The Quiet Californians
The Obama Paradox
No state has suffered the last four years as much as has California -- given that its progressive governor and legislative majorities serve as force multipliers for the Obama national agenda. We live in a 2X Obama state. And it is desirous for twelve or sixteen, not just four, more years in Washington.
The bluest state is polling at a 20 to 24 point lead for Barack Obama. Who cares that it is struggling with nearly 11% unemployment and facing a $16 billion budget shortfall? What does it matter that its public schools rated variously from 45th to 49th in the nation and that it is home to one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, forty percent of the nation’s illegal aliens, and the largest prison population in the country? If Ohio supposedly has a million Obama-phones, I shudder to wonder how many are in California.
Bleak? But such stats do not necessarily translate into the bad life for those Californians who vote -- a least in comparison, I suppose, to Minnesota’s winters, Mississippi’s rate of welfare payouts, Baltimore’s streets, or Mexico’s police. We are living on the fumes of natural wealth and a century of prior investment by some pretty hard-working and far-sighted long dead Californians; and it takes a long time to screw all that up.
Indeed, the state’s voting population accepts the status quo: the growing underclass expects entitlements always to grow even greater; state employees are more than happy with in-the-future-unsustainable benefits and packages; and the coastal elite have enough money that they do not care whether they have to pay a bit more to subsidize others and create tranquility in their anointed souls. Meanwhile, California is clear and 78 degrees without humidity -- in late September.
In other words, we are a happy-go-lucky, sunny Greece around 2004 before the fall -- a Mykonos or Rhodes with a German ATM machine. Those sourpusses in the private sector who are not happy and not rich either have left or contemplate leaving -- or hide and hope the scanning, red-eye gaze of Sauron in the dark tower at Sacramento passes them over, at least on this latest sweep. As one of my local critics told me, “Get over it!” and “You’re just jealous” -- and, my favorite, “Why not leave, then?”
Two miles away someone found a corpse a while back in a small Selma park that was once lovely; in high school I once helped to plant trees there. The murdered? No biography, no name, no details of the deceased. I suppose someone brought him to the morgue, and some next of kin went to the coroner’s office. End of story. Forty years ago it would have been front-page news; today it is not even a footnote. The anonymous and unknown killer? I suppose I pass him often on the way into town. The point is that corpses now just show up out here, cars are found abandoned in vineyards, and dogs wander around without owners, all as the new normal. The quietist tiptoes around it -- given that those who caused the conditions who spawned the chaos are usually far away in the Berkeley Hills or Newport Beach.
This November the California voting public is poised to raise state income taxes on the top earners to over 12%, ensuring that the state’s rates top both Hawaii’s and Oregon’s. With sky-high sales and gas taxes, Californians are already the highest-taxed in the nation. The state's schools and infrastructure are among the very worst. In the old days, one might write, “Despite high taxes, California public schools are poor.” But we are getting to the point in California where quietists say, “Because of high taxes, schools are.…” Or: “Due to high taxes, schools are….” More money, not reform, is always the answer and therefore there is never reform.
When the UC chancellor writes alumni that without a new tax hike “higher education itself is imperiled,” don’t assume that he means the UC diversity czar and his horde of $100,000 per year assistants are slated for lay-offs. He means instead that students will pay more fees and the French or classics department may be shut down. (And no, reader, there is no irony here: the targeted French professor never makes the connection that his job is in the cross-hairs because there is a new bureaucracy to figure out how Berkeley is racist by having Asians “overrepresented” four-fold, whites slightly underrepresented, and Latinos in much smaller numbers on campus than their percentages of the state population.)
Failure Is Very Much an Option
We know what would save the state’s public schools -- a return to grammar and syntax, reading, history, math, science, and the elimination of the entire therapeutic, multicultural, and politically correct curriculum. But we, the quiet ones, also know that to reset schools would evoke such outcry that it is not worth the effort -- take the Wisconsin mess and treble it here. The rich who designed and hence ruined the K-12 public schools avoid them; the middle class seeks to staff and run them; the poor both suffer in them and do their own smaller part to make things worse. (Cannot we also blame the gang-banger who sneers at the teacher while he uses his cell phone in class, or the 15-year-old girl who needs prenatal counseling, or the graffiti artist who destroys the bathroom?)
Why the disconnect between abject political failure and overwhelming public support for what is destroying the state? Silicon Valley is booming. Apple may become the wealthiest company in history. Google, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, and Hewlett-Packard rack up billions in worldwide revenue. Chevron still has lots of oil and gas wells, and is redeveloping them at record prices. The California Rule: Liberals are quite conservative in the way they make money. Apple cuts costs. Google lays off employees. Intel demands results. In an odd Obama-way, California businesses have an advantage: because they vote so liberally, they can do almost anything they please.
As long as someone wants an iPhone in Lima, and another in Mumbai sprinkles almonds on his rice, or a cash-flush Chinese provincial governor sends his only son to Caltech, things in California can go on for some time.
How do sane people, without great wealth that might provide exemption from all this, cope? They tune out. They psychologically drop out, in the manner of the ancient quietists of Athens in the 4th-century B.C. (the apragmones in search of hesuchia) who learned that one cannot fight the mob, but only seek to escape it. I bump into and talk with these latter-day quietists quite often. They are generally happy folk but have developed a certain psychological protocol by which to survive. The quietist trusts more the ancient wisdom in hallowed texts that warns democracy implodes when the masses finally assume absolute control and vote themselves entitlements that even the shrinking rich can no longer sustain. So they don’t get in the way between the mob and their entitlements.
Look on the Bright Side
If the state idles farm land, puts drilling off limits, and drives out business, the quietist accepts that those who do such things do them because they never affect the authors directly, and when in the future they do, they will cease and desist -- and it will be mostly too late. He assumes that the whiners at the $4 a gallon gas pump never make the equation that there may be 30 billion barrels in untapped oil 150 miles away, right off the California shore. (Instead, “they” rigged the prices.) The quietist assumes that few connect the horrific highways to an incompetent state whose highest gasoline taxes in the nation have translated into some of the country’s worse roads, or to the drivers who customarily lose brush, limbs, and mattresses from their trucks, shutting down lanes for hours.
No matter -- the quietist adjusts and drives at weird hours, as if he were some owl or nocturnal beast; it is not that hard to live a life pretty much opposite of what the majority does. There are plenty of quietists who can advise you. They are experts on how to navigate in a beautiful but otherwise insane state. Ask a tree-cutter, small garage owner, custom tractor driver, or self-employed tile setter -- they all have advice on how to survive. Usually, however, they end with something like, “Of course my kids should get a state job.” In 1960, rare state employees were noble folk who were willing to make less for job security and a sense of public service; today they are lotto winners who hit the jackpot.
Empty States within a State
The Coast Ranges and the vast Sierra -- outside a Yosemite or Tahoe -- are as empty as Alaska. For all the Sierra Club protestations, few Marin County lawyers visit the upper San Joaquin River. They just wish no one else would as well. Although the mountain beauty is within an hour of greater Fresno’s million, apparently the Hondas and Camrys of the deprived poor can’t make up the grade, so the Sierra remains a haven for the quietist. In fact, one can drive to Cayucos on the coast, or Florence Lake in the High Sierra, or anywhere above Sacramento, and see almost no one. And to prevent insanity, the quietist keeps reminding himself, “Is such beauty, such weather, such solitude not worth a 12% premium on your income, or an hour a night to teach your child what she did not learn in school, or a little vigilance to mostly avoid what Los Angeles has become?” I am currently computing the cost of losing copper wire in all my pumps versus seeing the sun all of October. In California, one comes at the expense of the other.
The quiet Californian assumes that each year a new regulation, a new tax, a new something will seek him out. I read the “State Franchise Tax Board” print as I do the hate letters or emails I receive -- incoherent, threatening. This year I got a letter from the state explaining that based on my income they “estimated” that I must have used the Internet to buy x-amount of things and therefore did not pay state sales taxes. Thus, they suggested that I should pay them around, say, $600.
Another such letter came from the Ministry of Revenue yesterday. The state says I have a house in the mountains and therefore may some day require auxiliary state fire protection and therefore should send them, say, $150 -- or else!
Note that I pay local taxes to fund county and municipal police and fire. I give generously to the local volunteer fire department. (Would the state send someone in East L.A. some such letter, saying that because they live in an area that often requires the intervention of state law enforcement and SWAT teams, they should send in $150 protection money?) There is never any contract, warning, law -- only a need for cash that justifies such confiscation.
So quietist Californians expect about every six months a new fee, dreamed up by a government employee who is paranoid that the state retirement system is broke, and with it his pension. The state employee is now entrepreneurial: without a certain number of traffic tickets written, without a certain number of new fees dreamed up, salaries and benefits dry up. I touch my rural mailbox as I do metal after skidding on a new carpet -- a sort of static feeling of anxiety about what new state directive is inside.
I pick up the local paper: it has become a litany of rapes, murders, gang shootings, and molestations, peppered with drunk-driving fatalities and the uninsured and unlicensed who maim and kill routinely. The lurid tales of crime seem almost as if they come from a Sao Paulo suburb or the outskirts of Johannesburg. Yet the more violence, the more worry about insensitivity. So there is a general rule: the name of the driver, the killer, the robber, or the rapist arrested is rarely initially disclosed, much less his biography or photo -- as if these are just random stats that can offer no higher wisdom. No worry -- there is an answer to our world of Mad Max. Governor Brown will borrow $200 million for high-speed rail.
I note that an exception in California is the marquee universities.
A Stanford, for example, is home to elites and therefore it must be crime-free, so they often send out life-saving “alerts” that pop up in your email when a male has groped, attacked, or threatened a co-ed on campus. Oddly, the descriptions are graphically explicit: even though we are dealing with suspects -- not the arrested. And so the appearance, size, and ethnic profile of the supposed attacker are provided in great, politically incorrect detail. One thing about liberalism: it takes care of its own.
Quietists of the State, Unite!
The quietist assumes that his vote for president does not matter and won’t in the state for the next century. He assumes that whom he votes against for governor will win, and that his legislator will either be opposed to everything he believes or, if he is not, will be equally as irrelevant -- and yet in homage to the state, he keeps voting religiously and laughing about it with other quietists.
Quietists have become bystanders, now marginalized to be sure, but also convinced that the relevant ones are, in history’s cruel calculus, quite unhinged. I have a confession: I like the quietists of California. I see them every day. They keep chugging away -- and their spirits keep me going.