America’s First Third-World State

Victor Davis Hanson

‘Third World” is now an anachronistic geographical term of the old Cold War. But after 1989, “Third World” was reinvented from a political noun into an adjective to mean more than just Asian, African, and Latin American nations nonaligned with either the West or the Soviet bloc.

Rather, the current modifier “Third World” has come to transcend geography, politics, and ethnicity. It simply denotes poor failed states all over the globe of all races and religions.

Third World symptomologies are predictably corrupt government, unequal or nonexistent applicability of the law, two rather than three classes, and the return of medieval diseases. Third World nations suffer from high taxes and poor social services, premodern infrastructure and utilities, poor transportation, tribalism, gangs, and lack of security.

Another chief characteristic of a Third World society is the official denial of all of the above, and a vindictive, almost hysterical state response to anyone who points out those obvious tragedies. Another is massive out-migration. Residents prefer almost any country other than their own. Think Somalia, Venezuela, Cuba, Libya, or Guatemala.

Does 21st-century California increasingly fit that definition — despite having the nation’s most amenable climate and most beautiful and diverse geography, with major natural ports facing the dynamic Asian economies, and being naturally rich in timber, agriculture, mining, and energy, and blessed with a prior century’s inheritance of effective local and state government?

 

The California Manor

By many criteria, 21st-century California is both the poorest and the richest state in the union. Almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Another fifth is categorized as near the poverty level — facts not true during the latter 20th century. A third of the nation’s welfare recipients now live in California. The state has the highest homeless population in the nation (135,000). About 22 percent of the nation’s total homeless population reside in the state — whose economy is the largest in the U.S., fueling the greatest numbers of American billionaires and high-income zip codes.

But by some indicators, the California middle class is shrinking — because of massive regulation, high taxation, green zoning, and accompanying high housing prices. Out-migration from the state remains largely a phenomenon of the middle and upper-middle classes. Millions have left California in the past 30 years, replaced by indigent and often illegal immigrants, often along with the young, affluent, and single.

If someone predicted half a century ago that a Los Angeles police station or indeed L.A. City Hall would be in danger of periodic, flea-borne infectious typhus outbreaks, he would have been considered unhinged. After all, the city that gave us the modern freeway system is not supposed to resemble Justinian’s sixth-century Constantinople. Yet typhus, along with outbreaks of infectious hepatitis A, are in the news on California streets. The sidewalks of the state’s major cities are homes to piles of used needles, feces, and refuse. Hygienists warn that permissive municipal governments are setting the stage — through spiking populations of history’s banes of fleas, lice, and rats — for possible dark-age outbreaks of plague or worse.

High tech does its part not to clean the streets but to create defecation apps that electronically warn tourists and hoi polloi how to avoid walking blindly into piles of sidewalk excrement. In Californian logic, public defecation butts up against progressive tolerance, so it is exempt from the law. Yet for a suburbanite to build a patio without a permit, for example, costs one dearly in fines. Indeed, a new patio without a permit can be deemed more dangerous to the public health than piles of excrement in the public workplace.

One out of three Californians who enters a hospital for any cause is now found to be suffering from either diabetes or pre-diabetes, an epidemic that hits the Hispanic community especially hard but for a variety of reasons has not led to effective public-health efforts and sufficient publicity. State-run dialysis clinics now dot the towns and communities of the Central Valley — a tragic symptom of dietary culture, massive illegal immigration, and poor public-health education.

 

Infrastructure Is for the Unwoke

California’s transportation system, to be honest, remains in near ruins. Despite the highest gas taxes in the nation, none of its major trans-state freeways — not the 99, not I-5, not the 101 — after 70 years off use, are yet completed with six lanes, resulting in dangerous bottlenecks and wrecks. Driving the 99 south of Visalia, or the 101 near Paso Robles, or the 5 north of Coalinga is right out of Road Warrior — but not as dangerous as the fossilized two-line feeder lines such as 152 into Gilroy, or the 41 west of Kettleman City. The unspoken transportation credo of Jerry Brown’s aggregate 16 years as governor apparently was “If you don’t build it, maybe they won’t need it.”

Meanwhile the concrete carcass of the recently cancelled multibillion-dollar high-speed rail system dots the skyline over Fresno. Bureaucrats now insist that more billions must be spent to ensure that a short segment of the least traveled route will be finished, though they obviously do not anticipate spurring a new tourist or commercial corridor between Merced and Bakersfield.

High-speed-rail gurus insist on salvaging something of the boondoggle not because they have an economic rationale justifying more dollars — they would be far better invested in improving freeways, airports, and rails — but largely out of pride and shame that demand some small token rescued from a very bad pipe dream.

In 1973, when I first visited and lived in Greece, the roads were medieval. The old Hellinikon Airport was dysfunctional, if not creepy. Highway rest stops were filthy. I have lived in or visited Greece in the ensuing 45 years since, including occasionally after the 2008 meltdown and European Union standoff. And yet today, the freeways, chief airport, and rest stops of relatively poor Greece are in far better shape than are California’s. LAX’s poor road access, traffic, uncleanness, crowds, and chaos seem premodern compared with the current Athenian airport.

It is an eerie experience to see America’s once premier state, currently at its supposed acme, now resemble Greece of the colonels a half-century ago, while 2019 Greece seems more like a functioning 1973 California. Athens and Thessaloniki are still dirty in a few places, and there are homeless and illegal immigrants. But one does not see needles and feces on the sidewalks, and it is safe to walk in the evening. Greek public restrooms, once notorious, are far more sanitary than those at rest stops in Fresno, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Power outrages are characteristic of Third World countries. Here in California we are advised to brace for lots of them, given that our antiquated grid apparently contributes to brush fires on hot days. As a native, I do not remember a single instance of our 20th-century state utilities shutting down service in the manner that they now routinely promise.

 

California for Others

Crime the last three years has increased. It is epidemic in local jails. San Francisco has the highest property-crime rate per capita of any major city. The California prison system is a mess, and sanctuary cities ensure that illegal aliens charged with crimes will not be deported. Pick up a McClatchy paper and you’ll see that the day’s fare of Central Valley criminality, even after sanitization and editorialization, is mind-boggling.

California’s cycles of wet boom years and dry bust years continue because the state refuses to build three or four additional large reservoirs that have been planned for more than a half-century, and that would store enough water to keep California functional through even the worst drought. The rationale is either that it is more sophisticated to allow millions of acre-feet of melted snow to run into the sea, or it is better to have a high-speed-rail line from Merced to Bakersfield than an additional 10 million acre-feet of water storage, or droughts ensure more state control through rationing and green social-policy remedies.

Twenty-seven percent of Californians were not born in the United States, a large minority of them residing in the United States illegally. Yet California’s universities and popular culture are at the forefront of salad-bowl and identity-politics policies that obstruct assimilation, integration, and intermarriage — the historical remedies for the natural tensions that arise within multiracial and multiethnic societies. In this perfect storm, at the very moment the world’s poorest citizens from Oaxaca and Central America flooded into America, de facto rejecting the protocols of their home, their hosts’ messaging to them was that they should lodge complaints about the social injustice of their new home and romanticize the culture that they had just forsaken for good cause.

California schools are usually in the bottom decile of national rankings. No one in polite conversation asks why that is so, given that the state’s K–12 schools used to be among the most competitive in the United States.

Yet, again in medieval fashion, the professional schools and science and technology departments of California’s premier research universities — Cal Tech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC — are among the highest-rated in the world. Imagine something like the scribal oases of Padua, Oxford, or Paris in an otherwise frightening 13th century. If one wishes to be schooled as an electrical engineer or cancer researcher, California is an attractive place; if one wishes to be a knowledgeable graduate of a public elementary and high school, it most certainly is not.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is perhaps the worst public-service entity in the United States. To enter any branch office is to venture into a Dante’s Inferno of huge lines, chaos, unkept rest rooms, and rude and often incompetent unionized employees. The only efficient DMV office in the state is the unmarked and secret branch in Sacramento reserved for state legislators and grandee insiders who oversee the DMV for the rest of the population. For a fee, concierge private auto clubs and firms often duplicate some DMV services, a de facto admission that the state needs something else besides itself to offer basic services. I once asked a DMV clerk, after a long wait in line, if it was right to be wearing a purple SEIU organizing T-shirt; she replied, “Do you still want to be served?”

The DMV scandals are multifarious: Thousands of motor-voter registrations sent to the wrong people, including illegal aliens supposedly ineligible to vote; corrupt employees who sell commercial truck driver’s licenses to the unqualified; and private corporations and occasionally individuals selling hard-to-obtain reservations and appointments.

California now has the nation’s highest basket of sales, gas, and income taxes. With a state surplus, and a slowing economy, one would think that the legislature and governor would pause before even considering raising more taxes. After all, new federal tax law limits write-offs of state and local taxes to $10,000 — radically spiking upper-bracket Californians’ federal tax liabilities.

Yet the rule in California is to punish the upper middle class while pandering to the rich and romanticizing the poor. Thus, the legislature is now considering a punitive new inheritance tax, and it just imposed an Internet sales tax.

Again, the message is that if Californians can survive a recent 13.3 percent top state-income-tax rate, and a vast increase in their federal tax liability, then certainly they can be easily squeezed further after death to pony up 40 percent of their already taxed estates that are over $3 million in value. Translated, that can mean that a tract house in Los Angeles or the Bay Area and a modest 401K are proof that you did not build your wealth on your own, so the state has a second shot at appropriating your postmortem capital, to ensure that your children will see no benefit from your parsimony and thrift.

California’s apocalyptic present has created an alternate universe, in good Third World style, of pay-for-play services. To avoid the emergency room (the last time I used one, two gangs squared off in the waiting room, to continue what their wounded members were under treatment for), progressive Californians often pay for concierge medicine and anything private to avoid at all costs using any state services.

The coastal corridor elite often put their kids in tony prep schools that have sprung up or vastly expanded, in the fashion of the 1960s white Southern academies that were designed to circumvent federal desegregation edicts. Elite progressives mimic old-style, 1960s segregationists but feel that their children’s green and multicultural curricula offer enough penance to assuage their guilt over abandoning the state’s much praised “diverse” schools.

 

Our Dreams, Your Nightmares

What caused this lunacy?

A polarity of importing massive poverty from south of the border while pandering to those who control unprecedented wealth in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the tourism industry, and the marquee universities. Massive green regulations and boutique zoning, soaring taxes, increasing crime, identity politics and tribalism, and radical one-party progressive government were force multipliers. It is common to blame California Republicans for their own demise. They have much to account for, but in some sense, the state simply deported conservative voters and imported their left-wing replacements.

In a reductionist sense, perhaps if former governor Jerry Brown knew that he would one day retire to Delano and drive the 99 daily, rather than to Grass Valley, with several state pensions in his bank account, or if Dianne Feinstein dwelled in an East Palo Alto or Redwood City residence rather than in Pacific Heights, or if all the Pelosi grandchildren had to attend state public schools, then the architects of 21st-century California might have had to live with the consequences of their own dreams and been less eager to inflict their nightmares on the other 40 million Californians.

But then again, such a radical divergence between a few insider elites and a massive underclass, with little in between, is perhaps what best defines “Third World.”

 

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