Mendocino Talking: Jim Houle
by Dave Smith, May 6, 2015
Jim and friends were the local stalwarts of Iraq War protests, demonstrating every Friday from 5-6 pm in front of the courthouse on State Street in Ukiah. He was there the longest, from Fall of 2002 until 2012. In the last year it was often only Jim waving his sign acknowledging the honks and bearing the abuse from cars passing by. He always felt the war had only been justified by America's wish to dominate the Middle East and control its oil exports. There were no WMDs and there was no threat to our homeland. But after the destruction of water supplies sewage treatment plants, and the embargo on chlorine essential for clean water, the death toll had reached one million from cholera, spent uranium shells, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.
He has always involved himself in city and county affairs and you can often read his educated and well-thought-out opinions in letters to the editor in the AVA and Ukiah Daily Journal. He and his beloved Joan travel frequently to the Middle East and Asia, and recently visited Cuba. He chose Ukiah as a retirement home because of the beauty of its hills, the availability of land, and the opportunity to escape suburbia. He found the incredible variety and talents of people he has met, from professional musicians to Buddhist scholars, to be an added surprise.
I was born in White Plains, a city of 40 to 50,000, 23 miles north of New York City, a suburban town. My father was blue collar, a railroad conductor, and my mother was an insurance broker. I majored in math and music at White Plains High School. I wanted to be a concert pianist, but never had the requisite talent, even after some nine years of lessons. Instead I went to Purdue University on a scholarship and studied Chemical Engineering. I didn’t particularly like engineering and consequently took all the liberal arts and social sciences I could find. I was accepted at the University of Michigan graduate school of Political Science, but neither I nor my family, who had been impoverished putting three sons through college, had the money to pay for even more education and I couldn’t get a loan.
I drifted around, driving a taxi and trying to find my way. I had a number of Arab students in college as friends and had taken on the cause of the Palestinians. I became a member of the American Friends of the Middle East in New York. I ran into an executive from Mobil Oil one night who asked what I was going to do with myself now that I was a Chemical Engineer. He suggested I take a job in Saudi Arabia with the oil company and after two years take my savings and go back to grad school. He arranged a job with the Arabian-American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia where I spent 6 years learning more than I wanted to know about the oil business, touring every country in the Middle East and learning basic Arabic.
I came back to New York in the Fall of 1962 wondering what I was going to do next. I was already married and having children, so I worked a number of engineering jobs. In 1970 I moved to California and got a job with Bechtel Corporation and spent 16 years there doing all sorts of economic and planning projects in petrochemicals, oil and gas, and infrastructure development, all of it at foreign locations. I became Manager of International Planning for Bechtel and managed projects in Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Indonesia and Sudan. These were generally feasibility studies intended to prepare sufficient economic and technical designs to obtain international finance for construction. We would go into a country and figure out what they wanted to do, prepare a market forecast, decide what size of fertilizer plant, oil refinery or water supply system they needed to meet demands, decide where to put it, estimate what they would have to pay for the raw materials, whether they had the trained people to operate the facility. You just keep putting the pieces together, but the economics were always the core. I found myself doing more economic planning and dealing with local political officials than engineering design. We would produce a big, fat book demonstrating the project’s feasibility and submit this to the government, the World Bank and other financial agencies to raise the funds for construction.
Bechtel was good to me by leaving me alone. I worked for a couple of Vice Presidents who weren’t your typical corporate hacks: as long as I didn't screw up too badly on my projects they would protect me from most corporate tyranny. I was in good shape until they retired, and some of the more common executive hacks started demanding that I justify my work in third world countries. I had brought in many projects to Bechtel and didn’t feel I had to justify myself to people who had never been east of Long Island, so I just up and quit and started an engineering consulting company in San Francisco with a Chinese-American friend from Stanford. We did over 20 projects in China alone.
With offices in San Francisco and later in Oakland, our consulting firm kept us busy from 1987 through 2003. The US State Department, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and various foreign governments were our clients. In China, many of us could deal in Chinese languages which made us particularly useful. We prepared programs for environmental cleanup of chemical works, planned for the expansion of their petrochemicals sector, and designed their first export processing zone in Tianjin. By 2003 the Chinese were quite capable of doing a lot of the planning themselves and we decided to close up shop. I moved full time to Mendocino County, where I had been weekending since 1993 with 20 acres of land on Black Bart Trail in Redwood Valley and lots of privacy. We have toured many countries since that time including Uzbekistan and Kygyristan in Central Asia, Iran, Burma, Cambodia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Botswana.
During our recent visit to Cuba this May, we were shocked at the dire poverty. In the large town of Santa Clara, their buses are horse-drawn wagons with 8 places to sit. While at least they have motorized transport in Havana, their buildings are rapidly deteriorating without maintenance and the lack of local building materials. I blame the Castro brothers Raul and Fidel as much as I blame the US for this poverty. They have just beggared the country cutting everyone's salary so that the average person lives on 40 pesos a month — less than $35. While they get a free house or apartment, these are very shabby because nothing has been built in 50 years. They get a basic food allowance that is not enough for a family. Transportation, education, health care are all free. They have almost nothing with a large portion of the 40 pesos going for food. The US cut them off from trade with Europe except for Russia. The bulk of the county's income had come from sugar cane which the US bought at a price higher than world markets. When they lost that, they lost most of their revenue and could not even afford to buy oil. They also lost their income from the casinos. Cuba had never fully developed their agriculture and relied to a large extent upon foreign imports. The Castros have done little to improve agriculture, insisting that farmers sell all their produce to the State and get all their seed and fertilizers from the government as well. The Russians started buying their sugar and giving them discounted oil in return which worked until glasnost and perestroika in 1991, when Cuba lost even that. They had absolutely nothing.
I had worked in Russia and saw how poverty stricken they were after the collapse of the USSR. From 1993 to 1996 I made four trips over there for the World Bank. I had also worked three years in Marxist Algeria, and in China from 1985 on and saw how impoverished they were. While I had no bias against Marxist ideology, it suddenly dawned upon me after the Cuban experience that this system was really fucked. Their roads are in disrepair, the power system always near collapse, and infrastructure in general very weak. When the USSR was abandoned in 1991, Russia could no longer subsidize Cuba and buy their sugar. Venezuela has helped since that time but if anything economic conditions have gotten worse since the year 2000.
In local affairs, from what I can see at this moment, and I might be wrong, I don’t think the Costco project is going to fly. The City of Ukiah needs to come up with $6.2 million to build the road infrastructure. They haven’t got the money and their high level of indebtedness, which City Hall is not willing to publicly acknowledge, make it almost impossible to borrow the money for Costco's new driveway. They have $9 million to pay off on thirty year bonds for the old RDA — redevelopment program. That program was shut down in 2011 by Governor Brown. They can start paying back the principle in 2021 on these bonds , and in the meantime are paying an exorbitant 6.5% interest to the foreign bankers they stupidly contracted with back in 2011. Their pay back plan was based upon unrealistic expectations of economic growth that would increase tax revenues well above 2% per year: anything over that 2% growth rate could be used to pay back the bonds. The problem is, the City of Ukiah hasn’t grown economically. Population hasn’t grown, per capita income hasn’t grown. There is no new industry. They don’t have any money to pay back new loans. If you ask them where the cash flow is for this program they say they are going to make lots of money from the Costco sales tax. Walmart says they will suffer a 20% loss in sales when Costco opens. Well, what about Walmart coming back to build out their superstore, as our planning director predicts? As soon as you get the highway interchange fixed up, Walmart will be back demanding they be allowed to expand their Big Box. If this happens, the traffic plan will not be big enough for both stores.
Where are the new customers for Costco going to come from? They’re going to come from all the smaller and local stores that currently exist around here that sell food, clothing, gasoline, etc. So how much are the sales revenue and taxes going to be? The City Planners will never stick their neck out and say and they get away with that, on, and on, and on. I’ve stood up there at City Council meetings countless times but they pay no attention to me any more. I’ve had three members of this local government tell me privately that City Hall staffers purposely keep the City Council in the dark. If you puff up the City Council egos, you put them on a high dais and treat them with a certain amount of respect, they eventually become enamored with their position and don’t cause trouble.
I was on the Grand Jury three years ago and finally resigned towards the end because the report our subcommittee had drafted was going to be edited by the Foreman and her deputy who would chop out anything that might cause trouble. We were not allowed to even comment on their edits. I couldn’t do anything, so I resigned. My friends who stayed with it to the end said they whittled down all the sharp edges of every report, so they were bland and toothless. They have a recycle system for grand jury members. Two years on, take a year off, come back again, around and around. The Grand Jury is a wonderful institution, but is totally neutered. I wrote a letter of resignation to Judge Henderson and told him a few of my reasons and that I would like to sit down with him and explain. He never bothered to answer my letter. He had told me when I interviewed for the Grand Jury that I was most qualified and would be a welcome addition. Merely words.
The other day Editor K.C. Meadows wrote an editorial in the Ukiah Daily Journal wringing her hands over the City Council not being able to decide about hiring the new City Manager because they need it to be a unanimous choice: they don’t want the new manager to feel he or she doesn’t have 100% support. It’s time to get a fresh breeze into City Hall. I suspect they want to promote Sage Sangiacomo, the Assistant City Manager, but he’s part of the problem. He’s a master at withholding information from the elected officials and confusing them. We need somebody from outside because they may at least get something done during the year before he or she succumbs to the staff bureaucracy.
For the first four years of Obama’s presidency I wrote a monthly blog called Obama Watch. I knew a year before he got elected that he was an Uncle Tom as Ralph Nader had warned us. He had already started putting old Bushies back into treasury positions, and reassuring Wall Street that he wasn’t going to do anything to mess up their game. I had a little bit of hope at first, but I knew he was going to take a lot of watching. Today we can see that he’s not even running the place. A mixture of the CIA, JSOP — a part of the Defense Department, and the State Department have kept him informed of only what they feel he needs to know. He is not well informed and doesn’t want to be. He makes nicely crafted speeches, sheds his crocodile tears for the people he just blasted to eternity with his drones. There isn’t an ounce of feeling left in the man. He is also aware of how little he can do and probably remembers what happened to our last president who seriously tried to buck the system a bit.
In economics, I’m an avid reader of David Harvey, Professor at City College in New York. A very fine economist whose explanation of Capital and how it works is amazing. I can understand at least some of what he describes: We have a surplus of capital. Our big corporations have more money than they know what to do with. Every time this happens, it’s a troublemaker. They are running around trying to find investments that will give them a good return. They inflate the stock market but don’t want to invest in infrastructure — not profitable enough and too much red tape. They don’t want to invest in light manufacturing that would compete with the Mexicans and Chinese suppliers they are already invested in. So they look around and discover that the best return is war. They invest in Lockheed Martin, Boeing and all the others. Where is the market? Why its the Defense Department — that's who gets us into one war after another because we need to feed the corporate war materiel machine. When we run out of tax revenues for this, we just print a bit more and fall further and further into debt. Wars support the destruction of capital since the weapons and munitions have no use once the war is over. You can’t have war inventory sitting around. You have to blow it up or mothball it in the desert. You take your capital and blow it up. We are approaching the point where something has to happen. My estimate is that the US dollar will collapse because we are making money out of nothing.
We each require a myth of meaning. People say they don’t have one, but I find that to be a dodge. Even an atheist has a myth of meaning — it's that there is no meaning. I am particularly enamored by the Buddhist notion which has no supreme being, no Buddha in heaven. My own notion is what I call “The Great Mind”: That there is, as Carl Jung said, a mind that we all tap into that gives us information and points of view and to the degree we can tap into that, we are much smarter than we would appear to be. Carl Jung took that a little further than Emerson. I do believe there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. An eschatology as they call it. I find that notion particularly fascinating. In the past I sat on cushions at the SF Zen Center for twenty years and always enjoy reading Buddhist texts. I’ve been reading The Sixth Patriarch by Hsuan Hua, who started the Ten Thousand Buddhas school here in Talmage. His translation of the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is wonderful once you get in the mood for it and realize the author has a great sense of humor. Sometimes I just howl.