"Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money." -- Mike Tharp, executive editor, Merced Sun-Star.
"Capitalists and newspaper editors work without aid of memory." Badlands Journal editoral board.
In the stirring, hairy-chested whine beneath, written on a weekend when, long after every newspaper in the region has seen all its finance, insurance and real estate flak predictions of the easing of foreclosures and the bottom of real estate prices buried by reality, Sonny Star's top editor calls for a Big public works project for Merced to provide work and restore civic confidence.
In general, Californians believe that the history of everything from the state to their subdivision began when they arrived. This appears to be doubly true of the manly Tharp, recently returned from the Green Zone in Baghdad, who calls in vigorous prose for the government to build something around Merced. Right now, if you please.
The government continues to sink hundreds of millions of weakening dollars into a win-win, public-private partnership project adjoining Merced. The project is called UC Merced. It was repeatedly presented by several generations of UC administrators, UC Merced boosters, politicians and business leaders -- and incessantly by UC Merced Bobcatflaksters -- to be a publicly funded "high-tech, bio-tech engine of growth." But we don't hear so much as a backfire, let alone a Great Purring Sound.
UC Merced was touted by every expert consultant that could extract a fee from UC or one of its local concubines like the Great Valley Center as the epitome of the "New Economy," an economy that grows geometrically instead or merely arithmetically, like dull and plodding agriculture. These learned shills for finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) neglected to quite explain the rate of escalation of debt the "New Economy" entailed. The "New Economy" is now crashing about the world's ears no less than Merced's.
In fact rather than flak, UC Merced was the anchor tenant for the tremendous, ruinous urban sprawl that has earned the region the distinction of leading the nation in foreclosure rates.
This view by the mighty Tharp, who yearns to see whole hillsides of rock demolished once again by dinosaur-sized machinery, is a fossil of some primitive, large-mouth bass-like species found in a layer of the political sediment lying beside the ambitious works of Earl Warren, Pat Brown, Bernie Sisk, C. Ray Robinson, Ralph Brody, Hugh Burns and John "Chuck" Erreca, when you could see the Sierra and the Coast Range most days on 99, when Buck and Merle were laying down their sound in Bakersfield, when the Valley was full of canneries, when unions were active in the fields, sheds, warehouses and canneries, when Elk Hills Naval Reserve belonged to the government, when boxcars and gondolas in October were filled with departing farmworkers, and when there was no environmental law at all.
We're not suggesting in the least that Tharp is a fossil -- just that fossil ideas need to be examined like any other artifact, in light of their proper historical setting.
In Merced, with its sharp division between the people and all levels of government (capped by a congressman who's moved to Maryland from the epicenter of national foreclosure rates), government is erecting moats and walls to defend its small, landed elite from the unruly peasants as the real, structural fossil of the Valley heaves to the surface in the financial earthquake -- our agrarian feudalism. Our landed aristocracy may not have contributed much blood to the imperial wars of the nation, but they did contribute much agricultural product and they have contributed an enormous amount of money to its elected officials for the privilege of establishing our lovely local social order, based on massive public works projects -- railroads, irrigation systems and highways for the benefit of gigantic agricultural enterprises dependent on alarmed bankers. If significant parts of Valley agriculture do not receive any water this year due to drought, we are likely to see a reversal of a 30-year trend toward housing farm labor year-round and a return to the rules of the Miller-Lux Ranch: permit tramps (a word of California origin), but for no more than three days in any one location. If the job-loss card has been played and lost in court and Congress, what this Valley really is about will again appear, nakedly (not that Valley media won't try to disguise it). Meanwhile, the cities and counties are broke.
In short, the future is always chaotic and unpredictable. With reference to Tharp's public-works theme, the grand actions of that former layer of political sediment had some bad consequences, beginning with the failure to solve the natural California problem of drought and included an unacceptable amount of predictable, documented environmental destruction. It was arrogant to assume they could solve the problem of drought and stupid to have ignored heavy metals in the soil on the west side. Adding to the dilemma has been a decent urge to house farmworkers permanently rather than depend on an annual migratory stream and to have those migrants depend on the Valley in the old seasonal pattern, now involving Mexico practically exclusively. And Mexico, these days, has become the latest, best argument for ending drug prohibition in the US.
The Valley's political economic disaster clearly does require forgiveness and binding promises, but not in the contemporary style of coerced consensus led by "value-free" facilitators. We do not want nor will accept -- and we have proven this -- corporate hacks pretending to be experts in scientific and communication skills, who are in fact liars or so ignorant there is no difference. Is the society capable of raising anyone to leadership who has not been so corrupted and coerced in the process of elevation that her utterance is idiotic? Good faith is the challenge the Valley faces today. While "feeding the world," how do we feed, support and educate our own so that our society, which has deteriorated so much in past decades, does not become a "failed region" in a wounded goliath state. It goes far beyond strawman arguments about capitalism and socialism.
Yet the future is chaotic and unpredictable and a thorough skeptic concludes that it might, as always, be better to start thinking Small.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Mike Tharp: It's time to start thinking big again...Mike Tharp...3-14-09
We need a dam.
A dam like New Exchequer Dam. Like McSwain Dam.
We need a project like those two Merced Irrigation District hydroelectric powerhouses dating from 1967 -- when they were finished -- and the improvements made all along the timeline.
We don't need new dams as such.
What we need are projects like those two dams that led to the water and power we all now use.
What we need is the communal commitment to projects that will rebuild our roads and bridges and other concrete (literally and figuratively) finished products.
Projects that will give people jobs, restrengthening the veins and arteries of commerce so we can restore our industrial base.
And our confidence as a community.
It's instructive and inspiring to watch a grainy Disney-like documentary made in the '60s about how those two dams changed and improved our lives and livelihoods.
With background music heavy on flutes, oboes and kettle drums, the film chronicles the three-year process of blowing up parts of a mountain, then using 5.5 million cubic yards of its rocks to hold back water.
It shows men driving stegosaurus-sized yellow trucks over 15 miles of road after brontosaurus-sized excavators filled them with earth and rocks.
Over the course of building the dam, they cut travel time to 24 minutes from 40.
Eighteen months of blasting shattered granite walls, while a mile away, other workers were laying out a gated spillway.
Ingeniously, the project engineers used the old Exchequer Dam to raise one of the largest rock-fill dams in the world at the time.
This week what's left of the old dam rested about 20 feet below the waterline.
Finished in 1967, Exchequer now holds back a million acre-feet of water, four times as much as originally expected. (An acre-foot is around 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a typical Valley family for a year.)
As one prominent player at the time said, "A $55 million project is a challenge for 55,000 people" -- the county population back then.
A model of the dam turned up in the Smithsonian and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
Besides the gee-whiz engineering feat, the New Exchequer Dam is worth paying attention to today because MID contracted with Pacific Gas & Electric to finance the project at no cost to taxpayers or growers.
MID agreed to sell electricity to PG&E at a price that would underwrite the cost of the dam.
Over the past generation, New Exchequer and its sister dam, McSwain (named after "Mr. MID," Kenneth L. McSwain), have provided water to some 2,000 of our farmers, ranchers and growers and 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to a lot of customers. (The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours a year, according to the Department of Energy.)
Why do we need a New Exchequer Dam-like project today?
Because it blended the best of capitalism and socialism.
Now before any MID or Tudor Engineering people (the designer that won a national award for the dam) break out the torches and pitchforks to march on the Sun-Star, here's why:
The project was planned, designed, built and manned by private enterprise, coupled with a quasi-public agency.
They included PG&E, Tudor, many local contractors and MID, whose mission statement reads in part: "fostering a public service attitude among all District employees; encouraging community involvement in District affairs."
The results back in 1967 were win-win-win.
G&E got its electricity, MID ran the operation and Mercedians benefited from the water and power.
This is the model that the Obama administration, California state government and Merced County should bookmark under "Favorites" on their browser.
This is exactly the kind of business that America should be doing now.
The bailout funds for banks and the thousands of silly earmarks demand that we should stop the madness of pork and patronage and look to fund projects that work.
Thousands of Mercedians and other folks outside here made a living from the dam.
They did it by making something that would turn a profit for a design firm, an almond grower in Planada, an engineer at MID and a housewife in South Merced who turns on the lights when she gets home from work.
Sure, mistakes were made.
In 1965 heavy rains caused water to break over the old dam's spillway, and work was delayed for a couple of months.
The hybrid rock and asphalt plates laid down to keep the lake from overflowing didn't work as well as planned. New Exchequer Dam was imperfect.
But the human beings who raised it from the carcass of an old dam and stacked the rubble to make the new one corrected the mistakes.
Their purpose was clear: water and power for money and the masses.
Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money.
"Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money." -- Mike Tharp, executive editor, Merced Sun-Star.