The three-legged stool
Viewed from an ecological perspective, rooted in the environment of the San Joaquin Valley of California, politically affairs this week seem to be perched on a very wobbly three-legged stool.
The short, skinny leg
When (funded) “value-free facilitators” begin showing up in your community, it is probably time to count the silverware or, from an ecological perspective, inventory the environmental quality of your neighborhood. We have an area called “South” Merced, where, traditionally, minority groups have lived south of the tracks and the highway. Through the years, the city has done a pretty decent job of hustling federal funds to repair and restore old single-family houses and build some multi-family apartment complexes. The county housing authority is located there. However, the area has almost no business, at least business useful to the residents, like a decent shopping center with a supermarket. In recent months, the city has proposed the development of a specific urban development plan for the neighborhood, appointed a citizen’s advisory commission and has engaging consultants to draw up a land-use plan.
What the area needs is development that pays its way for the schools it overcrowds, a decent shopping center with a supermarket, and more employment. A dark thought is that it will the area in which the city will fulfill its low-income housing quotient required to keep its general plan correct. Several new low-income complexes have already been built and more are already in the planning pipeline.
“We’re just glad to be here to facilitate this process,” said the value-free facilitator with a Crash Davis (“Bull Durham”) grasp of cliché, before a group of about 40 at a meeting two weeks ago. A number in the audience were government officials, including three city council members (including the mayor) and two supervisors. A city planner led a significant portion of the meeting.
An elderly resident complained about the governing vocabulary. “My tax bill doesn’t tell me I live in North or South Merced,” she said. “It says Merced. All we want is to have the same facilities throughout Merced.” She described 24 empty streetlights on her street. Later, an officious city councilman told the group those streetlights were in the county, not the city, so the city wasn’t responsible.
“There is something ignorant about this whole thing,” the resident commented. “Let’s use our intelligence and forget this North/South Merced.”
The value-free facilitator and the city planner went right on calling it South Merced, referring to my neighborhood as “Middle Merced.” North Merced is where the growth, induced by the arrival of UC Merced, is rapidly doubling the size of the city.
One of the neighborhood’s present dilemmas is what to do with Carl Pollard, an African-American resident of the neighborhood who, after losing six campaigns for the city council, was recently appointed to it. Less than a month after the appointment, he was charged with driving a car without insurance, with an open container of alcohol and some amount of marijuana in it. He has been fired from his realtor job. If convicted, presumably he would lose his council seat. Pollard led an invocation at the beginning of the meeting.
There are better people than Pollard, a political accident that has happened, trying to work for a decent level of services (at least one supermarket south of the tracks, for example), as development that does not pay its way rages to the north and more “low-income” housing development – horribly impacting schools in the south – is planned for the neighborhood. Perhaps, if they organize themselves, beginning by believing almost nothing of what city and county officials tell them, they will have a prayer the Rev. Pollard shall not lead.
“Value-free community organizing” facilitated from the top down by University of California personnel is illusory. What has worked in a modest way in the neighborhood has been volunteer crime watches that have existed for years. What will make things more miserable is crowding in more low-income residents to satisfy regional low-income housing mandates into an area with a chronically low level of services and usable commercial enterprises.
The fat, middle leg
A year ago, the Sacramento Bee did a series of articles exposing a classic situation of corporate power in diary processing. Hilmar Cheese had been polluting surface and groundwater near its site for years. The San Joaquin Regional Water Quality Control Board had been effectively bought off by the corporation. Publicly embarrassed, the board levied a $4-million fine against Hilmar.
After the state Water Resources Board in November refused Hilmar Cheese’s proposal to pay a fraction of the fine the regional water quality board had levied against it for polluting its area with huge quantities of wastewater, the federal EPA approved a test deep-injection well this week. Presumably, if the engineers on this project are more skillful than on the plant’s last techno-fix, the test will be successful, paving the way for injection of Hilmar Cheese’s 2-to-3 million gallons a day of waste water more than 3,000 feet below the Valley surface.
Meanwhile Hilmar’s corporate lawyers and water board lawyers continue to negotiate a settlement of the fine. The board should hear a new proposal by March, Catherine George, water board attorney, said today.
Vance Kennedy, a retired hydrologist from Modesto, told me yesterday it was as “done deal:” EPA has the power to override the state water board’s decision, on the grounds that deep injection is out of the state board’s jurisdiction over surface and ground water.” George confirmed Kennedy’s report.
“Ground water” refers to the aquifers several hundred feet down from which well water is drawn for domestic and agricultural use.
Kennedy said the EPA is using the analogy of water injection into oil and gas wells to force the products to the surface from beneath impenetrable layers. Hilmar, he said, is supposed to have a 100-foot thick layer of shale deep down, presumably impermeable.
He repeated the point he made in several hearings on the project: that water is incompressible and will move laterally, for miles, until it begins to push salty water up into groundwater aquifers lying above “impenetrable” layers.
“The sad thing is that salty water elsewhere may not show up for years or decades,” he said. He added it might not ever be possible to trace salt-water intrusion into wells back to the lateral pressure caused by Hilmar’s deep injection system.
Worse, Kennedy said, it’s a precedent for the San Joaquin Valley. Every wastewater facility from Redding to Bakersfield will be looking at this technology. EPA approved a number of wastewater deep-injection wells in Florida, providing another decade of rapid growth. The Sierra Club sued in February 2005, citing massive ecological damage. Kennedy said he’d been told Miami effluent has been traced as far away as Bermuda.
This middle leg is overweening corporate power to dominate surrounding communities and destroy their environments. Merced, the second largest dairy county in the nation, is afflicted with Big Dairy, an extremely powerful lobby from county to country devoted to the propositions: Bigger and More. The best comment I’ve heard on the economic philosophy of Big Dairy was from a small dairyman who said: when someday milk is so over-produced it isn’t worth a penny, some dairyman will say it’s a good day to buy cows.
The Hilmar Cheese deal reveals a tendency in our economy toward outright corporate ownership of government. In the lexicon of American politics exists the phrase, which covers the situation so well a book about the political career of a former Merced congressman, Tony Coelho, is titled, “Honest Graft.”
This sort of corruption tends to spiral out of control, as in the present case of the Abramoff affair. Some economists argue that eventually, the power of special interests devours the nation’s substance for the gains of very few, if gigantic firms. In the case of US transnational corporations, the approach has been to cause deep structural unemployment of domestic industrial workers and devour other nations’ substance at very low wages. The process is well advanced in the US, particularly in California, where the state budget is beginning to resemble the budget of Third World nations like Argentina and Chile, raped by utility and development corporations and thrown into the tender claws of Wall Street for the foreseeable future.
The impact of the EPA decision may go far beyond Hilmar.
The housing development industry is a radical example of the domination of sheer financial interest over the construction of subdivisions containing rows of three or four “housing products.” Everything about the structure of this “industry,” from the elaborate system of subcontracting to the pittance the state requires it pay for the schools it overcrowds, is designed to protect the developer investor from any public liability. In employs mobs of illegal aliens, heretofore always called “unskilled farmworkers,” to do highly skilled construction work for well below union wages. It has bought wholesale political and legal attacks on state and federal environmental law. It is pricing out farmers on agricultural land while making large rural landowners who sell for development rich. Development in states like California and Florida has made a mockery of any concept of urban planning.
If the deep-injection fix takes off in the Central Valley, residents and farmers will be the losers but the corporations will be the winners in the near term, which is their only time frame. Meanwhile, laws that haven’t already been written will be written to limit or exempt them from liability. But, one might object, wastewater facilities likely to jump on this fix are public entities. They are public entities driven every step of the way into surface and groundwater pollution by private development corporations. The system to protect the genuinely public interest is broken, corrupted, for sale, less and less often these days with even a pretence of being other than for sale. Growing numbers of rightwing politicians aggressively promote the ideology that public policy ought to be for sale to the highest bidder. Up and down the ranks of the Republican Party, this is considered to be “the hard, right decision.”
The local glaring, daily example is the loss of rights of existing residents of a region to the same quality of life they had before a UC campus was located in their county and development took off, running roughshod over law, regulation and resources. Against the local land-use authorities’ power to reject projects under the California Environmental Quality Act is the constant drum of developer propaganda: “Growth is inevitable.” You hear it on street corners out of the mouths of people who were once citizens but now passively accept the role of being mere subjects of alien, hostile government. It makes you wonder what else could have been done with all the money it took to convince Californians of this suicidal proposition that has, in 30 years, distorted this state out of all self-recognition, that has replaced, for private gain, a state composed of cities, towns, communities with abundant natural resources and rural economies of hope, with a slurbocracy of mere subjects.
Hilmar Cheese, “largest cheese plant in the world,” is using demonstrably bad Florida technology because its industry largely owns its regulators. Not that the EPA needed much encouragement to worsen the environment of the San Joaquin Valley. Its present administrator started his scientific career at Litton Bionetics, one of the nation’s leading developers of chemical and biological weapons: he is the perfect Bush fox for the EPA henhouse.
But, in our terribly contemporary political culture here in the 18th Congressional District, in Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced, we have the epitome of the emerging one-party state, under the relentless pressure of special interest corruption. Cardoza is referred to locally simply as the south end of O Pomboza, the northern end being Rep. RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy. Pombo is an exemplary modern American fascist, complete with his corruption problems linked to Abramoff, who he denies knowing, and his strong penchant for breaking laws he can’t change, like the Endangered Species Act.
The EPA decision leaves people to believe – and they are definitely meant to believe – they are powerless to stop this level of pollution, corporate irresponsibility and corruption, because the corporations, the Pomboza and the regulating agencies don’t give a damn about the people and believe they exist to do the bidding of the least responsible whim of the corporations who effectively own their own regulating agencies. Some political theorists call this form of government corporatist and describe it as a precursor to fascism. We will content ourselves with the homey old American expression, “honest graft,” well established in government during the McKinley administration, apparently the guide to all domestic politics in the W. administration.
There are residual American political tactics against such corruption. People concerned about this well and its implications for the future of groundwater in the Central Valley ought to consider starting a national boycott against Hilmar Cheese products. A boycott has the old-fashioned charm of asserting the dignity of human communities in the face of inhuman corporate power. People might find it a refreshing diversion from being oppressed and depressed by decisions affecting their lives over which they have no control.
The long, weird leg
A preface is required to begin to describe the last leg of the current stool. I’ve chosen a passage from Douglas Dowd’s book on Thorstein Veblen, an American economist who wrote this during the McKinley administration, at the turn of the 20th century:
“Business interests urge an aggressive national policy and businessmen direct it. Such a policy is warlike as well as patriotic. The direct cultural value of a warlike business policy is unequivocal. It makes for a conservative animus on the part of the populace. During war time, and within the military organization at all times, under martial law, civil rights are in abeyance; and the more warfare and armament the more abeyance … a military organization is a servile organization. Insubordination is the deadly sin. (The Theory of Business Enterprise, Thorstein Veblen, 1904, p. 391)
What is true of those directly involved in the military applies also to the civilian population in significant degree:
“They learn to think in warlike terms of rank, authority, and subordination, and so grow progressively more patient of encroachments upon their civil rights … At the same stroke they (patriotic ideals) direct the popular interest to other, nobler institutionally less hazardous matters than the unequal distribution of wealth or of creature comfort. (Ibid. p. 393)
But for those who might see this as a triumph of business enterprise over the threat of social change led by workers, it is turned by Veblen into a hollow triumph. For, if the discipline and values of the warlike and patriotic society may “correct” the institutionally disintegrative trend of the machine process, it is just as probable that, for the same reasons there would be “a rehabilitation of the ancient patriotic animosity and dynastic loyalty, to the relative neglect of business interests. This may easily be carried so far as to sacrifice the profits of the businessman to the exigencies of the higher politics (Ibid. 395).
Thus, Veblen sees the system of business enterprise caught in a terrible historical dilemma: If, to offset the institutional and threatening imperative of industrialism, it encourages, or acquiesces in, developments that will cause social unrest to “sink in the broad sands of patriotism,” it is faced with the equal probability that what is quicksand for one will sooner or later pull down the other.
The last paragraph of the Theory might be Veblen’s epitaph for the system of business enterprise:
“It seems possible to say this much, that the full domination of business enterprise is necessarily a transitory dominion. It stands to lose in the end whether the one or the other of the two divergent cultural tendencies wins, because it is incompatible with the ascendancy of either. (Ibid. p. 400)
(Thus, in the late 1930s, German industrialists who had supported Nazism as a “corrective discipline” for the political and economic troubles of the early 1930’s found themselves increasingly harassed by regulation, taxation, and general interference in their affairs by Nazi Party and Wehrmacht functionaries.) – Thorstein Veblen, by Douglas Dowd, 1964, pp. 52-53.
In our suddenly radical contemporary experience in Merced, we now host UC, a university whose two national laboratories of mass destruction are now competing for the design award for new nuclear weapons. Therefore, we must ask, for what end, the Cold War having ended some years ago? Our current, neo-McKinley imperial administration cum dynastic, monarchal pretensions, aims at nothing less than world domination. Like the Nazis, the neocons didn’t come to power just to regulate, tax and interfere with business. They came with a plan for world domination. Read all about it at the Project for the New American Century (http://www.newamericancentury.org).
The details of the vision really don’t matter nearly as much as the absurd fact of the vision itself “for the spread of American ideals.” For the neocons, the vision is the only fact that matters. One observes the tendency daily in the president. In fact, as opposed to vision, America cannot even fight successfully in two war theaters, let alone the many anticipated by the PNAC. And their he-man, Ariel Sharon, is in a coma.
On the other hand, they have our UC to build new nuclear weapons.
The fat leg should be called by its name: totalitarian ambition. It has not happened yet. The Alito confirmation hearing was held up for a week. Investigations of scandals mount. The drums for impeachment tap, if inaudibly to the ears of American subjects. However, “yet” is a highly ambiguous term in such a moment, because, although we are aware of the velocity of change, we aren’t able to measure it accurately, in large part for lack of honest media. The totalitarian ambition has been an old dream of American industrialists and financiers, evident to Veblen in 1904, far more overt before the two world wars, and the Bush family has been heavily involved in it since before WWI.
The only question of any importance today is whether the American people have the intelligence to see it and the energy left, in this rapidly decaying economy, to resist it, particularly without an effective opposition political party. Appeals to the ideals of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights fall on largely deaf ears. The fundamental right for which American subjects of the British crown fought was the right of political participation. After a century of fraudulent commercial advertising and government propaganda, is there enough citizenship left in the subject population to resist the neocon plan to make the Mideast safe for Israel, US oil companies, conduct an eternal Indian War against Arabs, and subject the US population to enough terror so that it doesn’t notice the absurdity of the neocon vision and the destruction of both the domestic economy and its environment.
The question is important, however, as a preliminary to the larger, more dangerous problem of how we confront global warming and lesser forms of environmental destruction. We haven’t a prayer of avoiding the global tipping point without strong state regulation of corporate environmental destruction. It also leads one to wonder just how many UC-built nuclear bomb blasts it would take to tip the planet over the edge. It is hard to imagine anything more destructive to the environment than a nuclear bomb. But, UC Merced is an environmentally conscious campus.
And they ask why the public mind is boggled so often these days.
Veblen’s prognosis for American business is a useful anchor:
“It seems possible to say this much, that the full domination of business enterprise is necessarily a transitory dominion. It stands to lose in the end whether the one or the other of the two divergent cultural tendencies wins, because it is incompatible with the ascendancy of either.” (Ibid. p. 400)
“Full domination” has been achieved all too successfully. The rule of law is rapidly crumbling before this full domination. Law was the arena in which the divergent tendencies met and argued. Without law effectively protecting the rights of citizens, the United States of America ceases to be itself and the voice of reason is drowned by the screaming antinomy between privileged and desperate subjects in a rapidly deteriorating environment. The reasonable solution would appear to be something less than “full domination of business enterprise,” beginning with regulatory agencies that are permitted to perform their necessary public function, uninfluenced by either political pressure or foxes in henhouses. The political irony is that business enterprise would have to call for a rapid, perhaps radical reduction of its domination in order to save the system of government that nurtured its rise to power. That would require an act of reason probably beyond the capacity of corporate attitudes today and equally beyond the capacities of its bought and sold political class. The real road to Hell has been paved with done deals between special interests and government.
But that’s just how things look from the middle of the San Joaquin Valley in California.
Hannah Arendt: Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution
Douglas Dowd: Thorstein Veblen
Hilmar Cheese Permitted to Drill Test Well
Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations
Brooks Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process
Upgrades planned for U.S. nuclear stockpile. Agency leader expects significant warhead redesigns...James Sterngold
Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush