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The Cannibal South
An inferiority complex-ridden region depends on eating its own.
“New York and California Each Lost $1 Trillion When Financial Firms Moved South” a Bloomberg headline blared this week. The headline itself was journalistic malpractice—in fact, the $1 trillion it referred to was the combined amount of assets managed by all of the financial firms who moved, a number designed to look big in a news story but that tells you little about the actual economic impact of these firms leaving. Now we are sure to get politicians waving that headline around clamoring for tax cuts, and frantic residents assuming that New York, a state with a $229 billion annual budget, has fallen $771 billion in the hole thanks to the decline in bottle service revenue from Wall Street analysts who relocated to Miami.
Still, the underlying trend is real. Since the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, more than two million people have migrated to the six fastest growing states in the South, bringing with them $100 billion in new income. This population shift is held up by Southern governors as proof of the success of their policies—and as a herald of an ongoing shift in the balance of economic power that is bound to continue due to the South’s inherent advantages. What spurred this grand relocation? Traditional wisdom will tell you that it was the more relaxed and open posture of Southern states like Florida during the Covid pandemic, along with the perpetual allures of warmer weather, lower taxes, and more affordable housing prices.
In reality, though, this current sloshing of America towards its drain is not the start of anything new at all. It is spurred not by any new economic paradigm, nor by any Texan or Floridian governor’s new ideas about unleashing the power of free enterprise under the nation’s sunniest skies. It is, instead, a normal reaction to a temporary rise in the appeal of something that the South has been offering for more than 200 years. Politicians will tell you that the South is attractive because it offers greater freedom. Actually, it offers cannibalism: it is willing to kill and eat its own to fuel a marginal improvement in your lifestyle. Don’t let this deal pass you by!
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Ron Desantis is running (unsuccessfully) for president on the premise that he can do for America what he has done for Florida in the past three years. One way to look at his record during those crucial Covid years is: he kept stuff open and got rid of pandemic restrictions, which caused the Florida economy to flourish. Another, more accurate way to look at it is: he kept stuff open and got rid of pandemic restrictions because he fundamentally does not care whether his citizens live or die, as long as his state could get a temporary economic boost that he could use for self-promotional purposes. In this, Desantis was the perfect combination of the classic Southern socioeconomic strategy with a global pandemic. Ever since being forced to give up formal slavery at gunpoint, the South has pursued a formula of attraction only one step removed from it. The region’s offer to businesses and wealthy people in the rest of America is, and has always been, this: “Come to the South. Do whatever you want. We won’t regulate you. We won’t tax you. We’ll crush any unions that dare to come here. We’ll provide a pool of dirt-cheap labor for you. Because we don’t tax you, our public services will be awful. Our public schools will be inadequate. But don’t worry, because we will build graceful private schools for the people with money, and we will build private country clubs and gated communities to shield you from the poverty, and racist cops to police the borders of the neighborhoods, and you can live here in a private island of bliss. The inadequacy of our public services and our outright racial oppression guarantee that that cheap labor force will continue forever. You can profit from that cheap labor force without ever having to interact with the people who compose it, except as various forms of servants. The oppression, sequestered away from you and walled off from impacting your life except to enhance it, is what makes the system work.”
That’s it. That’s the South’s sales pitch. It is the poorest and most backwards region of America by traditional socioeconomic measurements, but it’s great place to be when you exclude all of the poor people from your measurements. Which they do, because “not caring about all the poor people” is the key to the South’s ability to imagine itself as a place with a political system that works. This is the slavery mentality dragged cleanly into the present day, modified just enough to fit the letter of the law. In the plantation era, the South was great, as long as you were a plantation owner. If you add all the slaves (and poor whites) into the calculation… ugh, you mess up the numbers. Despite the fact that the South’s failure to industrialize properly due to slavery was one of the things that lost it the Civil War, the region remains stubbornly addicted to cheap labor today. It is, at heart, an inferiority complex. The South’s leaders don’t really believe that they have anything to offer to lure people in other than a work force that will show up for rock bottom wages. If the South really believed in itself, it would be busily investing in public education and health care and a strong social safety net and all the other things that build a healthy and thriving society that ultimately attracts people and businesses. Instead, they do the opposite—because empowering the existing residents of the South would undermine its cheap labor pool.
When you see Southern governors doing seemingly irrational things like rejecting federal government Medicaid funding for their state’s residents, you must understand that the people who would be helped by that funding simply do not count in the minds of those states’ leaders. Their states are modern plantations, and they calculate the success of their governance based on the living standards of the plantation owners, not the workers. Even worse, doing things that help the workers live better could harm the project of maintaining a maximally desperate labor pool. The South doesn’t want their entire population to be healthy and well-educated. They want white people and business owners to be healthy, thanks to private doctors, and well-educated, due to private schools, and to have access to a limitless low-wage work force that, thanks to the failure of the state to invest in their welfare, has no choice but to acquiesce to being exploited. The more desperate they are, the better.
When you see Texas Republicans eliminate laws that grant workers water breaks, that is not some momentary outbreak of callousness; that is the point. When you see Nikki Haley say that she doesn’t want a single unionized company to come to South Carolina because they will “taint the water,” and when you see her decent friendly aw shucks counterpart Tim Scott say on the presidential debate stage that he wants to “break the backs of the teachers unions,” you are hearing the rational articulation of the governing philosophy that has been guiding the South since well before Sherman’s march. “Come live in a beautiful gated community, and we’ll make sure the servants never rise up.” That’s it. It is a philosophy underpinned not just by deep racism and bottomless greed, but by a sad inability to imagine that the South could ever succeed on its own merits. For all of the rabid claims of “Southern pride” by the Confederate flag-wavers, they have never given any indication that they believe that anyone would want to live next door to them without the economic enticements of an underclass that is dying for work.
When life in Chicago or New York or L.A. gets to feel like a bit of a grind, it is easy for outsiders with money to decide that the deal that the South is offering is a good one. What those outsiders don’t care to reckon with is the fact that, in the long run, cannibalism doesn’t work. When they run out of poor people to eat, guess who’s next? The hedge fund zillionaires and Wall Street firms that relocated to Miami and are now squabbling among themselves about the shortage of elite private school space will come to find in time that what brought them there will be the same thing that drives them away. The price of their low taxes is a state that doesn’t take care of its people. Great cities are produced by shared prosperity; bubbles of prosperity, whether on plantations or private islands in Biscayne Bay, sooner or later are faced with the realization that they need a society to support themselves, as well.
Embracing the South’s toxic sales pitch pollutes the soul. “I am moving to Florida because the total lack of public health measures is nice and easy for me, as a rich person, even though I know it will cost a calculable number of Floridians their lives.” You are a bad person. “I am moving to Texas to save on my personal income taxes, even though I know that the cost of that is poor schools and oppression for vast swaths of this state’s neediest residents.” You are a bad person. “I am relocating my company’s factory to South Carolina because labor costs there are lower, even though I know that those low wages are a result of systematic oppression and union-busting designed to keep millions of poor people powerless over their own lives.” You are a bad person. The bliss of ignorance is a critical part of this whole process. Move only between your air conditioned home on a golf course and your air conditioned office and your kids’ private school and the nice strip malls around your nice neighborhood and don’t ask any questions of the people who build the houses and serve the food and fill the factories and it is possible to cling to the illusion that this whole system works. But as soon as you begin to think about the aggregate welfare of everyone in the South—as soon as you place an equal value on the lives of the poor—it becomes devastatingly clear that all the nice enticements that tempted you down here require you to stand, at all times, on the necks of your fellow citizens. If you know that and continue to tolerate it, the South has poisoned you.
Once you know what the South is really selling, you are obligated to resist it. If you want to stay, you can’t just lay back and enjoy the fruits of the oppression. I’m sorry. I know the beach is nice and all. But the price is too high.
There is an entire chapter in my upcoming book “The Hammer” about South Carolina, as the single most anti-union state in America—perhaps the most intense example of the Southern system I write about above. You can preorder my book here or here, or wherever books are sold. Would be pretty cool if you did.
To preview the presidential debates this week, MSNBC ran a series of pieces about the candidates. I wrote this piece about Chris Christie. I put some funny lines in it at first but they all got edited out. Sorry.
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