On the night of March 10, as my wife and I watched the immediate and utter devastation that was being caused by the first tsunami to hit the coast of Japan after the 9.0 earthquake had struck just hours earlier, I realized that thousands of human beings were suddenly either being killed or having their lives completely destroyed right before my TV-gaping eyes.
The reporter on CNN, a smart young woman who was an obvious fill-in since it was past midnight on the east coast (when real news wasn’t supposed to be happening), was trying to make sense of what we were all seeing, but she only spoke of the physical destruction, not of the likely loss of life.
“We aren’t getting any reports of injuries yet,” she said, hardly daring to sound ominous as she did. And she was almost effusive in her praise of Japan’s level of preparation for major earthquakes and the tsunamis that can accompany them when they occur under water.
I knew better. So, I’m sure did anyone who was thinking at all as the wall of sea literally carried boats, buses, houses, and everything else with it to unfriendly landing spots miles from their original moorings.
Days later, the first real estimates of lost lives started to be reported. First it was “in the hundreds”; then it was “over a thousand”; and as of this writing the estimate is “over ten thousand dead, with 15,000 more missing.” In this case, missing is not a good stat to be part of, what with tons of rubble waiting to be un-piled, its cache of human bodies rotting underneath.
And then, the following Sunday, our local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, published an article by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul that is an excerpt of a book they have written entitled, “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” The article only summarized the “how reform broke it” part.
The authors’ thesis is that in enacting tax reform back in1978, via the now infamous Prop. 13, the voters set California on a path of destruction that resulted from exactly the opposite goals they had in mind when that proposition was adopted in a landslide, with two-thirds of all voters approving of the mandatory cap on property taxes it imposed.
Mathews and Paul posit that by denying localities the ability to control their own destiny (through local taxation to pay for things like schools and redevelopment), the voters placed all power in the central government in Sacramento, where special interests held veto power over anything and everything that might otherwise move the state forward.
It was an unforeseen consequence, at least unforeseen by most of the proponents of the measure (a few of us were voices in the wilderness at the time), and has resulted in tsunami-like damage to the state, which, let’s recall, ranked at or near the top in almost all quality of life categories when the proposition was enacted.
And last month, as regular readers know, I celebrated my “cure” date, having survived for five years without a return of the neck/throat cancer that threatened my life. What I didn’t report then was how unexpected the onset of the disease had been. When I discovered that lump in my neck in the fall of 2005, I was in possibly the best physical condition of my life. And, I had never smoked and rarely done more than sip a glass of wine every now and then, tobacco and alcohol being the two most common causes of this type of cancer.
But it was cancer I’d had, and the uprooting of my life that I experienced as a result.
Tsunamis, tax reform and cancer – What do these three seemingly unrelated things have in common?
Well, if you have a sense of where I’m going with this, you probably recognize that all three were unexpected, either as to their occurrence or their impact or both. Japan was supposed to be equipped to deal with the kind of earthquake that hit off of its coast earlier this month. Indeed, its nuclear power plants were deemed “earthquake-proof,” a sadly ironic miscalculation in light of what is now the reality of their un-safeness.
California was supposed to be stronger (or at least not crumbling under the weight of its own inability to make ends meet) after the passage of Prop. 13. We were the Golden State, the model for the rest of the country, leading the way in reform and innovation.
And I was never supposed to get cancer, at least not a kind that is normally caused by the very things I’d lived my life avoiding. From early adulthood, if not before, I had done all the things I was told I should do to assure myself of a long and healthy life. Cancer was not even a glimmer of a concern.
Life is not controllable. That’s my message. It isn’t controllable on a macro level, even when the best minds and the best resources are brought to bear, as in a modern, highly developed and efficient country like Japan. It isn’t controllable on a philosophical/political level, even in a thriving, prosperous place like California was in the late 1970s when a wholly democratic initiative was overwhelming approved by the voters. And it isn’t controllable on a very personal level, even when a healthy guy with a rigorous workout regimen who has never smoked and rarely drinks is trying to stay free of disease.
This news, I’m sure you will grant, is not earthshaking (pardon the pun). That life is not controllable should be self-evident to anyone who looks at the headlines or contemplates even for a moment his or her own existence. And yet, it also seems to be part of the human condition to seek constantly to defy that reality.
And so we pretend we are masters of our destiny. We make everyday decisions as if they have real consequences, and we debate the merits of legislation as if the fate of the earth depended on which way the vote went. At our worst, we engage in violent acts against each other, to the point of professing that full-blown war is absolutely justified, even when unprovoked.
The United States never should have invaded Iraq. We were fools to think we could control the path of history in that part of the world. Yes, I’m rambling. Call it depression.
If an outside observer with even a modicum of intelligence were to observe our species objectively, he, she, or it would surely declare us insane.