12 Jun 2017

Bureaucrats' quixotic attempts to "rescue" California

DH sent me this article on California's quest for "affordable" drinking water. Its short overview of bureaucrats' attempts to "make water affordable" is painful to read, as they seem to think that prices should be low enough that nobody spends more than 2.5% of their income on water. Besides the obvious issue (many poor people spend far more on mobile phones or cable TV), this effort misses the obvious fact that the price of water should reflect its full cost and that the best way to help poor people is by giving them money, not cheap water.

That was all I was going to say about that article until Dr Rocket (coming soon!) pointed out our "Quixotic quest" to bring sense to California water policy.

But I think that observation is backwards. Just read this bit from Cervantes:
Just then they saw some large water-mills in the middle of the river, and as soon as don Quixote saw them, he shouted to Sancho: “Don’t you see over there, my friend, a city, castle, or fort where there must be some oppressed knight or some queen or wronged princess, for whose assistance I’ve been summoned?”

“What the devil kind of city, fort, or castle are you talking about, seƱor?” said Sancho. “Can’t you see that they’re water-mills in the river, where flour is milled?”

“Hush, Sancho,” said don Quixote, “although they appear to be water-mills, they are not, and I’ve told you that enchantments change things from their natural state. I don’t mean that the enchanters really change the form of things, but rather it just looks that way, as experience has shown in the transformation of Dulcinea, the sole refuge of my hope.”

At this point the boat, having gone into the middle of the river’s current, began to travel not as slowly as it had to that point. Many millers in the water-mills who saw the boat coming toward them down the river, realized that it was going to enter into the millrace leading to the waterwheels, jumped out with long sticks to prevent it, and since their faces and clothing were covered with flour, they were a menacing sight. They shouted loudly saying: “You devils! Where are you going? Are you depressed and want to kill yourselves and be crushed to pieces by these water wheels?”

“Didn’t I tell you, Sancho,” said don Quixote, “that we have come to a place where I must show the strength of my arm? Look at how those brigands and rogues have come to attack us. Look how many monsters are against me. Look at the ugly grimaces they’re making at us. Well, now you’ll see, you scoundrels!”

He stood up in the boat and with a very loud voice began to threaten the millers, saying: “Evil and ill-advised rabble, set the oppressed person free that you’re keeping in this fort or prison, whether he be noble or plebeian, of whatever condition or station in life. I’m don Quixote de La Mancha, also called the Knight of the Lions, for whom the happy conclusion of this adventure is reserved.”

And saying this, he clapped his hand on his sword and began to brandish it in the air toward the millers, who, hearing, but not understanding his foolish banter, tended to the business of stopping the boat, which was going into the torrent of the channel leading to the mill-wheels, with their poles. Sancho got on his knees and was praying devoutly to heaven to free him from such imminent danger. The millers, with great skill and speed pushed against the boat with their poles and stopped it, but not without turning it over and causing don Quixote and Sancho to be thrown overboard into the water. It came out all right for don Quixote, who knew how to swim like a gander, although the weight of the armor he was wearing took him to the bottom twice, and if it weren’t for the millers, who plunged in after them and took them out as dead weight, it would have been another Troy for the two of them.

When they were on shore, more drenched than dying of thirst, Sancho, once again on his knees and his hands joined in prayer, asked God, through a long and devout supplication, to free him starting right then from the daring plans and assaults of his master. At this point the fisherman, owners of the boat that the water wheels had smashed to bits, arrived, and when they saw it in pieces, they attacked Sancho so they could strip him, and demand payment from don Quixote, who, with great calmness, as if nothing had happened to him, told the millers and fisherman that he would pay for the boat very willingly, provided that they set the person or persons who were languishing in that castle free and uninjured.

“What person or castle are you talking about,” replied one of the millers, “you crazy man? Do you want to carry off the people who bring wheat to grind in these mills?”

“That’s enough,” said don Quixote to himself. “It would be like preaching in the wilderness to persuade this rabble to do anything good. In this adventure there must have been two fierce enchanters—one of them prevents what the other attempts. One of them presented me with the boat and the other threw me overboard. May God provide the remedy, for the world is filled with plots and tricks, all contrary to each other. I can’t do any more.”

And raising his voice, he proceeded, looking toward the mills: “Friends, whoever you may be who remain locked up in that prison, pardon me, for by my misfortune and yours, I cannot remove you from your afflictions. This adventure is doubtless reserved for some other knight.”

After he said this, the fishermen and he came to an agreement on the price, and don Quixote paid 50 reales for the boat, which Sancho disbursed much against his will, saying: “Two more boat trips like this one, and all our wealth will have sunk to the bottom.”

The fisherman and millers were amazed, seeing those two figures, so uncommon and different from other men. They never did understand where don Quixote’s words and questions were leading, and considering the two of them to be crazy, they left them; the millers went back to their mills and the fishermen to their huts. Don Quixote and Sancho returned to their animals, and this was the end of the adventure of the enchanted boat.
Bottom Line: Water bureaucrats -- like Don Quixote -- are fighting imaginary dragons (water mills) with their ridiculous solutions distractions while normal folks -- like Sancho Panza -- wonder how the hell they got such crazy ideas.* One day perhaps they will realize that the problem is not water affordability but water that is too cheap (leading to over-use and system decay) and poor people that are too poor.

* Yes, I know that politicians like to promise stuff they can't deliver (or that shouldn't be delivered), but bureaucrats are supposed to step that BS and keep things working.

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