Perhaps I should begin by explaining the title to this piece. You see my wife and I left Australia just before Christmas for a year away. Our youngest had just finished high school. I’d been eight years at the University of Queensland law school and was entitled to a full year, and generously funded, sabbatical. And my wife had been working in paid employment pretty much without exception since we’d been married 28 years ago and she quite liked the idea of a year off work.
So I lined up a full year away, first at a top US law school teaching only one course on comparative constitutional law and trying to do some writing, and then moving on to a Canadian one for the second half of this year to do something similar.
It started for us with a Christmas in Toronto, a cold and snowy Christmas. All of my and my wife’s families were there and what with the cold, the darkness by 4 in the afternoon, and lots of snow, we found ourselves eating lots and (let’s be honest) drinking a tad more than usual. So it all made for a very pleasant Christmas holiday – and I say that, as you might infer, as one who gets along very well with his in-laws.
And speaking of in-laws, mine very generously lent (I am holding out against that awful word ‘loaned’) us their second car, a good, sturdy Volvo. My wife thinks that her parents did this in part because they remembered our 1997 sabbatical which we took in upstate New York at Cornell law school with two little kids. Money was so tight that an old, very good friend from Richmond, Virginia, lent us his 1972 Cutlass convertible.
It was like driving a boat. But my, did people stare at you as you drove along! Sure, you had to dig in to fill up with petrol every other day, and the convertible mechanism took five minutes to get the top up or down. Oh, and it was all rear-wheel drive with summer tires. But this was a classic American car we’d been lent. People who knew about old cars would stop at traffic lights and ask questions about it, not expecting to get a complete automotive no-mind, like me, behind the wheel. So having that car seemed a real boon.
Except that when we left Cornell just before Christmas of 1997 to drive to Toronto we happened to have to drive through a terrible ‘white-out’ snow storm that would have been scary in one of today’s top of the line four-wheel-drives with snow tires. In our 1972 rear wheel drive Cutlass convertible with summer tires it was petrifying, made worse by the 2-year-old and 4-year-old in the back seat who had no idea that we could be off the road in the ditch in sub-arctic temperatures at any moment.
My wife thinks her parents remembered that story and so lent us their second car for half a year this time. Whatever the cause of this kind gesture, Heather and I hopped into the Volvo at the start of this month and started on the long drive from Toronto to San Diego. We gave ourselves six days to do the near-on-5,000 kilometres in an easy fashion, though you could do it in four if you were to put in long days.
Which takes me back to the title of this piece. Well, almost.
After leaving Toronto and clearing American customs, we drove down just past Detroit and stopped for the first night outside Ann Arbor. This is a lovely place, quite a contrast to its big neighbour. Next day was a long one but we made it to a big Holiday Inn outside St. Louis, Missouri. And when we went to check in there we were told that they had only a room or two left, as they were hosting – wait for it – the annual Missouri Area Bluegrass Convention. This big hotel was chock full of all sorts of people carrying banjoes or fiddles or washboards or harmonicas who would spontaneously form into playing groups and belt out ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ or ‘They Call it that Good Old Mountain Dew’ or any number of others.
And my Lord were they good. We’d stumbled on a great night. We bought a couple of beers and just wandered around from group to group listening to what was highly enjoyable music. It was one of the most memorable nights of our lives.
And I don’t say that because in that entire huge hotel Heather and I were the two thinnest people, though that’s pretty much true. No, I say it because all these people were so friendly; the music they played and sang so much fun to hear; and because it was all wholly unexpected.
Next morning, of course, it was back on the road. And now to the title of this piece. You see out of three basic possible routes to San Diego Heather and I had opted for the most southern one. And so not too far out of St. Louis we connected with the remains of the famous Route 66 made famous in books, movies and most recently by Billy Connolly. Most of this famous road is now gone, with a big Interstate highway overlaid on some of its former skeleton. But the signs for it are everywhere.
And so we carried on through Missouri to Oklahoma to the Texas panhandle. And down there you see quite a different USA than what we now see here in San Diego. In fact Amarillo, Texas, our third night’s stop, is as different to southern California as you’re likely to see in the same country.
We even managed a one night detour up from Flagstaff, Arizona, up the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. And take it from me. Go there and see it, as soon as you can. It’s a mile and half down (over two kilometres) as you stand near the edge and look down. You might think the Grand Canyon is over-hyped. It’s not. It’s magnificent. We even splurged on a hotel right on the rim.
And then it was back in the car through Arizona, waving goodbye to Route 66, and on through New Mexico into the bottom right hand corner of the California, with its 33 or 34 million people – more than Canada and 50% more than Australia.
Now up to this point on our trip the drive had been not only fun, but cheap. Gas, as it’s called in North America, is a comparative bargain. We were paying as low as US$3.50 a gallon (a US gallon that is). So take the $1.40 a litre in Australia and multiply by 4 and you have a rough idea of the difference. That’s somewhere a bit less than $5.60 a gallon in Australia, way more than we had been paying.
Of course the difference in petrol prices everywhere is basically government taxes. When you hit California you hit noticeably higher gas prices, and the highest State income taxes (some States have zero income tax) in the US, with about a 13% top rate (on top of the now just over 39% top rate nationally). That is NOT a low tax country, as can be seen by the US’s ratio these days of government spending to GDP. It is of European proportions, obfuscated by the fact that the Americans don’t want to pay for all this spending today through taxes so they borrow to pay for government largesse and just shuffle the bill on to their kids and grandkids.
And California takes this tendency far beyond anywhere else in the US. If it were a stand-alone country it would be bankrupt. Its basic finances are worse than those of Greece. It can’t balance its budget. But contrary to popular mythology, its government spends a lot of money. It has been in hock to the unions for ages and has pension liabilities that all concerned must now know cannot all be met.
This all sort of ticks over when you have Silicon Valley. Almost anything could struggle on with that sort of wealth-creating machine. But even with some of the most expensive state government spending on schools in the US, or anywhere, California’s public or state schools suck. They rank near the very bottom of all 50 US States, despite the highest levels of funding.
But don’t let me finish this piece on a negative note. In some ways California is superb. You get here and the people are all thinner; loads of them are out running every day; the climate in San Diego moves from a coldest monthly average of 21 or 22 degrees Celsius to a highest monthly average of 26 or 27 degrees. So it’s perfect all year round.
We’re renting for half a year right on the beach, a boat ride and a trolley from the university for me. And each morning if I opt to go for a run there are the training US Navy Seals to one side of us and a huge aircraft carrier base to the other, with the nuclear submarine base just across the bay.
We’re making hay while the sun shines. It seems like that’s what California is all about, at least for now.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland (and on sabbatical at the faculty of law, University of San Diego)