The real speculators

Submitted: Nov 15, 2007

The only story that matters in Merced today is how one in 68 householders are in foreclosure trouble. But, that is the story least likely to be told in public because it involves the people we elected to the city councils and the county Board of Supervisors. We will have to do our own reflecting on it; elected officials won’t.

In incorporated cities, the councils are the local land-use authorities. In unincorporated areas, the board of supervisors is the local land-use authority. These are all elected officials. In addition to two state legislators, Merced also has a congressman, Dennis Cardoza, heavily involved in real estate, whose local office is on the third floor of the county administration building.

Although we are familiar with a few development projects that have been sued, some successfully, we are only aware of one project that was rejected during this whole frenzy, which has now given Merced such a fine reputation in the finance, insurance and real estate industry. Admittedly, last month Stockton surpassed us with a one-in-31 rate, tops in the nation, but the housing crash is young and we may yet regain our title on a per capita basis.

Although it may be a benefit to the city of Merced that one realtor and one realtor/insurance agent/mortgage broker were replaced by two candidates not involved in real estate, it doesn't matter -- the damage is done and cannot be undone. When the damage was being done, five of the seven members of the Merced City Council were actively engaged in the real estate business, including the reelected mayor. The damage, however, could still be limited. The entire county does not have to become an urban, industrial slurb along the lines of cities east of Los Angeles. But, that would require reflection and gumption on the part of public officials. The recent winner of the Merced City mayoral sweepstakes, realtor Ellie Wooten, seemed to have chosen patriotism over real estate as her theme, enlivening her campaign with a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Patriotism is the last refuge of realtors?

Surely there were other voices in Atwater beside the realtors on its council during that town's real estate frenzy, but the realtors drowned out all others. In Livingston, the planner quipped, "When the rooftops are built, the commercial arrives." Los Banos simply exploded with commuters.

The county board of supervisors is composed of three large landowners, one failed dairyman and a professional rightwing politician, all busily speculating on more growth for Merced County on behalf of their own landholdings and on those of their supporters.

These elected officials are intent on destroying the agricultural base of this county's economy, making Merced air quality as bad as Fresno or Bakersfield, ruining the region's water quality, and destroying the natural resources and wildlife habitat that is Merced County's unique beauty and the source of what is healthy that remains in its environment. They have not shown an inkling of judgment since UC Merced was a "done deal" and to imagine they have been chastened by the foreclosure rate is fantasy. There are too many big deals in the offing: To name a few: Castle redevelopment, Riverside Motorsports Park (RMP), the WalMart distribution center, a 3,000-home new town in Stevinson, development to link Delhi and Hilmar with Turlock, a whole new commercial enterprise zone mapped out with multiple locations throughout the county, all the development that will occur along the UC Merced Parkway, the several thousand more homes in the UC Community, commercial plans for Mission Blvd. south of Highway 99, and greedy “spheres of influence” reaching out from each municipality.

Far from exercising any caution toward predatory finance, insurance and real estate special interests as well as slick operators like RMP, our elected local land-use authorities made love to them from the beginning. To believe they will change their views at this point is absurd. But absurdity is always a part of real hope. It is false hope that lacks the leaven, and false hope is going around Merced like this winter’s flu, foreclosure and fear.

To believe that chatting them up politely in their offices will change their minds belies repeated experience. All it will do is suggest to them new clever tricks to get by the public, like Kelsey's non-hearing "town-hall" meetings on RMP, or demure statements on the WalMart distribution center recently made by the city attorney or the many calculated misstatements of the losing candidate for mayor of Merced. Their minds were captured by visions of development bonanza. No matter how many development corporations go bankrupt, no matter how many of their own citizens suffer foreclosure, the elected officials on our local land-use authorities – many collecting fees on foreclosures – have been permanently blinded by that bonanza. And, for a heady season, they were somebodies, courted by the rich and powerful as the local realtors and mortgage brokers raked in the fees. And they are untouchable in their local jurisdictions.

Today, Merced County residents are suffering one of the larger financial wounds in California.. It is a position shared with those other great centers of foreclosure, Modesto and Stockton, all parts of the region we have called until recently Pombozostan, in honor of representatives Pombo and Cardoza, who intended to obliterate the very idea of endangered species and any open rangeland on which they might exist free from the developers’ ripping chisel. Stockton's largest developer leads the famous California Partnership with the San Joaquin Valley to map out future growth alongside the Valley transportation blueprint two years after he gathered a group to provide a $50,000 campaign pourboire for the Pomboza’s last charge against the Endangered Species Act.
The stink from Pombozastan keeps on rising, like the stench from the old Moffat Manteca-Fed feedlot.

The public must forget this because it is inconvenient to elected officials that the public remember it. So, hacks and flaks are dispatched to make the public forget and provide soothing propaganda to put the public to sleep again and encourage elected officials to continue the mad pace of growth to urbanize one of the world’s greatest agricultural valleys, because its land is cheaper than coastal property. This week, a free-market hack named O’Toole told a gathering of realtors in Modesto to work for the abolition of planning departments and all regulations and laws concerning planning and let the market decide it all. It was reported as an amusing lecture. In fact, that is what was done in Merced and other parts of the former Pombozastan, despite the screaming denials of the hacks and flaks. At the recent UnityFest at UC Merced, a ludicrous seminar allegedly on “Political Participation” took place, consisting of a public “dialogue” between the Merced County flak and the UC Merced flak, tossing puffballs between themselves to the mystification of a few UC students and members of the public who came to learn something about public political participation. The flaks and the hacks are very busy making the public forget what is going on as fast as it happens. The hacks and flaks are in crisis mode. Their job is to make it as difficult as possible for the public to reflect on what has happened in Merced. Today, the rap of the highly coordinated hacks and flaks in town is an impenetrable wall of development propaganda, constantly projecting an even rosier urban future as the here and now gets worse.

In a recent poll, Valley residents alone among the state’s several regions said that Valley air pollution -- not global warming -- was the worst problem in the world. We think that Valley residents, asked the question, took the opportunity to denounce their air quality and the policies, developers and politicians behind it even though the question addressed a region (the world) somewhat larger than the Valley.

The idea that a gigantic slurb the length of the San Joaquin Valley is going to be able to employ its residents is a dubious proposition, first, because the place created by the population estimated will be nearly unlivable – as Stockton and Sacramento would be without a Delta breeze – and won’t be the place attracting business geniuses creating employment. Secondly, because there is no discernable employment plan. UC Merced could well end up being the academic equivalent of Naomi Klein’s crisis capitalism, a ghoulish institution studying environmental diseases and social breakdown caused by growth its arrival in part stimulated. However, vast tracts of the Valley are owned by agribusinesses that don’t employ enough people, are selling to developers or becoming developers. Agricultural organizations like the farm bureaus (insurance companies) have become useless as representatives of anything but private property rights. Valley agriculture is in a contraction pattern, holding onto land waiting for the developer. The creativity, innovation, risk and growth that characterized it through most of the last century is exhausted. Despite massive public water projects, subsidies and subventions and psychotic immigrant policies, and decades of agribusiness propaganda, or perhaps because of them, Valley agriculture seems unfocused today, as if it has lost its sense of meaning, its purpose, its style and its sense of humor. Today, with some exceptions, it is a supine culture, full of empty self-congratulation and empty slogans it no longer believes. Valley agriculture acts like it no longer believes in itself and verything’s for sale. Ag land values seem to be holding at least in Merced County, due to sales to development investors and, lately, to ethanol pressure (one of the latest investment bubbles, which might pop before it floats). But agricultural production looks like a pretty cynical affair these days. Rice, cotton and dairy are still strong enough politically to get what they want out of a federal farm bill, but the specialty crops that are the backbone of California production got very little. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, would have been a far better choice than Cardoza to argue their causes in Congress. But, the Democratic leadership chose the inept Shrimp Slayer, who we think shot his wad during his sojourn in Pombo’s hip pocket trying to wreck the ESA on behalf of local developers rather than specialty-crop producers. Even members of Congress must be able to see through that: the Assistant Destroyer of ESA in 2006 becoming the Champion of Almonds, Kiwis, Blueberries and the Honey Bee in 2007.

It’s been 40 years since Valley agriculture employed many people from the towns and cities it surrounds. Perhaps that loss of connection – knowing the family of the kid in your packing shed – has also slowly rotted agriculture’s sense of local social purpose and the urban Valley’s sense of the local social purpose of agriculture. The food-distribution oligopoly and mounting off-shore competition haven’t helped either.

Politicians, bureaucracies, banks, insurance companies and every business that makes a dime off agriculture have babbled the empty slogans – worst of which because greatest insult to reality is the sanctity of “family farming” – for so long and so effectively that they have hollowed out all content from these sacred phrases. And, like more and more farming, especially of the type best done in California, American manufacturers have been chasing cheap wages off-shore to a point of probable no return and much food processing has gone with them.

Empty phrases like “working class” are beginning to appear in the newspaper. Urban hammers with rural sickles yet, from the mouths of Democrats in City Hall? Unions, which young working people tend to reject, don’t talk about the working class much anymore. Many younger Mexicans never heard of Ricardo Flores-Magon and think Cesar Chavez was a boxer.

Language—above all—language means nothing in this town since UC Merced and the developers bought public speech and the local media. Concerned citizens are warned by supervisors to speak as politely as developers, and our congressman is led to the gutless vacuum of “balance” on every important issue of state. But, we live in a moment of drastically important issues of state in which there is no “balance” whatsoever. Single-issue opponents of projects are cajoled into presenting alternatives they lack the knowledge and data to back up. Merced elected officials are competent manipulators on behalf of their own interests and other special interests. The common good of residents in the here and now is not their interest, special or otherwise. However, embracing the absurdity necessary for real hope, let us hope that the working poor of Merced and those of slightly higher income bilked by mortgage brokers in the “house of their dreams” form unions, among them a Union of the Foreclosed with Ruined Credit. The false hopes of “activists” making alliances with the gravediggers of the present residents promise nothing but one more carefully built trail over another cliff. “Working Class – This Way, Please.” When we need people to confront the land-use authorities that brought this mess down on us, we get people whose one political move is the Big Kiss Up.

Merced was a great place to farm and agriculture was acknowledged by local government to be the prime economic force in the county until the arrival of UC Merced. The campus stimulated a wild season of real estate speculation, a bubble that has now like a balloon filled with sewer water. UC Merced suggested a whole new, urban, high-tech, bio-tech future for the county, which immediately inflated the residential real estate values and deflated the importance of agriculture (if not ag land values). In one fell swoop, according to the One Voice of our leaders, Merced would transcend the problems of agriculture and become one more fantasy Silicon Valley, just like all the other fantasy Silicon Valleys scattered across the nation. It was lunacy but it sold houses at incredibly inflated prices for incredibly bad mortgages, which are now a part of a global credit crunch that is beginning to cause banks to fail. We are at the center of a massive fraud that everybody who is anybody from Merced County – from Washington to Wall Street to Bob Hart Square – was in on.

The foreclosure crisis is an opportunity for the public to reflect on the veracity, competence, and the intent of its political leaders. They show every sign of wanting to continue their mad urbanization of a rural, agricultural county still productive, relatively beautiful and healthy compared to worse excesses in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. Since the arrival of UC, their dream solution for poverty has been to squeeze out poor people with inflated real estate values. Too many ships that strategy raised a few years ago are sinking fast these days, having struck predatory financial mines. Local land-use authorities have in front of them the imperious, publicly funded, development greed of the University of California, the anchor tenant for growth down the entire east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The other end of the UC Merced Parkway is anchored by the proposed WalMart distribution center. The UC Community is planned to fill in some of the “blank space” (prime farmland) in between. Behind them, our elected officials have finance, insurance, real estate and large landholding interests. Is there any room for the citizens of Merced County today in their elected officials’ plans for their own tomorrows?

“Growth” here, which simply means more subdivisions, is anything but “inevitable.” It is the result of political deals that profit somebody at the cost of everybody’s future. We must escape the destructive drift of the economic predators and their political cronies. Banks, insurance companies, realtors and large landholders have never been the friends of rural America and they are not now, either. They should not own Merced County’s local land-use authorities. These authorities in the pockets of predators have caused economic havoc and despair in their own communities. The Valley once understood such elementary facts but its steady urbanization has reduced it to the idiocy accompanying mature corruption – the impenetrable mindset of the political class that believes its own propaganda. Former Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside, founder of the most cynical development propaganda organ in the Valley, the UC/Great Valley Center, showed this region the way 20 years ago, with Village 1, a deal between her city council and developers that cost the City of Modesto $40 million plus interest.

The test of government is its care of the least of us, not the richest and most powerful. The grand result of local governments’ land-use design in Merced County has been to grow slums full of strangers. In a particularly cruel twist, some of these slums are brand-new subdivisions in which too many people are going bankrupt to form anything like the roots of neighborhoods. A decade ago, there were more humane elected officials and – at least in retrospect – a coherent community. The main cultural difference is UC, whose commitment to rural California has always been the technology of agribusiness. Smaller farmers and lower-income townspeople need to get together, fast. Everyone who is not in on the deal needs to organize against the deal. But, this would require a willingness to confront a gang of experienced, corrupt politicos stoned on their own growth propaganda, spoon-fed them daily by their in-house hacks and flaks. They cannot afford to admit they have done anything wrong or made any mistakes.

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