May 1, 2011

California

The most sophisticated thinker about the pre-Tiger Mother social and material egalitarianism of the lost California is Benjamin Schwarz, culture editor for The Atlantic Monthly. In the July-August 2009 Atlantic, Schwarz reviewed the latest volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California: Golden Dreams: California in the Age of Abundance: 1950-1963.  Schwarz is a half-decade younger than me and, I would guess from this, had a similar San Fernando Valley upbringing:
It was a magnificent run. From the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, California consolidated its position as an economic and technological colossus and emerged as the country’s dominant political, social, and cultural trendsetter. … In 1959, wages paid in Los Angeles’s working-class and solidly middle-class San Fernando Valley alone were higher than the total wages of 18 states. 
It was a sweet, vivacious time: California’s children, swarming on all those new playgrounds, seemed healthier, happier, taller, and — thanks to that brilliantly clean sunshine — were blonder and more tan than kids in the rest of the country. For better and mostly for worse, it’s a time irretrievably lost. … 
Starr consistently returns to his leitmotif: the California dream. By this he means something quite specific — and prosaic. California, as he’s argued in earlier volumes, promised “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It wasn’t a paradise for world-beaters; rather, it offered “a better place for ordinary people.” That place always meant “an improved and more affordable domestic life”: a small but stylish and airy house marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space … and a lush backyard — the stage, that is, for “family life in a sunny climate.” It also meant some public goods: decent roads, plentiful facilities for outdoor recreation, and the libraries and schools that helped produce the Los Angeles “common man” who, as that jaundiced easterner James M. Cain described him in 1933, "addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile." 
Until the Second World War, California had proffered this Good Life only to people already in the middle class — the small proprietors, farmers, and professionals, largely transplanted midwesterners … But the war and the decades-long boom that followed extended the California dream to a previously unimaginable number of Americans of modest means. Here Starr records how that dream possessed the national imagination … and how the Golden State — fleetingly, as it turns out — accomodated Americans’ “conviction that California was the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.” … 
This dolce vita was, as Starr makes clear, a democratic one: the ranch houses with their sliding glass doors and orange trees in the backyard might have been more sprawling in La Canada and Orinda than they were in the working-class suburbs of Lakewood and Hayward, but family and social life in nearly all of them centered on the patio, the barbecue, and the swimming pool. The beaches were publicly owned and hence available to all — as were such glorious parks as Yosemite, Chico’s Bidwell, the East Bay’s Tilden, and San Diego’s Balboa. Golf and tennis, year-round California pursuits, had once been limited to the upper class, but thanks to proliferating publicly supported courses and courts (thousands of public tennis courts had already been built in L.A. in the 1930s), they became fully middle-class. This shared outdoor-oriented, informal California way of life democratized — some would say homogenized — a society made up of people of varying attainments and income levels. These people were overwhelmingly white and native-born, and their common culture revolved around nurturing and (publicly educating) their children. Until the 1980s, a California preppy was all but oxymoronic. True, the comprehensive high schools had commercial, vocational, and college-prep tracks (good grades in the last guaranteed admission to Berkeley or UCLA — times have definitely changed). But, as Starr concludes from his survey of yearbooks and other school records, “there remained a common experience, especially in athletics, and a mutual respect among young people heading in different directions.” 
To a Californian today, much of what Starr chronicles is unrecognizable. (Astonishing fact: Ricky Nelson and the character he played in that quintessential idealization of suburbia, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, attended Hollywood High, a school that is now 75% Hispanic and that The New York Times accurately described in 2003 as a “typically overcrowded, vandalism-prone urban campuse.”) Granted, a version of the California Good Life can still be had — by those Starr calls the “fiercely competitive.” That’s just the heartbreak: most of us are merely ordinary. For nearly a century, California offered ordinary people better lives than they could lead perhaps anywhere else in the world. Today, reflecting our intensely stratified, increasingly mobile society, California affords the Good Life only to the most gifted and ambitious, regardless of their background. That’s a deeply undemocratic betrayal of California’s dream …

So, if you want to understand where I'm coming from, read Starr and Schwarz.


33 comments:

Anonymous said...

We have diagnosed the issue countless times. What is to be done?

Anonymous said...

It was a magnificent run. From the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, California consolidated its position as an economic and technological colossus and emerged as the country’s dominant political, social, and cultural trendsetter.

I imagine every person with bipolar disorder looks back upon his manic episodes with fondness, but it would serve him better to accept that those periods are not sustainable.

Wandrin said...

"the California dream"

Tragic.

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for destroying it with your damnable free marketeering. Thanks, Republicans!

Henry Canaday said...

My strongest impressions of Southern California when I spent six months there in the military during the late 1960s were: 1) the place was far better than the residents deserved because no people could deserve to live in someplace this beautiful and spacious; and 2) how extraordinarily friendly everyone was.

This universal amiability made an east-coaster like me suspicious that it was insincere or evidence of mental deficiency, but I soon found it was real and characteristic of even very intelligent people. Back in the 1960s, Southern Californians were even friendly to military people, who were often treated rudely in the southern towns where residents were more like soldiers but felt overwhelmed by their presence.

On a recent business trip to San Diego I was again struck by how bloody beautiful, bright, clean and roomy Southern California is. The state government may be going bust, but much of the state still looks like a million bucks. In the East and Midwest, when we are collapsing we look like it, with derelict buildings, grimy streets and zombies passed out on the pavement. In San Diego, many bums look healthier than half the lawyers in Washington, DC. When I got up to run one morning, I saw a guy who had been begging on the sidewalk the night before had neatly folded his sleeping bag and was doing pull-ups on a guard rail.

Anonymous said...

Third world immigration and general over-population has ruined California.

Anonymous said...

This problem is usually conceptualized as one in which the demographic transformation happens first in First World countries and is delayed in Third World countries. So as conceptually cast American and Europe transferred to low reproduction mode and Mexico and African countries are yet to make the change. Conventionally this is said to mean that for a certain time there will be be excess immigrants from poor countries.

In any case it's a temporary problem. Or is it?

Is the birth rate coming down in Mexico or Africa? The work of Lynn and Vanhanen seems to show that peoples from poor Third World nations are different. They do not look to be poised on a great developmental leap into prosperity. Rather they look like they will stay poor and fertile for the foreseeable future.

If that's true we will need more and better fences indefinitely.

Albertosaurus

California kid said...

Me too Steve. My dad moved his young family into a West Valley home in 1959. Ever take a bike ride up to the Nike base ? You can still see the turn-off, right near the top of DeSoto. It's got a gate across it now.

What is to be done ? A new country must be built somewhere. We must not permit any of the culture-destroying class in it. This will take a lot of military strength.

Chief Seattle said...

I was surprised to see $10 and $15/day parking at the So. Cal state beaches on my last trip. It used to be a point of pride that the beaches were available to all.

beowulf said...

I imagine every person with bipolar disorder looks back upon his manic episodes with fondness, but it would serve him better to accept that those periods are not sustainable.

Except the cycles occur not because of bran chemical activity but because of govt policy. Economist Abba Lerner made the point that Uncle Sam has three economic duties, the regulation of 1. aggregate demand, 2. income inequality and 3. monopolistic business practices. The US was pretty good at this during the 50s and 60s, these days not so much.

Where the US went wrong (California,with its unique real estate issues, is just the canary in the coal mine) was allowing chronic trade deficits that create an enormous aggregate demand leakage year after year, while increasing income inequality by giving workers on the bottom less (which in turn knocks down the wage scale for most everyone else). US minimum wage odf $7.25/hr an hour has shrunk from the inflation-adjuted equivalent of $10.00/hr in the late 1960s, back when the economy was only half as productive per hour as it is now (so the GDP equivalent would be a $20.00/hr minimum wage-- higher than our actual US median wage).

Illegal aliens and H1-B holders wiring their earnings home from low wage jobs that reduce labors costs of political powerful (and monopolistic) employers perfectly encapsulates the failure of govt in all three of its economic duties.

airtommy said...

Does anything better typify the ignorance of our racial discourse than this inanity?

"California’s children ... thanks to that brilliantly clean sunshine — were blonder"

I've heard this many times and it never fails to astonish me.

PR Intern said...

Anonymous said...

We have diagnosed the issue countless times. What is to be done?

More whining?

The corporations have decided that immigration is good for the US. There's nothing you can do so there's no point even thinking about the issue.

anony-mouse said...

Er, among those Midwesterners who came to California (albeit a bit later) were Jim Jones (b. Indiana) and Charlie Manson (b. Ohio). They didn't seem to find too much trouble finding followers among people who grew up during that heavenly heyday.

The first burn down your own neighbourhood riot didn't take place in Newark or even in Detroit. It took place in LA among people who would have spent that heyday apparently not realising they were in paradise.

In some ways those Watts rioters were imitating those extremely happy California Berkeley students (who grew up in CA during that period), who were shutting down their University and intimidating their opponents long before that kind of activity happened elsewhere.

Those paradise-dwellers also gave us est, the SLA, the most violent Black Panthers, and cults too numerous to mention.

Fortunately California has the Betty Ford Center just in case anyone who grew up in Paradise needs help.

Come to think of it didn't Ricky Nelson himself become a serious drugs user?

dearieme said...

America has so much to thank the Kennedys for.

foseti said...

I've read a few William Voegeli essays on California that were pretty good.

He has one in the just-published Claremont Review of Books that seemed pretty good to me: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1816/article_detail.asp

Anonymous said...

>social and material egalitarianism of the lost California

Politics is 10% to 100% more inherited than any other job. With increased government intervention, we get 10% to 100% less gini equality. Thanks old-money Joan Didion! Thanks son-of-Governor Brown!

Wes said...

So here is my question: How much of California's demise can be put at the feet of unlimited immigration and how much at the feet of the White Left (I mean beside their immigration policies)?

I used to think the White Left was mostly to blame but now I am not so sure. Obviously, the fat growth of government, the huge bloated public unions, the anti-business regulation and the drug/hippy culture were not good for California.

But I suspect that California could have survived those things, since they didn't immediately destroy the quality of the population. Perhaps after a few generations and a bankruptcy or two, they could have righted themselves.

But with the huge inflow of Mestizos, it would seem they will get no second chance.

james said...

"'I imagine every person with bipolar disorder looks back upon his manic episodes with fondness, but it would serve him better to accept that those periods are not sustainable.'

But with clear thinking and appropriate intervention one can also avoid suicidal depressive episodes. Suicide is sustainable.

James Kabala said...

"military people... were often treated rudely in the southern towns where residents were more like soldiers but felt overwhelmed by their presence"

Completely off-topic, but this is very interesting. I wonder if on some level they still regarded the U.S. Army as invaders/occupiers, despite the fact that Southerners were so well represented in its ranks by this time.

agnostic said...

I frequently see references to the 1950s in nostalgia. (Or "post-war," "mid-century," etc.) Yet they all turn out to be from the 1960s and 1959 or '58, with very sparse nostalgia for the rest of the 1950s, and nothing from the 1940s.

I don't know what better term there is for the pre-culture-war period of the 1960s, but "The Fifties" is only going to confuse younger people who don't understand that this should be decoded into 1959-1966. "Post-war" is even more inaccurate, suggesting a big shift in the second half of the 1940s.

Maybe "the pre-hippy '60s"?

RKU said...

Albertosaurus: This problem is usually conceptualized as one in which the demographic transformation happens first in First World countries and is delayed in Third World countries..Is the birth rate coming down in Mexico or Africa? .

Well, without getting into any of the broader issues, Mexico's fertility rate has dropped like a rock over the last three decades, and actually fell below replacement level a couple of years ago.

These trends have been apparent for decades, and as far back as the early 1990s I used to always joke with my friends that if things continued, a bit down the road the "Mexican illegal immigration problem" would be the problematic influx of illegal immigrants into a rapidly depopulating country. Exactly the same thing happened decades ago in Catholic Italy, which always notoriously had among the the highest birth rates in Europe but now has among the lowest in the world.

Dutch Boy said...

FYI: sunshine means people get more Vitamin D (which improves health) and brown hair gets blonder. One of the unmentioned good things about California is that our beaches and coastline are governed by Spanish law and are accesible to the public (no private beaches). The rich who live on the coast hate this system (Barbra Streisand is always trying to keep people from getting access to the beach by her Malibu home) but the rest of us love it.

Dutch Boy said...

One of the reasons Southern Californians were so relatively friendly to the miltary is that the military is what brought a lot of them (e.g, my father)to California in the first place. You could probably man a fleet and fill up 3-4 marine divisions with the retired military people in the San Diego area. One month on the Southern California coast and Sioux City looks pretty unappealing.

David said...

California's children were blond. Uh-oh. Crimethink. Racially inane. Dog whistle. Revise article immediately: replace offending blond reference with two paragraphs celebrating Mexican restaurants and vibrancy.

jody said...

the fertility rate in mexico is at population replacement levels. it is not below population replacement levels. it hasn't changed much in 10 years, dipping 1% per year or so and stabilizing at about 2.3 or 2.2 women per children.

no, the population is not exploding, but mexico is not in any danger at all of disappearing. it is still growing, and at a decent rate. it is still on track to have more people than russia in about 15 years. it's already much, much bigger than germany and will be equal to japan in about 10 years.

obviously, if it's main export wasn't people, these time tables would be accelerated.

RKU said...

Jody: the fertility rate in mexico is at population replacement levels. it is not below population replacement levels. it hasn't changed much in 10 years, dipping 1% per year or so and stabilizing at about 2.3 or 2.2 women per children.

Well, I hate quibbling over relatively small differences, but if you just Google "Mexican Total Fertility Rate" you'll get an awful lot of seemingly authoritative sources and graphs indicating that the Mexican TFR had fallen to ZPG 2.1 by 2005, and describing the decline as among the most rapid anywhere in the world. I thought I remembered reading somewhere that it had actually dropped a little more since then, but perhaps I was mistaken.

It's possible that there are other sources claiming that the rate is 2.2 or 2.3, but since it had been nearly 7.0 a few decades ago, this small discrepancy is hardly worth fighting over.

Dahinda said...

California was a product of the giant military buildup for World War II and the Cold War. For may years, California received $5 from the federal government for every dollar paid in taxes by Californians to to the federal government. A state like Illinois during this time only got .25 for every dollar. All of that capital flowing into the California coffers paid for the prosperity and helped cause the midwest's fall. Now for what ever reason, California is becoming the new Rust Belt.

Big Bill said...

RKU: You are right. Fertility has been dropping in Mexico. No money.

Which is why Mexicans are moving to America for the "good life" and why their fertility skyrockets when they move here.

If you moved to a foreign country got paid five times as much for the same work, got free medical care and free education for your children, wouldn't you and your wife think about having more kids? I sure would.

Big Bill said...

anony-mouse, you are correct. Craziness started in California, as it always does. When you can live free and easy without struggle, you rapidly manufacture reasons to be troubled.

Eric Hoffer explained it best in "The True Believer". People who are starving do not revolt. They spend too much time looking for food and focusing on the present--the next meal.

It is places where oppression is easing and standards of living are improving that revolt. GOOD times cause revolutions, not bad times.

So it is perhaps understandable that Californians flipped out and adopted the "free stuff for everybody from everywhere" mindset. Like Samson, they pulled the temple down on their own heads.

Folks from nasty milltowns in PA and MI always knew life was a struggle.

The ones that escaped to California could believe that money and the good life grew on trees.

They honestly believed that you could shut down all California's Morlockian factories to make clean air and free beaches for the Eloi.

Hubris.

The money has run out. And the rest of us who have been living in dirtier, nastier places with more modest expectations, without the grandiosity of California life, are now supposed to bail out California.

Anonymous said...

Big Bill said...

Eric Hoffer explained it best in "The True Believer". People who are starving do not revolt. They spend too much time looking for food and focusing on the present--the next meal.

Not quite.

People who have something to lose do not revolt. People who are actually starving, rather than living meal to meal, do revolt.

GOOD times cause revolutions, not bad times.

Extended non-cylical good times as well as horribly bad times cause revolutions.

Anonymous said...

Actually, sometimes I think Republicans are too blame. Ca use to spend as much on k thru 12 as New York and New Jersey before prop 13. After prop 13, it spend a lot less. Maybe, property tax relief could have been less radical. A lot of midwesterners and easterners were attractive to Ca when its schools rank higher in the pre-prop 13. And Ronald Reagan might have legalized a lot of hispancs because of Orange County business men in the Santa Ana and Anaheim areas that use them for low skilled manufactoring and service jobs in hotels. He got lots of money from them.

Foresight Gaga said...

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. All that California sun, beaches, natural beauty, highway, freedom, wealth, good times, etc, etc. bred decadence, blandness, artificiality, complacency, radicalism, etc, etc.

Anonymous said...

Republicans and Prop 13 did have a great deal to do with why things declined. However, as some of the posters here have mentioned, mid-20th century California as it was, was not sustainable. Especially Southern California being based on endless space, cheap fuel, etc. Northern California even now is in better shape with better infrastructure and a slightly better economy. Steve himself in his article "The Limits of Libertarianism" pointed this out. Yes, those Midwesterners included Jim Jones and Charles Manson - and as for the symbols of California youth culture in that era succumbing to it, Phil Spector comes to mind even more than Rick Nelson.