America’s Last Frontier Shows the Need for Government

My Comments: Am unsure why this article cought my eye, and I decided to save it for later. Now that later is here, and frankly I’m sick of Syria, and all the other crap that TV and magazines, and the internet is bursting about. Yes, I have a slight touch of the flu so maybe it’s just me. This won’t take long to read and you may come away with some good thoughts. I hope so.

By Martin Dickson | August 18, 2013 | The Financial Times

Standing in an Alaskan river, casting a fly-fishing line into waters teeming with salmon, can lead to unexpected contemplation of the state of contemporary government.

I set out recently for a day’s fishing on Alaska’s celebrated Kenai river during the sockeye salmon run, when millions of fish return from years at sea to spawn on the upper reaches of the state’s rivers and then die. It is one of nature’s great dramas.

So good was the sport that by 11am the fishing day was over, since every member of my party had caught three salmon – the maximum number permitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which monitors the number of sockeye entering the Kenai daily, and adjusts catch limits accordingly. It was just my bad luck that 24 hours later it raised the limit to six fish.

In Alaska, America’s self-styled “final frontier”, hunting for fish and game is strictly controlled. Game regulations alone run to 136 pages and are minutely specific: be warned that if you bag a grizzly bear anywhere in the state, “evidence of [the bear’s] sex … must remain attached to the hide or meat until sealing [official registration] requirements have been met”.

Such tight regulation might seem to jar with Alaska’s reputation for libertarian values and light-touch government. This is the state whose best-known politician is Sarah Palin, the Tea Party sympathiser and former Republican vice-presidential candidate. But the fishing controls are a classic case of government intervention to provide a public good – a service that benefits everyone and counteracts market failure. In this case, the good is to prevent overfishing or hunting, and avoid the “tragedy of the commons”, when individual greed destroys a community asset.

The provision of public goods – such as defence, infrastructure and education – is the most fundamental raison d’être for government and citizens’ support for it. In the case of the sockeye salmon, otherwise individualistic Alaskans buy into the system because it ensures their home freezers continue to groan with fish year after year.

Economic stability and a sound banking system are also public goods, and for the past five years western governments have struggled to provide them and overcome the biggest market failure of all time: the 2008 credit crisis. Yet little good has it done them with electorates, which on both sides of the Atlantic remain sullen and distrustful.

This is not surprising, given the role state agencies played in creating the crisis in the first place, the feebleness of the recovery and the plodding progress made, in the face of powerful vested interests, towards a safer financial system. This, and the over-bureaucratic nature of much government, makes it still seem part of the problem, not the solution.

In the US, all this is made much starker by extreme ideological divisions at a federal level and years of wearisome deadlock over tax and spending. But look below the federal level and a more optimistic US picture emerges. As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their important new book, The Metropolitan Revolution , US cities are positioning themselves at the cutting edge of reform, investment and innovation. It is, they write, “city and metropolitan leaders” who are reshaping America, – along with university leaders, chief executives, unions, environmental groups, civic organisations and charities.

Let’s not get too carried away. Detroit, which collapsed into bankruptcy last month, may be an extreme outlier but many other cities need to address crippling financial burdens from health and pension obligations to municipal staff, which are seriously curtailing their ability to invest productively.

Nevertheless, thanks to local and state spending, infrastructure funding across the US is in better shape than many realise. Behind this, and underlying the willingness of Republicans and Democrats to work more pragmatically at city level, is the fact that the value of public goods is greater the nearer you are to them – and thus the more willing you are to pay for them, be they plentiful salmon in Alaska, transit investment in Los Angeles or airport modernisation in Miami.

The information technology revolution is reinforcing metropolitan energy, thanks to its instant transmission of ideas and its potential, through social media, to create strong networked communities with shared interests. The result could be a significant political force, forged from the biggest and most coherent economic units in the US.

None of this is likely to mean an early end to gridlock at a federal level, where policy choices are more complex and there can be deep and legitimate disagreement over what constitutes a national public good and what action can best achieve it. Add in years of constituency gerrymandering, which has given congressmen ever less reason to compromise, and a political system that gives plutocrats unhealthy influence over the process, and you have a recipe for continuing federal deadlock.

But the cities, reliant as they are on federal agencies for macroeconomic stability and for the funding of local projects, should be trying to shift the Washington dynamic: towards at least a grudging bipartisanship and more efficient, streamlined government – and general acceptance that state provision of key public goods is vital. Just ask Alaska’s frontiersmen.