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Know the West

The end of Western welfare?


As Wall Street's titans of finance crumbled before our eyes in mid-September (coincidentally, this was Bin Laden's stated goal after 9/11), I remembered the day I interviewed Bill Yellowtail at his ranch, near Wyola, Mont., 15 years ago, and the shocking things he said that afternoon about capitalism in the West. One of my notes from that day reads: "capitalism -- a broken-down machine."

It was a brilliant September day in the Big Horns, and the Yellowtails' ranch was the kind of place that reminds you that the middle of nowhere for one person is the center of everywhere for somebody else. We sat in brightly colored old chairs, circa 1950s, on a small patch of green grass in front of the 16-by-24-foot log cabin that Bill's mother and father built 50 years ago, when they eloped up this valley on horseback. They raised four kids here, scratching out a living running cattle between the tall rocks and high dry places of the surrounding country. Now, their oldest son, a Dartmouth graduate and the first Native American elected to the Montana Statehouse, was President Clinton's pick to keep an eye on the Rocky Mountain West as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 8 office. His knowledge of that environment and the people who lived there was as deep as it was wide, but when he pondered the West and its future, what he saw bothered him. It kept him awake nights. Lots of nights.

"What we've learned since Ronald Reagan got elected is that free-market crony capitalism doesn't work," said Yellowtail. "It's a broken-down machine, and it's probably too late to fix it. We're just gonna have to ride this thing out."

It was 1993, and while newspapers across the West were busy chronicling the globalization of the local marketplace, the small family ranch, as a Western institution, was in shambles. Thousands of small ranchers found themselves crushed between rising prices at the implement dealer, unsympathetic bankers, and the spiraling cost of credit. "Capitalism without a conscience," as Yellowtail called it, had turned into a horrifying reality.

"What's really hard to deal with is the defeat in people's eyes," he said. "One day your neighbors pull up stakes and disappear without a word -- not even a good-bye. People you've known your whole life -- gone."

Of course, the West was built on cycles of boom and bust. Invariably, those who survived the busts owned a working mineral claim, a stand of timber, or a piece of a river that they could use to get what they needed -- either from their land-locked neighbors, or from the federal government. As Marc Reisner, the author of Cadillac Desert, put it, "The centralized welfare state that everyone decries, and that nearly everyone depends on to some degree … was born in the rivers of the American West."

In order to make the system work, legions of Western politicians have been sent off to Washington to become masters in the art of political contradiction -- to fight the great beast of welfare and to bring home multibillion dollar public-works projects. There's not a red state in the West (or the South) that could survive without the federal dole. The governor of Alaska notwithstanding, this is the West's dirty little secret. As historian Bernard DeVoto put it, the West's attitude to the federal government could be summarized in one pithy phrase: "Get out and give us more money." Westerners hate welfare when it trickles down in the form of food stamps and subsidized housing, but they love it when it's packaged in big gobs, such as dams, bridges or irrigation projects.

No one played the game with more bravado than Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. He railed tirelessly against the federal government's excesses, but he was just as often the first in line to demand, and get, billions of federal dollars for utterly senseless and wasteful water projects. And no one has been more adept at milking that golden cow known as the federal treasury than the Mormon farmers of Idaho and Utah. It's an absurd disconnect, because nobody is more rabidly anti-government than those same farmers and ranchers. They send politicians like Orrin Hatch and Larry Craig to Washington to cut their taxes and keep the federal monkeys at bay -- until they need a new school or a new irrigation project. Then they whistle a different tune.

It's a fact that Western states are notorious sinkholes for federal tax dollars. Not one of them has ever generated enough tax dollars to pay for the federal programs its citizens depend on for their survival. Assembly-line workers in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit have been footing the bill for public-works projects in the West for nearly a century. Take away that socialized welfare, take away the Forest Service and the BLM, the railroads and public schools and the Army Corps of Engineers, and what's left? A few thousand grain silos and a lot of desperate people.

The West's most marketable export is its mythological identity as a land of rugged individualism and self-reliance. This celebrated fiction has been on a collision course with reality since World War II. We've had a pretty good run, one that was better than we dared to hope, but it may have run its course, as Yellowtail suggested. The pile of money used to bail out the financial sector won't be available to build bridges and schools and highways. "Capitalism without a conscience" is another way of saying that leaner and meaner times are ahead for the tax-hating citizens of the West. Before too long, those ruggedly independent red-state residents will likely be waxing nostalgic about the good old days, when federal tax dollars flowed from their liberal/progressive neighbors in the blue states like, well -- like a river.