Warnings in Ashes
Some Ash Wednesday reflections on California's decline
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In a way it’s fitting, I suppose, to have spent much of Ash Wednesday thinking about the tragedy of California. That’s not supposed to be a bad joke about the wildfires; it just works out that way. What I mean is that perhaps the lesson, the moral, the parable of California is just that the grass withers and the flower fades, that all creation passes away, that what grows dies, that the moments of beauty and splendor will be lost in time, that in this world nothing stands forever. That could be it. That’s certainly a lesson here, looking at the state-size memento mori.
But surely there are more political morals to this story, too. If “California is collapsing,” as Joel Kotkin of the Urban Reform Institute argues for UnHerd—and it seems to be—maybe there are lessons to be found in how not to decline and fall quite so fast. I hope so.
But the present is grim and the prospects are grimmer. I barely need to gesture at the grace California fell from—pristine coastline, fertile valleys, suburbs and highways built as they were meant to be, before McMansions and before, what? What went wrong? Now California’s wealth inequality is greater than Mexico’s; the Los Angeles metroplex’s unemployment rate is worse than New York City’s; San Francisco and the Bay may still be the future but it’s now one of homelessness, crime, and serfdom, more than sunsets and (yes, I’m going to do it) surf.
While unreliable water and power and law enforcement, and punishing COVID lockdowns, make the situation on the ground the sort that has driven an increasing number of normal people to other states, the rich are doing fine. Thanks to IPOs, financialization, digitization, and capital gains taxes, the state’s elite can rest easy in their gated communities, sure that everything is okay. California the dream is dying, but the regime is alright.
It sounds a little familiar. And while, in the end, the right answer is the Lenten answer, preparing for and awaiting the kingdom of heaven and its Prince of Peace—ashes today but hosannas soon enough—as stewards of this country we should reflect on this and other failures. Maybe not a promised land, our frontier has flowed with milk and honey before, and should again. I don’t know the meaning of the California parable right now, but let’s look for it together.