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Western Delusions

A continually surprising phenomenon in American politics is the deep-belief -- not even a lie, because they really do believe -- among right-wingers in the West that government has nothing to do with their prosperity.

Via Wonkette, I came across this wonderful quote from the governor of Idaho, in a story in the Guardian about those weird wild places where they still like George W. Bush, in this case Boise.

Governor Jim Risch tells Oliver Burkemann of the Guardian:

"Here in Idaho, we couldn’t understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something. We had a dam break in 1976, but we didn’t whine about it. We got out our backhoes and we rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields and got on with our lives. That’s the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water."

That’s truly a quote to savor. Because if you ever read Cadillac Desert (one of the finest books about American politics ever written) you surely remember  what Risch is referring to: the collapse of the Teton Dam on the Snake River as it was being filled for the first time on June 5, 1976. (Wow, actually exactly 30 years ago to this day -- I just noticed that.)

The dam was built despite concerns about its safety as well as environmental impact. That’s because Idaho politicians of both parties -- pushed by a small number of ranchers and farmers -- insisted it be built. Idahoans didn’t build it, though. The Federal Government -- the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation -- built the dam at a cost of about $100 million.

In other words, what they do in Idaho is exactly "waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water." (And especially irrigation water.)

And when the dam collapsed, there were no entrepreneurs taking care of business. There was the federal government. If you’re interested in the details, see the "Aftermath" section in this official history for some of the hundreds of millions spent by taxpayers in other states for disaster relief and for rebuilding the inefficient irrigation systems wiped out by the flood. And then, as the official history puts it:

President [Ford] decided the government had a moral responsibility to pay restitution to the flood victims. Within a week after the disaster, President Ford requested a $200 million appropriation for initial payments for damages, without assigning responsibility for Teton Dam’s failure. The appropriation was attached to the annual Public Works Appropriation Bill then working its way through Congress. ...Reclamation set up claims offices in Rexburg, Idaho Falls, and Blackfoot. Disaster victims filed over 4,800 claims by January 4, 1977, totalling $194 million. The Federal government paid 3,813 of those claims, $93.5 million, by that date. Originally scheduled to end in July 1978, the Claims Program continued into the 1980s. The number of claims reached 7,884 by December 31, 1982, and totalled $517,213,045.76. At the end of the Claims Program in January 1987, the Federal government paid 7,563 claims a total of $322,034,250.44.

(It’s interesting to compare this with the Katrina response, incidentally. Here almost 4,000 claims were paid within six months of the disaster.)

One thing the government did right was to reject political pressure from the same group of wealthy ranchers and farmers to rebuild the dam.

To an amazing degree, Western and sunbelt conservatism is built on the risible delusion that the federal government never did a damn thing for them and they made it on their own, a delusion that they nurture in their air-conditioned, hot-tub-equipped country clubs in a land that could barely support human existence if it were not for the federal government. Frankly, I think this has something to do also with the current congressional scandal. Duke Cunningham, Mitchell Wade, Brent Wilkes, Dusty Foggo, Duncan Hunter, Bill Lowery and several of the other characters at the center of the current political scandal are all products of the corrupt oligarchy of San Diego. There’s is a city built entirely on defense spending, and yet they still believe that they are hardy entrepreneurs making it on their own without help from anybody. And somehow I think this delusion helps them believe that stealing from government as just another form of private enterprise.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 5, 2006 | Permalink



Posted by: James Governor | Jun 6, 2006 9:01:45 AM

Another thing often forgotten about is farm subsidies.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 6, 2006 3:53:47 PM

I am a San Francisco based progressive who grew up in Idaho during the 60's and 70's. While I agree with the general characterization that many western conservatives are in denial about their reliance on the federal government, I think it's a huge misstatement to suggest that this is "a delusion that they nurture in their air-conditioned, hot-tub-equipped country clubs in a land that could barely support human existence if it were not for the federal government."

Not only is that snide remark unproductive as regards intelligent discourse, it is flatly untrue. My own ancestors came to Idaho in a covered wagon more than a century ago and they, like so many others, carved out homes and communities through honest sweat and hard-work and with little or no federal assistance. I am loath to defend western conservatives as a group when I largely find their political and social positions terribly myopic, but your smug and sanctimonious attitude is both inappropriate and inaccurate.

Posted by: B McCurdy | Jun 6, 2006 5:50:02 PM

B. McCurdy, Idaho could not support near as many people as it currently does without the federal water projects. When your ancestors came to Idaho, they largely tapped groundwater. But most of that groundwater is gone now, thanks to over-extraction. Now Idaho is dependent upon surface water. And the majority of that dammed surface water comes from behind (tada!) federal dams.

Reminds me of another state I lived in, Arizona. The modern state of Arizona fundamentally would not exist without the Salt River Project and the Colorado River Project, two massively expensive dam-and-aquaduct projects that bring water from where it is (high canyons and rivers in extremely rugged terrain) to where it ain't (the desert floor, where it's easy to farm and build). Yet you hear the same damed "pull yerself up by bootstraps" bullcrap there too...


Posted by: BadTux | Jun 6, 2006 7:12:24 PM

Mark Schmitt - You ought to print out this post and Fedex it to Gov. Risch just to remind him of his state's history.

B. McCurdy, from whom did your ancestors buy their land? Did they take advantage of the Homestead Act? Did they purchase the land from railroads which had received vast tracts of land in grants from the federal government? Or did they "carve out" their homes with no fear of attacks by native Americans because federal troops were in the area to protect them? I don't begrudge your ancestors making a life for themselves under hard conditions, but there are very few chapters of the pioneer experience that were not made possible, one way or another, by federal intervention.

Posted by: Patience | Jun 7, 2006 9:40:35 AM

I think that on the part of many Westerners it is simply an innocence. I have a good friend who is quite intelligent and very proud of having "put himself through" a state college in the southwest as a co-op student. As far as I can tell, the extent to which this opportunity was subsidized by taxpayers just never occurred to him. That's not to say he didn't work extremely hard.

Posted by: SusieQ | Jun 7, 2006 5:17:54 PM

This is the primary conventional wisdom that supports the right wing today. For a good exposition of how government intervention is essential to a strong economy, go to http://www.thegoatherder.com/id5.html

Posted by: The Goatherder | Jun 8, 2006 9:26:46 AM

I have a brother-in-law who thinks he is a completely self made man. His parents were evangelists that could not have survived their retirements without Social Security. Two Brothers are on disability for Schizophrenia and Hepatitis C. He has spent his career in the RV industry, and I wonder how different that would be without the Public Parks and the Freeway systems. He, his wife and 3 children all went to public colleges. He has spent his life living in desert communities that would not exist without the CC dam building of the depression era. I am always astounded at his politics. It has never occured to him that he has been a primary benificiary of government largesse.

Posted by: DeAnna | Jun 10, 2006 3:45:09 PM

This story is fascinating, and makes me wonder why the role of the Federal gov't in all of these aspects of life in the West isn't either more apparent to the benficiaries. It occurs to me that we may be seeing a flip side of the "particularistic" nature of US welfare state institutions: just as means tested income transfers stigmatize recipients as well as limiting their number - thereby undermining the legitimacy and sustainability of income transfer policies - so too does the very particularistic nature of infrastructure or educational support render the role of the gov't invisible. People who use the federal highway system, or who benefit from its existence, or who benefit from other forms of public infrastructre are not direct recipients of a check from the Feds, and therfore can have their cake (ideology of rugged individualism) and eat it too (goverment subsidies). What kind of institutional design migh render such public action more visible, and therfore less easy to ignore?

Posted by: Rich C | Jun 11, 2006 1:29:39 PM

Idahoans have historically been suspicious of the federal government AND large out-of-state corporations. Most Idahoans are good stewards of public lands and water but know that there are powerful interest giving money to our federal and state elected officials to make as much of Idaho's natural resources. The combination of the two out-of-state power brokers is very troubling.

Gov. Risch's comments are a stereotypical characteristic reflection of one side of the state's skepticism. Today, however, it is ringing increasingly hollow. We Idahoans know that the Congress has put public lands and other public assets up for sale.

We used to fight amongst ourselves about the best use of public lands in our back yard. Now, we are increasingly realizing that while we have been arguing, the agenda on the federal level in Congress and the administration has shifted (or, rather, has been exposed at long last). That some of the nations greatest assets are on the auction block. The massive deficit has made it easier for them to argue that those lands (and the water rights attached to them) need to be sold to pay for all sorts of other needs that have gone unmet, and to pay down the debt they have sent through the roof.

The campaign contributions from industries and wealthy interests eager to control those lands and shut the public out (the public includes fisherman, miner, dirt biker, hiker and logger alike) to make it the private enclave of private interests. We also know that the top bidders on that land are the probably the same interests that hold the mortgage on our national debt.

The west is poised to take the lead in transforming the national political landscape. Come here and see for yourself so you won't be so surprised on election day.

Posted by: Jim Hansen | Jun 12, 2006 11:30:49 PM

I have had a ismilar thought for years about how the most assertive proponents of laissez faire capitalism are oblivious to the massive infrastructure that makes thier entrepreneurship possible. What a great example!

Great to see you articulate this massive blind spot.

Posted by: jordi | Jun 29, 2006 1:32:58 PM