William Dunbar: Merced to Portfoolio -- Cork it

December 18, 2010 

Wiliam Dunbar columnist

By now you've heard all about Portfoolio.com's list of the most- and least-brainy metropolitan areas in America. Merced was ranked at the bottom. In other words, dumbest.

Local outcry followed. Angry words, denunciations, insults about Portfoolio's lack of gravitas, its troubles staying afloat, etc. Many criticized Portfoolio's reasoning and claimed there was some kind of anti-Valley bias behind the statistics, noting that several Valley cities (Visalia, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield, etc.) were clustered near the bottom of the list. Others here at the Sun-Star have written about Portfoolio's lack of credibility.

What's that? You say I'm spelling Portfoolio wrong? Well, what do you expect from someone who attends a university in America's least-brainy city.

I just can't let this pass. Start with the fact that Portfoolio had to really reach to include Merced -- a city of about 80,000 -- on its list of metropolitan statistical areas (which usually has just cities of 200,000 and more). Aside from the fact that such a stretch can wildly skew economic statistics, it is true that a lot of folks around here aren't well off. But despite the economic downturn and the housing collapse, we eat well, work hard and even find time to enjoy ourselves. And since Portfoolio had to stretch well past city limits to be able to include Merced on this list, we can look around a little to defend ourselves.

Merced County has a state-of-the-art poultry processor, the nation's foremost winery and one of the biggest cheese producers in the world. Anyone who argues it doesn't take some kind of smarts to be that successful is, well, not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

Like many Valley towns (all similarly smeared by Portfoolio), we help feed the nation. Being the fifth-largest producer of ag goods in California, Merced County produces 110 agricultural products. All that bounty didn't just fall off the tomato truck.

I found the negative image Portfoolio paints of Merced at odds with my experience living here. While we are certainly in a slump, I truly believe our future is bright. Stellar even.

The UC campus is attracting so many bright people. They will bring noble dreams, fantastic ideas and, quite possibly, greater earnings -- Portfoolio's lone indicator of value -- to many Valley communities.

For instance, three UC Merced alumni are starting a company here called SunTherm Energy, which will provide solar technology and services to Valley companies and jobs to residents.

UC Merced natural sciences professor Mike Cleary is using fruit flies known as Drosophila in his cutting-edge work in cancer biology.

As a matter of fact, a publication released by the UC Merced Office of Research showcases more than 50 discoveries and breakthroughs made by our world-class faculty.

Like the students at UC Merced, the city of Merced is looking toward to the future, its arms outstretched toward the goal of improving the lives and increasing the opportunities (not just the incomes) of residents.

Though the recession has hit us hard, we shouldn't be overly concerned when someone points at us, flat on our backs, and laughs. We'll get up. We'll be OK.

Basically, Portfoolio is like the schoolyard bully who called you names after you fell -- or were pushed -- playing a game. We knew what to do about the bully then, and we can do the same about such name-calling now. Ignore it. Portfoolio, with its five staffers and tenuous business plan, probably will go away.

In the meantime, I have some advice for the folks at Portfoolio.com -- be very, very careful about what you eat this holiday season. Do you really want to roast a turkey raised by a bunch of dummies?

Surely you don't trust all those government reports that say poultry processed in Merced County meets the highest standards in the industry?

Maybe what makes us so dumb is in the dirt, the same dirt in which so many of your vegetables, nuts and even the cotton in your khakis is raised. It might rub off.

Do you even trust us to get a cork into a bottle of wine? After reading your list, I think you already know how to get the cork out.

William Dunbar is an economics major and Regent's Scholar at UC Merced.

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