In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, Prince Prospero hosts a hedonistic masquerade while outside his ramparts the population succumb to a gruesome plague. The prince installs garish, grotesque décor in his castle’s seven interconnected halls. He provides revelers with music and wine, dancers, clowns, buffoons, and “dreams.” As far as the prince and the nobility are concerned, beyond their debauched bacchanalia “The external world could take care of itself. Meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
It’s a classic trope, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Literature and history are replete with let-them-eat-cake moments. In the 21st century California’s political class has joined the sad cortège. They have their own Prosperos in the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti, les élues whose keeps are gated communities in Marin County, bastioned manses in Palo Alto, compounds in Bel Air and Malibu. They most assuredly aren’t thinking about, much less grieving for, the external world.
While hundreds of thousands of homeless decay on the streets of the state’s once-great cities, California’s elites cloister in their rarified confines, perversely feting themselves for their enlightened benevolence. While some 6 million of their fellow Californians struggle in poverty they refuse to return so much as a farthing; indeed, the extract ever-more tribute. While millions of children languish in some of the country’s worst schools they host fundraisers for their own children’s exclusive acadamae, lavish events at which they auction diamond earrings and Tahoe vacations. Their concern for the commoners is but a pretext as their own vaults runneth over. All the while they assure themselves that thanks to their sagacity, outside the battlements all will soon be well in hand.
In reality, California already is bankrupt. Decades of public sector profligacy have left the state with some $1.5 trillion in imminently due bond payments, loan service, and other long-term debts, not to mention unfunded liabilities for post-employment benefits (primarily public sector retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension obligations. And that’s just amount we know about: California politicians are infamous for flubbing numbers. Add to those numbers the hundreds of billions that will be necessary to repair and maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure. No one has the slightest idea where the money is going to be found. Tax receipts have been declining for years thanks to the state’s ever-increasing hostility to small business and the exodus of millions of middle class residents. The state’s careening fiscals have led to perverse proposals like Newsom’s tap water tax. As with all such ideas, the fixes would hit the lower middle class and poor the worst.
The “bullet” train is Exhibit A for the political class’s misguided (to phrase it gently) priorities. It was sold to voters in 2008 as a miracle green machine that would cost $35 billion to connect Sacramento to San Diego. A decade behind schedule and $44 billion over budget, the current plan will only connect Bakersfield to Modesto, for the same original price tag. Suffice it to say, $35 billion would solve a great deal of the homeless crisis, but it will be used instead to build an already outdated rail system between two remote towns. Such is the way of things in the California chirocracy. But the contractors and consultants will make out like bandits. Literally.
These are not the qualities of a prosperous, successful state. They are harbingers of horrible things to come. Not that the political class notices.
Newsom’s patrons are among the eldest of California’s nobility: the Gettys, the Fishers, the Pritzkers. He wasn’t born rich, but his family was well-connected. His father William was a state appellate judge and trustee of the Getty family fortune. When John Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, William helped deliver the ransom. Gavin was raised safe within the palace, groomed from a young age with European grand tours, African safaris, and a Rolodex sure to set him for life. As a consequence, his contact with average Californians always is fleeting, ephemeral, a sort of half-hearted, modern day noblesse oblige. He plays his part with a cheery gusto that is gruesome in light of reality. Like Prospero he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.”
We have our Prosperos. The plagues outside their walls are Poverty, Addiction, Mental Illness, Ignorance, Hopelessness, Helplessness. The first victims already are dying in the streets – Los Angeles has experienced more than 1,200 homeless deaths since 2017. The victims are addicts wasting away before your eyes, lunatics being devoured from within by demons only they can see and hear, people who have given up on life. They live in mile after mile of tent cities, from Sacramento to San Diego, Yreka to Calexico, and all points in between. Unreported crime is rampant. We’ll never know how many homeless women will be raped or assaulted.
Meanwhile huge swaths of L.A. and San Francisco have been reduced to near-anarchy. Dozens of fires break out in illegal encampments in both cities, as in countless others, on a daily basis. Crime, including property and violent offenses, have become routine. Entire neighborhoods resemble Third World shantytowns and entire communities bring to mind the End of Days.
A missive Mayor Garcetti recently sent L.A. city staff was leaked to the all aspect report. He advised staff to “stay in well-lit areas, pay attention to your surroundings, and travel in groups.” This is the mayor of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history acknowledging that it is no longer safe to walk down the street alone. He alone seems blissfully unaware of the import of his advice. Unimaginably, conditions are even worse in the Central Valley and northern counties.
The plagues afflicting California are not just metaphorical: Typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis, and tuberculosis all have been identified on our streets. There are increasing fears of a full blown outbreak of bubonic plague.
You see the victims also in our public schools: The thousand-yard stare on the face of a South L.A. middle schooler whose best friend was shot in a drive-by when they were both eight years old. The high school graduate wandering lost through a world she was never taught to navigate, lacking so much as the ability to fill out a fast food job application. In 2018 alone child homelessness spiked by 50% in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Outside California’s one-great cities, entire counties are being consumed as people sickened by one or more of California’s plagues abandon their neighborhoods. As the older generation passes no one is there to take their place. In the Central Valley hundreds of communities resemble ghost towns. So too in places farther south like Palmdale, and in the far north like Siskiyou; these places are previews.
The political class whisk past and tut-tut and remind their minders to remind them to mention it in their next address.
Poe’s tale has a final, crucial element: A clock. Within one of the chambers in the castle is an enormous ebony clock that on the hour chimes a peculiar, and peculiarly chilling timbre that freezes the revelers in place: “While the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”
The clock reminds them that the whole garish, phantasmagorical affair is a lie. They are going to die the same agonizing death as the commoners.
We’ve begun to hear the chimes of Prospero’s clock in California. We hear it in a hundred car windows being smashed by vagrants every night in San Francisco. We hear it in the screams of the insane in the streets in the darkest nights, the wail of a siren racing to resuscitate a drug overdose victim.
We hear it more earnestly when a mentally ill homeless man stabs and kills a father while he’s at a café, his five-year-old daughter on his lap. It becomes deafening when we hear the pleas of millions of children in failed public schools: I want to learn.
In the end, of course, the Red Death reaches the nobility. In the end, the only difference between Prince Prospero and the lowest commoner is the opulence of his demise (and, perhaps, his ultimate destination).
Unless things change, Prospero’s clock will soon be tolling for every Californian.