Driving across California is like going from Mississippi to Massachusetts without ever crossing a state line.
Consider the disconnects: California’s combined income and sales taxes are among the nation’s highest, but the state’s annual deficit is still about $16 billion. It is estimated that more than 2,000 upper-income Californians are leaving per week to flee high taxes and costly regulations, yet the state government wants to raise taxes even higher. California’s business climate already ranks near the bottom in most surveys. Its teachers are among the highest paid, on average, in the nation, but its public-school students consistently test near the bottom of the nation in both math and science.
The state’s public employees enjoy some of the nation’s most generous pensions and benefits, but California’s retirement systems are underfunded by about $300 billion. The state’s gas taxes — at over 49 cents per gallon — are among the highest in the nation, but its once-unmatched freeways, like 101 and 99, for long stretches have degenerated into potholed, clogged nightmares unchanged since the early 1960s.
The state wishes to borrow billions of dollars to develop high-speed rail, beginning with a little-traveled link between Fresno and Corcoran — a corridor already served by money-losing Amtrak. Apparently, coastal residents like the idea of European-style high-speed rail — as long as the noisy and dirty construction does not begin in their backyards.
As gasoline prices soar, California chooses not to develop millions of barrels of untapped oil and even more natural gas off its shore and beneath its interior. Home to bankrupt green companies like Solyndra, California has mandated that a third of all the energy provided by state utilities soon must come from renewable energy sources – largely wind and solar, which currently provide about 11 percent of the state’s electricity and almost none of its transportation fuel.
How to explain the seemingly inexplicable? “California” is a misnomer. There is no such state. Instead there are two radically different cultures and landscapes with little in common, the two equally dysfunctional in quite different ways. Apart they are unworldly; together, a disaster.
A postmodern narrow coastal corridor runs from San Diego to Berkeley; there the weather is ideal, the gentrified affluent make good money, and values are green and left-wing. This Shangri-La is juxtaposed to a vast impoverished interior, from the southern desert to the northern Central Valley, where life is becoming premodern.
On the coast, blue-chip universities like Cal Tech, Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA in pastoral landscapes train the world’s doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businesspeople. In the hot interior of blue-collar Sacramento, Turlock, Fresno, and Bakersfield, well over half the incoming freshmen in the California State University system must take remedial math and science classes.
In postmodern Palo Alto, a small cottage costs more than $1 million. Two hours away, in premodern and now-bankrupt Stockton, a bungalow the same size goes for less than $100,000.
In the interior, unemployment in many areas is over 15 percent. The theft of copper wire is reaching epidemic proportions. Thousands of the shrinking middle class have fled the interior for the coast or for nearby no-income-tax states. To fathom the nearly unbelievable statistics — as California’s population grew by 10 million from the mid-1980s to 2005, its number of Medicaid recipients increased by 7 million; one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients now reside in California — visit the state’s hinterlands.
But in the Never-Never Land of Apple, Facebook, Google, Hollywood, and the wine country, millions live in an idyllic paradise. Coastal Californians can afford to worry about trivia — and so their legislators seek to outlaw foie gras, shut down irrigation projects in order to save the three-inch-long Delta smelt, and allow children to have legally recognized multiple parents.
But in the less feel-good interior, crippling regulations curb timber, gas and oil, and farm production. For the most part, the rules are mandated by coastal utopians who have little idea where the fuel for their imported cars comes from, or how the redwood is cut for their decks, or who grows the ingredients for their Mediterranean lunches of arugula, olive oil, and pasta.
On the coast, it’s politically incorrect to talk of illegal immigration. In the interior, residents see first-hand the bankrupting effects on schools, courts, and health care when millions arrive illegally without English-language fluency or a high-school diploma — and send back billions of dollars in remittances to Mexico and other Latin American countries.
The drive from Fresno to Palo Alto takes three hours, but you might as well be rocketing from Earth to the moon.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.