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Works and Days

California at Twilight

January 29th, 2013 - 12:01 am

So Much Taxation, So Little in Return

Thank God for Mississippi and Alabama, or California schools would test dead last.

Somehow, in just thirty years we created obstacles to public learning that produce results approaching the two-century horrific legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. About half the resources of the California State University system are devoted to remedial schooling for underperforming high school students (well over half who enter take remediation courses; half don’t graduate even in six years; and well over half have sizable financial aid). The point of CSU’s general education requirement is not so much any more to offer broad learning (who is to say what is “general education?”), but rather to enter a sort of race, class, and gender boot camp that allows some time off to become familiar with how the culture and politics of the state should continue.

The majority of the once-vaunted upper-tier University of California campuses now resemble second-tier CSU of old. Yet I think a Fresno State graduate of 1965 was far better educated than a UC Irvine or UC Santa Cruz student of today.

The state’s wealthiest and best-prepared students are perhaps only well-taught at its elite schools — the two UC campuses at Berkeley and UCLA, Stanford, Caltech, USC, Pepperdine, or Santa Clara — while the poorer but still serious students increasingly enroll in the new private online and tech schools that sprout up around failed CSU campuses. Why pay for the farce of GE, when you can just get the nuts-and-bolts job skills cheaper and quicker at a tech school?

Stagecoach Trails

Little need be said about infrastructure other than it is fossilized. The lunacy of high-speed rail is not just the cost, but that a few miles from its proposed route are at present a parallel but underused Amtrak track and the 99 Highway, where thousands each day risk their lives in crowded two lanes, often unchanged since the 1960s.

The 99, I-5, and 101 are potholed two-lane highways with narrow ramps, and a few vestigial cross-traffic death zones. But we, Californian drivers, are not just double the numbers of those 30 years ago, but — despite far safer autos and traffic science — far less careful as well. There are thousands of drivers without licenses, insurance, registration, and elementary knowledge of road courtesy. Half of all accidents in Los Angeles are hit-and-runs.

My favorite is the ubiquitous semi-truck and trailer swerving in and out of the far left lane with a 20-something Phaethon behind the wheel — texting away as he barrels along at 70 mph with a fishtailing 20 tons. The right lane used to be for trucks; now all lanes are open range for trucking — no law in the arena! The dotted lane lines are recommendations, not regulations. (Will young truck drivers be hired to become our new high-speed rail state employee engineers?)

When I drive over the Grapevine, I play a sick game of counting the number of mattresses I’ll spot in the road over the next 100 miles into L.A. (usually three to four). Lumber, yard clippings, tools, and junk — all that is thrown into the back of trucks without tarps. To paraphrase Hillary: what does it matter whether we are killed by a mattress or a 2 x 4? In places like Visalia or Madera, almost daily debris ends up shutting down one of the only two lanes on the 99.

Wrecks so far? It is not the number, but rather the scary pattern that counts. I’ve had three in the last 10 years: a would-be hit-and-run driver (the three “no”s: no license, no registration, no insurance) went through a stop sign in Selma, collided with my truck, and tried to take off on foot, leaving behind his ruined Civic; a speeder (80 m.p.h.) in L.A. hit a huge box-spring on the 101 near the 405, slammed on his brakes, skidded into a U-turn in the middle lane, reversed direction, and hit me going 40 m.p.h. head-on (saved by Honda Accord’s front and side air-bags and passive restraint seat harnesses; the injured perpetrator’s first call was to family, not 911); and a young woman last year, while texting, rear-ended me at 50 m.p.h. while I was at a complete stop in stalled traffic in Fresno (thank God for a dual-cab Tundra with a long trailer hitch). She too first called her family to try to help her flee the scene of her wrecked car, but my call apparently reached the Highway Patrol first.

Drive enough in California, and you too, reader, will have a ‘”rendezvous with Death, at some disputed barricade.”

West and East Californias

The coastal elites unite politically with the interior poor, in the fashion of the Caesarians and the turba. I suppose that their common adversary is, as was true of Rome, the disappearing middle class. Along the coast, elites have harvested well California’s natural and acquired wealth. I’ll again just toss out a few brands; you can imagine the lucre and jobs that are generated from Santa Rosa to San Diego: Apple, Chevron, Disney, DreamWorks, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Hollywood, Napa Valley, Oracle, PG&E, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Wells Fargo, the ports of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Oakland.

So let us not speak of California decline, but of California’s decline and another California boom — one of 6% unemployment and another of 16%, one of $100,000 per capita income and another of $15,000, one of cottages sold on the first day on the market in Newport and another of vacant McMansions molding away in Stockton.

Success continues on the coast and is managed by very wealthy and mostly liberal residents of the sprawl that surrounds Los Angeles and San Francisco. For the five million or so who are enriched in enterprise zones like these — and there are thousands more spin-off and smaller such companies — life is pretty good if you keep your household small, inherited a house, or make enough money to buy something at about $500 to $1,000 dollars a square foot. In Selma, new 1800 sq. foot homes sell for $140,000; in Palo Alto, dollhouses go for $1.5 million. So who is the prince, and who the fool? Are opera tickets and a street light that still has its wire worth it?

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He was the legendary 19th-century robber and murderer who was hanged for his crimes. But who is to say that Vasquez is a killer, and Henry Huntington a visionary?

We have elementary and middle schools here in New Mexico named after Don Juan de Onate y Salazar. After Onate sent a troop to demand supplies from the Acoma tribe, they resisted, and 12 of his soldiers were killed in the struggle, including his nephew. Onate then started a war with the Acoma, killing 800 of them, and enslaving the remaining 500. He had the left foot cut off every male over the age of 25.

Does it matter that Onate did his work in the 16th century rather than the 19th? Vasquez certainly sounds like he was a lawless bastard, but I'm not sure he's significantly worse than other historical figures that schools get named after.
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