The Selfish Californian

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

We hear plenty of reasons for the perfect storm that imploded California. One-party, progressive government, of course. Decades of unchecked illegal immigration, without doubt. Years of mass flight out of state of the productive middle classes, certainly.

But perhaps the most important, but overlooked, reason has been the infusion of trillions of dollars of mostly tech capital into the state. Unimaginable sums of market capital warped politics and led to a top-down, feudal society, run by progressive elites who are shielded from the ramifications of their own toxic ideologies.

More specifically, the common denominator was the emergence in California of a selfish, monied, left-wing political class. In concrete terms, it cared little for others but masked that unconcern with abstract leftism, emulating medieval penance and indulgences to assuage guilt over its enjoyment of sheltered and very good lives.

California’s recent premier politicians at the local, state, and federal levels—Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Gavin Newsom, and Nancy Pelosi—all enjoyed wealth and power, whether by inherited money and family brand names, through marriage, or using their positions to leverage lucrative family and personal business with the Chinese.

Their lifestyles before, during, and after office-holding reflected both their privileges and the vast material differences between their own lives and the millions of Californians who suffered enormously from their utopian bromides. Yet a world away from their homes in Grass Valley, Kentfield, Lake Tahoe, Napa, Pacific Heights, or Rancho Mirage, the rest of the state’s residents who voted for them currently cannot afford a house, a full tank of gas, a chuck steak, or an air-conditioned afternoon.

At least the Church of the 15th century offered formal contractual indulgences and personal penance manuals for the guilt-ridden elite eager to abort their earned inferno-to-come. In California, however, to enjoy affluence and leisure without guilt or recriminations, left-wing power elites virtue signaled their progressivism, even as it wrecked the lives of distant others.

If it were a question of drilling more oil while transitioning to clean power or shrugging that nobody José Martinez in Sanger would pay $6.50 a gallon to commute to work, it was a no brainer: Mr. Martinez was simply out of sight, out of mind collateral damage.

So too all of California’s poor and lower middle classes who could not afford to flee and now cannot afford shelter, food, fuel, and safety, due to decades of policies that zoned away new home construction, strangled the gas, timber, and mining industries, taxed and regulated gas and diesel to the point of unaffordability, neglected the needs of the state’s once rich farming industry, and loved fish far more than people. Apparently, these well-educated and self-declared Socrateses believed that Californians could drink Facebook, eat Google, drive Twitter, and live on Snapchat.

The far-left Atlantic’s various contributors for years have been cheerleading most of the policies adopted by the Bay Area elite—defunding the police, decriminalizing an array of crimes, appeasing homelessness, ignoring dangerous drug use and dealing, and urging more redistributive taxation and entitlement.

But now Atlantic essayist Nellie Bowles warns us that San Francisco is a “failed city.” And she is correct in that the city is increasingly medieval. Its downtown is emptying, filthy, toxic, dangerous, and pre-civilizational—perhaps an unfair term since it was rare in pre-Roman Gaul or nomadic North Africa for tribal residents to sleep in the village pathways, fornicate and defecate openly among children, and violently attack random passersby.

In truth, the implosion of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and California more broadly is no accident. Destroying all the bounty that was inherited from far better and far-seeing generations was the logical result of deliberate policies—reflecting the self-interest of a few million rich, educated professionals. They apparently decided that their genius and superior morality had transcended worries over ancient challenges of food, water, shelter, transportation, and received law and custom.

California’s anointed enjoyed safe neighborhoods from Malibu to Presidio Heights. They inherited or purchased beautiful coastal corridor homes worth $1,200 a square foot, from La Jolla to Berkeley. They drew income from the trillions of dollars invested in Silicon Valley and the new globalized and Asia-centric economy that opened markets of multibillions of consumers for entertainment, media, finance, law, academia, corporations and the accompanying credential professional classes.

And so, they grew hubristic and stupid. In their arrogance and ignorance, they began to feel their own bounty and leisure were birthrights. Free from worries about who brought them their water, food, safety, energy, and shelter—or how—they were liberated to institutionalize their own visions of 21st-century-correct living to less fortunate others, albeit from a properly segregated distance.

Freeways were obsolete ideas. The fewer built, and the even fewer maintained, the more likely the clueless could be crowded into cost-effective, clean, and safe mass transit.

So, a $15 billion high-speed rail disaster arose and remained inert like Stonehenge monoliths. Meanwhile, thousands of the poor on the obsolete Highway 99 continued to die and were maimed in daily accidents on a Road Warrior-esque obstacle course. The nearby Amtrak trains still sat delayed on side-tracks, for want of a simple, 19th-century two-track rail. How strange that bankrupt 21st-century visions came at the cost of easy 20th-century solutions.

Aqueducts, reservoirs, dams? These were likewise relics of previous delusional generations. That the coastal corridor’s water came from aqueducts across vast distances was mostly unknown by those who crowded into one of the most naturally unsustainable regions on the North American continent—a coastal strip mostly dry and bereft of an aquifer to sustain its tens of millions.

So, the state stopped building water storage. More often, it released snowmelt and runoff water into the ocean rather than to farms and to replenish aquifers.

Fires? Let forests of evergreens burn as they had in primordial times, better to burn to provide mulch for worms and birds—and scare away the deplorable foothill folk who had no business living in the mountains, anyway.

The elite now dreamed of returning to a half-million person California of the 19th century, reputedly with lush riverbanks from the sea to Sierra, with salmon runs to the mountains. They recoiled at the very idea that a 40 million-person state of mostly poor immigrants—over a quarter of the state’s population was not born in the United States—might need water for their towns or for the farms they worked.

How ironic that millions fled Mexico and Central America to enter, often illegally, the once golden California, land of plenty. They were welcomed by the state’s business and political elite but not to be housed, fed, and schooled as were the elite. Their directive was to vote correctly for their supposed betters and to supply janitors, landscapers, nannies, cooks, and housekeepers for those who welcomed them in—on the condition that they not dare demand the state’s green resources for good homes, affordable gas, or a nice lawn or long shower.

Let them instead eat a solar farm, bike path, or Tesla.

And so it went, each carefully placed brick in the once sturdy long wall of California, laid carefully over the past 150 years—to ensure a naturally fragile state with affordable food, energy, security, housing, transpiration, schools, and education—was ripped out, mocked as obsolete, and written off an embarrassment to the present.

Californians who look at their aging dams, their granite classical civic buildings, and their large municipal parks, are like Dark-Age Greeks who stumbled around the ruins of Mycenaean palaces and walls, wondering who were the demi-gods who built such things that now were impossible to emulate. So, too, we are bewildered at Balboa Park or the California aqueduct, or rather saddened that simply copying them is beyond our moral power or expertise.

The state was once rich and secure in gas and oil, nuclear power, cutting-edge freeways and airports, water storage, law enforcement, a topflight public school system, and an effective higher education triad. All these resources have become either politicized or taboos that are neglected, dismantled, or destroyed by a class that commuted little, was nonchalant about their power bills, put their kids in private schools, and enjoyed neighborhoods whose zip codes and private security patrols bounced away revolving-door felons and homeless far distant to the haunts of the middle class and poor.

Rich leftists quote the Gini coefficient chapter and verse, oblivious that they have created a state of affairs in which California ranks second to the bottom—below even New York—in such calibrations of inequality. The Silicon Valley motto should be, “I create inequality by hating inequality.”

We have not built a major mountain reservoir outside of Los Angeles in over 40 years even as the population has soared. The main north-south laterals of the state—the 101, I-5, and 99—often narrow into four-lane deathtraps. SFO and LAX are among the more nightmarish airports in the nation. California’s test scores rank in the nation’s bottom 10 percent of schools.

Over one-fifth of the state lives below the poverty rate. Urban geographer Joel Kotkin recently noted that African Americans and Latinos in California suffer among the lowest real incomes in the nation, 48th and 50th respectively. How could that be true in the land of Mark Zuckerberg, Nancy Pelosi, and Jerry Brown?

One-third of Americans on public assistance live in California. To drive through the rural center of the state is to revisit the 1930s world of the Joads. Ramshackle farmhouses now house 20 or some immigrants. Many of them reside here illegally, in trailers, shacks, and illegal add-ons. A state famous for regulating the life out of the middle classes simply ignores systemic flagrant violations of sewage, water, power, and building codes, in the manner of the exemptions given the homeless: out of sight, out of mind.

California’s mid-size cities nudge out other blue-state metropolises to rank among the nation’s leaders in property crimes. The nation’s highest gas taxes, income taxes, and near highest sales taxes either do not mitigate the above pathologies or perhaps help fuel them.

If our liberal political elites lived in crime-ridden Stockton, San Bernardino, or Modesto, had two children in the Los Angeles City public schools, commuted daily on the 99 from Delano to Visalia, flew weekly commercial out of LAX, tried to buy a California home on their salaries as public officials, rode BART to Oakland each evening home, or depended on a business supplying the state with lumber, gas or oil, food, transportation, or construction—the stuff of life—then they might fathom how assuaging their left-wing guilt in the abstract destroyed the lives of those they never see and never wish to see.

So, in a word, California’s debacle was the work of the self-absorbed.

The self-declared most caring, virtuous, and moral in the end proved the most narcissistic, selfish, and self-centered. Yes, the rich left-wing California elites are many things, but utterly selfish explains what they do unto others.

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17 thoughts on “The Selfish Californian”

  1. Dear Victor,

    Great synopsis of California’s problems. I especially liked the mental image of “. . . stumbled around the ruins of Mycenaean palaces” as it applies to the current inhabitants of the state. Looks like Western civilization is headed for another “Bronze Age collapse.” “Loving fish more than people” sort of sums it up!

    C. S. Lewis wrote this which I think is relevant: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”

    Regards,
    Matt Toth

  2. Dieter Schultz

    When a culture or sub-culture like California’s reaches this point of decadence or this level of fixed or rapt attention on anything besides the fundamentals of sustainable governance it’s hard to see how this can be arrested before the state goes through an ugly correction.

    I don’t know how long it will take before things will reach that critical point but, given how embedded these power structures are in California and how deep they reach, it seems to me that we are looking at multiple decades not a few 2-year election cycles.

    It was once observed that after Napoleon invaded the Iberian peninsula and destroyed its governance structure and resistance moved into guerilla warfare became the norm that the Spanish people lost all respect for ‘government’ and Spain became ungovernable for 100 years or more. Restoring the social fabric required, according to the person that made the observation, a strong or tyrannical ruler to ‘reprogram’, so to speak, the society by re-establishing those instruments of governance.

    I don’t see how California can avoid an extended period of ungovernability, I just don’t.

  3. There’s a lot of truth to this, but let’s keep in mind that these “elites” have long been supported by ordinary people, particularly minorities. Watching minority support for the Democrats has been like watching someone in an abusive relationship. How long does it take before they realize that no, they don’t really love you? There are signs that this support is cracking. The Asian community in SF has been cited (or even criticized) for being the primary group that voted out the school board and district attorney. All report are that the Democrats are sweating the potential loss of Hispanic support. Presumably, black support remains solid, even though blacks have been leaving CA in droves much as they’ve been leaving the northern states (there are about as many blacks in CA today as there were in 1990, despite the fact that the US black population as a whole has grown by about half since then and the state’s population by a third).

    CA’s political elites have been sending a message for ages now that society as a whole should be poorer and consume less. Not them of course, but their argument is that their lives will be diminished if we let you live like us. It’s been accepted by many, but to use a current buzzword -is it sustainable?

  4. The Californian governing cult applied its ideology supported by its own propaganda and may have brought down Western civilization – soooo helpful!

    Do you think you could formalise specific criminal charges for each of the major players and get them prosecuted by the “new” Californian court – “pour encourager les autres ?”

  5. I have lived in Thousand Oaks, California for the last 56 years. California used to be a paradise. No more. We live in a state dominated by politicians who insist on blaming the middle class – who are the victims – for every social ill. Their motto is “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” The latest iteration of this locally is severe water restrictions. Billions of acre feet of water ran off into the Pacific the last week in 2021, as they do year after year. Billions of dollar have gone down the drain, and will continue to so so, for a non-existent high speed rail line. Meanwhile, homeowners in So-so California are told that we are the problem because we want to have attractive landscaping. So, billions of dollars, and untold hours of yard work and maintenance will go down the rabbit hole because California politicians refuse to build a water supply infrastructure equal to the overpopulated state’s needs. They have no time or patience for civil engineering that benefits real people in the long run.
    Instead, they pass social engineering laws, which are easy to do. No heavy lifting here. Just require private companies to make sure that their boards have representation from every conceivable identity group on the planet. I personally think that the disproportionate emphasis on celebrating the LGBTQIA+/- agenda is merely a form of virtue-signaling progressive camouflage that allows them to parade their supposed sensitive social consciousness whilst ignoring real

  6. tank you for reading my missive.I want to tell you a very abridged history about me since I know so much about you.I am one of ten children raised in the catholic dogma.of the surving nine of us only three to still adhere,one is agnostic and the rest of us are christian.my parents were born in a section of phila.row houses that was lower to middling middle calass.to cut a long story short my father woked some awful jobs but got through night school at drexel univ.to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.I was only three when we moved to upper darby right on the border of w.phila.there is so much stuff I could tell you that you would enjoy.I am 67 yrs.old with a fraternal twin brother and five other brothers.we were not allowed tv on schoolnights.READ OR GO OUTSIDE was the mandate thus we acheived the love of reading.I havent watched tv in over twenty yrs.No longer interested in any sports except amatuer.no smartphone has ever greased my palm.Iam a retired rn who worked in the ghetto of my parents once beautiful neighborhood at temple univ.hospital this is when I discovered thomas sowell and you.I have arabid interest in history,science,nature etc.unfortuneately I am a luddite many degrees south of you.I even type with one finger so exercise has seemed indeterminate.I would like I can leave my contact info and you can reach me.I hate the term bucket list but you are very up there it would be a great honor to speak or meet you anytime.sincerely,royjthoms4@gm6108927185 privac

  7. This is a perfect description of my home state for the past 25 years. I have seen it slide downhill year after year. Many of us are voting for and supporting leaders with some common sense and values. I hope we can turn things around or we will be forced out like so many million others.

  8. Dr Hanson:
    Part of the problem is the ordinary Californian. They voted to approve rent control in 1978. And It seems that most Californians believe in slow growth. In other words, don’t build that business or apartment complex in my backyard.
    Getting rid of rent control and getting rid of the slow growth policies would help solve many California problems

  9. Dr. Hanson,
    I came of age in Southern California in the 60’s. Excepting the choking LA smog, it was a wonderful place to grow up. Your vivid descriptions of the way life is today is spot on, and makes me so very sad at what has been lost.
    Thank you.

  10. But what’s to be done? Manny Californians suspect that their votes don’t matter- subsumed by a combination of ballot harvesting, mail in voting fraud, and outright union grifting…..Newsom is overwhelmingly re-elected, despite presiding over one disaster after another.- high crime, gang activity, early prison release, and DAs who refuse to enforce the laws on the books. He and his cohorts are empty suits, dining at the French Laundry, vacationing in Costa Rica, and his kids are in private schools, while the rest of the state education system is in the crapper. Millions have given up and left, but we need solutions.

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