South Dakota, you didn’t build that!


South Dakota has one of the most unique tourist attractions in the U.S.A. And they ruthlessly use it to sell their state, too. Simply put, South Dakota’s tourism depends on Mount Rushmore. There are lots of other interesting things there, like the Badlands and Jewel Cave, the Black Hills and Wind Cave, and other sites too numerous to list here. But the crown jewel is those four presidents carved into the side of a mountain.

You might think that South Dakota, as one of the reddest of the red states, wouldn’t accept government handouts as freely as they do. After all, the state of South Dakota didn’t pay so much as one dime to construct Mount Rushmore. The large majority of the funds–for the dynamite to blast away the rock, and the workers who risked their lives to clear it away, and the sculptor who envisioned it in the first place–came from the federal government. And the feds administer it to this day, hiring the tour guides and collecting the admissions and running theĀ souvenirĀ and concession shops. It’s an exceedingly sweet deal for South Dakota, it seems to me.

South Dakota businesses, such as the famous Wall Drug, rely on government roads like Interstate 90 to bring business (i.e., tourists) to them. South Dakota taxes all of these transactions and pockets the money, hopefully–but not likely–aware of the debt they owe to the federal government and its spending. So not only is South Dakota one of the largest recipient states there is, but their main economic cash cow was created by federal government, too. So we can say, in all honesty, to South Dakota that “You didn’t build that!”

What is “Government help” anyway?

I was recently visiting some family near Melbourne, Florida when I came upon the sign pictured above. It was apparently intended to overlap with the Republican convention in Tampa, and its sentiment seems to be a dig at President Obama and the “You didn’t build that” remark. I addressed the willful and misleading interpretation of Obama’s words here, but the people who put this sign up apparently didn’t read it. So I’ll address their baseless claims here, instead.

The only reason that I was able to access their facility was by driving on Florida State Route 518. That means it’s a public road, and any of their employees who use that road are, in fact, receiving government help. What’s more, the Eau Gallie Causeway is a rather large bridge that crosses over the Indian River in Florida. Without that bridge, which was built and maintained at public expense, this business would be cut off from the Florida mainland and the rest of the outside world. Good luck maintaining a business without regular, dependable access across that river.

The building itself appeared to be shut down for the day, so people who might want to knock on their door to discuss this sign weren’t able to do so. I could have tried to break into the building if I wanted to, since no police officers would come to arrest me. They’re government help, you know, and this business apparently doesn’t accept such help.

Maybe, in the absence of government police protection, they use a private security company. That’s better, after all, since it’s the free market, which of course is more efficient than the government could ever be. Let’s say the private security firm comes out, catches me in the act, and takes me into custody. But even if they could arrest me, this means I’d have to go to jail, which is another government service. Sending me to jail would mean accepting government help, and they quite clearly don’t do that.

But maybe they would change their minds, just to teach me a lesson. If they did send me to jail, the Constitution would then give me the right to a fair and speedy trial. And where would this trial be heard? In a government courthouse, of course. The prosecutor who would bring charges against me, and the judge who would oversee the trial, would both be government employees, too. Even the jury, if it came to that, would be composed of people being summoned, and paid for, by the government. What’s a non-government -help-accepting company to do, if they want to bring me to justice?

All right, all right, let’s imagine that they allow themselves to accept the government’s help in putting me on trial, but only because justice must be done. So then I would be found guilty by this government-supplied jury, and sentenced by the government judge to do time in a correctional center somewhere in Florida. What’s that? More government help? Nooooooo!

Or maybe, just maybe, the threat of being captured, tried, convicted, and detained, all at government expense, is enough to make me realize that whatever I might find on the inside isn’t worth all of that risk. Just the threat of all this government help is a form of help from the government, all by itself.

But let’s take it one step further. This business makes commemorative memorabilia for a variety of sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and many major colleges and universities. When the University of Kentucky won the national championship in NCAA men’s basketball last spring, this outfit got to make the kind of “In your face, losers!” materials that a Kentucky alum might want to have. Their list of client schools includes the University of Alabama, the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, and even the U.S. Military Academy. It’s an impressive list, to be sure.

But here’s the problem, and I hope that you’ve recognized it already. With just a couple of exceptions, the schools on this list are all publicly funded. To put it another way, the University of Kentucky was created, and now sustains itself, with funding from the government of Kentucky. When all of Kentucky’s investments pay off, and the school wins a championship for its fans and alumni to brag about, this company can then come in and sell their products. But this can never happen without the initial outlays made by the governments of Kentucky, Michigan, and even the U.S. government in the case of the Military Academy.

So yes, I’m afraid that this outfit does receive government help, whether they realize it or not. It’s indirect, in the example of the colleges, and it’s direct in other cases, but for this company to assert that they receive no government help at all is absurd on its face, and it deserves to be called out as such.

The Sanctuary on Paradise

I’m in Florida this weekend, trying to get a final few days of Summer before school starts up again. Or maybe it won’t if the Chicago teachers go out on strike. But either way, Summer is coming to and end, and we want to end it with something to remember.

Our visions of fun in the sun have been washed way by soon-to-be Hurricane Isaac, which is somewhere in the Caribbean and heading this way. The winds are blowing, the rain is starting, and the bargain that people who live in Florida have to make with nature is coming into full view.

I decided to head out into the rain this afternoon, to have a look around before the storm gets too bad. After a few minutes, I came to a gated community. I’ve read about them, and driven by them before, but I’ve never come into contact with one before. I walked up to the gate, read the No Trespassing sign, and realized that I could never live in such a place. I won’t judge those who do, but it seems to me to be the product of a very anti-social view of the world.

When my neighborhood in Chicago was laid out in the early 20th century, the technology for creating such a walled-off community didn’t exist. But, more importantly, I don’t think that the desire to create one existed, either. Gated communities exist because the people on the inside take an active role in keeping the people on the outside out. I can’t so much as walk along the sidewalks and admire the houses in such a place. I get to see the gate, and feel the sense of exclusion that the gate is meant to convey, and walk away, trying to understand their view of the world.
I stood outside the gate, waiting until one of the community’s residents left their sanctuary. I wondered if they felt nervous, being out on a road that they didn’t own and couldn’t control. I wondered how long before they made it onto U.S. 1, or I-95, or any of the other roads that U.S. taxpayers like myself pay for the maintenance of. I wondered how long before this person would turn on the radio and (if they don’t have satellite radio) listen to something on the airwaves that we all own. I wondered if, on the off chance they should get into an accident, if publicly-financed ambulances would come to their assistance, or if the gated community had the resources to gather up their wounded, wherever they are, and bring them back to safety within their walls.

The gated community mindset seems to have resonated with the Republicans who will, not coincidentally, be coming to Florida for their nominating convention later this week. They have turned a remark that President Obama made about roads and bridges into a rallying cry about what role the government plays in our lives. The government services that pour into the gated communities are obvious enough to see, if the people inside of them would only care to look for them.

Beyond the roads, which people couldn’t live in Florida without, there are public sewers and water services, public schools, public fire and police protection and–may it never come to this–public funds for when Isaac or another storms decides to put the full power of nature on display. Or even, something that this week’s convention-goers can understand, public airports. Yes, the runways that are used for takeoffs and landings, and the air traffic control towers and the people who make sure the planes don’t collide in mid-air, and the airport terminals where the planes load and unload their passengers, are dependent upon government funds or personnel. And without them, well, there’s no convention in Tampa next week.

It will be interesting to see how far the “We built it” theme is carried at next week’s convention. The people who espouse such a view have to be willfully oblivious of the role that government has played in the creation of the very site of the convention, and in the police and fire protection that will allow it to take place. And, to be ideologically consistent, they will have to completely disregard the storm tracking services provided by the National Weather Service (and yes, that’s a government agency that all of us are paying for).

So let the Republicans leave their gated communities, travel to Tampa, and spend several days railing about the evils of government. Nobody on Fox News, or the other media outlets that will be reporting on the proceedings, will have the courage to call them out on their hypocrisy. But those of us on the outside will be playing a role that will not be publicly acknowledged.

What “that” is

Thursdays are the last day that I drive into the office during the week. Friday traffic in Chicago is bad, no matter where you’re driving to or when you’re on the road, so fortunately I can work at home on Fridays. But I had an epiphany of sorts when I was on the road this morning, and I wanted to explain it here.

Every time I’m on the road, I see dozens of the vans or trucks like the one pictured above. I think of them as “ladder vans” because they’re pretty easy to spot with the ladder on top. And the people driving them are the people that Mitt Romney is trying so hard to mislead, based on something that President Obama said recently in Virginia. So I’m going to do what I can to clear things up, to the extent that anyone pays attention to what’s in this space.

Here is a video clip of the president’s remarks (with captions included):

The president’s remark about “You didn’t build that” doesn’t refer to the business, as epitomized by the van with the ladder on top. The “that” being referred to is the American system of roads and bridges. The things that exist for the ladder vans to be driven on in the first place. The things that make it possible for these vans to get to wherever their jobs are that day. Without those roads, which all of us pay for and all of us collectively own, those ladder vans have no purpose at all.

This might sound like socialism to some, but when it snows, who clears the streets? We all do, through our tax dollars. If a big pothole opens up in the street, does any one citizen have the burden of fixing that hole? No, we all do it, through public funding which comes from the taxpayer.

Anyone who buys a van or a truck and puts a ladder on top and uses that van or truck upon the public roads reaps the benefit of the “that” which President Obama was referring to. And if there’s someone who doesn’t get the President’s point, and continues to believe that a van or a truck is all it takes to make a business grow, there really isn’t too much more to say, except “ain’t that a shame” how someone can be mislead so easily.