The 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation’ has some interesting juxtapositions on my premise, the death of a nation. The film follows two families through the Civil War and reconstruction era, the Stonemans and the Camerons (the north and south respectively). Interwoven in the narrative are aspects of race relations I won’t pretend to understand. I just find it interesting that almost exactly 100 years ago our nation was in it’s ascendency, and today, America is clearly in it’s decline (its “deconstruction” era).
I traveled outside my cocoon recently to the Omaha/Council Bluffs area. Where I live, Ames is a protected enclave of people employed to a large degree in cushy Federal, State and City jobs. A town insulated for the most part from economic downturns and the minority strife afflicting other parts of Iowa and America. Seeing “the face” of those two cities was like a class reunion when you are either shocked or pleasantly surprised by the change (or lack thereof) of a classmate you haven’t seen for a few years.
And in this case, life has not been kind to Omaha/Council Bluffs. Not that they are particularly worse off than any other metropolitan area, its just the one I have seen off and on since 1972. The aging process of 45 years is rather scary. Cities are no different than people, aging can be scary or graceful, depending on circumstances. Ames with a bunch of overpaid government nitwits, wastes more money per capita than our western neighbors ever see, they have to stretch every dime.
The picture used for this post, Mall of the Bluffs, is a good example. Last year we stopped there to explore the shopping experience of a place we had seen and driven by for nearly half a century, but had never stopped for. There’s nothing there but a drivers license station! It’s dead, a “ghost town”. You are confronted by shuttered store fronts and dust rings on the wall from store name signs long ago taken down. You half expect to see a tumbleweed come blowing down the hall.
The Old Market area of Omaha across the river is headed in the same direction. You get there by going up the 13th Street Exit off of I-80, oy. Its a depressing drive up 13th Street in this barren post apocalyptic landscape (Seeing the classmate after decades, “Oh you look great!”. When you’re really thinking, “Whoa! Did you get the license plate of the truck that ran over your face?”) Oh sure, they were talking about “urban blight” 50 years ago, but that’s Detroit dammit, not Iowa!
The same can be seen driving across Iowa if you get off the highway bypass and travel down main street of small town Iowa. Your town square that was at onetime a bustling center of banks, insurance companies, cafes and retail shops, now houses “check cashing” operations and pawn shops, if anything at all. The Old Market district that once housed upscale antique shops and restaurants, now is populated by thrift stores and greasy spoons. This death of a nation was not caused by one blow of course, its a death by a thousand cuts.
The laundry list is extensive. Farms are not owner operated anymore, they are sharecropper operations, and guess what? Rural rentals are no different then urban ones, you know in an instant when you drive down a residential neighborhood which ones the rentals are, and which ones the owner lives in. Then small towns were devastated by school consolidation. The Federal Government paid districts an extra $500 per student (which was a lot in 1965) if they consolidated the schools of neighboring towns.
This consolidation was not only detrimental to the students (large class sizes, within 20 years administrators were hollering about smaller class sizes), it took away accountability with the removal of local control. Schools were the “anchor stores” of a lot of small towns and the good paying teacher jobs and support staff that went with it. NAFTA and other trade deals that shipped jobs overseas was another cut. Iowans with some age recognize these names from long gone manufacturers, Western, Rayovac, Ertl, Maytag, Amana, Lennox, Fawn and hundreds of others!
You can’t take away 10’s of thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs from 1 state over the past 50 years and not experience a deadly decline. Its a lot easier for a family to be respectable at $25 bucks an hour than it is at $7.25 an hour. Families fall apart, further destroying the social fabric. Desperation sets in, people play the lottery. Gambling expands, more bankruptcies, more divorce. Taxes are raised to care for more and more government induced dysfunction.
Government corruption puts another nail in the coffin. Companies paid Congress to look the other way for 50 years when it came to controlling the southern border. Corporate America wanted to take advantage of cheap labor for the jobs they couldn’t ship to Mexico (if Mexicans don’t get the job in Mexico, they’ll get the job in Iowa).
Basically everything I listed was Donald Trump’s campaign platform, which explains why he won. Americans know what’s going on, even if they couldn’t always explain it. The government and their sycophants in the media can try and tell us how smart they are and how great their policies are, but we know its bullshit. We can see with our own eyes. We can see what’s happening on main street and in our own neighborhoods.
The last nail in the coffin may be the biggest. Healthcare. Workers and their employers now combine over $10,000 a year to pay for “insurance”. Which is a lie of course, we are simply prepaying our medical costs. Insurance is for a catastrophic occurrence that doesn’t usually occur. That’s not what insurance has become. People get sick. Its going to happen. Does your car insurance pay for oil changes? Of course not! Do you bill your home insurance to get your lawn mowed or your house painted? Of course not! But we expect our health insurance to pay for every doctor visit and run of the mill prescription.
The Affordable Care Act did nothing to alleviate the problem, only aggravate it. As Bill Clinton put it while campaigning for Hillary, “Premiums have doubled while benefits were cut in half!” Its simply not sustainable to pay $700 a month premiums while having to satisfy a $5,000 dollar deductible. Your into it for $12,000 dollars each year before it would start to pay off! How’s that work on 30K a year? Take home is less than that. Food, clothing and shelter become luxuries. The doctor couldn’t charge outlandish prices when the customer was literally writing the check at the front desk.
Market forces won’t control prices when there is no market. In normal business the seller can’t charge more than the buyer can afford. Pre 1965 we had a market. It was before Medicare and Medicaid and widespread employer provided insurance. People paid cash for doctor visits and their hospital stays. A semiprivate hospital room in 1962 was comparable to the cost of a hotel room. What insurance there was, was truly for the exception not the routine.
All that changed after 1965 and LBJ’s Great Society. Health related costs began to go through the roof of course as the bottomless wallet of Uncle Sam began to pick up more and more of the tab. As P.J. O’Rourke said, “If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it’s free.” People have forgotten the most basic economic principles. That’s the price of government education, it has made everybody stupid.
This photo is typical of the Council Bluffs experience. While looked at from a ways back it is an attractive and colorful bridge scene. We followed the car ahead of us out of town on old US Highway 6. The old town district. Liquor stores, consignment shops and dilapidated old stores. The car ahead if you blow up the picture has its entire rear window busted out. From the side and front it is clearly a “beater” who only through some miracle is still moving down the road under its own steam. The mall example used in the title is a really good barometer of a community’s health. Malls are the new main street. They reflect how extensive the rot is in a town. I remember during the 2008 residential housing bubble collapse, one smart economist predicted the collapse of the commercial property bubble within 2 years. He was right. Des Moines is the perfect example. The declines in Southridge Mall, Merle Hay Mall and even the warning signs at Valley West Mall are truly scary. Des Moines’ crown jewel, Jordan Creek, isn’t as shiny as it should be when looked at closely.