Bankrupt California

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I thought of my fellow Californian Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week, when I paid $4.89 a gallon in Gilroy for regular gas — and had to wait in line to get it. The customers were in near revolt, but I wondered against what and whom. I mentioned to one exasperated motorist that there are estimated to be over 20 billion barrels of oil a few miles away, in newly found reserves off the California coast. He thought I was from Mars.

California may face the nation’s largest budget deficit at $16 billion. It may struggle with the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate at 10.6 percent. It will soon vote whether to levy the nation’s highest income and sales taxes, as if to encourage others to join the 2,000-plus high earners who are leaving the state each week. The new taxes will be our way of saying, “Good riddance.” And if California is home to one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients and the largest number of illegal aliens, it is nonetheless apparently happy and thus solidly for Obama, by a +24 percent margin in the latest Field poll. The unemployment rate in my hometown is 16 percent, the per capita income is $16,000 — and I haven’t seen a Romney sticker yet.

Shortly before taking office, Secretary Chu, remember, quipped that he would like to see American gas prices rise to European levels — presumably $9 or $10 a gallon — to discourage driving and thereby lower our carbon footprint. If $50 for half a fill-up is any indication, California is over halfway toward achieving Chu’s dream. If green bicycles are the ultimate aim of our central-planning regulators, then they are making headway. I’ve never seen so many new rural bike riders, though most of them out here in the San Joaquin Valley have a bad habit of riding on the wrong side of the road.

A refinery fire, a power outage, a uniquely Californian gasoline formula, years of regulating refineries into stasis — all that has finally caught up with the state, as prices soar at the pump. Yet what perplexes about California in extremis is the liberal ability for our state government simply to ignore its own regulations, which it has been using to paralyze businesses for years. For example, a panicked Governor Brown just asked the state air-resources board to suspend the law that requires gas stations to sell our special summer fuel formula through the month of October. The state asserted that a one-time suspension would increase supplies and yet not materially affect our air quality — which begs the question: Why, if that is true, would such a regulation have been passed in the first place?

California has the nation’s highest gas taxes and fuel prices, and the tightest supplies — and reputedly one of the worst-maintained infrastructures, with out-of-date, overcrowded, and poorly maintained freeways. When I head home each week from Palo Alto, I feel like an Odysseus fighting modern-day Lotus Eaters, Cyclopes, and Laestrygonians to reach Ithaka, wondering what obstacle will sidetrack me this trip — huge potholes, entire sections of the freeway reduced to one lane, or various poorly marked detours? If the nation’s highest gas taxes give us all that, what might the lowest bring?

Although the state is facing a $16 billion annual budgetary shortfall, Governor Brown is determined to press ahead with high-speed rail — estimated to cost eventually over $200 billion. Such is his zeal that he intends to override the environmental lawsuits that usually stymie private projects for years. The line is scheduled to pass a few miles from my farm, its first link connecting Fresno and Corcoran, home to the state prison that houses Charles Manson.

Yet a money-losing Amtrak line already connects Fresno and Corcoran. I often ride my bike near the tracks and notice the half-empty cars that zoom by. Most farmers here are perplexed about why the state would wish to borrow billions and destroy thousands of acres of prime farm land to duplicate this little-traveled link. Support for high-speed rail is strongest in the San Francisco Bay Area, but there is no support for beginning the project where the noise and dirty reality might be too close to home for green utopians.

California schools rate among the nation’s lowest in math and English, but our shrinking numbers of teachers are among the country’s highest paid. One-third of the nation’s welfare recipients live in California, and 8 out of the last 11 million people added to the California population are enrolled in Medicaid, but we are also the most generous state in sending remittances to foreign countries — we contribute a third to a half of the estimated $50 billion that leaves the US each year for Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. It is puzzling in the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley to see both federal and state medical centers and nearby offices that specialize in cash transfers to Mexico. But no one seems to see any disconnect between the public need for free healthcare and the private desire to send money to Mexico.

California has built the nation’s largest prison system, but there is no room left in either state or county facilities for an increasing number of dangerous felons. The same day last week that I emptied my wallet for gas, my 15-hp ag irrigation pump simply quit during the night. Nocturnal copper-wire thieves had come into the vineyard and yanked out the electrical conduit. That’s the third theft of pump wire I’ve had this year — and it costs $1,500 each time to repair the damage. I’m told that Mexican national gangs go down to Los Angeles with their stolen copper to sell it to mobile recyclers. No one calls the sheriff any more. Instead, we swap stories about protective wire cages, spikes, cameras, lights, and booby traps. Barack Obama once thundered, “Rich people are all for nonviolence. . . .  They don’t want people taking their stuff.” I plead guilty to his writ, at least for a while longer. But I don’t agree that copper conduit is mere “stuff” or that stealing it counts as social protest or that the thieves are necessarily poor.

The criminals have a sophisticated modus operandi, with lookouts who drive around and report by cell phone when the coast is clear — green-lighting comrade thieves who in a matter of minutes ride into the farm alleyways on bicycles, cut and pull the wire, and pedal out with little noise and no headlights. Two nights ago, when I returned to my farmhouse, an odd couple was sitting in a car — each one on a cell phone — next to my mailbox. They claimed they did not speak English, but after some harsh words they left — surprised and angry that I had dared to ask them to leave my property.

It’s a veritable war these days in rural central California — as copper-wire thieves, gangs, drug lords, and fencers run amuck in a bankrupt state that can no longer afford to keep its felons incarcerated. President Obama soars with talk of amnesty and the DREAM Act. But if we are going to waive federal statutes for each illegal alien who we feel may some day become a neurosurgeon or an experimental chemist, can’t we at least enforce the law against those not in school and up to no good in the here and now, like the two sitting in my driveway phoning directions for local thieves to yank out copper wire?

Open borders, redistributionist socialism, therapeutic and politicized public schools, and public-employee unions finally are proving a match even for Apple, Google, Facebook, the Napa Valley wine industry, Central Valley agribusiness, Hollywood, Cal Tech, Stanford, and Berkeley. In California, it is a day-by-day war between what nature and past generations have so generously bequeathed and what our bunch has so voraciously consumed.

On any given day, beautiful weather, the Pacific Coast, and the majestic Sierra Nevada are trumped by released felons, $5-a-gallon gas, and a 1970 infrastructure crumbling beneath a crowded 2012 state.

There are many lessons from California. One is that the vision of the present administration is already here — and it simply does not work.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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