by Victor Davis Hanson
One way of understanding California is simply to invert traditional morality. What for centuries would be considered selfish, callous, and greedy is now recalibrated as caring, empathetic, and generous. The current ethos of evaluating someone by his or her superficial appearance – gender or race – has returned to the premodern values of 19th-century California when race and gender calibrated careers. We don’t pay medieval priests for indulgences of our past and ongoing sin, but we do tweet out displays of our goodness as the penance price of acting amoral.
A paradox ensues that Californians both have a high, indeed smug, view of themselves and yet do a lot of damage to their fellow human beings. Their haughtiness is based largely on the reality that Silicon Valley, sandwiched between Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, became the birthplace of the global computer, internet, social media, and a high-tech revolution. For progressives who deprecate the capitalist lifestyle, having a lot of money still allows one to say one thing and live out the opposite.
The state’s multi-trillion-dollar companies have hired tens of thousands of seven-figure, mid-level executives and computer experts who assume that life in the California coastal corridor is a birthright paradise.
The resulting tax revenue bonanza to the state allows one-party-rule to rid California of the old bothersome Reagan-Deukmejian-Wilson working- and middle-classes by embracing not-in-my-backyard zoning, identity politics, anal-retentive regulations, steep tax rates, utopian green agendas, open borders, and decriminalization of things that used to be felony offenses.
Indeed, the bigger and wealthier California became, the more the rich sought to privatize their lives and to give up on public services, the more the middle classes left the state, the more the poor from Mexico and Latin America crossed the southern border illegally, the more its schools deteriorated, and the more its infrastructure ossified and became decrepit, from century-old power transmission towers to pot-holed and jammed highways.
The resulting medieval society is now one of a few thousand millionaires and millions of lower-middle-class wage earners as well as millions of abject peasants and poor serfs. Those on the bottom receive relatively generous subsidies to just get by. Over a quarter of the state’s population was not born in the United States. A fifth lives below the poverty line. One-third of welfare recipients in the United States live in California. These are statistics of which our moralists in Malibu or Mill Valley either are ignorant, or simply shrug that they don’t care.
In a paradoxical way, California would have to become much more impoverished than it is now to seem a far worse abode than the birthplace of most of its current immigrants from southern Mexico, Central America, China, and Southeast Asia. That is, while the middle class has been leaving in droves, given the abject decline of their beloved native state, the even poorer newcomers have a quite different benchmark of comparison. Compared, to say, Oaxaca, or rural China, California’s is rich, free, and eager to subsidize even illegal arrivals.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The coastal rich and professional classes make so much that they are willing to put up with the state’s high taxes and poor services on three assumed premises.
First, state redistribution of some of their vast incomes doesn’t hurt all that much, while offering atheists, agnostics, and secularists generous medieval penance and fides as true-blue progressives. As long as the coastal tech economy, financial services, entertainment, tourism, and blue-chip research universities keep booming, the state within a state doesn’t worry about the funding-to-benefit relationship between soaring California taxes and commensurately declining public services.
Second, the coastal enclaves have enough money to navigate around the ramifications of their own ideology, whether by avoiding much of the state’s interior, putting their kids in private schools, living in tony gated communities, buying concierge private healthcare, and ensuring that the Other, who daily ventures into their neighborhoods to do domestic and outdoor chores, leaves by nightfall. Buying a Range Rover or Mercedes SUV or even a Gulfstream is a good way to ease the burden of fighting climate change, just as one’s concierge doctor can galvanize his support for Medicare for All.
Third, our blessed lords and earls envision California not as a single state. Indeed, most coastal dwellers have never visited the small towns of the Central Valley or the Sierra foothills or the northern third of the state. Instead, they see these areas the way Manhattanites look at Rochester, or Chicago looks at southern Illinois. In their view, freakish 19th-century mapping created California, and so they have no concern what Outer Californians think of the way they govern the state.
The result is abject cruelty. How can state leaders impose the highest gasoline taxes in the country, and then allow sections of their main longitudinal freeways – large swaths of the 99, the central coastal 101, or most of the West Side I-5 – to become gory 4-lane motorized gladiatorial arenas?
As traffic quadrupled over the last half-century, the state’s freeways necessary to drive across California remained calcified. And the result was that lots of people simply died, and that calculation was always baked into California governance as tolerable. By that, I mean, our masters of the universe couldn’t care less that the 99 “freeway” has become, by most metrics, the most lethal major thoroughfare in the United States. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Winners” and “Losers”
Much of the state is a natural desert – ironically in some of the toniest places where the rich dwell, from Montecito to Carmel.
Yet no major reservoir has been built in nearly 40 years, a period during which the population doubled. No doubt, 19th-century California was a paradise – Hetch Hetchy undammed, the lush delta flooding over millions of acres, upstream salmon fighting the San Joaquin River white water from the Bay to the Sierra Nevada.
But such fantasies are no way to run a 21st-century state with open borders, 40 million people, and a population that to survive and eat needs daily vast transfers of irrigation and municipal water from the wet north and east to the parched center and west.
Releasing to the sea millions of acre-feet of reservoir water or never allowing it to be banked in established manmade lakes means that millions of struggling rural residents drill new, multi-thousand-dollar domestic wells to survive, farmers idle land, and the poor lose jobs. The elite response is that there is no mental connection for them between what is sold at Whole Foods and what is grown outside of Bakersfield or Salinas. They muse why do such exploiters of nature have to drain our state’s aquifer? And they assume that while Hetch Hetchy and the Owens Valley are critical to bring the anointed water, all other such huge water transfer projects should become negotiable.
One of the strangest sights in California is the horde of trailers, ratty cars, and dilapidated Winnebagos parked throughout moralistic Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale, juxtaposed with gleaming high-tech corporate campuses. The most empathetic and caring people in the world, as they remind us hourly, turn out to be pretty callous about the “losers” in their midst who live in mobile and makeshift quarters on the street to keep Silicon Valley humming.
At least 19th-century company mining towns did not have the percentages of transients and homeless as does the richest, most caring landscape in the world. Those who can afford $1,000-a-square-foot coastal cottages assume that the losers who can’t code just couldn’t cut it. If you insist on driving a semi, or welding tanks, and you are not willing to program, then why in the world should you dare imagine that you deserve to live within 50 miles of the California coast?
To walk in areas of downtown San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno, or Sacramento is to venture into the pages of Boccaccio or Dickens, as thousands defecate, inject, eat, drink, and urinate on the sidewalks. Should the coronavirus ever incubate there among California’s hundreds of thousands on the street, the result would make the current nationwide caseload look like the common cold. Indeed, an epidemic among the tents and grocery carts of the state’s main cities would become hideous and terrifying – and right out of the accounts of Thucydides or Procopius.
These ebbs and flows of homeless villages often lap up near the commuting corridors of the hyper-wealthy pedestrians and commuters. The former appeared bothered and so play the role of mounted knights that rode on by beggars outside the walls of the keep.
Truth and Consequences
In California’s upside-down morality, what is ethical is allowing thousands to live in fetid filth and to endanger their own health and that of an entire city, or waving in millions of foreign nationals without health audits, background checks, or legal permission. The Silicon Valley moralist at coffee seethes that Trump “put people in cages,” while in private is relieved that there are not caravans of tens of thousands headed his way from Central America – in the age of the coronavirus.
What is now considered unethical would be either to provide planned suburban or rural homeless campuses with sanitation, clean food, and dormitory shelters, or to ask illegal immigrants in their home countries first to apply for U.S. residence through legal channels, to undergo legal, health, and job audits, and in the interval to learn English and the customs and laws of their desired new home.
Instead, opening the southern border to millions of destitute Central Americans and southern Mexican nationals is proof of one’s morality among the wealthy of La Jolla, Santa Barbara, Pacific -Heights, and Sausalito – again at least in the abstract. Few of them venture to a Merced, Sanger, Madera, or Firebaugh school to see the impact of tens of thousands of immigrant youths, without English, money, or skills suddenly overwhelming local school districts.Fewer experience the effects on driving and law enforcement when millions of foreign immigrants navigate without prior experience of U.S. traffic laws, and without licenses, insurance, and registration.
No moralist seems to worry that tens of thousands of Americans, among them Mexican-American citizens in particular, depend on access to state and federal dialysis centers and hospital emergency rooms, many of which are now overwhelmed with non-citizen new patients.
To write the above is proof of one’s callousness, to be its architect evidence of one’s caring.
So those who craft sanctuary cities never venture into the Reedley emergency room, or know what a rural Tulare County sheriff encounters on a Saturday night, or what it is like to drive late on a Saturday night on a rural road in Central California, or would dare put their children in the Delano public schools, or to live outside of Mendota with the house pump sputtering sand. Those who insisted on continuing with a money-draining, high-speed rail boondoggle rarely try to drive east on Highway 152 outside Gilroy and thereby learn the consequences of allowing roads to become Road Warrior death zones.
Those legislators and executives who dreamed up decriminalizing thefts under $950 never worried about how the lost inventory of a family-owned store destroys middle-class aspirations. They certainly are careful about where not to shop, especially not where hordes of teens swarm and walk out each with mysteriously less than $950 in loot.
California has become a cruel and unusual state because callousness and narcissism were redefined as caring and compassion.
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004.