CUT BAIT

Posted in Rants on June 7th, 2017 by Ed

It is fashionable and born of good intentions to say that Community as a concept is important, positive, and is worth preserving. All of those things can be true while also recognizing that at some point the patient is deceased and no amount of medical intervention will bring it back to life.

Cairo, IL just received attention in the form of an NPR story about its latest in a drawn-out series of death throes. For those who have not had the pleasure, Cairo (KAY-row) is the worst and saddest place you can find in the United States. I have been to all 50 states. I have driven through every inch of the Midwest, which practically abounds with Sad Places. Cairo is the worst. It is a cross between a theme park Ghost Town and a FEMA camp for evacuees from a natural disaster. There is nothing in Cairo. Nothing.

Cairo was important and viable a long time ago due to its geographic position at the confluence of two major rivers. Since this is not the 19th Century anymore and riverboats are not the driving force behind the economy of the region, there no longer is any reason for Cairo to exist. It is conveniently positioned for river traffic but otherwise totally desolate. It is a four-plus hour drive to any city of consequence (St. Louis, Louisville) and even a solid hour removed from remote backwaters like Paducah, KY. When a description of your location uses both "Paducah" and "one hour from," you are admitting defeat.

Even the schools in Cairo are closing, and not for the trendy budget-slashing reasons. They are closing because there are no students. Everybody able to leave this place has left. They have left because there is no reason to stay. Emotionally, I find the willingness of the remaining residents to try to Save Cairo endearing. Intellectually I know that A) it will not work and B) there is no defensible reason to try.

When the state and Federal governments reckon the amount of money they pour into a place like Cairo, the following offer would be in the best interests of everyone involved: give every man, woman, and child in Cairo who does not own a home a voucher for a free moving van, a check for $10,000, and advice on places they could move that are not totally devoid of opportunities and amenities. Give every home or property owner in the city a check for their property and send them on their way similarly. Just pull the plug. The place is finished. Go.

If that seems ludicrously expensive, cutting checks would cost little compared to the long term costs of keeping places like this on life support for no reason anyone can articulate. And there is plenty of precedent for it. The EPA and Congress have evacuated communities before due to determinations that remediation would be so prohibitively expensive that the only cost-effective option is to pay people for their property and move them elsewhere. Gilman, CO. Picher, OK. Centralia, PA (of the infamous smoldering underground mine fires). Times Beach, MO (which is so soaked in dioxin that even the rodents died). These are not examples from 1850 during the Gold Rush. These are recent. This can be done. It is done, when deemed necessary.

It is not absolutely necessary to wait for enough toxic material or enough flaming coal to accumulate before the government decides that a place is no longer habitable. A broader view would include things like economic prospects and quality of life in determining habitability. The problem places like Cairo cannot solve is that the provision of public goods is expensive and providing them in the middle of nowhere at great cost for no obvious reason is a proposition that, rather than leading to eventual improvement, signals the beginning of a death spiral from which small towns rarely if ever recover.

I want to be clear that my point is not "Let Cairo fail" but that Cairo has already failed. It's dead. This is not Detroit, a place with all the amenities of urban life that is struggling to realign its public policy with its reduced population. This is a tiny city that has literally nothing going for it, where the few people who remain are either directly or indirectly (through government employment, just about the only decent employment remaining) subsidized. If subsidizing the population had the tiniest hope of improving the situation there I would be all for it. But it doesn't take an expert in economics or urban planning to take a look at the place in person and realize that it has flatlined.

Should the government go on a town-killing spree to save money? Absolutely not. But with a handful of the worst cases, it would make sense to ask what rationale there is for trying to save places that are too far gone to ever recover when the money could be better used to provide the same citizens with meaningful improvements and better quality of life elsewhere. There is a point at which cutting bait and declaring that there is nothing left to do is in fact the right thing to do.