Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rainmaker on the Flood Plain

Sometimes he's hitching a ride in a freezer or appears as a mist
He's also been known to introduce himself as a scientist
He could be the retarded son of an old woman with
Seven fingers on each hand
'cos I know I reckon, he will come when he's beckoned for

Rainmaker's coming
Rainmaker's coming
Rainmaker's coming to soak us with water
To soak us with water
--Rainmaker, Sparklehorse

Rainmakers were big after the Civil War. The “Great American Desert,” east of the Rockies was renamed the “Great Plains” and the states of Kansas, Okalahoma, Nebraska, etc. were filling rapidly. The slogan “rain follows the plow” seems to have originated amongst climatologists, but it was rapidly employed by the railroads, who owned vast tracts of land on the Plains and who also stood to benefit from any trade generated by farm communities that were established.

Of course rains doesn’t follow the plow, and the Plains region is subject to periodic droughts. Eventually farmers tapped into the Ogallala Aquifer, and that’ll do them for another few decades, until a geological age’s worth of water is used up. Then we’ll be back to the situation those first farmers found themselves in, though presumably with a lot more tech.

The late 19th Century rainmakers tended to use cannons a lot. That fed into the lingering belief that cannons caused rain; it certainly must have seemed like that to Union soldiers who’d never seen Deep South weather before. And if the rainmaker got lucky, some rain did come during his brief tenure in whatever small town had hired him. Then he looked like a hero, or maybe even a god.

But I started this dance and a storm kicked up
The sky went black from coast to coast
It was too late to stop - it was too late to pray
I had summoned down the Holy Ghost
Oh the searing wind and the clouds of dust
And hell came raining down
What came out of me and the powers that be
Was the last of that one horse town
--Rainmaker, Kansas

There were, of course, stories of rainmakers who’d been too successful, and sometimes floods do occur out on the Great Plains. But the term “Rainmaker” has come to mean the Guy With the Mojo, the one who brings business into the consultancy, the law firm, or the accountancy. In other words, the guy who does the Marketing.

The story goes that Orville Redenbacher’s first attempts to sell his new hybrid popcorn were not successful. It was called RedBow, after Redenbacher and his partner, Charlie Bowman, and it was more expensive than regular popcorn. An advertising/marketing consulting firm suggested that Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popcorn was a much better name, and the rest is history.

Redenbacher supposedly once said, “My mother gave me the name 50 years ago, and she didn’t charge me $13,000 for it.” Yeah, but neither did she give him the wit to use it, either, though he apparently knew a good idea when he heard it. Or maybe Charlie Bowman did.

Rainmaker, rainmaker
The sky is gray just by the touch of your hand
Rainmaker, rainmaker
Make me some rain, make all my crops grow tall
--Rainmaker, Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

It does occur to me to wonder, though, what good is a rainmaker without farmers and a drought? In California, an unseasonable rain can ruin some crops. A rainmaker in the upper Amazon is just silly, worse than useless really.

There is that tendency to focus on the Star and not the surrounding planetary nebula. Well, sure, the Star is singular and there are so many lesser bodies surrounding it. But what happens if the town has two or three rainmakers? How about a dozen? At some point you hit diminishing returns. At some later point, it becomes actively dangerous.

When we listen to the Rainmaker story
Then we listen to a song that never ends
When we listen to the Rainmaker story
We're in the end only points on a scale for the Rainmaker
--Rainmaker, Vanden Plas, (Lill/Kuntz)

There’s a river named Stones River that runs near Donelson, where I grew up. Farther upstream, near Murfreesboro, it was site to one of the great battles of the Civil War (though I sometimes wonder if there were any minor battles to that war, at least to hear the locals hear about it). Between Stones River National Battlefield and Donelson sits Percy Priest Lake, created by Percy Priest Dam. The dam was one of the last hurrahs of the Army Corps of Engineers and the TVA, with an awful lot of the “benefit” in the cost/benefit ratio being “recreation.” Well, I do know guys who take their boats out on it a lot.

The flood plain for Stones River in Donelson is very obvious when you’re driving out Lebanon Rd. (Pike on the maps, but we always said “road”) toward Hermitage. A few years after the dam went up, construction began on a lot of houses, condos, and a country club in the flood plain. I imagine it’s safe enough; modern dams rarely break or overflow. Right?

I wonder what it's like to be the Rainmaker
I wonder what it's like to know that I make the rain
I'd store it in boxes with little yellow tags on everyone
And you can come see them when I'm... done, when I'm done
--Rainmaker, Matchbox 20

As I said, these days the Rainmaker is the marketing guy, or the star with the reputation that brings in the business. I’ve seen that up close and personal in the consulting biz, and it’s rarely the Rainmaker who winds up doing the work. Usually, that falls to the new-kids-just-out-of-school, because they’re cheap, so you load the contract up with their hours in order to be low bid. So the Rainmaker turns into just the Front, the public face of the firm, while the twenty and early thirty-somethings put in the all-nighters. Sometimes it works, and you get some real talent just out of school. Sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, because the study is going to get buried anyway. Sometimes the study is meant to fail; and boy, do they get pissed if it comes out with some real results.

More generally, what does it say about an economy that depends on marketing, the way agriculture depends on rain? I never believed John Kenneth Galbraith when he claimed that “demand” in the American economy was mostly artifice, with advertising and marketing being able to create consumption where none would naturally exist. I mean, you know, New Coke.

But a few examples of spectacular failures don’t invalidate the hypothesis as such. When all the social pressures are to live in the right place, drive an impressive vehicle, give the gifts, buy the toys, chase after that inevitable brass ring, it’s worth re-examining the question every now and then. It’s always worth wondering when the aquifer is going to run dry.

Me, I seem to have a talent for cool titles; whether or not what follows lives up to the advance billing is always in doubt.

You tell me we can start the rain. You tell me that we all can change
You tell me we can find something to wash the tears away. You tell me we can start the rain
You tell me that we all can change. You tell me we can find something to wash the tears.
--Rainmaker, Iron Maiden

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