I have been in California - Riverside, LA and Palm Springs - for the last month, helping out with a family issue over there. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts I had about the golden state, where, as wealth and poverty collide, there are two very different realities.
My first wake up call was in the supermarket - Stater Bros. Just how expensive has the US has become, especially for a European with weak currency. I used to think America was cheap. You think food prices in the UK are bad. I’d say they are twice as expensive in California, if not more. $4.99 for four large onions and they weren’t even organic onions. Fruit, veg, fish, meat. Name your staple. The US ain’t cheap any more.
Obviously, exchange rates are a factor and the pound, at $1.27, is not exactly strong, if one thinks back to the heady days north o f two bucks. But currency aside, ordinary living is getting very expensive for our transatlantic cousins. (Houses are no longer cheap either, for what it’s worth).
Fuel, on the other hand, is around $4.80/gallon, which works out around £1/litre, compared to £1.45-50/litre over here. Americans are still complaining about it though. For them that’s expensive. Guess it is when you factor in how big their cars are.
(Gosh, I enjoyed living under US weights and measures, or as they call them English weights and measures. They are so much more intuitive than metric. More on that here, if you want to see my lecture on the subject).
Second hand cars also seemed cheap, by the way, though my finger is not really on the pulse. I was just strolling round the classic car shops in Palm Springs, where you can pick up a Rolls Royce Corniche in attractive beige (I didn’t realise there was such a thing) for $50k. That felt to me like less than you would pay here. Also, in Palm Springs people will tell you how nice your car is. Here they’ll just nick it.
The roads, by the way, are very crowded indeed, and boy are freeways manic.
Palm Springs was like a dreamland. Sheltered from the cruel realities that are inflicting the rest of the world, the news feels a long way away. But there was a very different story in LA, 90 minutes up the road. My kids wanted to see Skid Row (where many drug addicts and homeless have taken root), so we drove around there for a bit. Even in a car with the locks on, I did not feel comfortable at all halted at traffic lights. I once had a run-in with a group of homeless people on a freezing winter’s day in Hillbrow, Johannesburg - an experience I will never forget, and a story for another day. This reminded me of that. (Later, a Lyft driver told us Skid Row is by no means as bad as it gets. Places like Watts and Compton are too dangerous to even drive through).
Skid Row borders on Downtown LA and, at the turn of a corner, you suddenly see all kempt streets and offices. The juxtaposition is stark.
From there we went to the Walk of Fame for a stroll, where, within a few minutes of getting out of the car, we were almost knocked over by a huge (and I mean heavy weight world champion, 6 foot 8 basketball player huge) homeless black man with a very loud voice, running down the street, screaming platitudes at a much smaller, richly dressed and armed black man, who was chasing him, yelling at him to never be seen round here again.
This was all in the first hour. My younger daughter (aged 19) turned to me and said she had never felt so unsafe in any city ever.
She had a point. The drug addicted homeless seemed to be everywhere. Surely the sheer weight of numbers means something. In Venice, we watched a Latino man with a t-shirt stolen from TJ Max spend 10 minutes attempting to scan the bar code from the label of the stolen shirt onto the button at a pedestrian crossing, while the machine repeatedly told him to “wait”. Finally, exasperated, he threw his hands in the air and walked straight into the road to be hit by a passing car (fortunately not injured).
The following day we visited Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It is so wealthy, clean and curated, it is verging on the make believe. There, you are abnormal if you haven’t had cosmetic surgery of some kind. Was ever there such a fairy land of a place.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such extreme poverty and wealth so immediately juxtaposed as in LA. Something ain’t right, as the saying goes, and, I dare say, something’s going to give. It was probably my imagination, projecting fears and biases, but at times it felt like we were just a couple of short steps away from breakdown: a city on the brink. My general theory, or rather Alex McCarron’s theory which I’ve adopted, of the South Africanisation of everything applies here too.
The following day we hung out in West Hollywood and Silvertown, where, I should say, things felt more normal, whatever that means. I really liked the vibe. Best of all, I liked the canals around Venice. They are just glorious. Almost as nice as the River Thames upstream.
As for LA’s future, well… The city was built on the movie industry. Who watches movies any more? I have been to the cinema once since Covid. I used to go all the time. My kids don’t go either. Most of their viewing time is on their phones, and of that the moving picture allocation goes on YouTube and Tictoc. (I know, I know). Films are for boomers, but even my mum hardly watches any now. Perhaps, then, LA goes the way of another city that lost its main industry: Detroit. It’s not impossible, I suppose. On the other hand, there is so much capital in LA, it seems unlikely. South Africanisation, as I say, is the most likely.
In any case, LA is a city that is not working for a lot of people, even if it is for a few.
I would not be in a rush to invest capital there - unless it’s in some kind of security company.
On a happier note, here for your entertainment is a photo of the kids and me on a hike in the mountains around Palm Springs. I don’t normally post pics of the fam, but I liked this one.
(Those wind turbines in the background, by the way, are a blot of the landscape and, in the three weeks I was there, barely turned).
Until next time,
If you have not seen my lecture with funny bits about gold, we have two more dates in London lined up for Feb 14 and 15.
And I am taking my musical comedy show, An Evening of Curious Songs, on a mini tour in the spring with dates in London, Somerset, Hampshire, Surrey and Essex. This is a really fun show.
Here are the dates and places.
Interested in protecting your wealth in these extraordinary times? Then be sure to own some gold bullion. I use The Pure Gold Company, whether you are taking delivery or storing online. Premiums are low, quality of service is high, you can deal with a human being. I have an affiliation deal with them.