The Ecphorizer


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If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You In North Dakota?
Gareth Penn

Issue #40 (December 1984)



When called on for a generalization, most of us fall back on untested assumptions for an answer. More often than not, these generalizations go unchallenged, and when the truth finally catches up with us, we are startled by just how wrong our "facts" really are. Since there is nothing in life more entertaining than dashing other people's illusions, please indulge me while I amuse myself.

[quoteright]Question: If you ranked all the counties in the United States in order by per capita income, what description (sociological, geographic, economic, or other) would fit the majority of the topmost one hundred? In other words, in what kind of places, populated by what kind of people, would you find the highest average income?

If I hadn't let the cat out of the bag with the above title, you would have said that the majority of such counties were suburbs of big cities, bedroom communities populated by commuters, high-income people who have fled the squalor of the cities for the comfort and privacy of what used to be the country. I am sure that you sense by now that the answer you were going to give is wrong.

There are only 24 such counties in the top 100 (list compiled from The City and County Data Book, an occasional publication of the US. Department of Commerce). The majority, 52 in all, are the same type of county exemplified by Number One on the list, where the average citizen takes home even more money than his counterpart in ritzy Arlington, Virginia:  Steele County, North Dakota.

As they say in Steele County, yup. The majority of the counties on our Top 100 list are rural, agricultural counties in America's Wheat Belt. There are 21 of them in North Dakota alone. The rest are mainly in Kansas and Nebraska, with a sprinkling across the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota, and Texas. In fact, the only county in Texas that makes it at all is Borden, in the remote boondocks between the Panhandle and El Paso. (Sorry, J.R., but Dallas County just doesn't cut it.)

Of the remaining counties, 14 are in Alaska. There are three of them in Florida, not surprisingly, in the part of the state known colloquially as The Gold Coast. The only fleck of wealth on the map of the Southwest is Los Alamos, New Mexico. And outside Alaska, only two cities make the list: New York and San Francisco. New York, however, would not be included if the Commerce Department did not count it as New York County (Manhattan). If you include the four other (low-income) borough-counties, New York ranks 328th among U. S. cities. The only California counties on the list, besides the City and County of San Francisco, are its suburbs in the counties of Marin (#22, ranked after nine North Dakota counties), San Mateo (#38), and Contra Costa (#88). San Francisco itself is tied for 77th place with Kearney County, Nebraska. (If Steele County were a city, it would rank second in the nation, after Beverly Hills, California, and ahead of Highland Park, Illinois.)

I hope you have found this iconoclastic brickbat worthy of an Ignatz. It should be food for thought. What does it tell us about the society we live in?

Let's start with Alaska. Alaskan wages are sky-high because prices are, too. The Consumer Price Index in Alaska is boosted by the cost of transportation in a state where almost every manufactured or refined consumer product has to be shipped thousands of miles in ocean-going vessels or flown in air freight. Even Alaskan oil has to be refined elsewhere before it can be consumed in the state where it is produced. If you discounted Alaskan wages for the CPI, that state would probably not make our list at all.

Los Alamos is a special case. It is, in effect, a synthetic city created by the U. S. government to house a population skewed heavily toward the high-wage professions, e.g., nuclear physics and engineering. The money comes from the U. S. taxpayer, and the folks who live there do most of their shopping in Santa Fe. That's where the low-wage service-performers live.

The three Gold Coast counties in Florida have a population largely made up of people who have earned or otherwise acquired their wealth elsewhere, and, often, in another time, and in such abundance that they can afford to live anywhere they like. They happen to like the weather down there.

Almost all the counties on our list, with the exception of the agricultural ones, are characterized by the consumption of wealth that has been produced elsewhere. Suburbanites earn their wages in the central city, then spend them in adjacent counties. In Alaska, high wages subsidize the shipping industry. In Los Alamos, the wealth comes from the U. S. Treasury, not from the production or sale of manufactured goods (unless you count hydrogen bombs as a consumer product). Even the two cities, New York and San Francisco, can be said to be consumers of the wealth of others, since a substantial part of the wage-base in both cities is the so-called FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate). In all these cases, there is a kind of internal colonialism at work. The wealth produced in one place by mining, manufacturing, refining, or transportation is consumed in another place, e.g., in South Florida, by absentee landlords. What distinguishes the Steele Counties of this country from the rest is that they produce more than they consume, and the owners reside and consume on the means of production.


Of course, Steele County farmers do not enjoy the same kind of amenities as, let's say, your average Manhattanite or denizen of Falls Church, Virginia. To a large extent, the per capita income figure for such rural areas reflects the absence of low-income people who drag down the average. There are probably not many people on welfare in Steele County. They are to be found in Bismarck (#343 among U. S. cities), Fargo (#146), Grand Forks (#232), and Minot (#289). But there are also not a lot of Wall Street capitalist-commuters, nuclear physicists, retired bankers, or big-time coke dealers there.

This survey, and the accompanying gratuitous interpretation, is unscientific and based on simplistic assumptions Nonetheless it reveals a radically different picture of our society from what most of us commonly entertain. It suggests that
it would be enlightening to compile a new econometric tool, the Self-Sufficiency Index, based, let's say, on net per capita productivity, where productivity is defined as the original creation of wealth through basic industry. Plotted geographically, it would show a number of economic Black Holes and isobaric patterns connecting them with the wellsprings of production, a kind of economic weather map that could be shown every night on the evening news.

Here is a prolegomenon to that map. It shows the location of the 100 top counties. Circles show the top ten.

Good night, Chet.


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