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Works and Days

Strangers in a Familiar Land

August 29th, 2011 - 9:00 am

High-Speed Rail?

California sits in a time warp. Despite tax hikes that make our roughly 10% income tax and 10% sales tax among the highest in the nation, there is little to show for it during the last forty years. I drive often the 20-mile sector of the 99 between Selma and northern Fresno. The freeway — one of the 99’s best sections — is unchanged since I drove it 41 years ago as a high-school junior in 1970, except that it is now crowded, with massive semi-trucks permanently hogging the center lanes, whereas in 1970 it was a near-empty futuristic investment that allowed cars to zoom along unchecked at 70mph. (Again, our sector of the 99 is a model three-lane stretch, not nearly as bad as the nightmarish two-lane, cross-traffic sections to both the north and south.)

A contemporary culture that cannot finish a forty-year-old planned three-lane freeway from Sacramento to Bakersfield has no business borrowing tens of billions to attempt a new high-speed rail corridor. It is characteristic of our present generation to dream and talk wildly of the non-essential as penance for neglecting the very doable and necessary. An alien who landed at a UC campus in 1971 and studied the students and faculty might not be surprised on his return to California in 2011 that things are what they are, given that cohort has finally came of age and taken over the reins of governance. An entire generation that had once defined itself in opposition to “them” has problems when “them” are mostly buried.

Fossil Hunting

My weekend drives up the road 168 to the Sierra National Forest are similar: I gaze out at the road, the dams, the lakes, and powerhouses, and notice they remain almost identical to what I remember four decades ago, as if we are now some sort of Dark Age Greeks wondering in amazement at the deserted Lion Gate at Mycenae, fabricating myths that the “gods” or “Cyclopes” built such strange wonders, whose mechanisms and operations only a priestly sect still fathoms. I worry not just that we lack the politicians to replicate the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, but perhaps even the same caliber of engineers and construction workers themselves. I am sure that we know the number of spots on every endangered newt in the San Joaquin River canyon, but would not have much ability to match the genius of those one century ago who drew for us power, irrigation water, and recreation from that powerful river. One anomaly: there are sections of beautiful 1960s/1970s built roads — the four lane stretch on 168, or the four miles of well-engineered road to the Kaiser summit above Huntington Lake. But then abruptly they stop and are continued on by the much poorer roads that they were long ago designed to update, as if to say, “Nah, this was a bad idea, so we better stop.” Or: “Ok, you guys win, we’ll quit.”

The “Flagship” Universities

The UC and CSU systems in outward appearance haven’t changed that much in half a century, but no college president in either current system would bet his life that today’s random graduates of his campus could match exit test scores in math or English of their 1960s random counterparts (so much for all those cutting-edge new classes and brilliantly conceived “centers”). The effort to open the new problematic UC campus in Merced did not quite follow the long ago exemplar of Irvine or Santa Cruz: our forefathers simply built massive new campuses next to resort cities; we in contrast sue and file impact statements over starting on empty isolated ground. Half of incoming freshmen at CSU today require remediation; about half graduate in six years. Pick up an old catalog from the library and compare the course listings — and the reason why jumps off the pages.

Then and Now

When I leave my farm, I pass by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the 99 freeway, and the small towns that dot that north-south corridor. Again, nothing much has changed in forty years — except thousands of new tract houses and the closure of farm machinery businesses, truck-trailer plants, and hydraulic equipment factories. Again, a time traveler might think in 1970 people lived frugally but made lots of things in lots of factories, connected by hyper-efficient transportation; in 2011 they live much better, but why and how would not be perceptible to the naked eye, given their closed plants, congested potholed roads, and lack of new productive investment.

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