Modesto gadfly Emerson Drake’s gifts for political theater were never more apparent than when he presented a bill for $68,461 to Jim DeMartini at the June 13 meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. Drake was protesting using tax dollars to pay for security when the Republican Central Committee (DeMartini is committee chairman) sponsored a fundraiser featuring Ann Coulter.
Lost in the whirlwind of debate and controversy over the exorbitant bill was the bigger story of a local Republican establishment that has reaped untold millions at the expense of Valley citizens, not just recently, but during a decades-long banquet at the public trough.
One of many ironies attending Coulter’s visit was her $25,000 fee for an event which sold tables for as much as $10,000. Just prior to Coulter’s appearance, employees at Livington’s Foster Farms plant staged public protests about the plant’s low wages. Long-time employees said wages could range from $9.50 to $12 an hour. In other words, Coulter made more for a couple of hours of rant and invective than some of our hardest-working Valley citizens make in a year—just business as usual here in the Valley of the Poor.
The low wages are just one element of “Reaganomics,” the anti-tax and anti-government program that animated Republican politics almost forty years ago and has provided justification for wealth inequality ever since. Apologists for the tricked-out version of “trickle-down” economics that brought on the historic Great Depression and our most recent Great Recession include Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristen Olsen. Yet another hard-right Republican, Olsen is best known for her stands against raising the minimum wage and applying prevailing wage figures for construction workers.
In fact, every Stanislaus County Supervisor is a Trump Republican. Three are farmers (Supervisor Terry Withrow also has an accounting business) and two are professional politicians (Olsen and Dick Monteith). None disavowed the ugly slurs and race-baiting tactics of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, and both Monteith and DeMartini offered proud public support. Supervisor Withrow attended the inauguration, where he was featured on the front page of the Modesto Bee with a huge grin.
Ann Coulter’s appearance was the victory strut of a “Let them eat cake” conservative oligarchy which dominated the San Joaquin Valley long before Trump bamboozled his middle class supporters into thinking he offered an alternative to business as usual in corporate America. And it is Reaganomics which has been the single greatest driver of Valley poverty and despair. Just as they profit from low wages, Valley businessmen, especially farmers, profit from myriad other government policies, few of which ever receive public notice.
Though they scream loudly about “government handouts” (but not about corporate welfare), many Valley farmers routinely benefit from government subsidies to the tune of billions of dollars. From 1995 to 2014, Stanislaus and Merced Counties alone received almost half a billion dollars in farm subsidies. Farther south, Fresno and Kern Counties received well over a billion U.S. dollars, all courtesy of American taxpayers. Overall, California farmers received well over seven billion dollars in commodity subsidies during the same period.
Roughly coinciding with the almond boom, the period from 1995 to 2014 also featured burgeoning farm production throughout the San Joaquin Valley, with ever-increasing record crops into 2015-16, even during the worst drought in memory. If trickle-down economics really worked as its advocates argue, ag profits throughout the Valley would have filtered down throughout the population and into the hands of workers like those at Foster Farms. Instead, we’ve seen poverty and homelessness increase and economic stress burden ever more members of the middle class.
Those who argued that tax reductions at the very top would provide jobs and prosperity for all have been proven wrong again and again, especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, where agriculture is the single biggest economic engine. In yet another little-known tax dodge, farmers have even managed to avoid paying state sales tax on farm equipment.
In addition to rock-bottom labor costs (often in the form of illegals), federal subsidies, and exemptions from sales tax on farm equipment, many farmers don’t even pay for their single most necessary cost of doing business, a necessity that also happens to be a resource owned by the public. Yes, some Valley farmers pay for their water, but many do not, especially when considering costs of the delivery system of canals, aqueducts, and pumps, particularly those funded by the State Water Project.
Farmers in the Modesto Irrigation District have long been subsidized by the district’s urban electric rate payers, and the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) is notorious for rates so far below the cost of delivery as to invoke derision and disbelief. The latest published rate for OID farmers was $4 an acre-foot, far below cost of delivery, operation, and maintenance costs. The costs are subsidized by selling water to unsustainable farming operations far south of OID’s district boundaries.
None of this means farmers aren’t good people. In fact, many farmers are among our most generous donors to community charities, including the Salvation Army, Modesto Gospel Mission, Catholic Charities, and a host of other benefactors of the poor and needy. But we can conclude that despite their generosity and good will, farmers, like other businessmen, have not delivered what Reaganomics promised: Prosperity for all from a rising tide for all boats.
Throughout the Valley, our streets and parks are full of people experiencing homelessness, many of them seriously mentally ill. According to the United Way, almost forty percent of Stanislaus County residents don’t have enough income to meet basic needs, and these numbers are similar for the Valley as a whole, the primary reason we’re known as the “Valley of the Poor.”
So why are the Valley’s Republican farmers strutting triumphantly after Trump’s win? The answer is simple: Trickle-down economics, especially the tax breaks, subsidies, wage suppression, and unfettered exploitation of public resources has made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. They’ve not only achieved economic supremacy, their wealth has translated into political dominance of the entire San Joaquin Valley, a cornucopia of bounty for the favored few.
But most of all, too many of the wealthy among us have come to believe their riches are the result of an earned superiority over others. Traditional conservative values like hard work, self-reliance, and initiative have always been part of America’s moral foundation, but today too many people believe poverty is evidence those values are lacking. That’s not the case at all.
In fact, today’s cruel wealth inequality is due far more to government policy than to other factors. The long and steep decline in earnings and wealth for America’s middle class isn’t because Americans don’t work hard. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans work more and harder than people in every European nation. They even work harder than the Japanese. No, the American middle class hasn’t been devastated by a decline in values, it’s been eviscerated by cruel economic policies driven by anti-government and anti-tax hysteria whipped up by a powerful propaganda campaign.
Next: The biggest tax dodge of all, and more