THE NEW CITY
Nebraska’s communities come in four basic forms: rural agriculture, small, medium, and the Metro. Trends foretell the future of each to a high degree of probability.
Agriculture will continue its consolidation at the same breakneck speed as it has over the last half century which saw the small independent family farm eagerly give up its milk cows, laying hens, and feeder pigs; bulldoze its shelterbelts and homesteads; and morph into a cog in a complex food mechanism totally dependent on the genetics, chemistry, fuel, technology, and engineering of the corporate and financial world. Local estate planning lawyers and accountants packaged the farms and ranches into LLC’s, Corporations, Trusts, and intra familial associations and locked them into an irreversible course of increasing size and fewer numbers. As the heirs to those estates come to grips with frustrations of familial corporate management, the inability to remain viable against bigger and more sophisticated mechanisms of corporate finance, and an abhorrence to paying tax on the liquidation of appreciated assets, the normal corporate evolution will take place in the coming era of mergers and acquisitions. Irrespective of who owns title to the land, it will be controlled by sophisticated finance and remote management. Drone equipment will till the land, harvest its fruits, and raise and slaughter the livestock with unprecedented economic integration and only a small core of personnel needed in the field. Corporate, vertically integrated operations will dominate agriculture. The land and water will produce more grains and meats than ever imaginable in any other configuration.
Half of Nebraska’s communities have less population than Lodgepole’s 317. Incented by the free land of the Homestead Act, they once were refuges from the repression of religions and nobles in the "old country". Their now decaying main streets tell the history of the excitement of freedom and the anticipation of the future that is so indicative of an ascending society. The old timers will point out the ghosts of beer halls, schools, opera houses, blacksmith’s shops, dance parlors, general stores, gambling rooms, churches, banks, bakeries, and brothels. Then came the drought, the depression, the Great War, and the tractor, combine, and corn picker. Those forces cast the vast majority of communities under 5,000 in population on a glide path to oblivion that spans most of the last century. Increases in the efficiencies of agriculture dramatically decreased the need for the support mechanisms of the smaller communities. There is no credible reason for that trend to reverse. The simple fact is that the people to maintain their population were either never born there, or facing the realities of geography, climate, and culture, do not choose to move there in numbers sufficient enough to offset those who leave or die. That leaves only a costly and unpopular international migration as a possible source of population growth. Those that show some viability usually have a fountain of public funds as an anchor, such as a county seat, community college, public power office, state college, health facility, or correctional unit. They are heavily dependent on infrastructure subsidies from the state and federal government. Their demographics show that their population, like that of most of the state, is growing much older and, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, much more likely to constitute a substantial new burden on state finances over the coming decades.
Only about 30 of the State's 535 communities exceed 5,000 in population and many of them attracted basic manufacturing capital and know-how by promising cheap, non-unionized labor and cheap electricity. No longer is there an endless supply of farm children with the basic skills such as pounding, cutting, digging, welding, winding, and cleaning, destined to grow up to be reliable, hard working, cheap labor. Cheap electricity dates to an era where the public power model could realistically be expected to out perform the private power model, an assumption which will come under increasing scrutiny as public power’s engine of creative capital organization continues to be transformed into a cumbersome bureaucracy managing an electric utility. The bulk of the communities over 5,000 in population will lumber along at low growth of about 3-5% per decade, largely as a result of migration from nearby smaller communities. They will fret over such things as how to shape their youth into a low cost, non-union workforce trained at taxpayer expense; use that workforce to bait corporate investment; subsidize housing for those employees; and leverage local agricultural resources into some competitive edge in a national competition with similar sized communities.
Having eliminated most of the state as a locus for robust economic development it would seem to leave the metro area, that area within an hour of downtown Omaha, as the economic epicenter of the State. That area has a proven ability to grow, largely as a refuge for population leaving the rural areas and often as a result of tremendous state investment in state government and a university system which attracts the young to study and mate. The Metro has a good number of people with extraordinary wealth who invested much in it. Insurance companies find a favorable regulatory environment and take advantage of the situation. It has staked its future on growth that is contingent upon it having ample rural population to draw from and the superior performance of financial investments made there. In the plethora of Internet rankings the area manages a favorable presence. It has a world class zoo and a heavily endowed medical center that has perhaps broken the glass ceiling of national recognition. However, the mainstays of the philanthropy are aged and their heirs may have less loyalty. The stream of population flowing into it from rural areas gradually is drying up and is somewhat offset by those migrating away to competing metros. It sports only one building that qualifies as a sky scraper. Its airports offer limited schedules with generally less comfortable aircraft and few direct flights to necessary centers of commerce. It has substantial reliance on expenditures by a federal government subject to policy whims and changing military realities. It is much too familiar with 100 degrees in the shade in the summer and a high of zero in the winter. One of its longer slopes is on the county landfill and the metro beach is on the river. Much of its infrastructure is old and the sewer system is under federal mandate as a result of mixing sewage with rain water and discharging it into the river. It lacks amenities offered by larger cities such as subways, sky trains, major league ball teams, world class museums, and casinos (although a short distance to the east in Iowa there are several feasting on its money at the rate of about $10 per second). It is haunted by the dysfunctional reality of two very divergent Nebraskans that must be integrated into a single policy resulting in burdens that its interstate competition may not have.
Although the Metro area may be near the densities needed for critical mass in such endeavors as the insurance world and at the medical center, it is still in a remote area with low population, marginal climate, and a culture generally resistant to the change and adaptation. Although it likely will fair satisfactorily, the Metro is far from guaranteed a good long term showing in the national economic competition of geography, climate, and culture. Never-the-less, for all practical purposes, Nebraska has all its non-agricultural eggs in a single nest high in a windblown tree.
Are Nebraskans powerless to intervene in such fate? Probably yes, but maybe no.
What if we were bold, really bold? What if we did something not done before? What if instead of being a Johnnie-come-lately to the party, Nebraska did something first? What if demographics and global economic trends could be made to work for us instead of against us? What if large existing assets could be leveraged to create something new, desirable, attractive, and of extreme value decades from now? What if Nebraska does not need to have all its eggs in one nest? What if it is us, our state constitution, laws, regulations, taxes, presuppositions, culture … all of it, that stands in the way of adapting to this new and enchanting environment? What if we could free ourselves from the echoes of the past and the clatter of the present, cut free of our moorings, bring our masts to full sail, and cast out into a sea more open than any sea heretofore? What if a global giant or assemblage of giants could be enhanced and its greatness amplified by us simply getting out of the way and letting it plant an acorn destined to grow into a great oak to grace the prairie one hundred years from now? What if we heard the nearly imperceptible beckoning of the future and willed greatness?
BEHOLD – THE NEW CITY
The new city is an avant-garde approach to the new global economy, multinational corporate reality, and the accumulation of enormous wealth in a limited number of enormously successful personalities and institutions. Compelled by the current prospects of a sparsely populated, inland state largely dependent on a very rudimentary economy, the New City provides a mechanism for the people of Nebraska to leverage nothingness and emerge in the vanguard of modern economic centers over the course of a century. In the year 2117 a major city unencumbered by pre 21st century design and infra-structure will have attractiveness on a par with the best geographies and climates on the planet. With nothing to tear down or construct around, the design and construction of the New City is facilitated by several orders of magnitude - Nothing has great value!
It is conservative, permitting only one such zone of limited duration in an essentially unpopulated area of no more than 36 square miles of Nebraska’s 77,358 square miles. It is enabling, empowering future Legislatures within the limits of federal law to establish the parameters of the sovereign grant to the New City developers, including the required investment, timetable, and repatriation stipulations. The value of sovereignty being in proportion to its area and duration, a required investment of tens of billions of dollars is contemplated. To the extent unrestricted by state and local regulation and taxation, the New City is poised to recapture the youthful exuberance and limitless freedom of the western frontier. - Freedom has great value!
The New City concept will enable a future Legislature to leverage enormous resources which almost certainly will otherwise lie gravely underutilized well into the 22nd century: a gigawatt of electric power generation and transmission facilities; the Union Pacific and BNSF right of ways; Tier 1 Fiber Optic connectivity in multiple directions, doorstep accessibility to locally produced organic grains and meats, one of the larger inland seas on the continent; unlimited potable water drawn from the largest aquifer on the planet; a triangle of economic power bordered by I-25, I-80, and I-76 amplifying the dynamics of Denver and the front range; a hyper-loop less than an hour away from a major international airport and from the majesty of the Rocky Mountains; and just to top it off, maybe, the world’s tallest building in an ultra modern international trade center strategically positioned in the center of North American trade. The synergistic possibilities are endless. The New City is in the spirit of the pyramids, circumnavigation of the globe, the transcontinental railroad, heavier than air flight, the Moon in a decade, and the inexplicable compulsion to be Great Again. It finds precedent in Hong Hong, Brasilia, Dubai, the District of Columbia, and the state of Israel - Imagination has great value!
Governance is the bringing into being of a future defined by the collective Will. The New City is an opportunity for Nebraskans to set the stage to collectively define a future substantially different from the one that otherwise will be.
Paul Schumacher-Member of the Legislature