Remember a decade ago? Remember David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise”? Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”? It was supposed to be the trendy places and the college towns, the warm-weather beaches and the hipsters’ ski resorts where the new American culture would fund the new American economy. Instead, it’s Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Williston. Instead, it’s North Dakota - North Dakota, of all places: the cold end of the old buffalo commons, the back end of beyond.
Call it the revenge of the 1950s, the return of the old-fashioned social truths. North Dakota: The Land That Ironic Postmodernism Forgot! For that matter, The Land the Recession Forgot!
It’s a “tax, regulatory and legal environment that’s quite extraordinary,” says Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, and all of a sudden, the state is showing up on lists where you’d never expect it. No. 1 in road maintenance, says the Reason Foundation. Forbes magazine puts Fargo high on its lists of top college towns and best small places for business careers - and the whole state above neighboring Minnesota on the annual list of best states for business. For two years, it’s led the nation in growth of gross domestic product. The state unemployment rate, 3.6 percent in March, is the nation’s lowest.
Part of that, of course, derives from the development of the Bakken shale fields in the western part of the state, using fracking to release the oil from the shale formations. Now the fourth-largest producer in the nation, North Dakota has gone from 3,000 barrels a day in 2005 to 225,000 barrels in 2010. Harold Hamm, president of Continental Resources, the leading leaseholder and driller in the Bakken shales, told CNN that the industry employs more than 30,000 workers, up from 5,000 in 2005.
For 20 years, the population of Williston had been declining, down to 12,000 in the 2000 census. Now workers are packed into dormitories and double-wides out on the prairie - through winters where the average January day gets down to 3 below zero. In Bismarck alone, according to Newsweek, the number of high-paying energy jobs has increased by 23 percent since 2003, while professional jobs have risen 40 percent.
But it wasn’t oil jobs out West that made Microsoft purchase Great Plains Software in 2001 or keep the original Fargo production center, which has grown to become the company’s second-largest campus. It was something else that made Craig Patnode relocate Eldermark assisted living software company to Jamestown and brought Laserlith to Grand Forks. It was some North Dakota kind of culture that kept the Case New Holland tractor company, John Deere and Bobcat going.
North Dakota was never a rich state. Thirty years ago, 20 years ago, Fargo was a second-tier prairie city, and everyone with any sense lived across the river in Moorhead, on the Minnesota side of the border. Grand Forks was slipping downhill - the services and the amenities, the whole look of life better in Minnesota’s East Grand Forks.
It’s “striking now how much more advanced the North Dakota side has become,” Mr. Peterson observed, with “the Minnesota towns looking run-down and poor” in their schools, parks and roads, “the growth happening on the North Dakota side” of the river.
That’s the Red River, of course, which flooded two years ago, and in the great flood of 2009, Midwesterners responded with shared purpose and a can-do spirit that seemed a throwback to an older vision of America. North Dakota hasn’t suffered financially as much as other states during this long recession for reasons that may lie partly in the survival of an earlier code of values. It didn’t have the housing collapse because it didn’t have prices inflated by speculative borrowing. North Dakota traditionally runs a small surplus in its state budget, and it responded to the current upturn in revenues with a 19.5 percent individual tax reduction and a 20.5 percent corporate tax cut.
Why is this any surprise? You have a homogenous population with a retention of old values - honesty, industry, thrift and the like. You have none of the exciting run-up of spiraled debt paying for social services and retirement benefits that produced the budget crises in states such as Illinois and California. You have communities of churchgoers with a non-ironic view of life. That endless prairie - too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter - kept away the hipsters and the speculators and the bobos and the angry activists and all the rest. North Dakota was a joke to them all.
A little harder to laugh, these days.
• Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.