Victor Davis Hanson: The Selfish Californian

We hear plenty of reasons about the perfect storm which 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… 

However, 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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