Penniless in Paradise
The decline and fall of California


Reed has formed an unlikely partnership with the Republican mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders; the two authored letters to the legislature defending pension-reform efforts at the city level. “This isn’t a partisan issue — 66 percent of our citizens voted for the pension-reform initiative,” Sanders says. “The state has been negligent, and a rift has broken out between the municipalities and the state.” San Diego converted most of its pensions to a 401(k)-style plan, which, in addition to being more sustainable than a defined-benefit program, has the virtue of encouraging politicians to be prudent. “The employees can check their accounts,” Sanders says, “so we have to make our contributions. They get to watch it grow.” While San Diego is not entirely out of the woods — Sanders worries that a second national recession is on the horizon — the mayor is understandably proud of the fact that the city is projecting budget surpluses for the next five years. On the most critical issue facing California’s struggling cities, he finds himself in agreement with his Democratic counterpart in San Jose: “Chuck is absolutely right.”

California is a state with Hollywood at one end and Silicon Valley at the other, and driving along Route 1 between the two, you’d think its highways did nothing but connect money with money and success with success: From San Francisco’s financial district down to Big Sur, from Beverly Hills to the solidly middle-class precincts of Orange County, California still is home to some of the richest, most productive, most energetic, and most creative people in the world, and watching the morning fog burn off of the Pacific, you can appreciate why every billionaire, rock star, and cult leader with any ambition at all makes his way to the Golden State. It’s enough to make a Republican take up yoga. But there’s another route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, too, through the blasted desert and agricultural backcountry. You don’t have to get very far out of Los Angeles before you’re in the world of “PIGS FOR SALE” signs, low-rent evangelical radio, and those millions of illegal aliens that Californians spend their time studiously not talking about. Unlike the wannabe Sinaloa bad boys up in Stockton, the backcountry farmboys have a sense of humor about Mexico’s infamous syndicates: One produce-hauling entrepreneur moving a load of fresh tomatoes up Interstate 5 had the wit to call his carting business “CARTEL.” He was running a big diesel, but in the more desolate corners of the state you wouldn’t be too surprised to see a cart being pulled by oxen. It is sobering how empty, run-down, and poor much of interior California is. Bakersfield and environs is enough to make you wonder why the Joads even bothered: Tulsa is Paris by comparison.

August 13, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, NO. 15

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Steven Hayward reviews How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, by Roger Scruton.
  • Samuel R. Staley reviews Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future, by Grover G. Norquist and John R. Lott Jr.
  • Scott Winship reviews The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, by Timothy Noah.
  • Florence King reviews Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Dark Knight Rises.
  • Richard Brookhiser offers Kerouacian haikus.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .