Matthew Crawford finds his home state evolved into the classic Third World kleptocracy.
I grew up in California, moved away in the early Nineties, and moved back in 2019. One of the new things I noticed upon my return was small signs stuck to the side of a car, or printed on posterboard and erected on a street corner, advertising “DMV services”. After some intercourse with a few of these, always conducted in halting, heavily accented English, I came to understand that these entrepreneurs are “fixers”, a species that most Americans are unacquainted with. If you want to get something done in the developing world, you often need to engage the services of a fixer. This is someone who has connections in the bureaucracy, often by virtue of kinship. Being a naïve visitor without connections, you couldn’t possibly know whom to bribe, how to approach them, or what forms must be observed. These things must be accomplished with delicacy. You, brainwashed to believe in the Weberian version of bureaucracy as impersonal rationality, are too naive to navigate a real one in most parts of the world. Too European.
They say California is the future. However that may be, the state has become more like the rest of the world, less like the erstwhile United States. The old European ways of procedure-following are anomalous, and perhaps never made a lot of sense. Or maybe they made sense only within a framework provided by something like Calvinism, Prussian organisation, ecclesiastical administration, or some similarly ascetic institutional morality that is “no respecter of persons”. By contrast, ties of kinship are easy to grasp, more robust, and make sense to more of the world’s peoples as the ground of cooperation, particularly in societies where the clan may be as far as trust extends.
I was very happy to have found my way to Smog Lady. I spotted her 20 minutes after I arrived at the parking lot. She was making her rounds, leaning into cars through the driver’s side window. Finally she approached me: a toothless matron who spoke only Chinese beyond a few key words in English such as “odometer” and “VIN number”. I noticed she had a large wad of cash in her hand. I gave her my $200. She then got in her car and drove out of the parking lot. I had a moment of panic, thinking I had just been ripped off. But sure enough, 30 minutes later she came back with my fraudulent smog certificate.
The Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine coined the term “service nomads” for distinct peoples, typically itinerant or diaspora, who perform functions within a society that can only be done by outsiders. That is because these functions, though indispensable, are shady in one way or another and can’t be openly avowed as necessary. Things such as usury (that is, providing credit), burying the dead, magic, puppeteering, prostitution, peddling, cobbling, knife sharpening, dispute mediation and all manner of border-crossing and go-between work that allows the principals to negotiate without losing face or being compromised.
Every society has such liminal populations (gypsies, Jains, Travellers, the “overseas Chinese,” the Sheikh Mohammadi of eastern Afghanistan) who develop some kind of “transgressor expertise”. They must keep themselves apart, as integration into the bonds of reciprocity and communal honour would make their trade impossible. As Slezkine lays out: they are regarded as unclean, and in turn they guard their own purity against contamination by the host population, from intermarriage, say, or simply by accepting hospitality from them. Dietary restrictions and other taboos of self-segregation serve to keep the boundary intact. They speak their own language, and may pretend not to understand the host language.
At first blush, the providers of DMV services appear to fit Slezkine’s description of “service nomads”. But that concept only makes sense when framed against a surrounding society that is settled and cohesive, with taken-for-granted norms that secure a basic solidarity among the host population. Without such a background of belonging, and therefore communal honour to uphold, there would seem to be no need for a separate population and social type invested in transgressor expertise. California has become a polyglot of unrelated diasporas, opportunity-seekers, guest workers, tech Brahmins and multiple-passport-holding functionaries posted to the Pacific Rim economic zone. It is more like the bar scene in Star Wars than like Tolkien’s Shire. We are all wanderers.
Vanderleun‘s boyhood had a good deal in common with mine, despite being set in California.
Sometime later my parents bought a house on the edge of Butte Canyon out on the fringes of Paradise. My father built a new bedroom for Tom and myself at the back of the house with its own entrance stairs that incorporated the trunk of a black walnut tree. There was a cherry tree in the backyard along with a brick barbecue. Beyond the backyard was an acre of wild oak, madrone, and manzanita. Behind that was an old dirt road that ran right at the edge of Butte Canyon. The canyon here was draped everywhere by frozen flows of black lava in all shapes and often precipitous drops. Nearby there were trails branching out and down into the canyon. On weekends and in the summer, our parent’s instructions to us were simple: “Home before dark.”
I was 9 and my brother 7 and we set off every summer and non-school morning with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to explore this strange landscape of lava beds, High Sierra forests, and streams, and abandoned gold mines.
For there were abandoned gold mines everywhere in the sloping walls of Butte canyon. You found them by following old almost erased trails that slowly slumped downwards on the canyon walls. One particular site boasted a mine with three entrances branching off into the darkness under the canyon. Some mines were said to go back several miles but they were always too spooky and our flashlights too dim for us to venture very far inside.
Whenever we could we’d escape out our private entrance and ramble about the canyon under the watchful eyes of buzzards roosting atop dead pines waiting for a meal. It’s strange now to say we skipped along the edges of the paths oblivious to the potential for becoming buzzard food, but children are immortal in their own minds, are they not?
One day in (was it late autumn or before or after?) we were following a new path when we came upon a wide and long lava bed somewhere midway down the canyon. The lava was coal-black and had many lichen-covered stones protruding out of the crust. And in the midst of it all, there was one large lava spire that rose high above the bed below; a monolith that had felt the splash of the molten lava but had survived in a cooled lava shawl. The spire rose at least 20 feet above the canyon floor. At the top, the spire forked into several shards on all sides leaving the top open. And somehow in the top, there was enough earth for, strange in this High Sierra pine forest, for a stand of green bamboo to grow tall all around. It was like a giant lava planter with just a bit of a Chinese landscape at its top.
There was a hand-over-hand way of getting up into the bamboo at the top. We found it through the kind of determined trial and error a boy can have on a summer afternoon with nothing to do and the whole local wild world to explore. At the top, the bamboo thinned towards the center and we squeezed inside to be able to see the whole wide world of the canyon around us without being seen at all. It was a boy’s summer dream. It was impregnable. It was
“This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,”.
And so we did what any two young boys would do. We improved our fort and hauled in supplies. With some pruning sheers that my mother convinced herself she must have mislaid, we carefully trimmed out the inside stands of bamboo until a comfortable space was made (invisible to outside eyes) for two brothers to relax in a comfortable manner. We hauled in some water in bottles and some “rations” consisting of apples, jelly sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies. These “rations” did not last the afternoon when we would pour over our latest comic books bought at the Paradise drug store and soda fountain.
After sober consideration, Tom and I decided that grown-ups could not be allowed to know what we were up to and where our fortress was located. To heighten our fortress security measures we named the place: “X.” After that, we always referred to it as such confident that no eavesdropping adult would be able to break our code.
Bored with being the only unattacked fortress in California we would sally out from the bamboo and climb down onto the lava flow to pick through the gold rush garbage dump at the bottom of the flow.
The considerable garbage tip of gold rush detritus had been formed when the various gold mining operations in Paradise had been producing in the mid-1900s to well into the beginning of the 20th century. The rush for gold was over but there was still gold in them thar hills and many prospectors still worked the streams, rivers, and canyons. Up and down the streams and canyons of Paradise, there were still places that were showing enough color for man to get enough of a poke for his whiskey and fixings and other needful things in their ramshackle camps along the canyon’s edge. When such needful things were used up or the gold played out, the garbage was taken to the top of the lava flow and disposed of by just chucking it over and watching it tumble until it disappeared into the tangled madrone and manzanita at the rock-studded bottom.
But what was garbage to a gold miner was gold to a couple of young boys. We found old whiskey bottles and jars of uncertain provenance. We found rusted metal sheets and rods that we fashioned into a lean-to deep inside the bamboo walls of “X” so we could store our comic books and other treasures. We found many things and then…
Then there was the day when we cut back a bunch of manzanita branches and pulled out a tightly dovetailed and nailed wooden box with the top stove in. Tom pulled back the shattered wood of the top to reveal a torn sheet of stiff brown paper. Widening the rip in the paper we looked in and saw about half a case of dynamite composed of broken sticks on the top and whole sticks of TNT on the bottom of the box. Read the rest of this entry »
You walk in. The wall decorations vaguely suggest psychedelia. The music is pounding, head-splitting, amelodious. Everyone is struggling to speak over it. Everyone assumes everyone else likes it.
You flee to the room furthest from the music source. Three or four guys are sitting in a circle, talking. Two girls are standing by a weird lamp, drinks in hand. You see Bob.
“Hey, good to see you again!”
“Man, it’s been a crazy few months. You hear I quit my job at Google and founded a fintech startup?”
“No! What do you do?”
“Yeah. We pay out if there’s a war.”
“Isn’t that massively correlated risk?”
“Yeah. The idea is, we sell war insurance to companies who do badly if there’s a war – tourist attractions and the like. Then we sell the same amount of peace insurance to military contractors. As long as we get the probabilities and costs right, we make the same profit either way.”
“Neat idea, how’s it going?”
“Great! Ayatollah Khameini just bought a ten billion dollar policy.”
Going home from the Bay area to his Central Valley farm reminds Victor Davis Hanson of Odysseus’ hardships in returning to Ithaca from Troy.
I drove back from San Francisco not long ago to the rural San Joaquin Valley. It is only 200 miles. But in fact, it can feel like Odysseus trying to get back home to Ithaca from Troy.
Walking to the car in San Francisco was an early morning obstacle course dotted with the occasional human feces and lots of trash. The streets looked like Troy after its sacking. Verbal and physical altercations among the homeless offered background. The sidewalks were sort of like the flotsam and jetsam in the caves of the Cyclopes, with who knows what the ingredients really were. Outbreaks of hepatitis and typhus are now common among the refuse of California’s major cities.
The rules of the road in downtown San Francisco can seem pre-civilizational: the more law-abiding driver is considered timid and someone to be taken advantage of—while the more reckless earns respect and right of way. Pedestrians have achieved the weird deterrent effect of so pouring out onto the street in such numbers that drivers not walkers seemed the more terrified.
The 101 freeway southbound was entirely blocked by traffic—sort of like the ancient doldrums where ships don’t move. About 20 percent of the cars in the carpool lane seemed to be cheating—and were determined not to let in any more of like kind. The problem with talking on the phone and texting while driving is not just cars, but also semi-trucks, whose drivers go over the white line and weave as they please on the theory that no one argues with 20 tons of freight.
The trip can take over three hours in theory and often longer than six hours in practice. …
Remember that you will encounter pre-civilizational Laestrygonians at any moment who can cut you off, ram you from the rear, sideswipe you, slam on the brakes without warning, or as Lotus-eaters simply fall asleep or doze off in a drunken stupor. Recall that you are driving in a state of 40 million with roads designed for 20 million.
[A] three-judge panel of a state appellate court found that certain invertebrate animal species, including bees, are legally contained under the same umbrella definition as “fish” under the terms of the Golden State’s homegrown Endangered Species Act.
Four different bumblebee species are facing dire odds in the country’s most populous state. That danger mostly comes from the activities of huge agricultural interests. In 2019, the California Fish and Game Commission moved to protect those bees, the Crotch, Franklin’s, Western, and Suckley’s cuckoo, by designating them as endangered, threatened, and candidate species under three sections of the CESA.
Almond growers, citrus farmers, cotton ginners, and other agricultural groups sued. They argued that the CESA does not allow the Commission to designate any insects as endangered, threatened, or candidate species because insects are not included in the statute’s enumerated categories of wildlife entitled to such legal protections.
The Commission countered, saying that the definition of fish can and should encapsulate bees and other similarly situated invertebrates because, in part, it already does in practice. At least one species of shrimp, snail and crayfish are listed under the CESA. The listing of the Trinity bristle snail is particularly instructive, the Commission argued.
That’s because the snail, the commissioners note, does not even live in the water and was categorized as “threatened” in 1980. The way the snail got on the list was by being classified as a “fish.” Since the bristle snail is a terrestrial species, the Commission argues, “fish” cannot be limited to animals that inhabit a marine environment.
We conclude a liberal interpretation of the Act, supported by the legislative history and the express language in section 2067 that a terrestrial mollusk and invertebrate is a threatened species (express language we cannot ignore), is that fish defined in section 45, as a term of art, is not limited solely to aquatic species. Accordingly, a terrestrial invertebrate, like each of the four bumble bee species, may be listed as an endangered or threatened species under the Act. . . .
If we were to apply the noscitur a sociis canon to the term invertebrate in section 45 to limit and restrict the term to aquatic species, as petitioners suggest, we would have to apply that limitation to all items in the list. In other words, we would have to conclude the Commission may list only aquatic mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians as well. Such a conclusion is directly at odds with the Legislature’s approval of the Commission’s listing of a terrestrial mollusk and invertebrate as a threatened species. Furthermore, limiting the term to aquatic would require a restrictive rather than liberal interpretation of the Act, which is also directly at odds with our duty to liberally construe the remedial statutes contained therein. We thus decline to apply the statutory interpretation canon here.
Ilya Somin, writing at (T)Reason magazine, says: “The ruling is not as ridiculous as it sounds.”
Which explains, of course, just how driveway puddles get to be “Navigable Waterways,” and growing wheat to feed animals on your own farm (Wickard v. Filburn) can be “Interstate Commerce.”
Clearly you don’t really have to be a full-fledged liberal statist to become this intellectually addled. This kind of extreme casuistical thinking can apparently be transmitted to soi disant Libertarian professors by mere contagion resulting from their hanging around the sort of intellectual pestholes known as law schools.
Since the summer, a black bear known as Hank the Tank has made a 500-pound nuisance of himself in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., breaking into more than two dozen homes to rummage for food and leaving a trail of damage behind.
So far, nobody has been able to deter Hank, said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Department officials and the local police have tried to “haze” the bear with paintballs, bean bags, sirens and Tasers, but he is too drawn to humans and their food to stay away for long.
The mysterious deaths of a British Google engineer and his family on a hiking trail were not a case of homicide, police say.
The bodies of Jonathan Gerrish, 45, his wife Ellen Chung and their daughter Muji – along with their dog Oski – were found by search teams on Tuesday in an area of the Sierra National Forest known as Devil’s Gulch. …
The Marisopa County Sheriff’s Office is now ruling out homicide in the hiking trail deaths, Fox News reports. Spokeswoman Kristie Mitchell said: ‘Initially, yes, when we come across a family with no apparent cause of death, there’s no smoking gun, there’s no suicide note, there’s nothing like that, we have to consider all options.
‘Now that we’re five days in, no, we’re no longer considering homicide as a cause of death.’
On October 21, 2021, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office announced its long-awaited conclusions about what had killed an active, outdoorsy family and their dog on a hiking trail in California’s Sierra National Forest on August 15. They determined that the family died of “hyperthermia and probable dehydration” on a day when temperatures hit 109 degrees. The cause of death of Oski, an eight-year-old Aussie-Akita mix, remains undetermined. Based on a veterinary examination of the dog’s remains and other evidence on the scene, Sheriff Jeremy Briese said Oski probably also died of heat-related issues. …
The mystery surrounding the family’s death both saddened and captivated people worldwide. Speculation flew on social media, where armchair sleuths hypothesized about everything from poisoning by drug cartels, to a hit by Garrish’s one-time employer, Google. A more promising hypothesis, reported in September by the San Francisco Chronicle, was that the family had been exposed to dangerous anatoxins from algae blooms in the nearby South Fork Merced River (the Sierra National Forest closed the surrounding area as a precaution). The investigation’s toxicology report proved otherwise.
In a press conference, Briese said 30 different agencies aided his office’s investigation, including the FBI. “This is an unfortunate and tragic event due to the weather,” Briese said.
The trail where the Chung-Gerrish family died is an approximately eight-mile loop with more than 4,000 feet of elevation change. It starts at 3,880 feet of elevation, drops down to a river valley at 1,800 feet, and then climbs back out. Hikers typically access it from a dirt road called Hites Cove Road, about 18 miles northeast of Mariposa, at a rudimentary trailhead. There is no cell phone service in the area. Leak Pen, an assistant recreation officer at the Bass Lake Ranger District, which oversees that portion of the Sierra National Forest, described the loop as “steep and challenging and mostly popular during the cooler spring months.”
When the family began their hike at 8:00 A.M. on Sunday, August 15, it was about 75 degrees. The investigation noted that Gerrish’s cell phone showed he had researched the trail the day before using an app, charting out the family’s route. They probably expected to be on the trail for four or five hours, back home in time for a late lunch. They’d packed some snacks, a bottle with baby formula, and an 85-ounce bladder full of water. A common guideline for adult hikers is to drink 16 ounces of water per hour under normal circumstances. Following that math, two people hiking for four hours need 128 total ounces of water. Add in extra for the dog, and to contend with the hot temperatures forecast that day, and Chung and Gerrish probably should have been carrying two 85-ounce bladders. They did not bring a water purifier or a portable dog bowl.
Their hike began with a steep, yet scenic 2.2-mile descent down to the South Fork Merced River, by which time temperatures would have risen by at least 15 degrees, into the 90s. From there, the family trekked parallel to the river for just under two miles. During that time, it’s easy to imagine Oski romping along the riverbank and getting a drink. Perhaps Chung and Gerrish began to worry about their own dwindling water supply. It was searingly hot, over 100 degrees when they reached the hike’s halfway point at the intersection with the Savage-Lundy Trail, which would bring them back to their car.
The app that Gerrish had used to plan their outing wouldn’t have told him that the Ferguson Fire of 2018 had incinerated all the California incense-cedars and pines that used to shade the trail. The tourism site Yosemite.com calls the Savage-Lundy “the most difficult trail in the area.” It gains more than 2,000 feet of elevation in its three-mile ascent, on a south/southeast facing slope exposed to constant sunlight. The Chung-Gerrish family only made it up the first two miles. Temperatures for that section of the trail, from 12:50 P.M. to 2:50 P.M., topped out at 109 F. When local authorities found their bodies two days later, the bladder was empty, save for small traces of water.