The Razor's Edge
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.
Water is the same. Give California two wet, snow-filled years, as we have had between 2010-2011, and we look like Ireland. This year the gleeful environmentalists will watch the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers run unimpeded from the Sierra, in all their 19th-century glory. The 1920s-era reservoirs are full; the 1960s canals brimming with water. Those who damn Henry Huntington’s wondrous 1912 Big Creek Hydroelectric Project as ecologically hurtful will be out in force sailing all summer on his beautiful manmade eponymous 1912 lake. Even the cut-off West Side farmers may get a sort of irrigation reprieve: there is too much rather than too little water this year, as even the park benches at the lower rivers’ edges are now underwater.
But again there is no margin of error as we will soon learn again when the dry times come as they always do. We haven’t built a big new dam or a new major canal in decades as the population and its appetites soared, and the postmodern cynicism about “building things” became entrenched. So the huge snowpack this year will melt and with it millions of acre feet will flow to the ocean rather than be stored for next year. California can export $15 billion in food, and support 37 million — but only every third year on average when the snow and rain reach 125% of their yearly averages. We forget that when there is water here, there is usually money in California — more crops, more tax revenue; less pumping, less costs; more recreation, more tourist dollars. And when there is not, there is not so much.
Illegal immigration enjoys the same precariousness. I remember the days when we had somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants. They were surrounded by Mexican-Americans, Asians, whites, and blacks (and by a confident culture), and so by needs learned English and assimilated, intermarried, and integrated. It was rare to find an abandoned car in your vineyard that had swerved the night before and taken out 20 vines. I heard Spanish spoken, but rarely heard indigenous languages from Oaxaca or encountered those illiterate in both Spanish and English, who asked for translation help at a government office despite bilingual documentation.
But up that number of illegal immigrants (and with them commensurate disrespect for the federal immigration laws) to 4, 5, or perhaps even 6 million illegals, and then factor in a beleaguered second generation, whose parents were not legal, did not speak English, and did not have high-school diplomas, and we reach the proverbial tipping point. What would that look like superficially in an average week? A bag of trash stuffed with Spanish-language bills and ads tossed beside your mailbox; going to the store and hearing one English speaker among ten non-English speakers, while waiting, waiting, waiting in line as the poor checker struggles with all sorts of multiple and expired plastic food stamp cards; seeing dozens of the unemployed milling around Wal-Mart or Home Depot dour and looking for cash work; or preferring to wait for a Monday doctor visit rather than dare go to an emergency room (the last time I tried I was considered a veritable freak for speaking English, having health insurance, and a more serious condition of a broken arm). Give California 200,000 illegals, and it assimilates them; give it over 4 million and a new ideology, and it begins to become overwhelmed.
Let us end with development. We did not object to growing to 37 million, but most certainly to accommodating them. So let us limit nasty oil pumping off shore. Let us curb awful timber cutting. Why not save the noble smelt and idle superfluous acreage? There is surely no more need for more neanderthal hydroelectric projects of the old blast-away sort. New nuclear plants would be even worse. Tasteful open spaces are great along the coastal corridor, so let us stop most new ugly housing construction there and all that it brings. Who is to say you should still live in California when someone in Oaxaca, someone far needier, cannot? I could go on, but right here, I fear, is a recipe for an energy hungry, food hungry, wood hungry, power hungry, overtaxed and undereducated state, where one cannot find an affordable house on the coast, and not sell a cheap one in the interior.
I leave on a note of optimism. All this is self-correcting. Jerry Brown cannot hike the income and sales tax much or hire legions of new SEIU employees or up dramatically the salaries of state workers or lower the standards at the UC or CSU university systems or open wide the border or cut off more water, because we know where it all leads — to pushing us either onto or over the razor's edge.