Arnold Kling  

Prairie Population Problems

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Both Michael Lind and Ronald Bailey note a population decline in the old prairie states. However, they come to opposite conclusions.
Lind wrote,


Imagine a federal program that would help poor and working-class Americans to move not from crowded cities to suburbs in the same general area but from crowded states to low-density states where homes are cheaper and the general cost of living is lower.

Bailey says that prairie farmers are too subsidized as it is.

My first instinct is that "he who lives by the subsidy should die by its withdrawal." Cut the subsidies and let farmers either learn to succeed at farming without them or go into some other line of work. But given the number of U.S. senators from the Plains states, that is a political nonstarter.

So how about some "reverse homesteading"? Instead of encouraging people to settle and work the land, pay them to leave it voluntarily. This could work in a variety of ways. The feds could outright buy the farms and put them back into the public domain.


For Discussion. From a public policy perspective, what exactly is the problem of declining population in these areas?


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Eric Krieg writes:

MORE land in the public domain?!?

Isn't it bad enough that the feds own so much of the West? Now they need to buy up the Plaines?

I have two words for you people: "Wind Farms". There will be a point where the cost of generating electricity with wind turbines is competitive with natural gas (without subsidy). At that point, land on the windy plaines will be a little bit more valuable.

Newt writes:

More land in the public domain is exactly what we need in the plains states. We will save billions in subsidies.

And remember that the American Serengetti wasn't ANWR, it was Nebraska. One hundred million multi-ton buffalo lived on the open plains. Birds and springs and oases all across a free landscape of rolling hills as far as the eye can see and the spirit can imagine.

And we're deesperately short of public domain land in the USA as it is. What untrammeled land we have is in great and growing demand. Buffalo (antelope, cougar, &c) safari with the chance to see or shoot a magnificent wild creature is an experience we have paid dearly to destroy.

Reverse the enclosures and the subsidies that keep them running.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

I have suggested a Agricultural Reserve before in previous works. Purchase of all lands within a quarter-mile of a River system, to be planted to Praire grass and woodland, would cut Agricultural run-off polution by two-thirds. Wildlife would increase by thirty percent with the increased habitat, and recreational area would be provided by a system of flow dams and River dregging. The final benefit would be to pressure increase of Agricultural prices by around an estimated 8-12%, with Wholesale middlemen finding it hard to pass on such Price increases.

I happen to have grown up in Nebraska, and live in New Mexico. Such practice would increase Clean Water by twenty percent, and serve as a natural cleaning system for Brown Water. lgl

Bernard Yomtov writes:

One problem is the US Senate. As population declines in these states ever smaller number of people command as much influence in the Senate as the residents of California. Is this wise?

Yes. I know it's in the Constitution, but that doesn't mean we have to suspend all critical judgment.

Might we reach a point where the disparities in the population/represenation ratio in the Senate becomes intolerable, especially if the geography of current partisan divisions doesn't change?

Newt writes:

The geographical distribution of senate seats will not change. There is a specific line in the Constitution prohibiting amendments that change the structure of the Senate. Any other type of amendment is allowed except that particular one.

Eric Krieg writes:

I think that you are making too much of the senate thing. There aren't a majority of senators from farm states. If the rest of the country had the will to end farm subsidies, it could be done.

But almost every state has a farming component. Even though Illinois is mostly Chicago and its suburbs (population wise), farmers are very powerful here. It would be in the interests of Chicago to end things like farm subsidies and ethanol, but the rest of Illinois ensured that that will never be the point of view of our two senators.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Newt,

Thanks. I didn't know that. On checking, I find that it specifically says no state can be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent.

Even without that provision I suspect it would be close to impossible to change the two-per-state rule. Still, that doesn't mean there might not be increasing friction over this issue. One solution, also not easy, would be to split some of the larger states in two, effectively doubling their representation. Another possibility is some sort of very nasty fight that essentially forces the smaller states to accede to a change.

Still, I think that if the sort of population trends Arnold talks about continue, this could be a problem. I'm not sure exactly what the definition of "Plains States" is, but if we start having a number of states with population under, say, half a million (Wyoming is already there) in a country with 300 million total population, there will be political friction.

"I suspect it would be close to impossible to change the two-per-state rule. Still, that doesn't mean there might not be increasing friction over this issue."

I remember reading that most of the Prairie States are net takers ie, they're subsidized by the rest of the country. The Nort-East is a net giver, in a big way eg, NJ gets back only 62 cents from the Feds for every dollar it contributes. I suspect the two-Senators-per-State rule has something to do with this.

Sidenote: Most of the states that are net takers voted for Bush, while the net givers voted for Gore. What was that again about Republicans and small government?

Eric Krieg writes:

Prashant, the Northeastern states send more to Washington because they are high income states. With out progressive income tax, the more income you have, the more taxes you pay.

On the other hand, poorer areas get more welfare and other government benefits.

The real question is, how stupid are people from the Northeast, who keep electing Democrats who keep raising taxes on "the rich".

Dean said that he wanted "people who have Confederate Flags on their pickup trucks" to stop voting on the basis of God and guns, and start voting their economic interests.

I'd be happy to swap the rednecks for the people who drive Volvos. Dean should beware, because getting people to vote their economic interests is a two way street. The Democrats probably have more to lose than the Republicans do.

JorgXMcKie writes:

I think it it important to remember that, in general, farmers are competing against similar farmers. That is, the way to make money is to do a better job of farming compared to the guy down the road with similar land and crops. This ignores costs of hauling, etc, but it is, in my experience growing up on a farm, how farmers themselves judge who is a good farmer.

Subsidies and land usage rules that encourage keeping or putting marginal land into growing crops are self-defeating in terms of helping farmers make a living.

We would be much better of to buy up or lease or rent marginal land (much of which is near otherwise useful natural terrain features) and combine that with subsidizing farming start-ups by new young farmers of relatively productive land.

I watched much of Western Illinois move from small, useful fields with fence-rows and streambanks and other features helping wildlife to bigger fields, plowed-under fence-rows, bank-to-bank farming due to farm programs in the 50's and 60's back to more-or-less the original situation due to floods and the changing of subsidies.

It's not size, so much, as federal programs that drive to size that distorts so much Midwestern farming.

David Thomson writes:

“From a public policy perspective, what exactly is the problem of declining population in these areas?”

Absolutely none. They should not be protected from the gods of creative destruction. It only hurts everybody in the long run. This is one of the reasons why we have too many farmers. Many of them should have long ago found a new way of earning a living. The silly “I’ll Take My Stand” reactionary conservatives have caused a lot of grief. Let me be blunt: Agrarianism is an ideological mindset guaranteed to further poverty and backwardness.

Jim Parsons writes:

While the number of senators from each state cannot be changed (which I personally think is a good thing), the number of states CAN change. Were any of the more populous states to divide, each of the new states would have two senators to send to Washington.

Randall Parker writes:

Net giver states: One reason for this is that people in the Northeast pay lots of taxes during their working lives and then move south for their retirements. Doing account by state is therefore misleading.

As for the plains states being net receivers: fortunately there are so few people there that the total cost doesn't end up being all that much.

Also, the plains states have populations aging more rapidly as the young move away. So the inter-generational transfer of Social Security and Medicare accounts for some of hte net receiver status for those states.

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