North Dakota vs Minnesota: interstate economic warfare

Paul Raven @ 07-01-2010

To a nominal Brit like myself, reading about the American governmental system is a constant stream of surprises. It’s one thing to understand that a country comprised of fifty-odd states (which are themselves the size of some sovereign countries) will have baked a certain degree of local independence into its legislature, but entirely another to read about the ways that such an arrangement can manifest itself. Case in point: North Dakota is suing Minnesota over its newly-introduced carbon taxation laws, which (so North Dakota claims) “unfairly discourage coal-powered electricity sales in favor of renewably powered electricity”. [via BoingBoing]

I’m seeing this legislation described as the first real-world example of a carbon tariff, which suggests that such measures are going to have a rocky reception when they become more widespread… but that was a given, I suppose. What’s rreally interesting as an outsider is the way this case highlights the increasingly fragmentary nature of the United States; I have no idea how it looks from within, but from this side of the pond, some form of religio-econo-political schism splitting the US into geographically-defined factions (remember the Jesusland map?) doesn’t seem like a massive leap of the imagination.

But that’s massively uninformed armchair punditry on my part, so it’s over to Futurismic‘s American readership: to a citizen of the United States, does it feel like the Union is becoming increasingly strained by hyperpolarised political ideologies and economic difficulties? Or are we just seeing something that has always been there? (Feel free to sound off on political issues, but keep it friendly, please.)

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8 Responses to “North Dakota vs Minnesota: interstate economic warfare”

  1. Anthony says:

    Well, among other things, a number of news outlets seem to have gotten the story entirely wrong. The law that MN passed in 2007 mandated their utilities commission to plan for a likely carbon surcharge on electrical power. It did _not_ put in place any sort of tax or fee or charge! The law just required a possible tax to be part of planning for rates and power sources for the future. IF there is a tax on coal put in place, North Dakota stands to lose out, because most coal for Minnesota power plants comes from North Dakota.

    On the subject of polarizing battles between states in the USA… I live in the northeast, and I don’t really see much in the way of squabbling that hasn’t been going on since the founding of the country. It was hard to get an unruly bunch of 13 states to work together then; it’s somewhat easier now, after a century of strong central government. But there are always squabbles between and amongst the states, like neighbors in a neighborhood. ‘Who’s tree is growing over the fence and shading the petunias’ kind of stuff. The media coverage, however, tends to make these things seem more significant than they are. So, no, I don’t expect a Second US Civil War any time soon; the commonalities amongst the states still outweigh the differences.

  2. Philip Brewer says:

    One thing that minimizes these differences and strengthens unity in general is freedom of movement. A US citizen doesn’t need anyone’s permission to move from state to state–you don’t even have to tell a government agency that you’ve done so. (As a practical matter you probably will to get a new driver’s license and have your mail forwarded, but there’s no formal restrictions on such movements.)

    People move where the jobs are, mostly, although they move for a lot of other reasons, too. But the result is that lots and lots of people are living in states other than the ones they were born in or grew up in.

    I just read an interesting article (in the Economist, I think) that contrasted this with the EU where (mostly because of the language problem), people were far less likely to leave a state with fewer jobs for a state with more jobs.

  3. Chad says:

    As an American I do think we have larger religio-econo-political schisms than in the recent past (30 years). There are other events in our history which have created larger schisms (Revolutionary War, Civil War, Great Depression, Vietnam), but this is the largest recent schism.

    It is also very noticeable as the extremists, on all sides, have gotten more of a voice through TV, radio, and the internet than they have in the past. Plus, we had one in office for 8 years, which didn’t help.

    As someone who grew up in a small town (less than 5,000 people) and now lives in Washington, DC, I think the schism boils down to city vs. small town. The small towns feel attacked, as they hate change and change is all they can see. They blame all the city people for this change. In turn, the cities are dumbfounded by the inability of small town citizens to adapt and prosper economically and culturally. There are obviously numerous other reasons, but from my vantage point it boils down to people who hate change (more common in small towns) and people who willingly change (more common in larger cities).

    This split is played up in the current culture war largely, but not entirely, stoked by the Republicans.

    However, with all that being said, I don’t see the US fracturing. It’s not at that level.

  4. David says:

    This particular instance is a garden-variety legal spat between various governments in our federal system. For instance, in my neck of the woods the state of Mississippi is suing my city of Memphis, Tennessee, over water rights. We in turn may sue them over unpaid emergency-room bills incurred by indigent Mississippians. Ho hum.

    In terms of a “religio-econo-political schism,” Chad (#3) has it right that the real differences are between progressive cities and regressive rural areas. (Suburban counties are a wild card, since they tend to be politically conservative like rural areas but less insular.)

    After the 2004 election, the Seattle Stranger published a brilliant piece called “The Urban Archipelago: It’s the Cities, Stupid”: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=19813. It’s a great summary of the divide from an urbanite standpoint.

    As someone who grew up in small towns, I have to say something in their defense: rural America has been hammered by a virtually uninterrupted recession for at least three decades. The best and brightest escape as soon as they graduate high school, leaving old folks and lower achievers behind. I wonder how progressive and change-friendly most cities would become in those circumstances.

  5. Chad says:

    @ David
    I completely agree with your final point/paragraph. This “brain drain” from small towns has been going on for a long time (20-30 years) and is only increasing. 99% of my intelligent friends and relatives below the age of 30 have left my old hometown for mid-size or larger cities.

    The unfortunate part of this is that people in small towns tend to rely on neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family in the same town for political, economic, and social ideas far more than city dwellers. This isn’t necessarily bad until you factor in the “brain drain.” Essentially over the past 30 years small town America has been steadily getting worse and worse “advisors”,as so few of the best of them stay (most of the best couldn’t stay even if they wanted to).

    They also inherently distrust city dwellers and educated people (the “evil” elite), and are HUGE conspiracy fans.

    This is not to say that small town America doesn’t have something to add to any religio-econo-political discussion, but the lack of decent “advisors” has crippled them in any discussion. The discussion has to start so far down the ladder you have no hope of ever getting to a meaningful part.

  6. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    I watch the US legal scene for a living and once practiced law in both Texas and Washington, DC, so I am frequently entertained by the oddities that develop in our federal/state split. The legal discipline of conflict of laws has a particular US twist — determining which state law applies to a given situation. Generally, it’s a more international subject, dealing with which country’s laws apply. And the rights you have in different states can vary enormously, even with major increases in federal power over the years. (Despite rhetoric to the contrary, such expansions of federal power occur in both Republican and Democratic administrations.) A suit between states is in no way unusual, though I think North Dakota is probably on pretty shaky legal ground in the one you mentioned.

    As for the schism you discuss: I think it’s becoming more pronounced. I’m shocked to realize we’re still fighting about the teaching of evolution, for example, a fight I thought was dying out when I was in high school (a shocking number of years ago) and that my father thought was on the ropes when he was young (an even more shocking number of years ago). I could easily write a believable SF story about a new American Civil War (if Futurismic would be interested, I’ll give it a try), but the battle lines won’t break down between north and south as they did in 1861. There are plenty of progressive spots in the so called red states, and I’m sure there are some very right-wing enclaves in the more liberal jurisdictions. Any war could easily be neighbor against neighbor.

    Anyway, having finally moved back to my “sweet sunny south” (Austin) where we’re having winter for the first time in the two years since I moved, I have no desire to move to Vermont or some other similar place where the statewide politics are better, but the winter days are short and cold and covered in nasty snow. I refuse to give up the magnificent US southwest to the right wing without a fight (though we may have to give it up to the rattlesnakes if climate change dries up the little bit of water remaining).

  7. SMD says:

    Speaking as an American: No, I don’t feel that the union is strained. A lot of what is going on is a lot of unfounded talk that is getting play on radio/TV precisely because it’s so unusual. But, the reality is that there isn’t much in the way of actual legitimate change in the union itself. A few crazy people here or there, but mostly the crazy you see on our ridiculous news outlets are what sells, not what is representative of actual America.

  8. Eric Rice says:

    As a native Californian, sure, I totally feel like there’s a split– one that doesn’t have some strict geographic line like we did during the Civil War. Urban vs. Rural, Coasts vs. Inland. The differences between Left and Right are pretty vast, and those that may be in the middle somewhere, have no strong represenation– it’s about who/what offends you the least.

    What we have now (and will have more of in the future) is a much larger megaphone in the internet. We can instantaneously be surrounded by like-minded people regardless of location (and that’s planetary, btw). We hear a lot of ‘united we stand’ rhetoric, but it’s what the leaders HAVE to say.

    I could map out an entire nation based on the comfortable spheres and nodes that are online. A meta-country, if you will. It’s somewhat post-national perhaps, but hey, before the end of my lifetime, I’m sure moving around from country-to-country will be as natural for us as moving from state-to-state. (Moving from California to Alabama might as well be as similar as moving from Germany to Japan)