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Works and Days

The Razor’s Edge

April 10th, 2011 - 12:25 pm

California in the Balance.

We calibrate California’s decline by its myriad of paradoxes. The nation’s highest bundle of gas, sales, and income taxes cannot close the nation’s largest annual deficit at $25 billion. Test scores are at the country’s near bottom; teachers’ salaries at the very top. Scores of the affluent are leaving each week; scores of the indigent are arriving. The nation’s most richly endowed state is also the most regulated; the most liberal of our residents are also the most ready to practice apartheid in their Bel Air or Palo Alto enclaves.

We now see highway patrolmen and city police, in the manner of South American law enforcement, out in force. Everywhere they are monitoring, watching, ticketing — no warnings, no margins of error — desperate to earn traffic fines that might feed the state that feeds them. I could go on. But you get the picture that we are living on the fumes of a rich state that our forefathers brilliantly exploited, and now there is not much energy left in the fading exhaust to keep us going.

I see California in terms now of the razor’s edge with disaster not far in either direction. A postmodern affluent lifestyle hangs in the balance here without a margin of error. Let me give some examples.

I drive a lot on the 99 Freeway both northward and southward. (What follows would apply to the 101 as well, or, in fact, to most state “freeways.”) In vast stretches of the 99 it is unchanged from the two lanes when I first began driving in 1969, but now with worse pavement, larger potholes, and treacherous shoulders. Yet the state then had about 20, not 37 million people, and around 12 million licensed drivers, not well over 25 million (and who knows how many unlicensed drivers?). Nonetheless, our ancestors were brilliant sorts, and left us a well-engineered and planned grid that can still handle all sorts of the minor challenges. So on a day of perfect weather, with good drivers, at low traffic hours between 9 and 2, and without ongoing road maintenance or construction, I can make the 190 miles to either Sacramento or Los Angeles in three hours — just as I used to in far older, less reliable cars of thirty years past.

But that is rare these days. You see, there are too many proverbial ifs now. Tamper with just one variable — leave too early or return too late; have some rain or fog; have one of the two lanes shut down for anything from tree trimming to pothole filling; experience one idiot whose lawn-mower or paint sprayer fell out of his open flatbed truck — and the fragile system shuts completely down, creating paralysis for thousands of backed-up drivers. For our generation’s grid to work as it should, we would need three lanes, in good condition, perhaps four — and a pool of drivers who were all trained, licensed, registered, and insured. But you see, we had other priorities and values the last twenty years and so we took for granted the freeways we inherited. So we indulged and as the proverbially obese clogged our arteries.

Consider also regulation. In a vast state of 20 million in 1970 few cared that there were new building code rules and mounting new labor statutes. All sorts of innovative bureaucracies came on line. I remember the mosquito abatement jeeps spraying pools suddenly everywhere to stop mosquito-born disease; the country dog people were out in force checking for licenses and shots on your farm to eradicate even the rumor of rabies. Now fast forward to 37 million residents, with a vast new government superstructure. and we have become both the most and the least regulated. The poor broke highway patrolman sits on the corner, straining his neck to find a cell-phone user who is a sure thing for a $200 hit. Yet he would hardly wish to drive two miles away along a rural pond where a dishwasher is tossed in open daylight — the former involves money and the law-abiding, the latter nothing but all sorts of unimaginable costs and trouble. So the message for the Californian is to toss the refrigerator out in the pond, but don’t dare use that cell phone while waiting for the green light. I rode my bike (idiocy, of course, being defined by doing the same thing as led to catastrophe a month ago) by a cluster of trailers and shacks the other day and quickly surmised that it would take about 10 bureaucratic divisions — EPA, building permit regulators, law enforcement, child protective services, health department, animal control, hazardous waste — to deal with the pathologies apparent to the passing naked eye, and so understood that we must grant the new homesteaders de facto freedom by virtue of their lawlessness, and as compensation try to make more unfree the lawful, whose transgressions are rare as they are lucrative.

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