The newest “vision” for the San Joaquin Valley, according to the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, which graced us with its prestigious presence last week in Merced, is composed of four elements:
· rapid urbanization;
· destruction of local, state and federal environmental law, regulation and resource-agency enforcement;
· demand for state and federal public funds to pay for the infrastructure caused by the on-going speculative housing boom;
· demand for a “business-friendly regulatory climate” (including maintaining low wages) to entice state, national and global corporate investment in a new “economic engine” for the San Joaquin Valley.
The last element is urged with all the sincerity and passion middle-aged bureaucrats are capable of, because, of course, the Valley is incapable of creating its own economic engine from its own enormous capital from its own state, national and global corporations, built on low wages, a large pool of unemployed, illegal immigration, as well as an enormous amount of hard work, savvy business management, superb marketing campaigns, total control of elected officials, and basic agricultural and engineering ingenuity (the best of it without academic credentials).
In short, the Valley “vision” remains what it has always been: nostalgia for the funding of federal and state water projects that made it great. When you add subsidized water to a huge alluvial fan, hard working, intelligent farmers and ranchers from Europe, the Midwest and the Middle East, low-paid seasonal workers from Oklahoma to Okinawa to Michoacan to the Punjab and elsewhere, Presto! You get the best agricultural economy in the world, which just naturally attracts every business and political force in the nation to try to suck it dry and bleed it to death, currently represented by cartels that monopolize pesticides, fertilizers and seeds, coupled with foreign trade policies that expose Valley agricultural production to competition from every lower wage agricultural economy in the world, including some, like Texas, right here at home. Chinese cotton and genetically modified organisms are perhaps the two most pressing issues, but there are others. The incredible ability of Valley farmers to produce has been the source of great prosperity (for some producers) but also a source of great economic pain. Excellent economic arguments exist that the Valley’s curse is overproduction. A corollary to that, in political circles, given the volume of production and its dependency on foreign markets, trade policies and subsidies, is that the Valley has never been adequately represented in Congress. Our 250 crops fare badly in Congress against the basic grains of the Mississippi Valley states. Our creativity, our diversity and our ingenuity are our curse. Yet, even there, in an odd, backhanded way, we benefit, for surely the dumping of Midwest corn in Mexico since NAFTA (1993) has driven hundreds of thousands of able Mexican farmers off their land and flung many of them against the border walls and fences.
The Valley agricultural economy has never been stable. The kind of dynamism and genius that created it is, frankly, not stable. It’s quirky. It’s a boom and bust deal. After a season of plenty, disaster. Within living memory the Boswell Corporation gave its workers a year’s paid vacation when Tulare Lake flooded. Although it is hard to imagine that the Miller-Lux Company would have been beneficent, it is harder to get a descendant of its employees to speak ill of it. In the years before the UFW went bankrupt economically and organizationally, how many farmers that did their own tractor work and sprayed their own crops denied their businesses were built on the backs of their Mexican workers? How many who could not abide the union hiring hall paid union wages to non-union workers? How many workers who could not abide the hiring hall worked out of some loyalty to the grower as well as the wages? The thing between workers and growers only becomes that abstract concept, Labor, when some people work in the field and others don't.
But now, there is a new “vision” for the Valley: the developer’s vision of the Valley as real estate upstream in the state’s water supply system. It’s a classic business con game, built on floating investment looking for a home, and it is growing increasingly more tenuous as the national economy sours. Perhaps this spring the assault on every natural resource, including the agricultural, in the Valley, by developers and their bureaucratic lackeys appears merely ridiculous; by next year it will be so absurd we might not get another Partnership dog-and-pony show, trotting out local and state leadership whose glamour is fading by the week, along with the Hun’s chances for reelection.
Local officials came whining before the Partnership panel, crying poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence (Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s staffer’s arrest on that charge was politely not mentioned), immigrant populations, the unfairness of government to the San Joaquin Valley, our wretched state – so much worse than Appalachia, how the Valley groans under the impact of cruel, heartless environmental law employed by demons in human form who aim, devilishly, only to harm the half dozen or so big developers in the region and to humiliate their army of bought and sold elected officials and sycophantic staff, who engineer the destruction of law and regulation.
Fact – to refute the plaintive wanderings of the former UC Merced planning director: UC railroaded the process of state and federal environmental review. The deal was run out of Gov. Gray Davis’ office, an honest political payoff for an honest political service – delivery of the Valley vote in 1998, principally as a result of the brilliant staff work out of former Rep. Gary Condit’s office. Condit was the first California congressman to back Davis in the primary. Together they developed a Valley strategy to pick up the necessary votes to win the General Election. Condit’s price was UC Merced (in his district). Davis delivered. Straight political deal. The only problem was that it ran roughshod over a number of environmental laws, regulations and the agencies charged with enforcing them. Smith echoed with perfect pitch the huge Merced Whine about these laws, regulations and agencies. Only Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced, can do it better, when he is in full cry about the Anguish of His Contributors.
How dare members of the local community sue the University of California, this glorious project with such widespread public support! Perhaps we are having a senior moment, but we cannot remember when the public was ever asked to vote on UC Merced.
Normally, we would have expected the Shrimp Slayer to have been at the Partnership event. But the vice chair of the Partnership is San Joaquin County’s largest developer, who last year threw a joint fundraiser for the Shrimp Slayer and Rep. Richard Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, shortly before the demented duo introduced their “bipartisan” bill to gut the Endangered Species Act. Rather than face this political awkwardness among his constituency, aware of the beating Pombo is currently taking from Pete McCloskey, Cardoza is in hiding south of his district. He is probably holed up in the Fresno offices of Westlands Water District, planning how to wreck the settlement negotiations between the Friant Water Users Authority and the Natural Resources Defense Council over the thorny problem of how much water can continue to flow to eastern Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties after a federal judge has mandated that the San Joaquin River must actually have water in it – even in the middle of Fresno County, where it hasn’t had water in it for 50 years.
The Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, the current governor's pale attempt to replicate the pale Valley Economic Summit Gov. Davis tried (once), had no new ideas. State leadership and its stakeholding panel -- the chairwoman was secretary of CalTrans and some other agencies, the secretary of food and agriculture, various representatives of “the private sector,” and assorted local elected officials – had no new ideas. They had a few new words for business as usual, including “partnership” and “blueprint,” for unregulated urban growth.
That, coupled with the local "one-voice" whining for more political power and the disgusting begging for public funds, made this event a milestone in the political grotesque, perhaps the last milestone before the cliff is reached.
Or else the agricultural economy of the Valley – universally vilified by the local whiners and the panel (except the secretary of food and agriculture, who noted that the agricultural economy is still – miraculously and most inconveniently – GROWING) – will continue to limp along, feeding us, housing us somewhat, providing the taxes that will support what education exists, and may, in some way utterly unknown to the political classes and their developer funders hungry for farms and ranches to turn into subdivisions, may just get us through the concocted economic crisis portrayed by the whining local bureaucrats to the sympathetic hearts of the state bureaucrats so deeply buried in the pockets of developers that the spare change in those pockets seems like manna from Heaven.
The plight of Valley public education is truly horrible, if only one lacks any historical perspective on the problem. Valley public education has always been what it is, moreorless the same as public education anywhere, and often better than in most places. I would still rather have a child of mine in public schools in Merced than in any major California city. There is a quality about our helplessly diverse immigrant population of children here in the Central Valley that has always inspired the best kind of teaching, the most quixotic commitments among the core of real teachers that ever make a difference, because these kids manage complex acts of peace, hope and harmony so far beyond the so-called adults who allegedly lead us.
The city will always outscore the Valley on city-designed academic tests. But, until recently at least, its entry-level jobs have provided youth and immigrants a chance to learn through work that has far out-stripped the learning possibilities of urban youth. We should build on that experience, not constantly run it down.
Yes, educational administrators are correct to ask for more money. That is their job, but only because they refuse to stand up and openly, consistently denounce state policies, encrypted in SB 50, that despoil public education in rapidly urbanizing regions like this one. Better than begging, our school administrators should openly, consistently, and simply, denounce SB 50, the filthy deal between the developers and the Legislature behind it, and the local deals between developers and politicians here and now. On behalf of our children, we should stand without equivocation, as so many Central Valley teachers stand, without equivocation, before pupils they need to teach and often do teach. Begging and wheedling before a blockheaded panel, whose formation is nothing but a political stunt, doesn't represent the tradition of Valley public education its administrators seem to have forgotten how to be proud of.
We have a good tradition of public education in the Valley. To see it on its knees, as the local superintendent presented it, was the ugliest thing about this ridiculous hearing. But that ugliness goes to the fundamental point at stake in the spring assault on Valley resources, human, agricultural and environmental: a century of unexamined pro-growth-at-any-cost state policies has impoverished us all. It is ruining our water supply and quality; it has already ruined our air quality; and it seeks with all the zeal of bought and sold politicians and their appointed staffs, to destroy our environmental law, regulation and resource agency enforcement of those laws and regulations.
This is wrong and contrary to the spirit of Valley public education and the families and neighborhoods behind it.
UC Merced was mentioned frequently as the savior of absolutely everything. Yet, other reports indicate not so many college applicants want to come to UC Merced.
A suggestion (from a comment made by the Los Banos city manager): close UC Merced. It was never anything but a boondoggle for a few land owners, financial institutions and real estate speculators anyway. Convert its facilities into a first class vocational training institute, on the model of the one in Klamath Falls, OR. Train students in the skills of manufacturing. If they can’t get jobs in the US due to continuing corrupt, off-shoring policies, they will probably be able to do well in Korea, Taiwan, Mexico or elsewhere. These skills will produce stable incomes. Perhaps, if the Valley “leadership” awakes from its dreams of quick bucks from real estate, it may even see the potential in such a course, if for no other reason because it is within the culture and tradition of the Valley – AS IT IS – to educate people in practical industries.
The core of any industrial economy and the means by which that economy transcends its last generation lies in an educated industrial workforce. Something has gone terribly wrong with the institutional culture of the University of California. Perhaps one too many win-win, public-private partnerships has erased from its institutional memory the idea that it is a "public research" institution, that its purpose is to serve the California public's higher educational needs rather than exploit the medical research opportunities provided by its being the "engine of growth" in the worst polluted air basin in the nation. The Valley doesn't want to be the UC laboratory for lung disease anymore than we want our politicians to solve air pollution by suspending air quality law to allow for more UC-stimulated urban growth.
So, we propose that, rather than UC Merced educating some class of technologists better developed at any of its other campuses, we close its campus and reopen it as the best vocational training center in the nation, producing the top machinists, tool and die makers, mold makers, auto and farm equipment engineers – in general, a class of brilliant, forward looking people who can build very complex, useful things with their hands and help California catch up with the rest of the industrialized world in building cleaner industrial processes. Sometimes, academic engineers and scientists are required in this process, but without the people who can build the new equipment, giving constant feedback in the process of invention, innovation does not occur.
I make this suggestion because it is harmonious with the genius of the Valley. This is the training that will build the next best post-harvest handling shed. Someone from this school will build a thresher that will not kill every ground-nesting bird in its path. Here, a student will be presented with the challenge of how to make local streams both habitable to wildlife and adequate to carry increasing flows and she will solve the puzzle.
Here, invention will occur because the Valley, as always, will attract devoted teachers and eager students. The Valley itself – socially, economically, environmentally – remains a huge, beautiful puzzle, an enormous challenge for people with the right kind of education, stressing the practical, hands-on solutions to concrete puzzles.
UC, lamentably, is not that institution. UC Merced was and remains a land deal. Of course, the Regents and the chancellor, could never ever admit they were taken for such a wild political railroad ride. This, too, is our genius. We have always had to be better at politics than our urban cousins and we have always risen to the challenge.
Because agriculture is always more complex than urban reality. Political leaders from agricultural areas must always both know their own economy and the urban economy. Urban politicians indulge themselves in the illusion that they do not have to know agricultural economics.
What the Partnership and every other developer-driven economic model coming at us says is that reducing farmland to its real estate value is simple and the complexity of a living agricultural system -- however mangled by agribusiness conglomeration it is – is messy and dys-economic.
To this, if you are a Valley person, you can only reply with deleted expletives. We will stand behind our rich, incredibly diverse population and our incredibly rich, diverse agricultural production. We will say NO to local and state leadership bought and sold by developers wishing to make the Central Valley the next, upstream, San Fernando Valley. We will oppose a "new" economy based on selling the most productive agricultural land in the world to outside real estate speculators. That isn't economics; that is just ruin.
Statistically, our immigrants look poor. In their hearts they aren’t poor. In their hearts they know what real poverty is – learning takraw in a Thai refugee camp, running for your life from a federale, a government that sold your village, the sheer stagnation of island living.
We have here in the Valley a unique population composed of some of the strongest, most adventuresome people in the world, people who stood up, escaped, lived, thrived, carried on, survived miseries and oppressions our begging bureaucrats will never understand and so will never realize is the only real source of capital there ever was.
The entire panel of the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley should have adjorned, after their dismal hearing, to Applegate Park to observe Hmongs throw spinning tops. Although they would not have understood the language or how to play the game, those with some residual sensitivity could not have failed to catch the feeling.
The top spinners have no money to pay blockhead partnership. Only the developers can really support partners in the style to which they have become accustomed. A pity. The Hmong top spinners could have reminded the partners of human dignity, a nice palate cleanser after a morning listening to local officials begging for sewer funds to accommodate irresponsible growth. But the partners chose to dine by invitation to their own kind only.
"What are the top 3 priorities for action that will improve the future economic prosperity and quality of life for the San Joaquin Valley?" the Partnership asked.
The public, invited for short comments at the end of the session, replied in part, as follows:
Our "leaders" are dimwits. Don't listen to them. We don't. They have no ideas but urban growth. Their minds are like salad oil slipping off the lip of a plate, as oily as the latest "balancing" of antagonistic, mutually exclusive goals, greased up in new terms every fresh funding season. Our leaders want everything but to make real choices. The public, not our bought and sold empty suits, should have been first, not last, to speak at this hearing. But, the manage that would have required real political leadership on the part of the panel, which has none.
There should be a moritorium on growth until general plans are updated.
There should be a permanent outlawing of the corrupt practice of developers indemnifying land-use authorities against legal challenges arising from their irresponsible, bought and sold land-use decisions.
We should preserve agriculture and wildlife habitat to allow agriculture and wildlife the opportunity to reach their next stages of evolution.
We should develop our enormous human capital rather than allow UC to use it for its public-private, win-win research projects.
We are sick and tired of the "one voice" of local shills for outside speculators. Why is the second point on their agenda always keeping wages low if they wish to develop the Valley? When will they ever awaken from the dream of the fast real estate deal and stand up for their own people, the agricultural productivity of this land, policies that will improve rather than worsen our air and water? When will they quit automatically selling our environment and our workforce on the cheap? When will they find within themselves some other value than simple money greed?