From pensions and even more pensions to the budget to the use of eminent domain to improve mortgage foreclosures. Adding it all up one has to ask is California becoming the next Detroit?
Sometimes, and in some places, in California I think we have nearly descended into Miller’s dark vision — especially the juxtaposition of occasional high technology with premodern notions of law and security. The state deficit is at $16 billion. Stockton went bankrupt; Fresno is rumored to be next. Unemployment stays over 10% and in the Central Valley is more like 15%. Seven out of the last eleven new Californians went on Medicaid, which is about broke. A third of the nation’s welfare recipients are in California. In many areas, 40% of Central Valley high school students do not graduate — and do not work, if the latest crisis in finding $10 an hour agricultural workers is any indication. And so on.
Our culprit out here was not the Bomb (and remember, Hiroshima looks a lot better today than does Detroit, despite the inverse in 1945). The condition is instead brought on by a perfect storm of events that have shred the veneer of sophisticated civilization. Add up the causes. One was the destruction of the California rural middle class. Manufacturing jobs, small family farms, and new businesses disappeared due to globalization, high taxes, and new regulations. A pyramidal society followed of a few absentee land barons and corporate grandees, and a mass of those on entitlements or working for government or employed at low-skilled service jobs. The guy with a viable 60 acres of almonds ceased to exist.
Terrible governance was also a culprit, in the sense that the state worked like a lottery: those lucky enough by hook or by crook to get a state job thereby landed a bonanza of high wages, good benefits, no accountability, and rich pensions that eventually almost broke the larger and less well-compensated general society. When I see hordes of Highway Patrolmen writing tickets in a way they did not before 2008, I assume that these are revenue-based, not safety-based, protocols — a little added fiscal insurance that pensions and benefits will not be cut.
A coarsening of popular culture — a nationwide phenomenon — was intensified, as it always is, in California. The internet, video games, and modern pop culture translated into a generation of youth that did not know the value of hard work or a weekend hike in the Sierra. They didn’t learn how to open a good history book or poem, much less acquire even basic skills such as mowing the lawn or hammering a nail. But California’s Generation X did know that they were “somebody” whom teachers and officials dared not reprimand, punish, prosecute, or otherwise pass judgment on for their anti-social behavior. Add all that up with a whiny, pampered, influential elite on the coast that was more worried about wind power, gay marriage, ending plastic bags in the grocery stores — and, well, you get the present-day Road Warrior culture of California.
Pre- and Post-Modern
I am writing tonight in Palo Alto after walking among nondescript 1,500 square-foot cottages of seventy-year vintage that sell for about $1.5-2 million and would go in a similar tree-shaded district in Fresno or Merced for about $100,000. Apparently, these coastal Californians want to be near Stanford and big money in Silicon Valley. They also must like the fact that they are safe to jog or ride bikes in skimpy attire and the general notion that there is “culture” here amid mild weather. I suppose when a car pulls out in front of you and hits your bumper on University Avenue, the driver has a license, registration, and insurance — and this is worth the extra million to live here. My young fellow apartment residents like to jog in swimming suits; they would last one nanosecond doing that on De Wolf Avenue outside Selma.
The public schools were once the key to California’s ascendance. Universal education turned out well-prepared citizens who were responsible for California’s rosy future — one based on an excellent tripartite higher education system of junior colleges, state colleges, and universities; sophisticated dams and irrigation systems; and a network of modern freeways and roads. In the private sphere, the culture of shame still prevailed, at least in the sense that no one wanted his 16-year-old son identified in the papers (with his home address no less) as arrested for breaking and entering. And such crime was rare. Rural California was a checkerboard of 40- and 80-acre farms, with families that were viable economic units and with children who worked until dark after school. It is hard to steal when you must disc ten acres after baseball practice.
I think it is a fair assessment to say that all of the above is long past. Since about 1992, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, California ranks between 41 and 48 in math and science, depending on the year and the particular grade that is assessed. About half of the incoming freshmen at the California State University system — the largest public university in the world — are not qualified to take college courses, and must first complete “remediation” to attain a level of competence that was assumed forty years ago in the senior year of high school. The students I taught at CSU Fresno were far better prepared in 1984 than those in 2004 are; the more money, administrators, “learning centers,” and counselors, the worse became the class work.
Take the new high-speed rail project, whose first link is designated to zoom not far from my house. An empiricist would note there is already an Amtrak (money-losing) line from Fresno to Corcoran (home of Charles Manson). There is now no demand to use another lateral (getting nowhere more quickly?). There is no proof that California public agencies — from universities to the DMV — can fulfill their present responsibilities in such a way that we would have confidence that new unionized state workers could run such a dangerous thing as high-speed rail (e.g., if we can’t keep sofas and washing machines out of the local irrigation ponds, why do we think we could keep them off high-speed rail tracks? Do we think we are French?).
If one were to drive on the 99, the main interior north-south “highway” from the Grapevine to Sacramento, one would find places, like south of Kingsburg, where two poorly paved, potholed, and crowded lanes ensure lots of weekly accidents. Can a state that has not improved its ancestors’ highway in 50 years be entrusted to build high-speed mass transit? Can a state presently $16 billion in arrears be expected to finance a $100 billion new project? Can a state that ranks 48th in math field the necessary personnel to build and operate such a postmodern link?