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The Freethinking Homeless Billionaire and the Flat-Broke State

A long list of politicians and a whole industry of fix-it professionals have failed to restore California to its former glory. Did Nicolas Berggruen—Paris-born, art collector, global investor—and his Think Long committee, know how to rebuild the Golden State? And if so, Why didn’t anyone listen?
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Nicolas Berggruen (Photograph by Heather Johnson/Redux)

Nicolas Berggruen (Photograph by Heather Johnson/Redux)

I WAS RUNNING VERY LATE FOR A MEETING with a billionaire. I’d gotten delayed dropping off my son at preschool. An earlier appointment ran long. Wilshire was backed up. So was Santa Monica. My destination, the Peninsula Beverly Hills, was just off the intersection of those busy boulevards. I was a little frantic.

Once I walked through the doors of the hotel, though, I relaxed. The chaos of the streets faded away. The music was soft. Staffers were courteous. “Nicolas Berggruen?” I asked.

He’s in the Belvedere, they told me. I wandered through the hotel restaurant, and there, sitting at the first table outside, was the last, best chance to save California.

Nicolas Berggruen—global investor, playboy, and convener—is famously homeless, but at his table at the Belvedere he looked right at home. He was reading papers. He was talking on a phone in German and English. He was flirting with a stunning, dark-skinned woman who’d stopped by to say hello. (Her looks could have caused the traffic snarl outside). This man in a white button-down shirt and slacks, with brown hair that looked freshly combed from the shower, was managing investments on five continents. He was heading up efforts to reform governance on three continents. The sun was shining on his table. He was not sweating.

I approached, self-conscious about being late, and stammered out a question about how long he intended to be in California. “As long as possible,” he said, serenely, speaking in an accent that might best be described as Franco-Prussian. “It allows me to be isolated. It allows me to think.”

The answer was peculiar. California in 2012 is many things, but a place of quiet contemplation is not one of them. It’s a frenzied, broken place, with an unemployment rate near 11 percent, crumbling infrastructure, and a state budget that is permanently out of balance.

But Berggruen doesn’t mind these problems. In fact, they have even inspired him. Berggruen, who turned 51 in August, has come to feel that democracy everywhere is in need of a reboot. Western nations with short-term, consumerist politics are being bested by eastern nations with long-range plans. Governance in Europe and the Americas has become so democratic, with so many different interests able to obstruct progress, that accountability and effectiveness are nearly impossible. So Berggruen is devoting his remaining years and considerable resources to correcting the course of democracy around the globe. California, broken and democratic, is where he has decided to start. You could say Berggruen wants to fix California—so that he can fix the world.

California Issue

What is Think Long thinking?
The Think Long Committee developed specific recommendations for improving California's governance. Joe Mathews offers an in-depth look at seven specific areas afflicting the state, and what the reform organization proposed as remedies. The seven areas are:
Voter Initiatives
State Budget Deficit
Citizens' Council
Local Government


Other stories in Pacific Standard's special look at California's effort to live up to its sobriquet of the Golden State include:
The Governor’s Last Stand

The Third Act: Professor Schwarzenegger

The Corrections (posting August 28)

TO ATTEMPT something as bold as a wholesale renovation of governance in California—let alone the rest of the world—requires an unusual individual. It might require a space alien. But that’s a label for which Nicolas Berggruen may qualify.

Not fitting in has always been central to Berggruen’s story. His father, Heinz Berggruen, was a journalist, artist, and art dealer who grew up in Germany, fled Hitler’s anti-Jewish persecutions for California, attended Berkeley, became art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and had a brief affair with the artist Frida Kahlo. When the United States entered the Second World War, Heinz joined the U.S. Army and served in Europe after the war. Instead of returning to the U.S., Heinz stayed and became an art dealer. He quickly established himself as a giant of the art world, got to know Picasso, remarried, and started a new family.

Nicolas, his youngest child, was born in 1961 in Paris. He was an early contrarian; a U.S. and German citizen raised in France, Nicolas initially refused to learn English because it was the language of imperialism. Naturally, this didn't stop him from going to NYU for college, falling in love with the U.S., and becoming a global capitalist.

Being the odd man out was how Berggruen built a fortune. He invested in underperforming properties and companies that were in trouble. But he didn’t believe in mass firings or rapid turnover. You could call it the Berggruen Approach: slow down, look deeper within enterprises, and realize their potential.

Berggruen is a natural networker and listener, and, as he traveled throughout the world on business, what struck him was the difference between the officials he met in Western democracies and those he met in Asia. The Western officials worked at a frantic pace, trying to survive in a world of 24-hour news cycles and constant political pressure. By comparison, officials in authoritarian places such as Singapore and China had more time to think and to research decisions, which often led to policies that were more in line with the long-term interests of their citizens.

“The whole idea of meritocracy in the West, people go to power because they get elected—it’s a popular contest,” Berggruen told me over a meal. “In China it’s a meritocratic contest. You can criticize or not, but to become a member of the Politburo in China you actually have to have worked your way up for years.”

In the last decade, Berggruen recognized that having the space and time to think and plan was the greatest of luxuries. So he began to reorient his life. He sold off his New York condo and his mansion in Florida, the state where he is still registered to vote. He sold most of his possessions, including his only car, because of the time they sucked up in maintenance and care. If he’d had a family, perhaps he would have disbanded that as well, but Berggruen has stayed resolutely single. (He once told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had many girlfriends, but no favorite.)

When it came to expenditures, Berggruen focused on companies that had a social goal (affordable housing, fighting climate change) and built up the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, a think tank devoted to global governance. In an exception to his policy of divesting himself of possessions, he indulged his enthusiasm for contemporary art by collecting a lot of it (and storing it at museums). Most important, he made a point of scheduling more time simply for thought, much of which took place in locations like the Peninsula Beverly Hills.

THE LATE AUTHOR Carey McWilliams, who called California “the great exception” in 1949, said the state’s problem was that it had hurtled ahead too fast. Unlike other places that stopped to figure out a plan and a government design, California has never had a founding constitutional moment. Instead, it has experienced a 162-year-old Gold Rush of hurried “silver-bullet” proposals, many of which have been adopted under a century-old initiative process that permits anyone (resident of the state or not) to propose laws or constitutional amendments to voters. The process is a combination of such inflexibility and power (once enacted, measures are nearly impossible to change) that the results are worthy of Kafka.

California’s government has been dysfunctional for so long that it has spawned an industry of people who are absorbed with fixing it. And this industry—of pollsters and consultants and foundations and policy gurus and iconoclastic politicians—is itself profoundly dysfunctional. That’s because the fix-California business does not run on thinking and contemplation. It runs on polls and money and election calendars. Ideas are tested first against public opinion surveys and against donors. The proposals that pass those tests move on and, often, end up as legislation and popular initiatives. These are rushed onto the next ballot on the next election date, often with less public deliberation than is devoted to the finalists on American Idol. Each fix is billed with the same message: just try this, and soon California’s problems will go away.

Of course, the problems don’t go away. The fix-it ideas may be perfectly good. Many are indeed well constructed, like a nice new room on the house. But the house is the Winchester Mystery House, made famous by the San Jose rifle heiress who, out of superstition and grief at losing a child and a spouse, kept adding room after room, turning the mansion into an incomprehensible monstrosity. Her creation uncannily anticipated California’s misshapen governing system, which is unlike that of any other state in the union.

That a mess of such unfailingly democratic origins would attract the eye of Nicolas Berggruen was inevitable. Here was a state blessed with the best of human and natural resources yet unable to harness them toward anything resembling good governance or fiscal sanity. It moved too fast and was too complicated. And Berggruen knew how to slow down and simplify things. It was an ideal place to put into practice his ideas about the value of time and thought.

NATHAN GARDELS is a writer and journalist who edits New Perspectives Quarterly, a respected, elite magazine about governance and other global issues. In the 1980s, he worked for Jerry Brown, the once and future governor, when Brown was traveling the world after losing a race for the U.S. Senate. In short, Gardels has known—and thought about—the heartache of California’s governance for decades. When Jacques Attali, the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, introduced Gardels and Berggruen a few years ago in Paris, both men soon fell into conversation about governance.

As they talked, the two found that they shared a view that democracy all over the world had evolved into a hyperfast “veto-cracy,” in which little could get done because too many interests got in the way and too little space remained for thought. Like Berggruen, Gardels saw the merits of the smoke-filled room, a place where elites could gather and enjoy protection from hyperdemocracy. “I’m not sure that democracy is self-correcting,” Gardels confessed to me. Creating a modern-day smoke-filled room, minus the smoke, became the mission of the two men.

For a testing ground, California was obvious. Gardels lived there. Berggruen loved the state. Californians knew that their governing system was broken. California is more open than most places to an outsider with ideas. (In Germany, “I might have been thrown out of the country,” Berggruen joked.) And California, with its money-hungry fix-it industry and expensive ballot initiative process, was sure to pay attention to Berggruen’s money. Now he and Gardels just needed to find the right group to put in the room.

ONE OF THE FIRST people the two men contacted was Bob Hertzberg, former Speaker of the California State Assembly and now a lawyer and businessman. Hertzberg, who has worked in the fix-it industry but was looking for a new approach, had never heard of Berggruen, but he was so intrigued he flew to Panama to meet him at a small airfield. The billionaire, unassuming as always, arrived in a mismatched suit with a torn collar. Over a meal of bologna sandwiches and water, consumed during a flight home to L.A. on Berggruen’s private jet (one of the few possessions he has not sold), the two men found they thought similarly about governance, and soon agreed to work together.

Hertzberg became an adviser, and sometimes companion, as Berggruen made the rounds. Curiosity opened doors of the rich and powerful all over the state. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, now based at the Hoover Institution, provided an endorsement by signing on quickly. He even suggested what became the name of Berggruen’s group: the Think Long Committee.

Berggruen already traveled in the orbit of Californians who show up at Davos. Many of these people might be called insider-outsiders: they’re powerful but not well-connected to California state politics. Some quickly joined the Think Long Committee: Condoleezza Rice, Eric Schmidt of Google, billionaire investor David Bonderman, former Yahoo and Warner Bros. Chairman Terry Semel, and Berkeley professor and former Clinton economic adviser Laura D’Andrea Tyson. But Berggruen also needed insider-insiders, political players who understood the state’s reform politics. Many of these were weary of the state’s dysfunction and of decades of failed efforts to do something about it.

Berggruen’s peculiar style—a combination of informality, wonkiness, and jet-setting—was helpful in selling recruits on his project. He came to them directly, traveling to their offices or nearby hotel restaurants, and arrived without fanfare or entourage. He offered no plans and made no grandiose claims, a departure from the approach of most multimillionaires who have tried their hand at California politics. Berggruen’s modest appearance—he only owns a few outfits, and they are unflashy—was disarming.

“I had never met Nicolas,” said Antonia Hernández of the California Community Foundation. “In walks Nicolas and Nathan. We just started talking. There are some positives and negatives. He’s not from California. He has this label as ‘the homeless billionaire.’ I asked, ‘Are you for real? What is your stake in California?’ He explained that he’s very committed to California. He really believes in the type of social democracy that we have. He was sincere.”

Berggruen was frank and, when pressed, very specific. When billionaire Eli Broad, in a meeting at the Beverly Hilton, suggested that he wouldn’t be taken seriously without putting big money on the table, Berggruen pledged $20 million toward his own project on the spot. Berggruen was also bipartisan. Broad is a major Democratic donor, but Republican rainmaker Gerry Parsky also felt sufficiently reassured to come on board. By the time the group was meeting regularly in early 2011, half of the 16 members of the Think Long Committee for California would be state insiders, including Hernández, Hertzberg, Broad, Parsky, former Governor Gray Davis, former assembly speaker Willie Brown Jr., and former state treasurer Matt Fong (who passed away six months into the process). They all agreed to serve without pay.

Berggruen also excluded a lot of people, most notably representatives of the big interests that tend to dominate discussions of California governance. No one from the teachers’ unions or California’s powerful anti-tax groups or from California’s roster of active politicians was invited to join. “We decided not to reproduce the mix of interests and people that got the state into trouble in the first place,” says Gardels.

In even more of a departure, Berggruen declined to do polling. In initiative-crazy California, any reform discussion is supposed to begin with public opinion surveys, since it’s seen as pointless to contemplate ideas that have no hope of being approved at the polls. Berggruen wanted to figure out what would work before deciding how to sell it. “We talked to Nicolas from the beginning about hiring pollsters,” says Hertzberg. “And he said, ‘We’re not going to do this.’”

All of this created dangers. With the people it left out, the effort attracted enemies from the start. With the big names also came the risk that the effort might be seen as more celebrity-based than serious. For that matter, the big names, with all their other commitments, might not even show up.

THE FIRST MEETING of the Think Long Committee took place on December 15, 2010, in the Los Angeles offices of the law firm Loeb & Loeb, on the 22nd floor of an office building on Santa Monica Boulevard. Davis, the former governor who had joined Loeb & Loeb after being recalled by California voters in 2003, was the host. Also there, as co-host, was then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who couldn’t serve but showed up to send a message of bipartisanship.

Berggruen, who was one of the committee members, opened the meeting with words about the need to find the best solutions, regardless of their origins or political feasibility. He also spoke about California’s importance to the world.

What followed for the next three-and-a-half hours was a wide-ranging conversation about the budget process. The committee examined virtually every budgetary change proposed in recent years: rainy-day funds, multiyear budgeting, performance-based budgets, pay-as-you-go budgets. The briefing materials were free of the usual rhetoric about overspending and high taxes. (The numbers showed that spending was only 1 percent higher than in 1978-79, when adjusted for inflation and population levels, and that tax revenue had dropped considerably as a percentage of personal income.)

During the discussion, Berggruen avoided long statements. He asked questions, almost all of them open-ended. “I was impressed by Nicolas because, to be frank, he listened,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, who briefed committee members on budget systems in other states. “I’ve been in these types of situations in other places with these very wealthy individuals, and they don’t listen.”

In succeeding months, Berggruen checked in constantly, and often personally, with committee members. He sent cars and limos to pick people up for meetings. He gave Southern Californian participants a ride on his private jet to sessions in Northern California. Berggruen named two members as cochairs of each session, creating an informal buddy system and adding to the internal pressure not to miss meetings. Many meetings took place in the Google offices in Silicon Valley, where committee members fell in love with the Google cafeteria.

As the months went by, truancy ceased to be a concern. Instead, the work of Think Long grew bigger and broader than anyone had anticipated. The focus was supposed to be on the structure of state government, and members initially expected that the work would be done by May 2011—six months after meetings began. But committee members, especially Broad and Shultz, wanted to dig deeper, particularly into education policy.

The process required significant ancillary manpower. Committee members leaned heavily on a bipartisan team of policy consultants who were former legislative and gubernatorial staffers in Sacramento. These included finance directors for governors Davis and Schwarzenegger. They also summoned experts (including, I should disclose, this author, who was asked to send the committee a memo on the state’s initiative process) on a variety of subjects. Sometimes, such as when the committee examined a new structure for economic development and planning, the work became so involved that it resulted in a separate, advisory committee.

No member of the committee was entirely happy with the committee’s direction on each issue. But Berggruen and Gardels kept everyone on board by staying in close touch with the committee members and by keeping everyone’s eyes on the big picture. Think Long members resolved to get a broad consensus around a large package of integrated proposals that everyone could call an improvement over the status quo—even if each of them had individual objections to particulars. This approach reinforced the idea that this was a grand effort, the significance of which was accepted inside the room. In this, Berggruen had already succeeded beyond most expectations.

BERGGRUEUN LAUNCHED Think Long because of a desire to reform governance. The problem was that that required grappling with taxes and spending. Other states—especially well-managed ones such as Virginia and Indiana—have few fiscal rules and try to preserve the flexibility of elected officials to manage their finances. California has locked all of its contradictory impulses about taxes and spending into its constitution, ballot initiatives, or court decisions—in ways that make discretion impossible. Interest groups of all kinds have guarantees of specific expenditures or other tax limits. What’s known as Prop 13, a property-tax limit formula passed by California voters in 1978, is only the best-known and most problematic example of this impulse.

Think Long left Prop 13 alone because the subject was too irreconcilably fraught. (Hertzberg compared it to “arguing with your ex-wife.”) But the committee dug down in every other way, modeling 23 different tax scenarios and considering all sorts of changes. Like California voters, Think Long members wanted contradictory things: lower rates on taxes to make the state more competitive, but also greater revenues to strengthen higher education and other crucial services.

So drawn out were the discussions of tax policy that even the coolheaded Berggruen sometimes expressed impatience. On one phone call with consultants, he demanded a number estimating the potential impact of extending the state sales tax to services. Characteristically, though, he changed his demeanor and, by the call’s end, was commissioning extensive modeling to come up with industry-by-industry figures on the size of California’s service sector.

In the end, Think Long produced a package that simplified state taxes, reducing the number of separate tax brackets from six to just two brackets, with the lower paying two percent taxes and the upper paying 7.5 percent. The package also forgave income taxes for people making less than $45,000 a year—and established a sales tax on services. According to the modeling, the combination of these tax changes would produce $10 billion more a year for the state and preserve progressivity. All income groups would be paying between 0.2 and 0.5 percent more under the new system.

Because committee members spent a lot of time thinking about the connection between issues, they ventured into tangled questions that most reformers have ignored. For example, the group homed in on an obscure but important part of the state’s school funding formula known as the “maintenance factor,” something teachers’ unions have leveraged to get their way in budget talks. The committee, reflecting Berggruen’s policy bravery (and political naiveté), called for its elimination.

Think Long’s willingness to listen to all sides created unusual moments. In one meeting, the committee hosted an exchange between two leaders of California’s education lobby—consultant John Mocker and California Teachers Association strategist Joe Nuñez—and two fierce critics of teachers’ unions, the former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. To get these parties in the same room to talk to one another was almost as improbable as getting Alien to shake hands with Predator. Adding to the drama, the meeting took place in the Wilshire Boulevard foundation offices of Broad, a longtime supporter of education reforms that have been opposed by unions. Ultimately, the exchange produced no concessions or breakthroughs, but both sides were civil.

AS MUCH time as Think Long spent on taxes and other policy knots, the heart of its work was about structure. In meetings, Berggruen sometimes mentioned countries that had empowered certain leaders—or particular committees—to make decisions, and protected them from short-term political considerations.

To outside eyes, such thinking might sound anti-democratic or elitist, but Berggruen and members of Think Long understood that California was different from the rest of America. From afar, the state, with its endless votes on initiatives, might appear to be one of the world’s most democratic places. But all those initiative votes, by creating layer after layer of inflexible rules, have robbed the state of its democracy—at least if democracy means a system that empowers voters and holds their leaders accountable.

Today, no elected official has the power to run California—because the rules are so numerous that they limit nearly all discretion. Imposing new rules via initiative doesn’t help, because all the previous rules stay in place. In this way, the democratic choices of previous generations of voters have left today’s voters with little power and today’s elected officials with little agency. Think Long believed someone should have the power to cut through the rules and run California. But who?

The committee started by considering how it might make the legislature into that powerful governing force. Hertzberg urged the group to consolidate the two houses of the state legislature into one house, a unicameral. That idea stalled, but what had been suggested as a complementary structure, a “Citizens’ Cabinet,” picked up support. Think Long members decided that they wanted a council like the University of California regents, whose members are appointed by the governor to 12-year terms, as a way of promoting long-term thinking. Think Long would ultimately recommend a 13-member group (nine appointed by the governor), serving six-year terms. There would be a host of protections for the council, including a guaranteed budget that couldn’t be cut.

This citizens’ council, Think Long members agreed, also needed teeth. So they gave the council the authority to subpoena documents from other parts of the legislature. And former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, a late addition to the committee (who brought his own copy of the massive state constitution to meetings), suggested that the council have the authority to put its own initiatives on the ballot.

This last council power was perhaps the most crucial, because it appeared to offer an answer to the question that bedeviled California reformers: How could you get your big ideas passed? With the power to offer as many initiatives at once as it liked, the council could offer packages of changes and not be stuck, like the fix-it industry, with making changes one initiative at a time.

This was a major departure, and Think Long members knew it. Documents from the meeting at which it was approved read: “TLC proposes below what we believe is the most significant governance reform in recent California history.”

The final draft report of recommendations was approved on a fall 2011 afternoon at Google Building CL3. The Think Long Committee added a note explaining that not every member agreed with every idea: “However, what we all agree on is that, as a whole, these reforms, if implemented, will go a long way toward restoring good governance to California.”

This was the breakthrough. The package was flawed in many of its particulars, but all the particulars weren’t the point. Think Long’s achievement was that it had produced a big, integrated package of ideas. This wasn’t a new room on the Winchester Mystery House. It was a new house.

WITH THE REPORT complete, the question now was what to do with it. For all the sophisticated thinking in putting together their package, Berggruen and his colleagues hadn’t developed much of a strategy about how to present it.

A few days before Thanksgiving 2011, with no press rollout beyond an op-ed and a few interviews, no public events to explain what it had done, and no advertising, Think Long unveiled its report. This proved to be a big mistake. Reporters, as anyone could have predicted, ignored the detailed, integrated package. Instead, they focused on the tax proposals, and the only question that interested them was whether the proposals would be turned into a ballot initiative for the 2012 elections, to which the answer was no.

Although Gardels had talked up the notion that Governor Brown might seize on at least some pieces of the package, particularly on taxes, it wasn’t going to happen. Brown had his own tax initiative, a measure that raised taxes temporarily while preserving the existing, broken tax structure. He was not interested in partnering with Think Long. When the committee decided to delay further action on the tax package, the press suggested that it was in deference to Brown. This infuriated Gardels, who repeated to me three times during an interview, “We did not defer to the governor.”

The few who read the document were enthused by how it attempted to stitch things together. David Kersten, a policy analyst whose firm had issued skeptical reports on the Think Long process, wrote of being “generally impressed” with the report and its achievement of “consensus on such a far-reaching package of reforms.”

But no one noticed this sort of praise. The governor, competing tax measures, and a host of initiatives from different parts of the fix-it industry would dominate the 2012 election. The Think Long report disappeared from the news.

Several members of Think Long spoke of launching a mega initiative to incorporate what they saw as their two biggest ideas—a new tax system and the citizens’ council. But California has a single-subject rule that limits ballot initiatives to one topic. When George, the former chief justice, found a legal scholar to study whether a mega-initiative would pass legal muster, she confirmed that it probably wouldn’t.

Berggruen did not give up, but he understood that nothing would happen fast. He reached out to some in the fix-it industry, many of whose key players had grumbled that Think Long wasn’t sharing enough of its money or its work. And he gave a few million dollars to help California Forward get a complicated budget measure on the 2012 ballot. Think Long and California Forward entered into an agreement to work together where they could. It allowed for the possibility of pursuing reform bit-by-bit, via future ballot initiatives in 2014. But the future was uncertain.

FOUR MONTHS after the fade-out of the Think Long report, I met Berggruen again. This time it was at the Beverly Hills Hotel. To get there, he had walked a mile and a half from his camp at the Peninsula hotel, a journey that requires a few dangerous dashes across very busy, if posh, streets. “It’s the only exercise I get these days,” he said.

He ordered a $32 Cobb salad, asking for the meat to be removed. The waiter arrived with a microscopic pile of diced lettuce and cucumbers. “This is the smallest salad in the world,” Berggruen complained politely to the server. A few minutes later, the server returned with a grander salad.

If only all of life’s disappointments were so easily remedied. After coming so limply out of the gate, the Think Long report lay lifeless. But Berggruen was quick to reassure me he was not giving up on implementing what Think Long had done. In fact, he had convened a Think Long-style group to study Europe’s governance problems, with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the headliners, and it had produced a report. Berggruen also was writing a book with Gardels, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between East and West, to be published late this year by Polity Press. Meanwhile, Think Long was working on breaking down its tax recommendations—and perhaps others—into initiatives for the California statewide elections in 2014.

But what about the central premise of Think Long—that proper reform required extensive time to think, and a committee that could make a series of big changes together, in an integrated way? I suggested that in practice Think Long seemed to have surrendered to the mind-set of California Forward and other fix-it industry types, who view initiatives—one-at-a-time silver bullets—as the way to save the state.

Here, the conversation became a bit tough.

Berggruen started by saying that the Think Long Committee’s work had proved the value of its method. “We found that if you put together a group of people who are experienced, thoughtful, care about the state, if you get them to think and work for a bit of time together without having the pressure and interests of partisanship and outside media pressures, they come up with pretty sensible ideas,” he said.

Yes, but how were the thoughtful results compatible with the piecemeal and inflexible initiative process?

“Listen, personally do I think the idea of having to fight out an initiative—which is complicated, which is a nightmare, to be honest, costly, and you could lose—is a good way to go?” Berggruen said. “It’s a horrible way to do things. But how else are we going to get things done?”

I suggested he might try to get the legislature, or the people, to empower a wholesale revision of the constitution, perhaps by a small, distinguished body.

Maybe, he replied, then asked me: How would it work? And how could you make it happen politically?

I had no idea.

Neither did he. And there we were. How very Californian.

The bill came. Berggruen refused to let me pay, but he had lost his credit card. As he retraced his steps, he came upon Warren Buffett dining with his family at a table on the other side of the restaurant. The two billionaires recognized each other and chatted contentedly, with the look of men who have it all figured out.

Berggruen bid me goodbye. I offered him a ride, but he said he would walk back to the Peninsula. It would give him more time to think.

I returned to a world of tending to my family and possessions. I picked up my boys at preschool and child care. Not much time for thinking about anything, much less a fix for California’s problems. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Nicolas Berggruen could do my thinking for me.