The World of the Coliseum
I woke up one morning not long ago, and noticed that the world that I was born into no longer exists. It was as if I had once lived in Republican Italy, took a nap, and awoke to the Roman Empire, AD 200.
Let me explain. All the farms in these environs that I grew up with -- 40-80 acres with a farmhouse and family -- have simply vanished.
Where did they go?
I suppose when I meet someone with 5,000 acres that I am supposed to think that spread represents the old, and now recombined, 100 50-acre farms under new management. Yet where did the 100 farm households go -- and what replaced them?
When I ride around the rural landscape, I see the old skeletons of farmhouses; but they are mostly rented to farm workers. Are the social circumstances of renting a house and working on a 5,000-acre farm different from 100 agrarian households doing it -- in terms of local PTA, Little League, the regional hospital board, or city council?
I leave it to you to decide. I can attest only that in terms of agricultural productivity, today’s 8,000-acre almond operations look far more efficient, up to date, and savvy than what 100 80-acre almond orchards used to seem like: old barn, clunky tractors in the yard, kids out in the orchard not up on the latest scientific approaches to fertilization, mom doing the books in a way the computerized corporate whiz kid would laugh at, tight-fisted gramps hobbling about looking for loose tire-popping nails in the alleyway while giving sermons about avoiding a mortgage.
The Tech Ghettos
The new pyramid is not just agricultural. Go to Silicon Valley. In all the old quaint homes of Menlo Park, Mountain View, and Palo Alto that I remember visiting in the 1960s, there is only a small middle class. The houses, true, are almost preserved in amber, appearing just as they did on the tree-lined streets a half-century ago. But what is in them now?
Strapped $400,000 a year-income couples paying $10,000 a month in taxes and mortgages for $800-per-square-foot old frame cottages are not what I remember. Even a far greater number of residents are renting $2,000 a month apartments, while a vast underclass of families in Redwood City and East Palo Alto quadruples up in rented 1,000 square-foot houses.
A few tech and financing geniuses live in splendor in Woodside or Portola Valley (well, not quite in splendor: air lift their multimillion-dollar castles to Fresno or Merced and their square footages and design would suddenly be considered no more than mere $500,000 nice, big houses).
What drives the new madcap California rush to the high-priced coastal strip? The weather has not changed since 1960. Stanford is still Stanford; Berkeley remains Berkeley. Is it the destruction of the old interior muscular world and the new high profits of the cerebral coastal? Does one pass up a $150,000 house in Madera to go into life-long debtor status to buy something smaller for $1 million to escape the dividends of illegal immigration and vast entitlements in the interior?
The small dry cleaner and his wife the teacher do not buy a nice 1,500 square foot home in San Carlos, start their 3-children family in their twenties, and join the middle class. More likely the future bridegroom is still single, living at home until he is 30. His would-be wife is still renting. And at 35 they might marry and have one child with a $600,000 mortgage. There is no room there for the middle-class family starting out youthful, with visions of a ranch house, kids, good jobs, and upward mobility.
What happened? The problem was not that the U.S. ran out of oil and gas, good farmland, minerals, or timber. We still have ideas and the Constitution. We were not wiped out by disease. Nor did we lost the scientific expertise of our predecessors through a new Dark Age. America was not invaded by Vandals and Goths, who ignored the upkeep of aqueducts and plundered civic buildings. Nor did we reach the end of history, with nothing to do anymore. Our roadways are still not all that safe or all that clean. Our factories are not running at full capacity.
So what is turning us into a social pyramid, with an elite pointed capstone and a broad foundation of poor, as the middle in-between narrows toward the top? You know the usual tune: postindustrial economies value new Eloi expertise, not Morlock brawn. Globalization outsourced jobs. Expectations grew even faster than reality, etc.
Maybe, maybe not.
The Attic Trap Door
I think three other reasons explain the present anomaly of our bread-and-circuses culture. First is the attic-door philosophy of the cultural elite. Once our urban elite became so wealthy and exempt from the conditions of acquiring their wealth (inheritance, dot.com start-ups, and Wall Street megaprofits can all do that quite suddenly), they began to dream of utopia, one to be imposed on the less fortunate and perhaps less deserving.
Once you have a home in Carmel with a granite counter, you do not like to see or hear the dirty mining of granite. A redwood deck is nice; but not the cutting of redwood.
If your power bill is $500 a month, that is a fraction of your weekly income, and so a small sacrifice to pay for the far more valuable assurance that you sleep soundly at night, content with the knowledge that you are not part of liquid fracking in the barren hills, or horizontal drilling under the beloved Pacific.
If the grubby poor do not appreciate the sight of whales off the coast frolicking on a Sunday afternoon, then why worry whether they have a job drilling? In short, the mere reassurance that a distant spotted newt is meandering in a Sierra stream is a far more ennobling thought than knowing that a Deliverance-like logger has a job cutting a tree down. The former is natural, cuddly, innocuous, silent, native, a symptom of a clean, healthy planet; the latter is gross, loud, disruptive, and an interloper, and proof of fallen man.
If your house is nice and in pleasant circumstances, why worry whether thousands of out-of-work Californians might wish to rush to the hills to salvage a billion-board feet of burned timber? For what purpose? To build ugly affordable condos on the 280-corridor for the Kia-driving class that does not recycle? To offer “jobs” so that loggers can play video games at night?
All our regulations, prohibitions, and caveats about developing the world about us have ensured that the world about us is too expensive for most of us. In California, a million loggers, frackers, horizontal drillers, miners, and farmers are not on the Montecito or San Rafael agenda. 101 is crowded enough without another 100,000 new SUVs racing about between Wal-Mart and Costco.
The growth of the federal government also has ensured two, not three, classes. The huge expansion in entitlements not only discourages incentives to labor (will one work two jobs to buy a house and get braces for his kids’ teeth, or stay home and reduce his [reported] income to qualify for free food assistance, housing credits, legal and educational aid, health care, and disability insurance?), but also discourages those who still work.
The government has either directly handcuffed the individual or created laws that force the private sector to handcuff him. In the last few weeks, in addition to the normal property and irrigation tax bills (always up, never static, much less declining), I have received the following: a request to fill out a federal ag survey, a notice about a new federal ag regulation, a ballot to vote for candidates on a public board, a water-user fee to shield me from lawsuits about collective water quality, a government inventory request on things on the farm, a notice about changes to my health insurance, a bill to pay fire insurance to a state-wide agency that replicates my current fire-protection taxes to local districts, and a broad increase in the cost of my liability insurance.
The problem is not just that we pay for those to think up these regulations, or that these regulations hamper commerce; but also that we despair at the myriad of useless forms and busy work of the otherwise idle bureaucracy. Psychologically, we reach a state where inaction is preferable to audacity: we join the body snatchers.
Finally, technology is bifurcating us as well. Smartphones, the Internet, video games, iPads -- the whole technological inventory indispensable even to the welfare recipient -- have discouraged the age-old idea of self-improvement. Advancement was always predicated on greater education and experience. Reading literature, mastering grammar and syntax, improved diction, training the mind for such mental gymnastics -- all that is antithetical to communicating at the speed of light on Facebook and Twitter, to announce each minute while walking, driving or talking, “Whatsup?” “I’m OK, you?” and other critical exchanges of knowledge. Sending a picture of yourself driving has turned the inane into the essential, and something great and noble was lost in that bargain. Sometimes danger follows -- like yesterday when a 16-wheeler on the 99 swerved in and out of the left lane, while the driver was texting vital commentary on Dante’s Inferno or a new insight on the Federalist Papers.
The underclass is hooked on electronic dope. They are not fracking or building houses. And they are not on idle evenings scanning the Internet to discover what Venice looks like or to learn the etymology of democracy or even to learn how to tile or do wiring, at least not normally. Instead it is a sort of addiction to images, graphics, and the sheer speed of communicating. How can you advise a youth that improving his computing skills, his language, his demeanor, and his work ethic is essential to social mobility and the general collective tranquility and stability of society, when you are competing against Grand Theft Auto and Tweets, or, for that matter, the therapeutic industry reassuring the unemployed that someone somewhere did this to him?
In sum, our Al Gore elite climbed into the tastefully empty observation cupola, pulled up the trap door, and now gazes at the view. It does not always like what it sees interrupting its majestic vistas, and so shouts to those below on the too crowded ladder that the way is barred, to climb down and stay down.
Government has become a paramecium, an amoeba whose prime directive is to grow and consume and multiply without knowledge of what it is supposed to be doing other than expanding. Or maybe the better metaphor is the zombie. The groping state smells those still alive and then plods and claws itself toward the few remaining living, in a mindless effort to incorporate or devour them. The zombie likes best the scent of the pizza franchiser or masonry contractor, not the welfare recipient or the Facebook executive.
Finally, poverty and the underclass are now disguised with an electronic veneer. Watching Oprah during the day with access to free food while tweeting, Facebooking and video-gaming is not quite Dickensian London, and therefore the elemental struggle to climb out is far harder. It was always more difficult for wily Odysseus to escape the Lotus-eaters than the Cyclopes.
Physical deprivation and hunger are one thing; the poverty of the mind and psyche is quite another. Crashing Costco to find bulk beans and rice is not the same as flash-mobbing for Air Jordans and iPhones.
How odd that our cultural elite and our dependent poor are somewhat alike, in a symbiotic relationship in which the latter guilt-trip the former for entitlements, with the assurance that the top of the pyramid is safe and free to fritter about far from those they worry about. No wonder those in between who lack the romance of the poor and the privileges and power of the elite are shrinking.
We are entering the age of the bread-and-circuses Coliseum: luxury box seats for the fleshy senatorial class, free food and tickets for the rest -- and the shrinking middle out in the sand of the arena providing the entertainment.