Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Observations by Victor Davis Hansen of the Hoover Institute

This is an article from Victor Davis Hansen, a Senior Fellow at the
Hoover Institution at Stanford University ...

     The last three weeks I have traveled about, taking the pulse of the
more forgotten areas of central California. I wanted to witness, even if
superficially, what is happening to a state that has the highest sales and
income taxes, the most lavish entitlements, the near-worst public schools
(based on federal test scores), and the largest number of illegal aliens in
the nation, along with an over regulated private sector, a stagnant and
shrinking manufacturing base, and an elite environmental ethos that
restricts commerce and productivity without curbing consumption.

    During this unscientific experiment, three times a week I rode a bike on
a 20-mile trip over various rural roads in southwestern Fresno County . I
also drove my car over to the coast to work, on various routes through towns
like San Joaquin , Mendota, and Firebaugh. And near my home I have been
driving, shopping, and touring by intent the rather segregated and
impoverished areas of Caruthers, Fowler, Laton, Orange Cove, Parlier, and
Selma . My own farmhouse is now in an area of abject poverty and almost no
ethnic diversity; the closest elementary school (my alma mater, two miles
away) is 94 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white, and well below federal
testing norms in math and English.

    Here are some general observations about what I saw (other than that the
rural roads of California are fast turning into rubble, poorly maintained
and reverting to what I remember seeing long ago in the rural South). First,
remember that these areas are the ground zero, so to speak, of 20 years of
illegal immigration. There has been a general depression in farming - to
such an extent that the 20- to-100-acre tree and vine farmer, the erstwhile
backbone of the old rural California , for all practical purposes has ceased
to exist.

    On the western side of the Central Valley , the effects of arbitrary
cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of
prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. Manufacturing plants
in the towns in these areas - which used to make harvesters, hydraulic
lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment - have largely shut down; their
production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture
itself - from almonds to raisins - has increasingly become corporatized and
mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So
unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

    Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye
no different from what I have seen in the Third World . There is a Caribbean
look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various
outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos
cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese,
goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all
sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business - rigid zoning
laws, strict building codes, constant inspections - but apparently none of
that applies out here.

    It is almost as if the more California regulates, the more it does not
regulate. Its public employees prefer to go after misdemeanors in the
upscale areas to justify our expensive oversight industry, while ignoring
the felonies in the downtrodden areas, which are becoming feral and beyond
the ability of any inspector to do anything but feel irrelevant. But in the
regulators' defense, where would one get the money to redo an ad hoc trailer
park with a spider web of illegal bare wires?

    Many of the rented-out rural shacks and stationary Winnebagos are on
former small farms - the vineyards overgrown with weeds, or torn out with
the ground lying fallow. I pass on the cultural consequences to communities
from  the loss of thousands of small farming families. I don't think I can
remember another time when so many acres in the eastern part of the valley
have gone out of production, even though farm prices have recently
rebounded. Apparently it is simply not worth the gamble of investing $7,000
to $10,000 an acre in a new orchard or vineyard. What an anomaly - with
suddenly soaring farm prices, still we have thousands of acres in the
world's richest agricultural belt, with available water on the east side of
the valley and plentiful labor, gone idle or in disuse. Is credit frozen?
Are there simply no more farmers? Are the schools so bad as to scare away
potential agricultural entrepreneurs? Or are we all terrified by the
national debt and uncertain future?

    California coastal elites may worry about the oxygen content of water
available to a three-inch smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta,
but they seem to have no interest in the epidemic dumping of trash,
furniture, and often toxic substances throughout California 's rural
hinterland. Yesterday, for example, I rode my bike by a stopped van just as
the occupants tossed seven plastic bags of raw refuse onto the side of the
road. I rode up near their bumper and said in my broken Spanish not to throw
garbage onto the public road. But there were three of them, and one of me.
So I was lucky to be sworn at only. I note in passing that I would not drive
into Mexico and, as a guest, dare to pull over and throw seven bags of trash
into the environment of my host.

    In fact, trash piles are commonplace out here - composed of everything
from half-empty paint cans and children's plastic toys to diapers and moldy
food. I have never seen a rural sheriff cite a litterer, or witnessed state
EPA workers cleaning up these unauthorized wastelands. So I would suggest to
Bay Area scientists that the environment is taking a much harder beating
down here in central California than it is in the Delta. Perhaps before we
cut off more irrigation water to the west side of the valley, we might
invest some green dollars into cleaning up the unsightly and sometimes
dangerous garbage that now litters the outskirts of our rural communities.

    We hear about the tough small-business regulations that have driven
residents out of the state, at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a week. But from
my unscientific observations these past weeks, it seems rather easy to open
a small business in California without any oversight at all, or at least
what I might call a "counter business." I counted eleven mobile hot-kitchen
trucks that simply park by the side of the road, spread about some plastic
chairs, pull down a tarp canopy, and, presto, become mini-restaurants. There
are no "facilities" such as toilets or washrooms. But I do frequently see
lard trails on the isolated roads I bike on, where trucks apparently have
simply opened their draining tanks and sped on, leaving a slick of cooking
fats and oils. Crows and ground squirrels love them; they can be seen from a
distance mysteriously occupied in the middle of the road.

    At crossroads, peddlers in a counter-California economy sell almost
anything. Here is what I noticed at an intersection on the west side last
week: shovels, rakes, hoes, gas pumps, lawnmowers, edgers, blowers, jackets,
gloves, and caps. The merchandise was all new. I doubt whether in high-tax
California sales taxes or income taxes were paid on any of these stop-and-go

    In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did
not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when "food
stamps" were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship
between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical
appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were
loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class.

    By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or
Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in
the store with public-assistance credit. This seemed a world apart from the
trailers I had just ridden by the day before. I don't editorialize here on
the logic or morality of any of this, but I note only that there are vast
numbers of people who apparently are not working, are on public food
assistance, and enjoy the technological veneer of the middle class.
California has a consumer market surely, but often no apparent source of
income. Does the $40 million a day supplement to unemployment benefits from
Washington explain some of this?

    Do diversity concerns, as in lack of diversity, work both ways? Over a
hundred-mile stretch, when I stopped in San Joaquin for a bottled water, or
drove through Orange Cove, or got gas in Parlier, or went to a corner market
in southwestern Selma, my home town, I was the only non-Hispanic - there
were no Asians, no blacks, no other whites. We may speak of the richness of
"diversity," but those who cherish that ideal simply have no idea that there
are now countless inland communities that have become near-apartheid
societies, where Spanish is the first language, the schools are not at all
diverse, and the federal and state governments are either the main employers
or at least the chief sources of income - whether through emergency rooms,
rural health clinics, public schools, or social-service offices. An observer
from Mars might conclude that our elites and masses have given up on the
ideal of integration and assimilation, perhaps in the wake of the arrival of
11 to 15 million illegal aliens.

    Again, I do not editorialize, but I note these vast transformations over
the last 20 years that are the paradoxical wages of unchecked illegal
immigration from Mexico, a vast expansion of California's entitlements and
taxes, the flight of the upper middle class out of state, the deliberate
effort not to tap natural resources, the downsizing in manufacturing and
agriculture, and the departure of whites, blacks, and Asians from many of
these small towns to more racially diverse and upscale areas of California.

    Fresno 's California State University campus is embroiled in controversy
over the student body president's announcing that he is an illegal alien,
with all the requisite protests in favor of the DREAM Act. I won't comment
on the legislation per se, but again only note the anomaly. I taught at CSUF
for 21 years. I think it fair to say that the predominant theme of the
Chicano and Latin American Studies program's sizable curriculum was a fuzzy
American culpability. By that I mean that students in those classes heard of
the sins of America more often than its attractions. In my home town,
Mexican flag decals on car windows are far more common than their American

    I note this because hundreds of students here illegally are now
terrified of being deported to Mexico . I can understand that, given the
chaos in Mexico and their own long residency in the United States . But here
is what still confuses me: If one were to consider the classes that deal
with Mexico at the university, or the visible displays of national
chauvinism, then one might conclude that Mexico is a far more attractive and
moral place than the United States.

    So there is a surreal nature to these protests: something like, "Please
do not send me back to the culture I nostalgically praise; please let me
stay in the culture that I ignore or deprecate." I think the DREAM Act
protestors might have been far more successful in winning public opinion had
they stopped blaming the U.S. for suggesting that they might have to leave
at some point, and instead explained why, in fact, they want to stay. What
it is about America that makes a youth of 21 go on a hunger strike or
demonstrate to be allowed to remain in this country rather than return to
the place of his birth?

    I think I know the answer to this paradox. Missing entirely in the above
description is the attitude of the host, which by any historical standard
can only be termed "indifferent." California does not care whether one broke
the law to arrive here or continues to break it by staying. It asks nothing
of the illegal immigrant - no proficiency in English, no acquaintance with
American history and values, no proof of income, no record of education or
skills. It does provide all the public assistance that it can afford (and
more that it borrows for), and apparently waives enforcement of most of
California 's burdensome regulations and civic statutes that increasingly
have plagued productive citizens to the point of driving them out. How odd
that we overregulate those who are citizens and have capital to the point of
banishing them from the state, but do not regulate those who are aliens and
without capital to the point of encouraging millions more to follow in their
footsteps. How odd - to paraphrase what Critias once said of ancient Sparta
- that California is at once both the nation's most unfree and most free
state, the most repressed and the wildest.

    Hundreds of thousands sense all that and vote accordingly with their
feet, both into and out of California - and the result is a sort of social,
cultural, economic, and political time-bomb, whose ticks are getting louder.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor
of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome,
and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.