December 16, 2010

Biking Through The Central Valley

Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Victor Davis Hanson took a self-guided tour throughout the southern half of California's San Joaquin Valley and reports on what he saw and found. Some of his observations appear to be oddly ignorant of what seem like obvious facts, and for someone whose claimed intent was to "get the pulse" of the area, he seems to have done very little talking to people.

Nevertheless, much of what he has to say rings true and the critiques of both social and governmental trends are worthy of attention, and dovetail with my own observations of members of the Third Class.* For instance:
In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when “food stamps” were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class. [¶] By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in the store with public-assistance credit. This seemed a world apart from the trailers I had just ridden by the day before.
Prof. Hanson seems to ignore that the consumer electronic devices have become very, very affordable; technologically, cell phones have in many cases supplanted old land lines completely; and used exemplars of the vehicles he saw these consumers driving are, by operation of supply and demand, easily affordable. How much would you pay for an '02 Taurus? Less than $4,000, I'll bet.

But the quality of a 2002 car in 2010 is much, much greater than the quality of a 1972 car was in 1980, and Hanson seems to recognize this. So it seems that the rural poor who drive around in 2002 Tauruses and Camrys are better off than the rural poor who used to drive around in El Caminos and Darts. Which is true, but nevertheless unremarkable as a matter of economic reality; these are still people living in American rural poverty. It's just that contemporary rural poverty includes things that used to be considered luxuries and conveniences affordable only by the wealthy. This observation resonates in harmony with George H.W. Bush's astonishment at the use of laser scanners in grocery stores during the 1992 election campaign -- somehow, Prof. Hanson got out of touch with the economic realities of 2010 and seeing them played out in a rural, impoverished area seems dissonant to him. It does not seem dissonant to me.

It does, however, suggest that rural poverty in America is not nearly as bad as rural poverty in other parts of the world.

Where I think Hanson really strikes home is looking at the irregular effects of regulation. In his experience -- and that of many of my middle-income clients -- state and local regulators in this state intrusively meddle in aspects of daily life. I have a friend who has made all manner of interesting improvements to a formerly-modest house, but who has a deep fear that a county building inspector will come by and find the literally dozens of building code violations inherent in the now-expanded structure. Not that the improvements are bad or shoddy -- but they are not permitted, they use some non-standard building materials, and they are unconventional in appearance (for instance, an indoor koi pond adjoining the master bedroom, or the conversion of a bedroom into a home theater using old movie theater seats he found abandoned in a field). My friend is right to be worried about this; I have clients who have been inspected and found in violation of housing codes, and had to pay thousands of dollars in fines and invest tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades and permit fees to bring their homes into compliance. I have landlord clients who are cited by their municipalities for what seem like trivial violations (the one that comes to mind is an uninsulated flex-tube hooking up a hot water heater to the natural gas line, which violation my client's tenant appears to believe entitles her to $12,000 worth of free rent because she was living in "mortal danger").

Yet out in the Central Valley, Hanson observes uninsulated wiring on obviously substandard mobile housing and sees no effort by the government to enforce even basic standards of livability. Some of this might be explained by the fact that here in Los Angeles County, the county and local governments have comparatively more resources available for enforcement than in Fresno, Kings, and San Joaquin Counties where Hanson did his survey. But some of it may have to do with what he suggests is true (I take Hanson's denial of editorializing as sophistry; virtually all of his article is commentary rather than reportage) and that is the fact that regulators and other public officials have varying expectations for the kinds of conditions that are appropriate and reasonable for the Latino rural poor in the Central Valley and the kinds of conditions that are appropriate for urban and suburban dwellers elsewhere.

It is also worthwhile to note that available farmland is sitting fallow. Hanson does not identify a reason; correctly so because the reasons are likely complex when viewed systemically and too varied when viewed particularly -- one property owner may have credit problems, another may have legal issues, another may have failed to have complied with regulations needed to gain access to water, another may be in bankruptcy, and so on. But agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley is among the best in the world, and if that land is resting fallow instead of producing food or otherwise being used, there ought to be both a reason and a solution to that.

Some of the issues Hanson confronts are, like the riddle of fallow farms, difficult to diagnose and will undoubtedly prove even more difficult to fix. But if it were easy, we can presume it would have been done already. Some of the issues he identifies -- the effects of racial homogenization, for instance -- are both volatile and ambiguous. The fact that it is hard to deal with these issues, though, does not mean they can be left alone forever.


* My theory is that there are three economic classes in the United States. The classifications are derived from the manner in which money and other goods are obtained, and have little to do with how much money one spends or the quality of one's circumstances in life. The First Class are those whose circumstances are such that they do not need to work; family or other capital provides for them. The Second Class are those who exchange their labor for money. The Third Class are those who receive money from the government in the form of entitlements. Within each class, there is a spectrum of wealth and poverty measured by not how much money comes in to the household but rather by how much consumption occurs; some people within each of the three classes live very well, driving high-end vehicles, wearing new and fashionable clothing, and eating in restaurants most of the time; others live in Spartan circumstances either by choice or out of necessity. Wealth mobility and class mobility are both possible, but difficult and rare. You can imagine a poor First Class person as a trust fund baby plagued by addiction; a wealthy First Class person as a socialite. A poor Second Class person might be a starting wage earner sharing an apartment while working for a single-digit hourly wage; a wealthy Second Class person might be a doctor or a lawyer. A poor Third Class person might be a recipient of Social Security disability payments, receiving no other public aid and unable to pay the rent; a wealthy Third Class person might be someone receiving a panoply of various welfare benefits, lives in deeply-subsidized housing in a good neighborhood, who drives a leased one-year-old Escalade, and shops at Trader Joe's. Members of all three classes, from a variety of points along the parallel wealth spectra, may be found here in my own community. I'm not yet done fleshing out this concept in my mind but I'm convinced there's something to it.

3 comments:

Dan said...

Just wanted to comment that your idea of three classes is very interesting, and something I've never seen discussed elsewhere. (Admittedly, it's not my area of professional expertise, so I'm not familiar with most of the likely places such discussions might be found.) I would love to read further discussion of this, when you get around to it.

outofthegdwaye said...

I'll agree with Dan. As I was reading your description it rang very true to me, and I live in Northern Ontario in Canada. I have a friend who I went to school with since age 9 who live in subsidized housing, recieves government assistance(before this he lived off of OSAP, our version of Government student loans), and has a relatively new (2003?) Caravan. None of these thinks annoy me. What does annoy me is when I go to his house and see the new laptop, new X-box, Wii, flat panel HDTV, blueray player, new clothes etc. when my family subsists off of two good incomes, yet I have a 12 year old 32 in. TV, one video game system for my kids, a DVD player (Me and the wife have been banking Disney Rewards to get a BlueRay for 59.99), a six year old laptop, and the same 2003 van.
We don't have the resources to live with as many material goods as they do.
So I think your insights ring true everywhere, though I am always wary of the use of a class system. I would be interested in hearing you expand a bit...

trumwill said...

You're right that a 2002 Taurus is an affordable car, but he specifically references the Tauruses and Camrys as being "late-model", meaning that they're likely not all that old. It is quite possible, though, that he is misjudging the age.