The Great California Land Rush
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And how about the old agrarian ideal? Is the new boom enriching hundreds of thousands of families at last with money to spruce up their old Victorian clapboard houses on 100 acre ancestral plots?
Nope. They are all dead, buried, forgotten. While the successful corporate families are trying to expand, bigger money is also coming from the outside of agriculture: 401K investment funds, pension portfolios, insurance profits, safe havens for imperiled euros, or smart investments for coastal professionals tired of rising taxes and zero interest. The result is that if in 1970 I knew every family in a two-mile radius, I don’t know more than 10% of the landowners in my nearest vicinity now. Heck, I don’t even know if there are any landowners, rather than shareholders of some investment portfolios.
Stranger still, the land looks better, not worse, at least in the daylight. A corporate-type lectured me not long ago for writing an essay on the “Two Californias”: (if I could paraphrase him: “Your problem is that you chose to spend the night on your land. That’s dumb to hang out with copper-wire thieves, gang bangers, and the 18% unemployed. You’re supposed to live in Fresno, visit your land in the daytime hours, and leave the problems after dark to your foreman and the insurance company.”
Out with the Old, in with the New
Central California is also a magnet for very rich Punjabis. Their three-story gated castles of 6,000 square feet are suddenly commonplace. For every copper-wire thief, there is an immigrant agribusiness man who smiles and says: “No problem. I just got more barbed wire, more video cameras, more lights” -- such an impressive confidence so characteristic of the immigrants who have always energized America.
The Sikh community arrives with capital, English, and education -- and wishes to become even richer, better spoken, more highly educated, and more successful. In this nexus, land is not just a wise investment, but immediate proof of visible, tangible success, in the manner of the old idea of a landed aristocracy. A Punjabi acquaintance (I don’t know him well) also sermonized to me: “You guys are played out. You don’t have kids. If you do, they’ve moved away. You’re not up to it anymore.” He’s right: the old 19th century immigrant communities -- Armenians, Japanese, Scandinavians, Portuguese -- are dying off (if not completely assimilated) and the third generation mostly sold out and moved on, their plots recombined into latifundia. (At lectures I meet those in the audience who say, “I grew up in Visalia. We had a place in Madera.” End of story.) But as I replied to my Sikh interrogator: “What makes your community exempt from the same forces that saw the Armenians, the Dutch, and the Swedes leave farming?” Does anyone still believe in the old idea of labor laboris gratia?
The California Paradox
No one is more upset than I about the direction of California -- valued citizens exiting the state, high taxes, poor services, terrible public education, substandard infrastructure, contempt for the law, liberal sermonizing coupled with boutique apartheid, shameless ethnic identity politics, and public union bullying. But that said, as I’ve written, California is hard to destroy in a generation. For now, the governor is right that his higher taxes, his pie-in-sky high-speed rail, the solar and wind cons, the public employee fiefdoms -- all that will continue for the present for three reasons.