4/15/2010

How to Fix Kansas

The subtitle for this rant ought to be "And Why Kansas will Never be Fixed."

Kansas, like most of the Midwest, is and has been in economic depression since Jerry Ford and the end of the Vietnam War. Outside of federal welfare, the state's economic base has been steadily shrinking since the end of the industrial period in the 70's. The population is aging, the replacements are unskilled, uneducated immigrant minimum wage labor (when they aren't illegal). The school system, which was never particularly good, is now reduced to the blind leading the blind. The quality of life is so pitiful that the state resorts to generating its own standards for QoL measurements to avoid the obvious conclusion that only someone who is desperate and out of options would life in the state.

So, what are the state and local community solutions for this catastrophic situation? The usual culprits: hillbilly recreation and gambling. In my hometown, Dodge City, the city has proudly built a "$33.7 million multi-purpose events center" that is supposed to attract pro hockey, rodeo, and music acts to the city. Supposedly, Dodge has a population of 33,000, but most of that population is barely surviving, with next-to-no income available for high-priced recreation. A substantial portion of the population is retired or approaching retirement.

Dodge City has a long history of being conned into idiot development by city mismanagers and crooked city council members, only to find that the mismanagers skip town leaving the city with the smell of rendering and packing plants and feedlots surrounding the city and a continuing decline in average incomes and quality of life. This new "events center" has the stench of déjà vu.

Another proposed "solution" to the city's economic woes is gambling. Supposedly, the reason Dodge's tourist business is in decline is because the city hasn't properly hyped it's quarter decade of historic importance into a commodity. The fact that the freeway bypasses the city b y almost 200 miles and the railroad is all but dead and the city has no meaningful air transportation is, apparently, unimportant. Some folks imagine that the incredibly opportunity for poor people to gamble will be a big draw to the city. "Just hold your nose and ignore the nasty taste of our air and water and yank on that one-armed bandit." Catchy, don't you think?

The obvious real solution is so far out of the grasp of this kind of community that it might as well be described as "impossible." The solution for Dodge is the solution for the rest of the country, too. The taxpaying, self-supporting states and cities of the nation all have one trait in common: they are tolerant and liberal. Innovation and creativity and tolerance are all part of the same package. The code name for this is the "‘technology, talent and tolerance formula" and it's not only well-documented, but it's obvious. The places where tolerance is at what Midwesterners would call "extreme" are the places where talent and technology thrive. Call me crazy, but it just seems obvious that a culture of tolerance would attract talented people and talented people tend to drive technology.

A place like Dodge City, Kansas would be near the far end of intolerant locations. Being gay, non-white, hip, non-conformist, or unusual in any way is a guaranteed path to discrimination and, possibly, violence in Dodge. This is the kind of community that actively hunts down "the green monkey" and exterminates him with prejudice. Dodge is exactly the kind of "real American" city that Sarah Palin extols and it is also a dead zone, creatively. The school system produces mediocrity; when it produces anything at all, since the drop-out rate is above average. (Kansas' overall dropout rate is 25%, but the Hispanic dropout rate is 45% and that is the fastest growing population in the state and overwhelmingly the fastest growing population in Dodge.)

To become an economic center, the city and state would have to reverse decades of Republican-directed discrimination and intolerance. I can not see any way that would happen. Without that reversal, however, the place is doomed to become a 3rd world, dysfunctional poverty zone and a drag on the economies of the productive parts of the country.

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