‘The First Angry Man’ Assesses Legacy of Prop. 13 Firebrand Howard Jarvis

Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis is the subject of a new documentary, 'The First Angry Man.' (KCET)

California’s adoption of “The Golden State” as our official nickname in 1968 invoked the Gold Rush’s promise of riches and the gleaming achievement of the Golden Gate Bridge. For many, it also referred to the gold standard of best-in-nation schools and highways. California was No. 1 with a bullet, in the jargon of the pop charts of the day.

Fast forward 40 years to 2008, and the luster was gone. How we got there, and here, is recounted in Jason Cohn’s fascinating and insightful documentary, The First Angry Man. The film airs at 8pm tonight on KQED and 3pm Monday, Oct. 19 on KQED Plus.

“We were starting a family in Berkeley around the time when California was in financial free-fall, and the media was talking about California as a failed state,” Cohn recalls. “Meg Whitman was running for governor literally talking about the possibility of filing for bankruptcy. We couldn’t pay our bills, we were furloughing workers, schools had been cut and then cut more. It was clear to me that it wasn’t the kind of problem that could be solved by tightening our belts further.”

The schools were broken and infrastructure was falling apart. There was a ton of debate, with most everyone citing Prop. 13 as a central, unalterable factor.

“I felt like the conversation ended there,” Cohn says. “And everybody knew what they knew about Prop. 13, which was frankly not very much. It was this thing that had happened 30 years ago and it had cut property taxes. Depending on your ideological starting point, it was the reason you or your parents were able to keep their house or the reason California was in such dire financial circumstances.”

Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis is the subject of a new documentary, 'The First Angry Man.'
Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis is the subject of a new documentary, 'The First Angry Man.' (KCET)

Curious about the dearth of actual information about Proposition 13 and its architect and champion, Cohn tracked down a copy of I’m Mad as Hell, the ghostwritten, self-mythologizing autobiography of Prop. 13 salesman Howard Jarvis. The proposition itself, approved by voters in 1978, amended the state constitution to cap—and effectively reduce—property taxes.

“I thought I would make a cheap kind of DIY [film], my wife [producer Camille Servan-Schrieber] and I do all of the work, do all the shooting and all the editing, just do it on the cheap, maybe on credit cards, just on the California problem,” Cohn explains. “Then I read how scholars view it, as a watershed moment that divided two completely different eras in terms of how people think about the role of government. It’s much bigger than taxes, it’s much bigger than California.”

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The first era spans the New Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty, when government claimed a mandate to create opportunity and raise people up. That ended with the Reagan era, a period when, as the former California governor put it, government is seen as the problem and not the solution.

“We continue to be in this era,” Cohn says, “where there’s a very limited view of what government can do to create economic equality, to limit the savage effects of capitalism, the tendency of capitalism to create massive disparities between the super-rich and everybody else, and it all started here in California in 1978 with this rather limited issue that on its surface didn’t seem like it would be that big. But its impacts, its consequences have been almost immeasurable.”

Prop. 13 fever, as it was called, became a national phenomenon. It particularly infected states with an initiative system, but if it could happen in a liberal state like California, it could—and did—happen anywhere.

Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis is the subject of a new documentary, 'The First Angry Man.'
Anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis is the subject of a new documentary, 'The First Angry Man.' (KCET)

Once Cohn saw archival footage of Howard Jarvis, an unvarnished, seemingly unsophisticated septuagenarian who loved debating, who cheerfully insulted his opponents and played loose with the truth in the service of telling a story with an emotional hook, he realized he had a main character that would hold an audience. (If Jarvis, who died in 1986, sounds a bit Trumpian, check out The First Angry Man.)

The film also has a solid supporting character in Jerry Brown. The governor declined Cohn’s requests for an interview, though he is colorfully represented via period news footage as a smart politician who nonetheless underestimated Jarvis’ populist appeal and strategic chops.

While the happy “winners” of Prop. 13’s tax cuts are amply depicted in The First Angry Man, the losers are represented by the University of California system.

“This was a big struggle for us in telling the story because we wanted to show what the consequences of disinvestment in the public sphere have been, and the public sphere is very, very large,” Cohn explains. “You have the option of trying to do a survey: Show potholes in streets and talk to police about being understaffed and show our aging water infrastructure. We could talk about forest management and how we’re making ourselves vulnerable to fires. If you tried to talk about all of them, it would just go on forever and have no focus.”

Former California governor Gray Davis, who was recalled by voters, in 'The First Angry Man.'
Former California governor Gray Davis, who was recalled by voters, in 'The First Angry Man.' (KCET)

Galvanized by the state’s ongoing cuts to its contribution to public higher education, Cohn and Servan-Schrieber honed in on the far-reaching effects.

“In 1978 when Prop. 13 passed, student debt in California was somewhere in the general vicinity of zero dollars,” Cohn notes. “I think it’s $1.5 trillion nationally now. That is a travesty, and a shadow on the economy and a tremendous burden to put on young people and their families. Everyone is affected by this.”

In addition to illuminating the lamentable effects of Prop. 13 that, in fact, many people anticipated, the UC section has a second, important function: It pulls The First Angry Man into the present.

“Camille, senior producer Stephen Talbot and I do tend to work in the history realm as documentary filmmakers a lot. One reason we love it is because you’re not chasing your tail all the time: ‘Oh, this just happened and we have to run out and film that,’ because your story’s changing day by day. When you’re doing a history film, you can almost write your script before you start shooting. That said, what’s the point in doing a history film that has no relevance to the current day? If it doesn’t tell you something about the world we live in now, there’s no point in watching it, and there’s no point in making a film that nobody wants to watch.”

So it’s fortuitous, if not prescient, that the filmmakers incorporated race as a theme. Without suggesting that voters for Prop. 13 were racist—although Jarvis wasn’t shy about using dog whistles to rouse his supporters’ enthusiasm—The First Angry Man notes the growing disapproval for government’s mission to affect change by promoting racial equality through affirmative action and fair housing policy. People who are angry at the government are angry about paying taxes.

Cohn’s decision to incorporate the role that race played in how people viewed taxation and government in the late 1970s has been vindicated by the events of the last couple years, which exposed the extent to which racial justice and economic justice are meted out unevenly in the United States.

“I feel very bad about what’s happened, but it shows that we were telling the right story,” he says.

The First Angry Man doesn’t propose solutions to the problems that stemmed from Prop. 13. It does note that just as California was ahead of the country in anti-tax fervor, we may now be leading the curve to adopt more rational positions about government and taxes. If so, more of what glitters in California will be gold.

“We did pass Prop. 30, which was a self-inflicted tax,” Cohn says, referring to the 2012 vote that raised income and sales taxes to pay for schools. “It’s very unusual in the history of America for voters to beg the government to tax them more. And it passed by a very significant margin.”

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