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Some Say in Fire

As McKenzie Funk’s report [“Too Big to Burn,” October] reminds us, it was hard not to connect the conflagrations on Wall Street with those in southern California, the meltdown of 401(k)s with that of the street signs at Sylmar. The spark of a credit crunch leaped over fiscal firewalls and spread across the economic landscape, much as relatively small blazes blew over I-5 and threatened the power supply of Los Angeles. The general destruction moved upscale, so that trophy homes burned along with trailer parks, and hedge funds along with day traders. The entire system, it seemed, was vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession continues, refusing to extinguish itself, and new fires have begun, this time without the Santa Anas to drive them through the Transverse Range. The fires reappeared for the same reason the economy continues to smolder: the fundamentals have not changed. Calling out another fleet of 747s to drop Phos-Chek will keep the TV screens glowing, but, like bailing out the banks, it only increases our moral hazard. It hardly matters whether those planes are public or private: it’s the strategy that is the failure.

The mixing of wildlands and exurban enclaves was the landscape equivalent of securitized mortgages, and we have a lot of deleveraging to go. Some years ago, Mike Davis made the case for “letting Malibu burn.” The intervening years have only strengthened his argument. Fire is the creative destruction in nature’s marketplace, as crashes are in capitalism’s. There are times to intervene and times to let it burn. When the money finally runs out, even that choice will no longer be ours to make.

Steve Pyne
Arizona State University

California Dreaming

In describing the alarming budget situation in California, Peter Schrag notes the unrealistic expectation that costly public services can exist without accompanying tax hikes [“Golden State Fever,” Notebook, September]. He suggests that the solution lies in unraveling four decades of misguided legislation. But taxation without participation is unlikely to fix our state’s problems.

Schrag refers to the growing chasm between those who pay taxes (predominantly white and high-income) and those who consume public services (predominantly low-income people of color). K–12 education serves as an example, with 50 percent of pupils enrolled in California public schools qualifying for free and reduced lunch. This means that their families earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty-line income level and pay little to no state or federal taxes. Meanwhile, those who pay more taxes see a large fraction of their tax dollars go to support schools their children don’t attend.

The participatory spirit must be encouraged across the spectrum. I work for a nonprofit after-school program in the San Francisco Bay Area that awards college “loans,” repaid via community service, to low-income students. We “pay” them well ($50 per hour), they invest in their future, and their work helps drive down our costs. I challenge California’s districts to imagine what this might look like at a wider level.

Unless we find a way to make public services attractive to those who sustain them, wealthier Californians will continue to vote for “starve the beast” Republicans. Proportional taxation that coincides with widespread use makes for a sustainable public system; one that runs on a Robin Hood model does not.

Cristel de Rouvray
San Francisco

The Clapping Hand

As the partial proprietor of an erratically maintained blog named The Salivating Ear, I read Jonathan Lethem’s “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” [Story, October] with special pleasure. The story’s Gothic/Seussian involutions might puzzle some, but its grip on one of blogging’s fundamental paradoxes—the split between publicity and privacy, between Whitmanesque openness and Yeatsian retreat—is solid. After all, those who comment publicly on novels don’t write inside the book’s margins, the way blog commenters do.

Of course, the same paradox inheres in many kinds of writing. The phrase “dreaming jaw” appears in Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet; perhaps the impulse to season one’s writing with one’s own private acknowledgments—puns, jokes, and winks—is a way for language to retain its intimacy, even for those who don’t get the referent. Or so one hopes—lest our blogs (and other future forms) wind up untenanted, as curdled and forlorn as crime scenes.

Matthew Specktor
Los Angeles

Mountain Men

By chance, I visited the little mountain town of Washington, California, several years ago, and there encountered the “mountain men” so clearly described by Gideon Lewis-Kraus [“Tokeville,” Letter, October].

I was accompanying a friend who was delivering something to her friend Kate, a nurse. Kate owned a little house. Her “old man,” Jim, who’d been hired to fix her porch, lived with her. Before that, he had lived with another woman who rented down the road; for her, he’d been hired to put in a stove. He left behind a child he saw pretty often because, well, Washington is small. Before that, he’d had a couple of kids with a woman who lived in a trailer on some land somewhere close to town.

Most all the women of Washington worked. Early each morning you’d see them leave town, driving up the mountain to the hospital, offices, and hardware stores of Nevada City and Grass Valley. The men stayed behind, hanging out, drinking beer, getting stoned. If asked, they said they were “in the trades” or “in construction.”

When my friend and I left, we drove past the town’s little store and post office before the climb out of the valley. Sitting at the crossroad with his pals, Jim waved at us. He moved out a year later to move in with another woman. Kate never did get her porch fixed.

Mountain men.

Jean Amos
San Francisco

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December 2009

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