South Dakota: Is Our Future Behind Us or In Front of Us?
Saturday, 23 October 2010 11:43
Written by Sam Hurst
"Rebuilding our infrastructure" is all the rage these days. From the White House comes the battle cry that economic recovery, jobs, community development, and national security are all tied to rebuilding America. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Heidepriem goes so far as to tag every political commercial with the promise to invest South Dakota's meager resources in schools, roads and bridges.
From the Tea-Party comes the oppsing chorus "We can't afford it." It is not clear in Tea Party sloganeering what happens if we do not invest in infrastructure.
For Democrats, infrastructure is a euphemism for "government stimulus spending" at a time when the general principle of a more activist government is anathema to conservatives and economic libertarians. For Democrats infrastructure is a way to talk about transformative "vision". There is no more terrifying word for Republicans than "vision". It conjures up new spending, and planning. Which conjures up socialism. Better potholes and a 19th century coal economy than a "vision", especially if it involves so-called alternative technologies. Tea Party Republicans, as a rule, hate alternatives of any kind. If the Founding Fathers didn't use silicon chips to generate electricity, then we don't need to.
For Republicans, "infrastructure" is a way for corporations to get rich off of government contracts while hiding behind the high-minded principle of the free market. Show me a wealthy Republican contractor who pounds his fist about the virtues of the free market, and I will show you a contractor who lives off federal infrastructure contracts. Infrastructure development, maintenance, and repair are the single most concrete (no pun intended) ways that social capital is transformed into private wealth.
Nowhere is the historical battle over this otherwise boring, wonkish,problem of infrastructure more dramatic than in a state like South Dakota. If it weren't for early 20th century infrastructure we would still be the Great Sioux Nation. But, locked as they are in the all-important bare-knuckle fight over speeding tickets, independence from Nancy Pelosi, and the personal debt anxiety of their children, Kristi Noem and Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin seem indifferent to the challenge of infrastructure.
Let Scott Heidepriem talk about infrastructure. After all, the state is virtually bankrupt, so Heidepriem arguing for a massive investment in infrastructure is like the Lakota demanding the Black Hills back. "Thank you very much for your interest...now go away."
Why can't Herseth-Sandlin and Noem have a principled, thoughtful debate about how to transform South Dakota's 19th century infrastructure into a 21st century model for the rest of the nation? Maybe it's because infrastructure leads directly to federal spending, and both congressional candidates prefer the hypocrisy of South Dakota's traditional antipathy to federal spending to an honest discussion of our history.
After the Civil War the federal government invested enormous resources in the opening of the West, and they used a tragic accounting trick to hide the debt incurred. Instead of printing money, or increasing taxes on New England shipping companies, or Pennsylvania farms, or Main Street Ohio taxpayers, to pay for the creation of states like South Dakota, the government gave away the public commons, and forever entrenched the wealth and power of railroad companies, mining syndicates, cattle speculators, and timber corporations. The opening of the West was the biggest transfer of wealth in the history of the nation.
Simply put, the federal government gave away the natural infrastructure of the West in the form of minerals, timber, land, soil and wildlife, and then heavily subsidized the creation of an artificial, unsustainable, civilized infrastructure. It was not easy. The Lakota, buffalo and elk, rivers that flooded each spring, and native grass prairies that didn't green up until June, were all part of the natural infrastructure that had to be destroyed to make way for the new. The federal government paid for it all.
At the heart of the South Dakota economy created at the end of the 19th century was free land to create a commercial farm system. The Homestead Act, and the immigration that followed, was based on the absurd premise that the agricultural scale of the east could be transplanted to the arid West. American taxpayers have been paying for the folly ever since.
Virtually all of the infrastructure developed during the early 20th century-schools, roads, bridges, pipelines, irrigation projects, big river dams and small pasture dams, even small town airports-was created by the federal government to service the small population of the state's unsustainable farm economy.
Hand in glove with the dysfunctional economic model, pioneers created a culture of romantic, "woe-is-me" entitlement, built on the premise that life is so hard, but so pure, on the Great Plains that urban taxpayers should subsidize it...forever, and without question.
Both Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin and Kristi Noem, are products of the narcissistic culture of South Dakota farming.
In a traditional Democrat versus Republican political campaign, in which the Republican preaches a sermon of fiscal austerity and reduced federal spending, it would be common sense for the Democrat to point out the hypocrisy of living off of environmentally destructive federal subsidies that promote distorted market incentives. Kristi Noem's farm, Racota Valley Ranch, has received three million dollars in federal subsidies over the last decade. She isn't a yeoman farmer. She's a welfare farmer. Her children don't owe $45,000 to the federal treasury because of wasteful federal spending, they owe the citizens of America far more for subsidizing their welfare lifestyle.
You would think she might, at some point, slow down her rant long enough to offer a proper "Thank you" to industrial workers in the east. Instead, Kristi Noem's advertising campaign oozes hypocrisy.
So why doesn't Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin expose it? Because Herseth-Sandlin is a beneficiary of the very same rigged system, and she is entrapped in the same culture of denial. Herseth-Sandlin cannot expose Kristi Noem without exposing her own hypocrisy. So she chooses instead to fight on the lofty grounds of Noem's history of high speed driving on country roads. Both candidates are tied, inextricably to a 19th century "vision" of what the state's infrastructure should look like.
Watch the political commercials of the candidates for Governor and Congress from both parties-all the candidates-and you will see a cliché-ridden, schmaltzy, sentimental ode to agrarian roots and the infrastructure that supported it.
Even as Scott Heidepriem criticizes Dennis Daugaard's fiscal policies in Pierre, he does it against a flyover backdrop of amber waves of grain. Daugaard and Herseth-Sandlin feature endless walks through the corn. Kristi Noem is forever standing next to her horse. What do these commercials mean to a computer software designer who moves her family to the I-29 corridor so she can be close to research centers in Sioux Falls and Brookings?
Let's be blunt. What do these commercials have to do with 21st century South Dakota?
South Dakota is at a crossroads. We have a choice. And neither congressional candidate is talking about it. Either we pout about our libertarian values, deny our own history, trumpet our austerity, and take whinning pot shots at the federal government, or we can engage the 21st century. Either we can invest in the repair of 19th century bridges to agricultural and ranching towns whose population peaked in 1910 and has been declining ever since, or we can invest in the foundation of a 21st century infrastructure that embraces the futur rather than the past.
Here's the choice; (1) Do nothing, and let the state's infrastructure, such as it is, crumble and decay. (2) Expand farm welfare, pour more gravel on more gravel roads, black top to the horizon, subsidize rural schools with declining enrollments, and dole out "emergency" payments "natural disasters" that are, in fact, absolutely normal, or (3) We can invest in wind and solar power generation and transmission, high speed rail lines from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, sustainable agriculture, and rigorous pre-school-12 education.
Either we can waste money on the manual labor economy of the 19th century, or invest in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
The hypocrisy of our situation is that South Dakotans seem bound and determined not to pay for any "vision". With our heads firmly buried in the gumbo, we seem dead set on forcing the federal government to support us, while we turn around and chortle at the top of our lungs that we are special, we are heroic, we are independent, we are real Americans.
Take a drive to the South Dakota-Minnesota border along I-90, or south on I-29 into Iowa. What do you see on the Iowa, Minnesota horizons? Wind mills. What do you see within our borders? Real 19th century Americans.
The beginning of the article discusses the following:
"For example, a study on the conversion of mangroves to commercial shrimp farms in southern Thailand estimated the net economic returns at $1,122 per hectare a year.
The conclusion, at least for the shrimp farmer, is clear - there is an economic benefit of converting the mangroves. But once the wider costs of the conversion - what economists call externalities - are taken into account, a very different conclusion is reached.
The economic benefits from the mangroves of collecting wood, providing nurseries for offshore fisheries and protection against storms total $10,821 a hectare, far outweighing the benefits of converting them into a shrimp farm."
It would be interesting to think about our prairies in a similar way. Is South Dakota's current agricultural system similar to the Thai shrimp farmer? Could wind energy and the restoration of the prairie environment be our mangroves?