’s gonna happen pretty quickly. That’s occurred too, the infrastructure. One of the things that I’m gonna do as supervisor here, is I’m gonna do the financing and do all the necessary structure to be able to build stuff here. We import those transformers from China. It creates, you know, supply chain issues, national security issues, job issues. To create the economic framework and incentives to be able to build all that stuff here, then hopefully, after we build it and then to build it for the rest of the country to help kind of prop up the economy. Third, on the battery thing, it’s a big deal. I’m not a big battery person. As Zach knows, I left the government for 12 years and traveled the world and worked on renewable energy. And one of [inaudible] technology, my new solar technology basically replace batteries ’cause they’re heavy metal, all of those issues. The 8,000 batteries in those trays, they’re ridiculous. The technology is moving quickly, glass batteries, whole new technologies are gonna change both with respect to charging and how long the charge lasts. And I think that this battery world is just a near-term transition. I think there’s a significant move. I think they’re expensive. I think they’re dirty. And I think it’s a short-term move, but you know, it’s just kinda the evolution of the transformation of what has to occur. But you know, look, laboratories are places you experiment. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, you course-correct, you figure it out. But the mission is correct. The idea to reduce GHGs, the idea to offer that lead. You know, one of the folks when they argue on the floor and they say, why are we doing all this? We’re such a small percentage of the globe. And my argument is exactly what was indicated here at the opening, which is we’re a place that impacts the rest of the folks. You know, I cannot tell you how many governments, ministers of various countries, when I was speaker, 78 of them, come to talk to us to look at what we’re doing, to learn what we’re doing. I was at COP in Poland, I was at COP in Scotland, I’m going to COP in Egypt, you know, that’s the UN conference, and everybody’s interested in what we’re doing in California. So there’s a really outsized impact. And as I said at the beginning, this is why it’s so much fun to be in government in California because it is not just about Biloxi, Mississippi. And nothing against Biloxi, Mississippi, but that’s it.

ZK: Here’s the pushback on that, which is it’s one thing to be a smaller state or smaller country, you know, it’s one thing for Norway or a place of 5 million people to kind of innovate and try to do something for their own ecosystem and other countries and other states learn from it. Some of the pushback on California is, look, if California were its own independent country, it’d be like, what, the sixth largest economy in the world.

BH: When I was speaker, it was the fourth. It’s now the fifth. It’s about to be the fourth. We’re about to pass Germany.

ZK: So, I mean, in those terms, what people say about California negatively when it does that is you’re not just experimenting, you’re sort of end-running, A, the federal government. It becomes really difficult for large companies, and this might be true for auto companies, to do like differential supply chains, one for California, one for the nation, one for the world. So in many ways, it can be seen, and again, I’m speaking about this is the pushback against these things. When it’s about California, it’s like a coercive backend way of forcing the rest of the country to do what California wants, even though that may not be the case. And therefore, you know, does the bar have to be higher for that kind of experimentation and particularly when it applies to multinational companies and their own supply chains?

BH: I think it’s fair criticism, and I think it’s correct. I think the example of appliances, the example of tailpipes, the example of EVs is true. I think the example now with respect to privacy, that what we did in California and the federal government not being able to really get anything done and us setting those bars, I think that’s a fair observation and it needs to be considered. It’s the truth and, I mean, I kinda like it ’cause we get to draw the policy, but I think it’s an honest observation.

ZK: So let’s turn to another one, which, you know, we’re talking about, and that’s how a kind of a, at least in theory, a deregulatory measure, right? The legalization of recreational marijuana, which has been a big deal in California, also ’cause California had one of the largest medical and illegal markets, a few years in, it’s a mixed bag, right? The libertarian desire to deregulate, to make legal something that had been illegal cascades against the regulatory desire to, we’re gonna make this legal, but we’re really, really gonna control it, right? We’re gonna tax it, we’re gonna control the distribution, everything’s gonna be licensed, you know, licensed up the wazoo, marked products, you know. And the net result a few years on is there’s still this massive illegal industry, right? ‘Cause a lot of people are like, hey, I’d [laughs] much rather buy stuff cheaply and easily and grow it ’cause the regulatory fervor is so onerous.

BH: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. And it’s true, we overplayed the hand. We thought we were gonna make all this money, everybody jumps in. You know, when you’re dealing with government, everybody just piles on, and it hasn’t worked. Where taxes are too high, the regulation is too strict. We’ve just reduced the taxes some, we’re gonna have to reduce it more because what’s clear is the illicit market’s gonna beat it. And it’s exactly correct. And everybody had these expectations that, you know, we’d be living in a platinum state, not just a gold state, ’cause of all this dough, and they were wrong and we’ve got to course-correct and put together a regulatory system that works. There’s a lot of compression to do that on the taxes, on the regulatory environment. And I think you’re gonna see that, and I think you’ll see more next year. There’s been some this year ’cause we overcooked it. There’s no question.

EV: So, Senator Emeritus, this is a question that’s linked also to the marijuana conversation but also its own, you know, separate thing. I know you’re really passionate about bail reform, cash bail reform, and that it didn’t pass, you know, in this last legislative session. I was wondering first, if you, you know, opportunity to say your piece about what would’ve replaced the cash bail system, because I think that since most people don’t understand an alternative, you know, like you can’t even begin a discussion, like if someone was like, we’re gonna replace the system. It’s like, with what? So what would it have been replaced with?

BH: Well, the federal government doesn’t have cash bail. Basically, what’s bail? What’s bail? Bail is put up something of value so that if you get arrested, you’re innocent till proven guilty, that makes you show up in court, so there’ll be a trial and you’ll determine whether you’re guilty or innocent. That was the theory behind bail. You know, my dad was an old lawyer in the ’40s in California, the bailiff would ask for $100, they’d give them $100, the person made sure they came back to court to get their 100 bucks. It’s been institutionalized by the insurance business. And because judges don’t wanna take responsibility if someone gets out on a bail and then they commit a crime, that they’re gonna get in trouble or they’ll get recalled, they have these horrible schedules. $50,000 is the average bail in California. You break a fingernail, it’s 50,000 bucks. And what’s happened is that the bail companies basically charge you 10%. So it costs you 5 Gs, you gotta go get your aunt, your uncle, and your girlfriend, and everybody else to put up collateral, you’ve given the 5 G, and you’re out. And what’s happened is it’s created a two-tier system in society. You get two people in a bar fight, one person can afford the 5 Gs, the other one can’t, one person stays in jail, the other person doesn’t, they lose their job, their family, their kids, all the various things, the rent in their apartment, and they cop a plea, and it’s created a horrible system. And so what I was concerned about, I’ve been working on this now for six or seven years, is to be able to deal with, if someone’s a flight risk or a public safety risk, you keep ’em in jail. No question. This is not about opening the doors. People think that bail means you’re letting people free. What it means if they’re not a flight risk or a public safety risk, they have a right to have their life and then come in and then have a hearing accordingly. That’s the purpose of our system. And so what we did in California, the first time in over 40 years, I talked to Congressman Howard Berman who did this in ’81, he said, “Hertzberg, you’re wasting your time. It’s never gonna happen.” And I was able to pass it. And basically, what we did was we created a system of algorithms where the judges would look and the judges would make a determination whether or not someone was a flight risk or a public safety risk, and if the judge made a determination, they’d stay in, if they didn’t, they’d be left on conditions, they’d be let out on conditions. And so the bail industry basically shut them down. We got rid of cash bail. The bail industry went [inaudible] and, you know, put it in the ballot as the referendum to try to re recall it, overturn the law. And there was something funny on the way to the forum because both the left and the right went against me on this referendum. The bail people, you know, said, this is horrible, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and the people on the left basically said that by giving judges more discretion, more judges will keep people in jail, and this will hurt more Black and brown people because judges are too scared if you release somebody, they’re in trouble. So it lost on the ballot. What I came back with, it got wrongly referenced bail reform. It wasn’t bail reform. It had just two things. One is it got rid of the forfeiture. What happens is, so Zach goes in and he gets arrested ’cause there’s a little bag of white powder on his passenger seat.

ZK: I really wish you hadn’t brought that up.

EV: [laughs]

BH: So he gets arrested, and he goes down, he’s scared to death, he pays the $100,000 to get outta jail, and the next day, from the crime lab, it says it was baby powder and charges were never filed. He loses his money. It’s a forfeiture.

EV: Yeah, that is crazy. [laughs]

BH: And I basically said no forfeitures. I said the company can keep 10% for putting up that paperwork, but they gotta give Zach back his dough. And they went crazy ’cause that’s how they make the money. These forfeiture deals are crazy. It was really a consumer affairs thing, but because I amended an old bill, they thought it was bail, the bail companies went crazy on it, and that’s what I was doing.

ZK: This is an interesting segue to cities, right? I mean, you have an interesting trajectory politically in that people who’ve ascended to the position you have in state government often look to federal government as the next thing, right? They’re like, oh, I’ve done really well here. I’ll go be a Congressman or I’ll go be a Senator, or at least I’ll try to be. But if states are a laboratory, you know, cities are even, you know, a more variated one and where a lot of just local issues and daily governance gets done. I mean, it has been interesting to me to observe, both in the United States and around the world, you know, cities are often where partisanship goes to die and pragmatism reigns supreme, and that most people, you know, they’re living daily, they need the garbage collected, they need the snow plows to work. If you’re in a northern place, they need the electrical grid, you know, whatever it is, right? People want things done. You know, they want traffic lanes, but they also want safety. And increasingly, that’s a major issue that has been stoked, certainly for partisan utility. Like, oh my God, the cities are terrible and they’re falling apart, and this is all because of these policies. But people also just want stuff done. And one of the things that’s been really challenging in a lot of our major cities is what to do with the unhoused, the homeless, you know, where does this come from? What are some of your thoughts about that preliminarily, and why has this been such a hard– you know, with this incredibly rich country, we have a lot of resources, we spend a lot of money on a lot of things. You would think this is one thing where– it’s a major issue, but it’s not financially unfeasible, right, to house people. So, like, why is this such a big deal?

BH: Well, let me start with your premise. It’s interesting, you know. It depends. We have 482 cities in California, 58 counties, 5,226 subdivisions of government. It’s a complex place. And in some areas, in cities, whether it’s things like picking up trash or even the money that you need to repave the roads often comes from the state or the federal government. So these interrelationships are really quite important to able to get the money or often the legal authority ’cause often we have what’s called general-law cities that basically operate in the authority of the state. So there is this inner tide that is unique in California, number one. Number two is on the housing issue, on the homeless issue, what’s really going on here, in my judgment, is it’s kind of a convergence of a couple things. We don’t have a money problem. We’ve got more money to do anything. It’s unbelievable. We just put 18 billion bucks into housing, homelessness stuff, in the budget, I mean, just crazy numbers. There’s more money. There’s $2 billion sitting in a bank account for mental health that hasn’t been used. There’s 116 million—we wrote a check to the local county on something they haven’t used for three years, plenty of dough. It’s a management structure of these complex relationships of government and nobody is in charge. You’ve got kind of a NIMBY problem where you’ve got 88 cities in the county, and my opponent, for example, has 38 homeless people in the 1.9 square miles that she represents, that’s running against me, against 47 miles the county. So we’ve solved 80% of the problem. You move them Beverly Hills or you move them to East LA. You gotta think regionally. The complexity of the 88 cities, the domination of LA City in a place that’s only 40% of the county, the ability of everybody– well, I don’t want it in my community. Will you put it over in your community? Well, let’s put ’em out in the desert in a camp, or whatever it might be. And so there’s no legal structure that exists. So we keep writing checks in the county, from the state to the county, and the county keeps hiring a bunch of folks that, you know, make a lot of noise and nothing happens. In the meantime, the homeless count just went from 66,000 to 69,000, and I think it’s probably 25% off because the count is ridiculous. It’s just– doesn’t really count people. And it’s really a governance problem. It’s really one of the big reasons why I chose to stick my neck back in the government. It’s hard. I wanted out. I was done. I finished as majority leader, you know, and did all my stuff, and I did this ’cause I’m just so pissed off, and I’m gonna get in. I’m not running for nothing though, and I’m gonna do what it takes to take on the responsibility to make it happen. And if I don’t, then throw me outta office, as they say.

EV: So just really quickly, as the flip side of, you know, California as a legislative export economy, shall we say, of legislation, have you seen anything that you could import from other states vis-à-vis the homeless issue, or is it just that California is such a unique place when it comes to these, the structure, you know, the management, like you’re saying? Basically, is there any solutions that you would like to see implemented that other people have already succeeded at?

BH: I mean, the homeless thing is, you know, you’ve got the substance abuse, fentanyl, which is a big, huge problem, you’ve got mental health and the like, and then you have the economic issues where people are just, you know, have a job, they don’t make enough money, and they living in their car. I saw a report that one in seven of Kroger’s employees are living in their cars ’cause they can’t make enough money to make rent on the deal. You know, I mean, Houston’s got a pretty good plan with respect to some of the housing issues. I know Utah had a Housing First idea that we came and we watched. As majority leader, I just had a big meeting in Beverly Hills. I met majority leaders from all over the country, kind of sharing ideas of what they’re doing. I used to do this with the National Speakers Conference. In the last two years, I’ve hosted it [inaudible] and once locally in the Majority Leaders Conference. ‘Cause we’ve got union issues, we have different management structures, we have huge red tape issues, that are so much harder to do. I mean, New, York’s done a great job. You know, how many billions of dollars have they spent in what they’re doing? We’re spending peanuts compared. If we spent on a per capita basis what New York had, we wouldn’t have a problem. And then you’ve also got the legal issues where, I mean, there are whole groups of people here in California who’ve been to my home protesting and stuff, and they basically think people have a right to live on the street. This case in, was it Idaho? Yeah. Boise, Idaho case that you have to live there. They have people, advocates on the street. When we’re trying to get ’em off the street, they say, no, you have a right to stay here and they’re giving them money and taking care of ’em. It’s really a big political tension. One thing I would share, one of the things that I think’s interesting, as it relates to Los Angeles is there has been a real rise in the left at an activist level that I haven’t seen. We just elected a city council person who’s an abolitionist. Abolitionist to me from school had to do with slavery. Now it means abolishing the police. We have a whole DSA, Democratic Socialists of America, who’ve basically infiltrated the Democratic party, which used to be a bunch of, you know, Bolsheviks and labor people, and now it’s completely different in terms of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. There’s a real challenge. We’ve got a city controller candidate and some other city council members and there could be a real shift here locally and they’ve done a great job. I give ’em great credit for organizing, not particularly, and ballot harvesting ’cause we’ve changed the laws that allow 30 days in-mail voting. And so that’s only given opportunities. So that political architecture has created so much greater tension between the left and right. And we’ll what happens in this election.

ZK: And of course, you know, oddly enough, that’s juxtaposed to a national Republican movement in Congress to defund the FBI. You have the far left, you know, doing abolition of local police departments, and you have the right now saying, well, the FBI is all corrupt and they’re going after Trump. So, I don’t know, maybe those coalitions will find some sort of bizarre middle ground. It’s hard to imagine. [laughs]

BH: I don’t think so. But it’s true. You’ve got the right at the national level. You’ve got the left at the local level. It’s really an interesting dynamic.

ZK: So I guess, like, final thoughts on that, ’cause back to that pragmatism and I mean, one of the things we try to focus on The Progress Network is the degree to which there is a lot of actual problem solving going on, we just don’t pay as much attention to it ’cause it’s not news.

BH: That’s right.

ZK: It’s not exciting. It’s not dramatic. It’s not sexy. Conflict and crisis are the coin of the realm. And that’s just human nature, right? I’m not really indicting anyone for that. So you spent your life getting things done, but I wonder, is part of the problem of things becoming too uniparty, like one party in any state, is that you lose that muscle, right? I mean, if you’re only working with Democrats, if Democrats are only working with Democrats, they can forget the fact that maybe a lot of people disagree with them. If, you know, the Texas State Legislature’s entirely dominated by one strain, you can kind of forget the fact that there are other people. How do you continue to make sure those muscles get used? We may not like the people we have to work with, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work with them.

BH: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. The only other thing I would share—I just wanna put a little finer point on that, and that is that what’s happened is like when I ran for office, the Republicans were in control of the legislature. Now, we have beyond super majorities. What happens inside of caucus when that occurs is that you have conservative elements who won in Republican seats in the Central Valley, in other areas [inaudible] for Republican seats. And so now you have this horrible tension within the party. Here’s how it manifests itself. When I was speaker, I had to really work hard, and we had two-thirds on the budget to get and I worked on a law to change it to 50% plus one, like the federal government and 48 other states, but it’s changed the dynamic so that leaders don’t really care about dough. They’re worried about fights, like, oh, I don’t want this Democrat against that. Let ’em fight it out. And they’re not worried about maintaining their power. So what’s happened is it’s creating these horrible fights within the party. We don’t really have very many fights with the other party. You know, as majority leader, I sat down every single day before a session with the leader of the other side, what do we wanna do? How do we wanna get it done? We never had any beefs, nothing. If somebody had an issue, talk about your issue. We worked it out, never had any of the kinds of stuff that we had when I first started where it was adversarial on every single motion and every single issue. So it’s been pretty good. It’s actually, the fight is within the party, and they’re pretty ugly. But what happens is it’s hard for leadership to engage ’cause they don’t have to worry about losing. They got so many members. They’re never gonna lose their power. When you’re a leader, you wake up every morning and someone can put a microphone up and say, I make a motion to vacate the chair and you lose your job. It’s not like you’re elected for a term. So your mentality is very different, so you don’t think about that, and it’s changed the dynamic. So it’s really quite interesting, but, you know, I had an opportunity to elect a few more Democrats when I was speaker and I kept the money and didn’t do it ’cause I like the tension. I thought the tension was healthy and the like. And the other thing that’s happened, which I think’s really interesting to observe is it’s created an outsized power of out outside interest groups. I’m sorry, I’m not a potted plant. People come in your office and they say, I’m from this group and I’m from that group and you have to do this and this is your scorecard and this is how to be a true Democrat or a true whatever. And I say, go kiss my tuchus. Are you kidding me? I didn’t park my brain at the door. And I get my head handed to me lots of times ’cause I’m sorry. They [inaudible] ads, they send mailers against you, things that before never would’ve happened. So you have these fights within your party, and within fractions of your party where these outsized interest groups, I don’t care who they are, it could be labor, it could be environmentalists, could be whatever, even with tax people, and as the Republicans that are just over the top. And if it was me, I wouldn’t allow the sons of bitches in the building. You know what I mean?

ZK: Well, now you have to deal with another building, but Senator Emeritus, I like calling you Senator Emeritus.

BH: Senator. Majority Leader Emeritus. I’m still a senator. I’m still in office.

ZK: Majority Leader Emeritus. It has a kind of a gravitas to it.

BH: I’m also Speaker Emeritus.

ZK: All of the above.

BH: How do you like that? I can’t even spell the damn word.

ZK: But, look, we love the fact that you’ve dedicated your life to this kind of service. You really care. You’re really focused on getting stuff done. I think a lot of people forget, you know, that there are people like you getting stuff done. And we certainly hope that you’d keep being an inspiration for the very idea of public service, which is, yeah, you don’t hear that idea phrased that much anymore.

BH: I know. It’s hard, man. You know, the other day, I was out at a pride parade and they told us all it was gonna be protested, so all the other politicians didn’t show up and I’m the only schmuck who showed up. And they surrounded my car and they said, “We’re not gonna just throw you out of office. We’re gonna cut your head off.” The price of being in public service is hard. And so, you know, I was leaving government. I put together a book. It’s not a regular published book ’cause I needed permission from all the newspapers and stuff. The title of the book is Working Clothes. It’s 486 pages. And it comes from a quote from Henry Kaiser that says “Problems are nothing more than opportunities in working clothes.” So as I leave government, which I was planning on doing, I didn’t plan on running for this office, I was doing a couple of things. When I was in the assembly, I built the CAPITOL Institute, which trained all the staff and members how to do their jobs. I’m now building, even though I’m running for office and leaving, the Senate Academy. And I wanted to leave people with some level of lesson. And so this book is over 100 op-ed pieces I’ve written over 30 years, first starting on the riots in ’92, and various subject matters. And the basic premise in the introduction is it took 40 times for the Civil Rights Act to pass. Don’t think you’re gonna get elected and you’re gonna change the world overnight. Forget about it. Two, it says people in Silicon Valley work in two-story buildings because when they jump outta the building when they fail, they only sprain an ankle, to try to send a message to the next generation to take a risk. So the first half of the book is all ideas that worked, things that I talked about 20 years ago that no one thought could happen on term limits, on redistricting, on the open primary, and 50% plus one on the budget, on initiative reform, but the most important part is the second half of the book, shit that didn’t work, stuff that didn’t work. I gave it a shot. You know, and the message to the next generation is don’t run around and do press conferences all day long. Think about it, do the homework, engage in risk-taking, engage in thoughtful endeavors and the like. And so I put that together and I passed it out to all the members of the legislature as I left. If I thought I was running for office, I never would’ve done it ’cause now they’re gonna use all the stuff that didn’t work against me. [laughs] So, hey, who cares?

ZK: Amen to that.

BH: Amen, brother.

ZK: Thank you so much for joining us today, Senator, and good luck in the upcoming election.

EV: Thank you.

ZK: After our conversation, I’m still left with that question of should states have not just the ability, which they will and should, to innovate and create, but should they be able to essentially impose a local standard nationally? And that’s, again, much more of an issue for California than it is for Wyoming in terms of size, scale, and scope. But I am left with that question of, do you have a different kind of responsibility? Should there be some sort of internal constraints? Should there be some sort of [laughs], you know, federal guidelines of like states can’t pass legislation that will de facto be the law of the land, even if the Congress has not weighed in? I don’t know.

EV: That’s what’s concerning about the ban for me, is that it feels like there should be another way to push this forward that doesn’t have to do with a ban because, like, that’s a consumer issue where yeah, we’re all hoping that the technology’s gonna change, I’m kind of an optimist on the thing, I think that it will, but, you know, if it doesn’t, you know, like the Senator is saying, yes, you can roll this back, but, you know, electric cars right now are expensive. You can buy a really small one for maybe like 9K that’ll take you 25 miles. But, you know, if you want one that’s really usable, they’re gonna be at least 60, 70K. So just to be clear, the ban doesn’t cover used cars, but still, it seems messy. You know, and to pick up on your thought of like how far-reaching this influence is gonna be, like, I think about Greece where I certainly see them copying things from other governments, California, I’m not sure, but, you know, they’re offering all these incentives right now to consumers to get electric scooters, electric cars, and all this stuff, but I don’t think there’s literally one charging station in the entire country [laughs], so, you know, sometimes the government is moving actually too fast than what the reality is on the ground and maybe, yeah, California needs to be pulling the reins a little bit.

ZK: Still, I do love the set audacious goals, at least when it comes to government. We’ve talked about some of the audacious problems when it comes to companies in Silicon Valley and promises, so not all audacity is good audacity. But governments thinking creatively about solving problems in a world where, you know, that seems to be less true than it could be, that is something I support unequivocally. But having some realism around that and some pragmatism and then being really careful not to empower regulatory officials to enforce rules that make no sense, like the worst case would be 2035 comes, there isn’t the infrastructure, they’re still too expensive, and you still ban alternative vehicles. Probably won’t happen, but it certainly could happen. Anyway, a good thing to think about as we think about solving our problems and how challenging it is, but it’s really good that there are people like Bob Hertzberg who are at least trying to and believe in public service and believe in doing some good.

EV: Absolutely.

ZK: Thank you, Emma.

EV: Thank you, Zachary.

What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks to Amazon Music Podcast for their support of What Could Go Right? Our show is available on Amazon Music Podcast, whether you’re on the go with your phone or listening through the desktop app at your computer. Play more pods with Amazon Music Podcast. Make sure to follow, subscribe, and listen to What Could Go Right? on your favorite podcast app of choice. Ours is Amazon Music, available on the app, your desktop browser, or even by asking your Amazon Smart Speaker to play What Could Go Right?


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


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