California of the Dark Ages

I recently took a few road trips longitudinally and latitudinally across California. The state bears little to no resemblance to what I was born into. In a word, it is now a medieval place of lords and peasants—and few in between. Or rather, as I gazed out on the California Aqueduct, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Luis Reservoir, I realized we are like the hapless, squatter Greeks of the Dark Ages, who could not figure out who those mythical Mycenaean lords were that built huge projects still standing in their midst, long after Lord Ajax and King Odysseus disappeared into exaggeration and myth. Henry Huntington built the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project in the time it took our generation to go to three hearings on a proposed dam.

For all practical purposes, there are no more viable 40-acre to 150-acre family farms. You can sense their absence in a variety of subtle ways. Tractors are much bigger, because smaller plots are now combined into latifundia, and rows of trees and vines become longer. Rural houses are now homes to farm managers and renters, not farms families. One never sees families pruning or tying vines together as was common in the 1960s. I haven’t seen an owner of a farm on a tractor in over a decade.

Several developments have accelerated rapid change in the state. The long agricultural depression at the turn of the century—years of unprofitable prices for tree, vine and row crops—gave way about a decade ago to a sudden farm bonanza, especially in nut tree prices. The result was that once unprofitable land that had bankrupted the old agrarian class was absorbed by larger concerns and went through the costly process of transforming into pistachio, walnut, and almond acreages. Land prices in central California suddenly went from $5,000 an acre to $30,000 and up. Sometimes I’d like to remind the ghosts of those who went broke that the land they sold off for nothing is now quite something.

When I was in high school there was about 100,000 acres of almonds (selling at less than $1 a pound); now there are almost a million acres (at over $3 a pound). Production per acre tripled. Nuts unlike stone fruit are almost completely mechanized; so farm labor jobs are disappearing. The engine that drives illegal immigration is certainly no longer agriculture, but hotels, restaurants, construction, landscaping—and public assistance. The United Farm Workers is virtually defunct largely because there are ever fewer farmworkers. When it tries one of its ossified strikes, growers simply pull out any crops that require hand labor.

The drought accelerated these trends. Rural farmhouses that were rented out to the impoverished are often boarded up. In some places the water table dropped 50-100 feet and it apparently made no sense to drill new $40,000 domestic wells for $600 a month in rental income. Roman authors wrote of these transitions from an agrarian patchwork to an empty countryside of huge and, ironically or rather predictably, more efficient agribusiness.

Drip irrigation was said to be the new smart way of farming, given its economy in water usage. But was it in the long run? Under the ancient system of surface irrigation—refined in the 1970s and 1980s by the laser-leveling of fields—water quickly flowed to the end of the row and was shut off, often at night when transpiration was minimal.

Note the economy of the old system: there was little costly pumping from the aquifer. Sierra and Northern California water was gravity-fed into canals and on into orchard and vineyards. What water that was not absorbed by the crop replenished the water table, which stayed mostly constant, given the lack of pumping.

No so with the advent of drip irrigation (few farmers filter surface water to pump through their systems). Instead, pumping ground water through drip hoses became a 24/7 operation. What trickled out of the drip lines was either used by the plant or evaporated. Almost no drip water, as in the past with surface irrigation, was recycled back into the aquifer. I rarely see a man with a shovel walking the vineyards anymore. Expect more water crises in the future, given that pumping the aquifer is the new farming, in dry or wet years.

Illegal Immigration also Changed the Nature of California

The old measured migrations from Mexico did not tax the system. The American host was confident in helping the immigrant learn a new culture (or why else had he left his own in Mexico?), and so was not shy about assimilating and integrating newcomers. Not now.

Huge numbers, illegality, and the far greater presence of indigenous peoples meant there were more immigrants, more who were poorer and more who did not speak English or even Spanish as their native language—at a time when the salad bowl and hyphenation replaced the melting pot. The result is that there are large areas of Central California that resemble life in rural Mexico. Within a radius of five miles I can go to stores and restaurants where English is rarely spoken and there is no racial or cultural diversity—a far cry from Jeb Bush’s notion of an “act of love” landscape.

With unemployment at 10% or more in the interior of the state, with the public schools near the bottom in the nation, and with generous entitlements, it is no accident that one in six in the nation who receive public assistance now live in California, where about a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.

One in four Californians also were not born in the United States; more than one in four who enter the hospital for any cause are found upon admittance to suffer from Type II diabetes. The unspoken responsibility of California state government is to bring state-sponsored parity to new arrivals from Oaxaca, and to do so in ideological fashion that ensures open borders and more government. It is the work of a sort of secular church, and questioning its premises is career-ending blasphemy.

When over $150 billion go to Medi-Cal and related subsidized health care—albeit much of the sum paid for by the federal government—it is understandable why the state’s starved roads are rated about dead last in the nation. I drove home today from San Francisco. The 101 northbound was at a crawl. At Gilroy, the 101 southbound was shut completely down due to the customary big rig crash. I took an hour detour. I-5 is unchanged since I was a teen and approaching the nightmare of the 99. Is the idea to freeze the highways of a state of 40 million at the level they were when we were 20 million—perhaps either to lessen our “carbon footprints” or to force acceptance of high-speed rail? I approach driving across California the way I do flying—expect that anything at anytime, anywhere will happen. Again, beneath the havoc you can glimpse the genius of our Mycenaean ancestors who designed a brilliant transportation system—for 15-20 million citizens.

A final twist was the infusion of a trillion dollars of capital into a few hands in the relatively small environs of the Silicon Valley. The tech boom, in connection with the mass influx of illegal immigrants into central California, sent coastal-corridor real estate into the stratosphere, from La Jolla and Monterey to Napa and Sonoma. California was redefined as coastal California—and the “rest.” A Californian is rich if he lives in a hovel in Menlo Park and poor if he lives in a castle in Stockton or Madera.

Stranger still, the infusion of hundreds of billions of global tech capital created a new, politically active, multimillionaire elite, completely insulated from the consequences of their own therapeutic ideologies. The reason why California’s gas and electricity prices are among the highest in the nation, why its income, sales and gas taxes are likewise among the steepest, and why the price of housing per square foot soars over $1,000 while nearby tens of thousands of acres of open ground sit sacrosanct—essential open viewing space for those who can afford $1.5 million, 1,500 sq. feet 1970s houses—is this new rich elite.

California is No Place for the Middle Class

Easy money translated into a utopian view of living. Higher taxes were a small price to pay for the psychological reassurance that a millionaire was still liberal. Professions of abstract progressive piety make guilt-free grasping materialism possible. I suppose if you make $800,000, having your legislature outlaw dogs chasing bears and bobcats instead of building a reservoir makes you feel as if you make $80,000.

California is no place for the middle class. It lacks the tastes of the new wealthy and the romance of the distant poor, and clings to the pretensions that families of five and six should enjoy good schools, still be able to buy a house, and pop into the SUV on Sunday for an easy drive to the beach or mountains.

I drove home from Stanford after walking down University Avenue, ground zero of the Stanford-Silicon nexus. A strange, wheeled contraption with a screen followed me down the sidewalk, asking me questions with the image of its human operator in a store nearby. Five hours and 170 miles later, I pulled into the old farmhouse, mostly unchanged since 1880—but first passing the compound of my neighbor and his cobbled together corral of sheep, goats, chickens, and geese, three broken trailer apartments, a Winnebago on blocks duplex, and a half-dozen wrecked cars amid a flock of unleashed pit bulls. The swat team swarmed another neighbor’s “enterprises” last week, but that is another story altogether.

In California, the postmodern and the premodern are but a few miles apart.

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com and AP images.)