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Works and Days

Change—and Some Hope

May 12th, 2012 - 4:46 pm

We’re Mississippi and Massachusetts—All in One

In California, it is also the best of times and the worst of times. Jerry Brown just announced we are short $16 billion, not $9 billion, as he does his best to promote his massive tax increases on “them” on the June ballot. Yet it is still hard to kill off California.

Due to the globalized rise of Asia, there are now a billion new consumers in China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, with money to buy California fruits, nuts, beef, and fiber. And while the state’s students have never been more unprepared in science and math, California high-tech farming—run by just a few thousand entrepreneurs—has never been more sophisticated and ingenious. Never have there been so many new hybrid species of trees, vines, and row crops, never so much mechanization and replacement of manual labor, never so much sophisticated computerized irrigation and fertilization. Just when I think no more production can be squeezed out of an acre, no more markets can be found for yet another 1,000-acre block of almonds or pistachios, no more new machines can figure out how to eliminate labor, prices keeps soaring and the profit margins keep growing—and in a government-induced depression no less.

New Carthage, Circa AD 400

Yet amid the good news, the wealthy agribusiness baron does not put his kid in the school next to his sprawling acreage. He factors into his expenses the serial theft of copper conduit from his pumps and the daily vandalism as the cost of doing business. He knows better than to drive a rural road after 10 p.m. when shootings, drunk driving, and violent crime will leave their detritus for the morning clean-up.

Most big farmers live in northeastern Fresno or Clovis for the ambiance and the schools, and then drive out to their goldmines in the outback in my environs. In some sense, rural central California has never been more lucrative for a few, and never more foreboding for the rest of us. I was reminded of this the other day, when an agribusiness man at a lecture I gave offered me some wise, if cynical, advice: “You have it backwards, Mr. Hanson. You’re supposed to live in a good place and drive out to lots of your farmland, not live right on top of very little of it.”

The same disconnect is true of the state in general. Facebook, Google, and Apple have never had more profits or cash. Silicon Valley has never been richer. I eat at restaurants on University Avenue amid software engineers, bankers, and lawyers from China, India, Germany, and Japan. Yet drive just 100 miles inland to the other California, the Mississippi half of the state, and you encounter not hundreds of thousands, but literally millions of those without high school diplomas, English, or legality. Last week, I was counting the different languages spoken at a Palo Alto outside Italian eatery (Punjabi, Chinese, German, Italian, French, and Russian)—and, three hours, 180 miles away, warning the stalled driver ahead of me not to dump his three cans of raw trash on the side of the road.

As the wine country booms, as Hollywood still reels in global cash, as universities like Stanford, Caltech, and USC are flush with cash and with long waiting lists, the infrastructure of high-tax California is shot, with repair and improvements diverted to redistributive social entitlements. Last month, I drove again down 101, the state’s coastal “freeway”: lots of Mercedeses, Lexuses—and clunker trucks with boards, wire, and scrap bouncing in the back—all weaving in and out of the two-lane, pot-holed excuse for a freeway. It reminded me of Road Warrior.

I went to a rural hospital lab two weeks ago to get a simple blood test: six were ahead of me. Two spoke English. All had presented their Medi-Cal cards. Altogether there were ten small toddlers, with parents all either sick or pregnant or both. A five-minute visit in 1980 now took an hour—all a world away from Stanford Medical Center or the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

Yes, there is free care in California without Obamacare—available to anyone who wishes it, as good as my university Blue Shield plan. Part of me looked at the lab crowd, with dependents, little income, no education or much English, and health problems galore, and sighed: “This isn’t going to work”; and part of me sighed: “At least they are confident and having kids and not neurotic like so many of the childless elites on the coast.” You decide, reader; I cannot. (A final observation: Do not believe the liberal myth that hordes of young hardy Mexican nationals are going to suffer to take care of aging whites and Asians on fat pensions. From my observations, morbid obesity and an epidemic of onset diabetes among new arrivals from Mexico are the next great health crises to come. The sociable, kindly woman ahead of me at the lab earnestly explained to me her health issues: diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure. She looked about 26 and was pregnant with her fourth child.)

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