Eastern Washington has a reputation as politically conservative, a repository of hard core small government types who are thrilled at the prospect of slashing the federal government and its “creeping socialism.” Congressional Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers reigns with an attractive smile, bland platitudes about veterans and farmers, and floor votes as instructed by Cantor and Boehner.
What I find curious about this mythology of prideful, self reliant individualism is the amount of federal investment that created and sustains the way of life in the intermountain Pacific Northwest. The Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads opened the region to large scale commerce. Neither of them could have been built without enormous federal land grants, subsidies and armed protection. Paved highways and rural electrification were financed mostly by eastern taxpayers. The taming of the Columbia and Snake rivers with scores of locks and dams provided water to turn desert into cropland, barging for grain shipments to the coast, and an overabundance of relatively inexpensive hydropower. Recent half hearted thoughts about taking down some of the dams to improve fish habitat have been met with outrage, and signs posted on buildings declaring “SAVE OUR DAMS” along side posters for ultra conservative political candidates.
Farmers, proud of their rugged individualism, are suspended above the roughest market forces by crop insurance, set asides, subsidies, conversion of cropland to prairie grass, expert counsel from county agents, research funded through land grant universities, and dozens of other programs all financed through the federal government. Most of our grain crops are marketed overseas helped, in part, by aggressive trade negotiating at the federal level. It doesn’t keep farming from being a risky business, physically and emotionally demanding in every way. There is nothing easy about making one’s living on the farm or ranch. Yet the farm community is the strongest supporter of small government thinking. I don’t understand how one can be both dependent on the work of an active federal government and dismissive of it.
What else do we depend on? A big Air Force base near Spokane just happens to use many Boeing made products, each the result of a government contract. Boeing, of course, is on the other side of the mountains, the wet side, where all the liberals live, but we like the money, airplanes and software that come from over there, and we don’t complain about them paying most of the taxes. Speaking of planes, air transportation is important to us, so we fight hard for funding of rural air service subsidies. Our paved highways are wearing out. They need to be replaced.
You get the point. I would not call any of this hypocrisy because I don’t think it is intentional. On the contrary, the work of an active federal government has been so tightly woven into the fabric of daily life that I think it has become invisible. The very real need to manage our public spending in a more responsible way is well known and vigorously supported. What is not known, or remotely understood, is that some of the cost, the pain, will have to be borne by those who do not even know how dependent and indebted they have become on the largesse of federal spending.