by Victor Davis Hanson
The Great Warpath
This summer it has been a softer, modern version of living in a cabin on the Great Warpath circa 1740 near Albany or Montreal (in this regard, take a look at Eliot Cohen’s new book Conquered into Liberty on the origins of the American way of war), readying oneself for the next break-in — so our inland “California Corridor” has become from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
More specifically, I have been on the lookout around my farm for a predatory, nearly new, grey/silver Toyota truck that drives in and then speeds out — always a day or so before the nocturnal theft. He’s clever, this caser — and audacious too, like a wily Sherman tank prowling through the hedgerows. (Why, if poor, is he not home growing a tomato garden or scouring the roadside for the ubiquitous tossed aluminum cans and plastic bottles?)
On three separate occasions from June to August, I have had copper wire stripped out of pumps, the barn ransacked, and the two locks pried off the shop and various things stolen. (Why did they steal buckets of 1900 antique bolts and square nails and leave alone a drill press and grinder? Ease of recycling? Ignorance?)
When Metal Grows Legs
One of the stranger things in the California Corridor is to periodically walk around a barnyard and notice: “Hmm, that set of rusted furrowers is gone? Hmmm, what happened to those sections of 2-inch pipe? Hmmm, didn’t I have an old compressor next to the shed? Have I got dementia, or wasn’t there once upon a time three metal ladders leaning against the shop?” It is as if they became animate, grew legs, and quietly walked off in the sunset.
Twice I ran into the barnyard to see the truck, with its two gangbanger youths, peel off in clouds of dust. (And, yes, as a CSU ex-professor, I know the party line: the dominant culture neglects/exploits/oppresses/fill in the blanks the “other” to such a degree that he sometimes must lash out, or, on occasion, to find validation, might just do something illegal like steal buckets of antique nails, or illogical, like in poverty buying a new truck, and thus so disturbs/finally wins the attention of those with privilege and their self-constructed norms. Been there and heard that for thirty years).
The Toyota is always around when theft occurs, and always speeding off when anyone spots it. Rural California is also like North Africa circa 420 AD: the few family farms left are mostly fenced or walled, the dogs large, the owners armed — trying to survive against organized Vandal attacks. All we need are mosaics in the courtyard portraying happier times as a testament to future archeologists. Maybe a “Cave Canem!” on the doorstep.
I know of no neighboring farm that has not been broken into or fought/scared off such intruders. (The urban counterpart in our town are a few municipal workers stealing their own city manhole covers; two ex-policemen, like rogue legionaries, now up on felony charges; or Gothic-like gangs, prying off all the bronze dedicatory plaques from the hallowed buildings. Perhaps they are similar to the bullet-hungry occupying Ottomans in 16th-century Greece, destroying classical temples and shrines to find and melt down the lead seals over metal block clamps — on the theory that someone 2,000 years earlier knew a lot more about making lead than did they, or maybe impoverished Greeks around 1850 finishing up the destruction of antiquity by fracting and melting down the scattered marble blocks for lime whitewash.)
Then and Now
So it is that in 1935 poor people scraped and saved to cast a bronze plaque for their Depression-era new city hall, and in 2011 rather more affluent people ripped it off to melt it down for a layaway payment on some chrome rims or another round of meth.
Civilization ends when the pampered beneficiaries of the hard work of the now dead have the luxury of ignoring how hard it was — and is — to build shelter from the elements, to erect public buildings from scrub, to grow food and sprout farms from sage. Our contemporary criminals are protected from the elemental struggle and so have the indulgence to gnaw away at civilization’s veneer — and we, in our conspiratorial silence about them, likewise forgot that to keep still about the destruction of the work of others is to be complicit in it.
Jaws on Wheels
Seven days ago, I left to teach here at Hillsdale for my month vacation. My son, back home on the farm — he often rushes out armed when trucks come into the driveway at night — called. He mentioned in passing that the Toyota was back, Jaws-like circling around the farm in short bursts of speed to see if anyone was there. (The modus operandi in the rural California hinterlands is to drive into a farm, check if anyone comes out, if so, either peel out or even stay put to “inquire” about a “rental” or “work.” If no one comes out, then break a window, grab a TV or computer and speed off. Also: Please do not suggest, “call the sheriff”; I have and even “filled out a report” over the phone, no less. Enough said. And yes, I probably should sell the 140-year-old farm and move away, but also probably won’t. Why leave and give in to barbarism? There are still far more good than lawless people in the valley.)
Stealing Up For a Truck?
My point in this long excursus? Note the description “late-model Toyota.” I think it is a Tacoma, maybe 2009-11, so not a cheap truck by any means.
Earlier another youth drove in without seeing me mowing the lawn. I ran up; startled he stammered, “Hey, mister, I’m only looking for scrap metal to buy.” (What is it with the national epidemic with good wire or scrap metal?)
I’ll pass on his shoulder to finger sleeve tattoos, the ink drops under the eyes, the shaved head, wife-beater T-shirt, the inked-in but impressive religious icon tattooed on the neck, and the whole nine yards. As I wrote earlier, I immediately noticed brand new hot-water tanks, still in their labeled cardboard containers, in the bed of his truck. They seemed very “metal” to me, but not very “scrap.” Words were exchanged and he backed out.
Here’s the point: he too drove a brand new truck, this one a custom-painted fire-engine red Dodge, hopped up, with an expensive stereo blaring.
Where are we going with this?
Yes, I confess once more to the same destination as the flash mobs and the London riots. What we think in the West now as too little is far too much. Both these thieves could trade in their multi-thousand-dollar trucks for cash to buy food, rather than steal the property of others and cause mayhem to make their payments. Heck, the rims alone are worth $1000.
(Thieves and gangbangers create a climate of general fear; they ruin the sense of tranquility, and they betray 150 years of collective labor of the now dead to create civilization from near nothing. Shame on them. Americans should not need to have armored rural mail boxes.) To suggest that they could do without the trucks or go without the dole, is not — channeling the president’s most recent speech warning against anti-government zealots — the same as wanting children to suffer from mercury poisoning or to render us helpless against the healthcare industry or to destroy government and want to start over from scratch.
More Federal Cash to the Rescue
So it is too with the federal government. In 2008 the housing market collapsed due to Wall Street speculation in sub-prime paper, dishonest banks, and real estate agents pushing mortgages and houses, and to be fair, either stupid or greedy unqualified house buyers who, late to a doomed game of musical chairs, thought even they, as the music ended, could find cheap loans, buy a home, earn thousands in instant “equity,” borrow against it, and get “free” cash.
But the glue that held the entire amorphous mess together were federally-guaranteed loans backed by Freddie and Fannie, agencies that were guided by congressional politics and not market worries — and themselves skimmed by incompetent bureaucrats who ended up millionaires. Take away those multibillion-dollar guarantors, and the market would have precluded the unqualified, the Wall Street roguery would have been neutered, and the inevitable housing bust would have been serious rather than catastrophic.
They Borrowed All For Us
Then there was George Bush’s 2008 multitrillion-dollar “stimulus” that “saved” the country, but destroyed the real progress he had made from 2006 to 2008 in addressing mounting debt. Then there was Barack Obama’s “second” $800 million “shovel-ready” stimulus. Now, of course, discredited Keynesianspost facto decry its timid minuteness — but go back to January 2009 and read the op-eds. Then there was ebullition that Obama had taken the big dare and gone “big.” Only spending of that magnitude, we were lectured, would save us — as in funding “millions of green jobs” and “investments” and “infrastructure.” It was a weird time of Van Jones’ fakery, and preachy assurances/warnings from Geithner, Goolsbee, Orszag, Romer, and Summers. Pelosi et al. were even bragging that there was no need to read the vast borrowing bills before they were passed.
Money, Money Everywhere — and Not a Drop of Prosperity
We know that, like the first stimulus, the second went into the hands of those who were pretty well off; if banks and Wall Street profited the first time from conservative largesse, the second left-wing version enriched pseudo-green soon-to-be-bankrupt companies, pension funds, municipal and state employees, unions, and environmental bureaucracies.
Now we are supposed to be saved by Stimulus III. At nearly $500 billion in a single year, it may prove the largest single year payout in history. And we are assured it will not go to Wall Street, big banks, green companies, broke city and state governments, and “shovel ready” projects, but instead be “invested” in “work” programs fixing “infrastructure.” (Note the president no longer can use words and phrases like “shovel ready,” “green jobs,” or “stimulus”; they have all gone the way of sermons on “civility.”)
But does anyone dare imagine that what got us into this mess in 2008 and kept us stuck through 2011 are these huge federal programs that distort market forces while piling up trillions of dollars in debt, destroying rather than enhancing personal initiative? Both employers and workers are losing incentives, the former better off are ossified in fear of losing something, the latter worse off calcified in assurances of getting something.
Maybe it is a fine and noble thing that the Obama administration vastly extended unemployment insurance. And, bravo, that nearly 50 million are now on food stamps. But a tragic voice from the past warns us that the more we diminish human incentives and guarantee a sort of cushioned permanent poverty, two things result: one, fewer people scramble to find productive work; and, two, envy sharpens as they begin to turn on their benefactors as being cheap, or mean-spirited in never giving quite enough to ensure parity with “them.” A cherry-red new truck or silver Toyota is never quite what others might have.
The problem with those who invaded my farm this summer was not poverty, but too much — at least in the sense of driving late-model trucks as they sought to destroy the lives and tranquility of others to get things that, by the very fact of their mode of transportation, they did not need. For the last two years, I have witnessed two constants: late-model cars in the valley shopping centers, an epidemic of obesity apparent to the naked eye, majorities on plastic food stamp debt cards, without apparent work in mid-morning, and a general unhappiness in the check-out lines that the government, state, city, etc. is not doing enough for them. All that is coupled with a media message of a cruel, heartless society that needs to do more for its oppressed — and a popular culture that damns any so witless and heartless for pointing the contradictions out.
Welfare on Top and Bottom
The welfare state, aside from being broke, is eroding initiative and warping reality — both for the elite at the top, like the executives who just milked a half-trillion dollars in sweetheart loans from some idiotic “green” bureaucrat, to the late-model truck drivers robbing productive farms to pay for their stereos and hydraulic-lifters.
So when the president speaks of “millions of green jobs” and “bringing jobs home,” I worry.
You see, I wish it were true, but I have doubts. I can imagine an employer offering to open a new state-of-the-art plant, but I fear only for millions in guaranteed federal loans, to be justified on some faddish green or “put people first” con.
Then I see someone like “sons of bitches” Jimmy Hoffa, or the Seattle longshoremen, or an NLRB plant-shutting academic nincompoop entering the picture to “have labor do its part.” And I don’t know what we are going to do to get those working, like the late-model truck-driving thieves — would such idle promise to be innovative, show up on time, be honest and disciplined, be familiar with written blueprints and warnings about their lathes and grinders, and be more productive than their competitors overseas?
And so I ask myself: “Is all this more efficient, more productive than what the Chinese offer?” “Will our solar panel or drill press be better built and at a cheaper cost and more durable?” “Have we justified our standard of living that allows us to slack while others toil?” “Is there a limit to the borrowed subsidies?” “How many engineers, brain surgeons, and savvy mechanics is California — near last in its high school test scores — producing that are better than those found elsewhere?”
Reality Cannot Be Reinvented
The tragic voice now shouts, not whispers: “Of course, this is not sustainable, you idiot! You must put real hope of profit and greater fear of loss into the employer who is freed to sink or swim on his own, a sense of challenge in the heart of the scrambling workers, and end the subsidies that allow someone to steal as a pastime to custom paint his truck cherry red and lift his truck bed up and down with a button, while the government gives him cash for his food and shelter.”
We are in a weird predicament where too much is not enough and the medicine is worse than the malady — and saying just that earns one ridicule.
It is not Barack Obama’s fault; he is a mere totem, just the overdue dividend of our long ago collective investment.
Again, if he didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.
On this topic of decline or slogging through: Rome collapsed in the West in the latter fifth century AD, although the series of Gothic invasions posed no more of a threat than what both the republic and empire had thwarted many times over the prior 700 years of Roman history. In contrast, in the East, Constantinople fought off invasions from the north, east, and south and persevered for another millennium. That contrast raises the question about the nature of external threats and internal inability to meet them — when and why do unlikely civilizations survive and likely ones no survive? I’ll talk about that on Monday, October 3, in Boston at 6 p.m. at a convention sponsored by theRetirement Income Industry Association . On another note, be sure to look into a counter-commemoration conference  protesting the “anti-racism” so-called “Durban III” symposium, to be held across the street from the UN in New York on September 22. If one collates the new axis of Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Hamas, and perhaps revolutionary Egypt, then Israel is back to 1967, but this time with enemies energized not by sclerotic Sovietism, but radical Islamism. What is eerie is that Israel remains a constitutional state, while its neighbors turn to theocracy — while the West, and increasingly the US, blames it for these metamorphoses.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson