California Dreaming

I was sitting at a red light in Hemet when my rental car jumped forward. I looked down and my foot was still on the brake. Less than a few hours after arriving in California, I had been rear-ended.

The driver got out, as did I, and we inspected my bumper together in the beating sun—the sun is always beating in Hemet. Just a scratch, thankfully. He spoke bad English through what sounded like an Arabic accent, but I understood him well enough to know he was trying to convince me that I had backed into his car. We both knew it was nonsense. But he flailed his arms anyway in a strenuous attempt to convince me. I looked him over and said a few bad words that I probably shouldn’t have, then got in my car and drove away.

That was the time before my last visit to California. I recently went again to the horrible town of Hemet to see my mother. It’s a locale popular with Scientologists—their “Gold Base” international headquarters is near Hemet—but few others. My sister and I begged her not to move there after dad died. According to the NeighborhoodScout database, the chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Hemet is 1 in 35. Its crime rate is higher than 80 percent of California’s cities and towns. But it’s cheap, and my mom likes California too much to ever leave.

I, on the other hand, escaped to the Midwest in the Great U-Haul Exodus. California has witnessed one of the greatest net losses of U-Haul trucks since 2016, an indicator of how many people pay for one-way hauls out of state, and measure of the dwindling life expectancy of the Golden State. We rode with our pets in a tiny Nissan all the way to Ohio.

Visiting California always makes me a little sad. I’m not that old, but the state has changed dramatically just in my short lifetime, and all for the worse. The most depressing thing about it is that no matter how bad things get, nothing really changes for the better. Many people seem ambivalent about the decline, or they somehow
convince themselves that it’s progress. The real discomfort is the gnawing thought at the back of my mind that maybe the whole country will end up like California, not just by adopting the social policies that have turned San Francisco into a literal dung heap, but in the apathy and delusion that makes California’s continued decline both possible and seemingly permanent. Of course, nothing is permanent, but the long slide downward feels that way.

Many conservatives gloat at the thought of putting a toe tag on California. Yes, much of it is self-inflicted. But it’s nothing to laugh at. The state was once a golden example of what was possible in America. As Michael Anton described it in his 2020 book The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, “California’s multitude of natural advantages, combined with the farsighted efforts of its leadership and the rock-solid virtues of its majority middle class, once added up to the nation’s highest standard of living, incomes, educational attainment, health, and general well-being.” In other words, the California Dream was once the American Dream. He continued:

The public education system—at every level—was the envy of the world, and its strengths reverberated throughout the state. California schools churned out an extraordinary number of workers ready, willing, and able to man the economy at every level, from necessary and mundane brawn up to and including hard science and high tech. The schools’ quality and price—free through high school, dirt cheap for post-secondary—encouraged family formation and high birthrates. And those schools, with the exception of certain corners of the most elite universities, inculcated a unifying ethos that gave Californians a common pride in their country and state along with a common sense of citizenship as both Californians and Americans.

Anton also notes that California’s infrastructure was, for a time, the envy of the world. In short, the state once highlighted the best of America. By the 1950s, it was a middle-class paradise.

But that paradise is lost and the California dream is now a nightmare. California’s infrastructure is in disrepair. The roads are congested and crumbling, despite the fact the state “spent $206,924 per mile that year to maintain its roads, three times what taxpayers doled out in Texas,” according to an analysis by the Washington Examiner. “California also has the highest gas taxes in the nation at 56 cents, an amount that increases every year to match inflation,” the Examiner reported.

A nationwide study placed California’s school systems just six spots shy from last. A WalletHub report in 2016 ranked the reading scores of California’s students bottom fifth in the nation and its student-teacher ratio at the bottom. “California’s nearly 6 million public school students rank among the lowest in national education testing for mathematics and language skills,” CalMatters has also noted.

Meanwhile, the state’s middle class is vanishing. Those who haven’t fled the state can earn as much as $180,000 and still be considered middling. According to Rentable, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is about $3,100. 

One might be better off homeless, at least in San Francisco, where the local government is engaged in a bizarre housing experiment. Outsiders see the city as a failure. However, the people in control of the local government actually see in the homelessness phenomenon their desired policies in action. Writing in his “Pirate Wires” Substack, Michael Solana notes that a common mistake is to assume San Francisco’s homeless problem is a temporary bug in an otherwise functional system. Not so. Attracting and coddling vagrants is intentional and calculated, and subsidized by the non-homeless. He wrote:

The average person assumes the small cabal of activists who run the city’s bloated homeless industrial complex want to temporarily shelter and rehabilitate the homeless. They do not. In fact, they are ideologically opposed to the concept. The goal of San Francisco’s activist government is to provide every person who moves to the city with a free, one-bedroom apartment for the rest of their life.

Solana, vice president at the Peter Thiel-backed Founders Fund, said that the city’s funds are largely allocated to its homelessness project. This “permanent” solution costs money every year, and every year more people move to the city looking for free housing.

All this is to say nothing of the fact that California has effectively abandoned the idea of borders—just not in the way Chronicles readers might think. Housing prices have driven Americans to live in and commute from distant places, even from across the border in Mexican cities such as Tijuana. When I lived in San Diego, I knew U.S. citizens who lived across the border and would drive half an hour every day to work simply because doing so saved them money. It brings to mind a scene from the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, in which Americans flock across the border to Mexico in droves after a natural catastrophe plunges the country into a lethal cold spell. 

In fact, last year, an influx of Californians and other Americans to Mexico City outraged locals. “New to the city? Working remotely?” fliers in Mexico City said, the Los Angeles Times reported. “You’re a f—ing plague and the locals f—ing hate you. Leave.” Go figure.

And, like a Latin American country, the state has become extremely economically stratified. An analysis of the latest data available by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the “gap between high- and low-income families in California is among the largest in the nation—exceeding all but three other states in 2021.” That’s how you get the unsettling scenes of homeless drug addicts raving to themselves as they shuffle down sidewalks before expensive beach houses, a common occurrence in California.

On my most recent trip, we visited the town of Idyllwild with my mom. It’s about 40 minutes from Hemet in the San Jacinto Mountains. It’s one of the few places I’ve visited since leaving the state that still feels untouched by sprawl and squalor. It’s quiet and clean. The moment you step out of your car, the smell of pine washes over you, and you are completely surrounded by nature. You can hear the trees breathing with the wind. It’s the kind of mountain town that would inspire John Steinbeck. In East of Eden he described the Gabilan Mountains in Northern California as “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.” That’s how Idyllwild feels.

The people are nice, too. It’s a tourist spot, so they have to be, but I think there is a genuine happiness that comes from living or even working in a place like this.

A big red 1980 GMC Sierra in excellent condition, carrying a truckload of lumber, rumbles by an ice cream shop with a carved wooden bear in front. There are record stores selling vinyl. There’s a “bazaar” selling records and ’70s kitsch. Idyllwild seems frozen in time.

All this points back to a better time than the malicious present, which reigns everywhere else in California. The people care about Idyllwild in a way that the kooks running San Francisco obviously don’t care about their city. Visiting it makes one wonder if a California comeback could still be in the cards. I hope so because, as they say, as California goes, so goes the nation.  ◆

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