Thursday, January 17, 2013

Building GlennBeckistan, chapter 1

Well, I was going to tell you all a funny story about something that happened on the way to India in the '80s, but today's news that Glenn Beck is going to build a city in the wilderness for him and all his followers happens to touch on some things I actually know quite a bit about, that being what it takes to build a city in the wilderness. You see, my friends, I did that once, from 1982-1985, on about 100,000 acres of land in central Oregon. We called it Rajneeshpuram.

(When you Google it, you'll get all sorts of interesting things, especially if you use the Oregonian for a source. You should know that my experience of being there and in the middle of the whole thing didn't match what they report in many, many significant ways, and they got most of the details wrong, too. Such is life.)

Anyway, without going into the rights and wrongs of what we did there, let me just say having built a city, I know that it is not an easy nor a simple task. It took hundreds to thousands of dedicated people years to build the infrastructure and systems, and it will be no different for GB, if and when he does something other than create a Ponzi scheme. Let's take a look at what's ahead for ol' Glenn and for the Citadel, too, while we're at it.

First, building a city boils down to 2 main areas: infrastructure (the easy part) and governance (the hard part). Let's take a look at the easy one first, since that only takes shit-loads of money. The physical plant is basically six things: Electricity, sewage and garbage disposal, roads, fire department and water. For 3500-5000 people, you can manage well with a volunteer FD if someone buys the trucks and gear, but the rest is actually quite extensive. Let's take them in order:

Electrical: You need a good size substation for this place, and the power company will not bring one in for free. Nor will it run the lines to power the substation without a contract specifying just what you are going to need (plans, distribution network etc.) So you need someone to negotiate who has the power to make contracts and lawyers to make sure you aren't signing something you shouldn't (whoops, we're into governance already. Well, we'll get back to it.) A medium-sized substation in the 80's cost around $300,000 in direct costs (the actual transformers, etc, a subsidized amount based on the power we were contracting to buy from them), but the contract we signed was for $5.5 million over 10 years, for them to bring the juice in 2.5 miles from the nearest accessible hook-in point. Then another $150,000 to set up the substation and more when we were ready to have them hook it up to our own poles. We had to run good-size power lines to every significant location, so that was about 200 poles; a crew was still working on that when we shut down, 4 years later. And we had a minimum monthly bill, etc.

Sewer: we built our own sewage treatment lagoons, up to spec for the times; they are much pickier now and so more expensive. You need to plan ahead for this, as you don't want to either have to dig up the sewage lines nor expand the treatment plant until you absolutely have to. Every house will eventually need to be connected, so you need a master plan (governance again!) You'll need a landfill  and trucks to collect garbage, and your neighbors aren't going to accept your unsorted trash unless you want to pay them to sort it (free market, yes?) You need trash cans and compactors and lift stations for the sewage (there's always a low point in the system, and it can't be your lagoons or they will fill with rain water. So you need to pump the sludge UP to the treatment plant. Who wants to volunteer to clean the lift station every three months or so? And let all the women know that flushing tampons is a no-no. Ooops, a rule. Or, free market, make all tampons registered, so you will now who flushed it. I'd rather register my guns, thank you. I had to clean that thing a couple of times.) Anyway, this stuff costs real money, and your neighbors aren't taking your sewage either.

Next, roads: where they go (governance), and what they are made of (money). Try not to need blasting, as it is expensive to get good people and more expensive to fix the damage from the ignorant (not speaking from experience or anything,  nuh-uh not me.) Anyway, you need lots of roads and you need to keep them repaired. Graders, bulldozers, excavators, concrete for curbs and sidewalks (do you have sidewalks? Governance!), pavers, oil truck, diesel fuel trucks, more repair people, etc.

Last, but certainly not least, water:  A source of clean water, a treatment plant, and miles of big pipes, just to get to the street where you live. Do you need a water tower?

So by this time, I think I've made my point: it takes a lot of time and money to actually just build the infrastructure. And that, if you haven't noticed, is only to have it exists, not to bring it to your house, but just to have the basics in place so that you could hook up if you wanted to. How you get the services to your house/bungalow/apartment building is another thing entirely, as is the question of what you can build.

But the bigger questions are: Who pays for all this infrastructure, who owns it and how do they get repaid for their outlay? Who decides when the services are at capacity? Who decides how much sewerage you need for a 2 bedroom? We'll get to that next.


  1. i hadn't heard of Beckistan - and am stunned that even he could be that stupid. suppose i shouldn't be....

    but i'm fascinated by your tale. i have wanted to participate in Burning Man, at least partially to see how they build a temporary city from nothing, and then clear it out. even that isn't cheap...

    suspect that Beckistan will either (a) not happen, because he can't execute or (b) be funded by donors that are too ignorant to consider return on investment, or even realize that they are being taxed...

  2. I haven't gone to Burning Man yet. Maybe not ever, given that Joy has no interest in camping with 2500 of her closest friends in the desert for a week. But I read the recaps each year, look over the numbers and reports, try to see where they spent their money. Guess I'm just a management geek at heart.