Thursday, February 28, 2008

What cost North Dakota, Mr. Editor?

Even here in the northern reaches of Margaritaville, the incessant whining from North Dakota has broken through a pause in Jimmy Buffet tunz, prompting me to write, although I am sure by doing so I risk a visitation from a flotilla of well tanned hayseed hitmen (undoubtedly RVing home for spring planting after a relaxing, sun drenched winter in Florida) or, worse, that Truth Squad you've launched to spread the good new about your state ("North Dakota: Not As Bad as You've Heard," perhaps?).

As I understand it, North Dakota is in an uproar concerning the editorial slant of an article in National Geographic magazine, which focused on the net out-flow of your most precious commodity--your children. First of all, know that I am a distant ancestral cousin of yours, familiar with both the plaint and the plight of North Dakota families because I grew up on the high plains of Texas, in Lubbock, where cotton is King and kids also go off to school and never come back. Growing up I never thought I'd live anywhere else but Lubbock; then, I joined the military and quickly swore I'd live anywhere else but sad ol', dusty, Lubbock for the rest of my life. Spurred in my flight by Mac Davis' tune, "Happiness is Lubbock in your Rearview Mirror," I know how your young people feel because I've felt their frostbite, to paraphrase a former president of the United States. (The plight of the plains reminds me of that old WWI song, "How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm Once They've Seen Gay Paree?")

After my wife --another Lubbockite--and I escaped the high plains, we lived around this big ol', glorious, technocolored world, boating with the Navy, our happiness weighed down only by decades of impassioned entreaties from our parents begging us to come back to the dusty plains to live; to farm; to suffer through bleak, desolate winters; to spend sleepless nights moving and setting irrigation pipe in the fields; to suffer the bite of the northern hawk on treeless vistas; to endure blinding dust storms and terrible allergies; to worry through withering droughts in cloudless summers; to suffer the oppressive and small-minded political and religious atmosphere; to raise children in that same stifling and, at times, backward terrarium we escaped all those decades ago. We resisted our parents' pleas for nearly 30 years and, now that their leaf has blown from the cotton stem, I am quite happy to report that we will likely never see the high plains again, except perhaps between beverage services through our window from first class. (Q: What to you call a family reunion in Lubbock? A: a funeral. Feel free to substitute Bismark for Lubbock, it probably works.) But that is a personal tale. Here is my real question for you, Mr. Editor, and the reason I write.

What cost North Dakota to the rest of the nation? What do the rest of us pay for you to enjoy you splendid isolation and cherished unbroken vistas?

In John Sperling's book, The Great Divide, Retro vs. Metro America, he demonstrates that during the decade 1991-2001 North Dakota was a net federal welfare state (federal inputs from all sources less federal taxes paid) to the tune of $21.9 billion dollars. That is an average $102,216 federal subsidy per North Dakota family of 3 over that decade (yeah, we suspect where it all went too; you folks need to look into what happened to that money we sent you). Further, nationwide the agriculture industry represents just 0.8% of US gross domestic product, employing just 3.2% of the nation's labor force, yet receives $20 billion dollars per year in federal subsidies; an average of $3,775 per worker.

So instead of carping about a magazine article, it is time North Dakota residents imagine how empty North Dakota would be if it had to stand on it's own two financial feet in this government, pull their own weight in the Union, and then perhaps you'd make more of an effort to be thankful for the sons and daughters of North Dakota who've left your welfare state to join the net productive parts of our nation, ensuring our continued financial support of your North Dakotan dream. Maybe thinking of it as an arranged marriage would ease your pain. You're not losing a daughter but ensuring your meal ticket on the free lunch express.

Sure, North Dakota produces some things that the other parts of the nation need--as do many other parts of the world, all items we can--and do--screw a spigot into the side of your state and drain off without too much expense or trouble to ourselves--wheat, oil, electricity, coal, your children. Cut us off, and we'll just buy wheat from Canada or New Zealand. Coal? It's everywhere. Talented kids? "Hello, Bangalore!" they're everywhere. So tell me again, why do US taxpayers pay so many people to live in North Dakota at all? Isn't the nation paying too much for what North Dakota provides? Will North Dakota ever pull it's own weight in the federal tax system? History is not on your side.

The relentless march of progress is also against your state, sir. I have read that, with modern GPS navigation and computer technology, a couple of teenagers on a combine can now harvest five thousand acres of wheat! Imagine that. But in the future I foresee a fleet of computer-controlled combines monitored from consoles in Bangalore, India, likely doing the same work via satellite control for pennies an acre. On-site manpower will only be needed in North Dakota for fueling, maintaining and highway transportation of the Chinese-made equipment from field to field, work undoubtedly supplied by itinerant drivers in the US on work visas from south of the border. We could probably robotize the over-the-road transport too, if you'd get your pickups out of the way. In the future, what need will the nation have of a sizable permanent population in North Dakota? A capital of North Dakota at all?

Same goes for your oil and other extractive industries. A few hundred roughnecks a year will pass through your oil patch instead of trekking to Canada or Alaska, sinking pipe and setting up the computer controlled pumping stations to get the product to the places where the nation's work is done. Don't need many people to watch the dials as that black gold flows toward the coast. But isn't that the inevitable end result of the relentless march of progress and most likely future North Dakotans are raising and educating their children to return to? Is that really what you want for your children? Even in this newspaper there is evidence of your state's decline as well-paying, high tech jobs are--apparently--not enough to lure talented, educated and thinking people to the frozen back of beyond, since those jobs go begging week after week. Yet you Northern Dakotans cling like the South to your own Lost Cause.

So what is the upshot?

I tend to think about North Dakota, when I think of it at all--indeed when I think of any of the plains states (all of your neighboring states are, by the way, net federal welfare states as well)--the same way I think about the National Park system. I pay a lot in taxes for those parks, but I seldom if ever visit them. Yet I don't begrudge them their keep, and I do find some comfort and pleasure in just knowing that they exist--like I enjoy knowing that the last herd of buffalo or pack of gray wolves or band of Lakotas exists--even though I'll probably never see them outside the pages of National Geographic. So it is with North Dakota and the rest of the cultural desert we call the fly-over states--they're nothing more to me than a still life of a world that maybe used to be, a tableau of the myth of the family farmer, at best a fading Polaroid reminding us how far we children of the plains have come. So, as a child of the plains, I can tell you that we're not going back and we're not coming back either.

So, good on you for choosing to live in North Dakota, for proving your mettle and stamina against the frigid elements, and for living the rugged, and isolated lives you've chosen to live. Just don't expect the rest of the nation, those of us who pay for your way of life in part or in whole, to get too wound up about your state's out-migration problems. The more who leave North Dakota and the sooner they do it, the better for the positive GDP producing parts of the nation. But in the meantime, just keep those commodities coming--both kid and wheat--and we'll help with a handout when we can.


Rick Kennerly
Virginia Beach, VA