Saturday, January 27, 2007

A tremendous failure (TimesSelect): Since I’ve already mentioned it, I unearthed Nicholas Kristof’s column about the failure of the development of the Great Plains, from September 2002. For those of you without TimesSelect access, I’m going to excerpt as much as I can and try to unearth the full text somewhere else for you. The lesson to take from this and from the story of Yubari, it seems to me, is that the government largesse that keeps Hokkaido, as well as the Great Plains, ticking is only an invitation for greater trouble later. It may be heartless, but someone has to say it: If you can innovate and make a future for yourself in small-town or rural Upper Midwest, go to it — but don’t ask me to pay for you to have the unsustainable life you have there now.

It’s time for us to acknowledge one of America’s greatest mistakes, a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lives and immeasurable heartbreak: the settlement of the Great Plains.

The plains, which have overtaken places like Appalachia to become by far the poorest part of the country, represent a monumental failure in American history. To understand more I came here to Loup County, officially the poorest county in the United States, with a per capita income of $6,600 (New York County, or Manhattan, is the nation’s richest, at $90,900).

In fairness, Loup doesn’t look poor, and it’s so rich in warmth, community spirit and old-fashioned friendliness that it’s just about impossible for a stranger to pay for a meal here. The tiny school, the only one in the county, has student lockers with no locks; and outside, students’ cars are not only unlocked, but the keys are left in the ignition.

[…]

This vast region in the middle of America, more than five times the size of California, now meets the 19th-century definition of frontier, with six or fewer people per square mile. Instead of the frontier closing, as Frederick Jackson Turner declared a century ago, it is expanding, and we may look back on large-scale settlement of the Plains as a fluke, a temporary domination now receding again.

The aridity of the Great Plains is partly to blame for the failed land development here, but fault also lies in the vapidity of American farm programs — which President Bush and Congress are now expanding. It was, after all, a web of subsidies and government land promotion schemes that lured people to the Great Plains in the first place.

President Bush signed a $180 billion farm bill this year, with the backing of many Democrats as well as Republicans, after a gutless surrender to lobbyists for wealthy farmers. But the program will actually aggravate rural distress.

Subsidies do nothing to help hard-working ranchers here, because the money overwhelmingly goes to crop farmers rather than livestock owners. Worse, much of the money goes to the most prosperous families (47 percent of commodity payments go to farmers whose household income is more than $135,000), who use the cash to buy up more land. Subsidies thus accelerate the consolidation of farms that is already depopulating rural areas.

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4 comments:

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Chris said...

"...but don’t ask me to pay for you to have the unsustainable life you have there now."

Amen. I would add a corollary of "And don't ask me to pay for you to live in an area highly prone to natural disaster." Meaning federal flood insurance for areas like New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and hurricane-prone Florida. The federal government should not be in the business of providing insurance for anything.

If you can't afford to own flood insurance on your own to live in a particular area, then you either don't live there or you roll the dice on never losing your home. If you want to live there, that's fine; but don't ask me, through my taxes, to pay for your new house when your old one is under water.

Particle and Parcel said...

Chris:

I'd like to separate, for a moment, the two issues that you've conflated here, at least with regard to New Orleans.

I agree with you that the federal government shouldn't be providing flood insurance. There's a reason no one else will insure high flood-, or fire-, or wind-risk homes.

But reconstruction in New Orleans is a separate matter. The flooding there was a failure of the Corps of Engineers, the federal government and the state government of Louisiana, and I think it's reasonable to pay for the reconstruction of some place destroyed through human error at a level people couldn't control.

That's where the libertarian logic breaks down, for me. If someone won't insure me, I have a choice. But if I'm insured, and I'm told everything is jim-dandy, and then the levee near my house collapses because it was built and maintained poorly, how is that my fault?

Chris said...

Wes, I wasn't referring to the current rebuilding of New Orleans, only that said rebuilding should not be conducted under the auspices of flood insurance provided by the federal government.

In other words, the item we agree on: moving forward, the government should get out of the insurance business. Should persons living in a high-risk location be unable to secure insurance, and their home is destroyed again, well, tough luck. In the case of New Orleans, no resident there can now claim they didn't think the levees wouldn't hold.

However, I would say a lot of the levee breakdown rests not on the federal government and the Corps of Engineers so much as with the state and local governments, and the levee boards. Millions of dollars have gone through the levee boards in and around the New Orleans metropolitian area over the past several decades, with very little of it ending up in the levees designed to protect the city. There is very little the Corps can do to strengthen the levees when the funds for the levees are being pocketed by corrupt officials.

The problem I see moving forward is that federally-provided flood insurance aside, the same corrupt and incompetent officials are still in place. They haven't paid the price for their corruption and/or incompetence. As a matter of fact, those who were elected by the populace have been put back in to power by that same populace, which has either been bamboozled, is stupid, or doesn't care, which means when they are victimized yet again, it will then partially be their fault.