We keep trying to understand the enigma of California, mostly why it still breathes for a while longer, given the efforts to destroy the sources of its success. Let’s try to navigate through its sociology and politics to grasp why something that should not survive is surviving quite well — at least in some places.
Conservati delendi sunt
The old blue/red war for California is over. Conservatives lost. Liberals won — by a combination of flooding the state with government-supplied stuff, and welcoming millions in while showing the exit to others. The only mystery is how Carthaginian will be the victor’s peace, e.g., how high will taxes go, how many will leave, how happy will the majority be at their departure?
The state of Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, and George Deukmejian is long dead due to the most radical demographic shifts of any one state in recent American history — as far away as Cicero was to Nero. One minor, but telling example: Salinas, in Monterey County where the murder rate is the highest in the state, just — at least I think the news story is not a prank — named its new middle school after Tiburcio Vasquez.
A convicted murderer.
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?
The New Demography
California has changed not due to race but due to culture, most prominently because the recent generation of immigrants from Latin America did not — as in the past, for the most part — come legally in manageable numbers and integrate under the host’s assimilationist paradigm. Instead, in the last three decades huge arrivals of illegal aliens from Mexico and Latin America saw Democrats as the party of multiculturalism, separatism, entitlements, open borders, non-enforcement of immigration laws, and eventually plentiful state employment.
Given the numbers, the multicultural paradigm of the salad bowl that focused on “diversity” rather than unity, and the massive new government assistance, how could the old American tonic of assimilation, intermarriage, and integration keep up with the new influxes? It could not.
Finally, we live in an era of untruth and Orwellian censorship. It is absolutely taboo to write about the above, or to talk about the ever more weird artifacts of illegal immigration — the war now on black families in demographically changing areas of Los Angeles, the statistics behind DUI arrests, or the burgeoning profile of Medi-Cal recipients. I recall of the serial dissimulation in California my high school memorization of Sir Walter Raleigh:
Tell potentates, they live/Acting by others’ action/Not loved unless they give; Not strong but by affection; If potentates reply/Give potentates the lie.
There were, of course, other parallel demographic developments. Hundreds of thousands of the working and upper-middle class, mostly from the interior of the state, have fled — maybe four million in all over the last thirty years, taking with them $1 trillion in capital and income-producing education and expertise. Apparently, they tired of high taxes, poor schools, crime, and the culture of serial blame-gaming and victimhood. In this reverse Dust Bowl migration, a barren no-tax Nevada or humid Texas was a bargain.
Their California is long gone (“Lo, all our pomp and of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre”), and a Stockton, Fresno, or Visalia misses their presence, because they had skills, education, and were net pluses to the California economy.
Add in a hip, youth, and gay influx to the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and coastal Los Angeles that saw California as a sort of upscale, metrosexual lifestyle (rule of thumb: conservatives always find better restaurants in liberal locales), and California now has an enormous number of single-person households, childless couples, and one-child families. Without the lifetime obligation to raise $1 million in capital to pay for bringing up and educating two kids from birth to 21 (if you’re lucky), the non-traditional classes have plenty of disposable income for entertainment, housing, and high taxes. For examples, read Petronius, especially the visit to Croton.
Finally, there is our huge affluent public work force. It is the new aristocracy; landing a job with the state is like hitting the lottery. Californians have discovered that, in today’s low/non-interest economy, a $70,000 salary with defined benefit public pension for life is far better than having the income from a lifetime savings of $3 million.
Or, look at it another way: with passbooks paying 0.5-1%, the successful private accountant or lawyer could put away $10,000 a month for thirty years of his productive career and still not match the monthly retirement income of the Caltrans worker who quit at 60 with modest contributions to PERS.
And with money came political clout. To freeze the pension contribution of a highway patrolman is a mortal sin; but no one worries much about the private security’s guard minimum wage and zero retirement, whose nightly duties are often just as dangerous. The former is sacrosanct; the latter a mere loser.
The result of 30 years of illegal immigration, the reigning culture of the coastal childless households, the exodus of the overtaxed, and the rule of public employees is not just Democratic, but hyper-liberal supermajorities in the legislature. In the most naturally wealthy state in the union with a rich endowment from prior generations, California is serially broke — the master now of its own fate. It has the highest menu of income, sales, and gas taxes in the nation, and about the worst infrastructure, business climate, and public education. Is the latter fact despite or because of the former?
How, then, does California continue? Read on, but in a nutshell, natural and inherited wealth are so great on the coast that a destructive state government must work overtime to ruin what others wrought.
Also, when you say, “My God, one of every three welfare recipients lives in California,” or “California schools are terrible,” you mean really, “Not in Newport or Carmel. So who cares about Fresno, or Tulare — they might as well be in Alabama for all the times I have been there.”
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?
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?
The Cost of Doing Business
Coastal folk seem to view high taxes like Mafia protection money, but in the sense of psychological satisfaction and freedom from guilt. For now, sales, gas, and income taxes are not so high as to matter to those who voted for them, at least in view of the social and political advantages of coastal living: the beautiful weather, the Pacific panorama, the hip culture of recreational light drug use, neat restaurants, sports, fine wines, solar and wind romance, foreign cars, and general repugnance at religion, guns, conservatives, and traditional anything.
To the extent that “they” (i.e. you, reader) exist, the distant others are nebulous, rarely thought-about souls. Perhaps they really do enjoy polluting the planet as they generate the electricity, pipe in the natural gas and oil, refine the fuels, grow the food, and cut and haul the lumber that gives a Palo Alto or Santa Barbara the stuff to go on one more day.
Vote For Me Not To Represent You?
I still can’t figure out politics and culture of our vast interior, both the enormous and mostly empty state above Sacramento, and the huge Central Valley and Sierra. As my neighbors put it, life would have to get pretty awful here to be worse than in Oaxaca. I once asked a neighbor why he was hauling wrecked trailers onto his small parcel. He smiled and told me California was “heaven.” From my few trips to Mexico, I could not argue.
One of the questions I always hear from strangers: “Why doesn’t everyone leave?” The answer is simple: for the coastal overdogs there is nowhere else where the money is as good and the weather and scenery are as enjoyable. How much would you pay to walk in cut-offs in February and not in three jackets in Montana? And for the interior underclass, California’s entitlements and poor-paying service jobs are paradise compared to Honduras, Jalisco, or Southeast Asia. And, yes, the middle-class small farmers, hardware-store owners, company retirees, and electricians are leaving in droves.
The Latino population, I would imagine, would be in revolt over the elitist nature of California politics. Of course, thousands of second-generation Latinos have become public employees, from teachers to DMV clerks, and understandably so vote a straight Democrat-public union ticket. But millions are not working for the state, and they suffer dramatically from the ruling Bay Area left-wing political agenda of regulations, green quackery, and legal gymnastics. It is not just that the foreign national illegally entered the U.S. from Oaxaca, but entered the most complex, over-regulated, over-taxed, and over-lawyered state in the nation — hence the disconnects.
Take energy. California may have reserves of 35 billion barrels of oil in its newly discovered shale formations, and even more natural gas — the best way to provide clean electricity and, perhaps soon, transportation energy for the state. Tens of thousands of young Latino immigrants — given that agriculture is increasingly mechanizing, construction is flat, and the state is broke — could be making high wages from Salinas to Paso Robles, and along the I-5 corridor, if fracking and horizontal drilling took off. Even more jobs could accrue in subsidiary construction and trucking. And for a cynic, billions of dollars in state energy taxes from gas and oil revenue would ensure that the state’s generous handouts would be funded for a generation. Did someone forget that the California boom of the 1930s and 1940s was fueled by cheap, in-state oil?
More importantly, our power companies have the highest energy bills in the nation, given all sorts of green and redistributionist mandates. The costs fall most heavily on the cold winter/hot summer interior residents, who are the poorest in the state. Those who insist that the utilities invest in costly alternate energy and other green fantasies live mostly in 65-70 degree coastal weather year-round and enjoy low power bills.
Yet the liberal coastal political lock-hold on the state continues.
No one in San Joaquin or Tranquility cares about a baitfish in the delta, but they do vote nonetheless for the elites who divert water from farms, put the poor farm worker out of work, and feel good about saving the smelt in the process. Go figure.
How then does the California coalition work, and in some sense work so well?
The coastal elite offers an agenda for more welfare funding, scholarships, class warfare, public unions, diversity, affirmative action, open borders, and amnesty, and in response the interior voter signs off on everything from gay marriage, solar and wind subsidies, gun restrictions, mass transit schemes, and the entire progressive tax-and-spend agenda. Most of this coalition never much sees one another.
The young Mountain View programmer keeps clear of Woodlake. He even has only a vague idea of what life is like for those who live in nearby Redwood City and make his arugula salad at the hip pasta bar in Palo Alto. In turn, the Redwood City dishwasher has an equally murky sense that the wealthy kid who works at Google does not wish to deport his uncle — and so the two become unspoken political partners of sorts. One of the state’s wealthiest cities, a gated Atherton, is juxtaposed to one of its most Latinate communities, Redwood City. But they might as well be Mercury and Pluto. Or should we applaud that the owner of the manor and his grass cutter vote identically — and against the interests of the guy who sold and serviced the Honda lawn mower?
In the flesh, the energetic people I associate with during the week in Silicon Valley and see on the Stanford campus and on University Avenue are, it must be said, innovative folk, but soft apartheidists: where they live, where their kids go to schools, where they eat, and whom they associate with are governed by a class, and de facto racial, sensibility that would make Afrikaners of old proud.
The liberal aristocracy is as class-bound as the old Republican blue-stockings, but saved from populist ostracism by what I have called the “hip” exemption — liberalism’s new veneer that allows one to be both consumer and critic of the Westernized good life, to praise the people and to stay as far away from them as possible. Mitt Romney is an outsourcer; Google’s offshore holdings are cool.
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Is there hope? Can there be honesty about our crises and courage to address them? If there is not to be assimilation and integration at the rate as in the past, then I sometime fantasize that a new conservative movement of second- and third-generation upper middle-class, over-taxed Mexican-Americans will demand competitive schools for their children without the fantasies of Chicano studies and coastal global warming indoctrination.
They will push for energy development, beefed-up law enforcement, and reasonable taxes and power rates, and so lock horns with the coastal elites, well apart from abortion, the death penalty, and the constant alternative lifestyle agenda. Some already are heading that way; more would if the borders were closed and the old forces of the melting pot were not impeded.
Or maybe change will come from the other end of the surreal coalition. I talk to young, high-end yupster couples and wonder how they can vote for 40% federal income taxes, 11% state income taxes, Obamacare, and payroll and Medicare surcharges on their hefty incomes when increasingly they don’t use the public schools. Or if they have children, they pay exorbitant prices for private schooling and coastal housing that anywhere else would be laughable. I don’t think Menlo-Atherton High School, or the average paving on any residential street in Palo Alto, or the security on Willow Avenue, or the square footage of the typical Menlo Park bungalow is all such a great deal for losing 55% of your income to the local, state, and federal redistributionists.
Will Howard Jarvis return, with Birkenstocks and ponytail?
Would some young visionary see that just a few ecologically correct new dams, and a well-run development of the Monterey shale formation, would enable vast new increases in California energy and agriculture — food and fuel are what sustains mankind — and launch another Gold Rush?
Then I wake up and accept that contemporary California is a quirk, one governed by a secular religion, a non-empirical belief system that postulates that natural gas is bad because it produces heat and that dams that store precious water are unnatural. So far the consequences of such thinking rarely boomerang on the cocooned fantasists.
We are like the proverbial spoiled third-generation progeny of the immigrant farmer: the first-generation toiler lived in a hovel until he bought his 80 acres with paid cash. The second remodeled the old house, had a nicer car than a tractor, doubled the acreage, but took the weekend off and had less money in the bank than did his dad. The third fantasized and puttered about in his hiking boots, went through the inheritance, mortgaged the land — and was as glib and mellifluous as he was broke.
California is a tired idea.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast.