Thursday, December 11, 2008

Boom Times, North Dakota Style

Photo of North Dakota sky at sunset by Flickr user Pete Baer, used under a Creative Commons license.

I just loved last weekend's New York Times article on North Dakota's so-far resilient economy.
As the rest of the nation sinks into a 12th grim month of recession, this state, at least up until now, has been quietly reveling in a picture so different that it might well be on another planet.

The number of new cars sold statewide was 27 percent higher this year than last, state records through November showed. North Dakota’s foreclosure rate was minuscule, among the lowest in the country. Many homes have still been gaining modestly in value, and, here in Fargo, construction workers can be found on any given day hammering away on a new downtown condominium complex, complete with a $540,000 penthouse (still unsold, but with a steady stream of lookers).

While dozens of states, including neighboring ones, have desperately begun raising fees, firing workers, shuttering tourist attractions and even abolishing holiday displays to overcome gaping deficits, lawmakers this week in Bismarck, the capital, were contemplating what to do with a $1.2 billion budget surplus.

And as some states’ unemployment rates stretched perilously close to the double digits in the fall, North Dakota’s was 3.4 percent, among the lowest in the country.

North Dakota’s cheery circumstance — which economic analysts are quick to warn is showing clear signs that it, too, may be in jeopardy — can be explained by an odd collection of factors: a recent surge in oil production that catapulted the state to fifth-largest producer in the nation; a mostly strong year for farmers (agriculture is the state’s biggest business); and a conservative, steady, never-fancy culture that has nurtured fewer sudden booms of wealth like those seen elsewhere (“Our banks don’t do those goofy loans,” Mr. Theel said) and also fewer tumultuous slumps.

(More here.)
North Dakota's secret? Its people just are not prone to excess. In fact, any excess is liable to freeze up in the winter and fall off.

If anything, North Dakotans can be excessive in their rejection of excess. I say this as an expat who's still got a streak of this. Also, you grow up eating hotdish, and something happens to your DNA to keep you from ever getting terribly impressed with yourself. Certainly it's hard to imagine North Dakotans cockily trading toxic mortgage securities or even getting irrationally exuberant.

So if North Dakota is now experiencing a relative boom - or at least seems to be cushioned from the worst of the recession - it's due primarily to a culture that's so far removed from Wall Street, it might as well be another country altogether.

I don't want to romanticize my birthplace. It does get really, really cold. And it's not that North Dakota is immune from economic woes. The farm crisis of the 1980s was pretty devastating.

But I do wonder if the rest of this country might take a page from North Dakotan commonsense and humility, dial down our expectations, and put community over commerce.

Oh, and we might all learn to wave laconically at every vehicle we pass while you're driving down two-lane country roads. You do this by barely lifting a finger or two off the steering wheel, whether you know the other drivers or not. (No, not that finger, remember this is North Dakota!) It's a small thing, yes, but I think it's one of many influences making it unlikely that people will write "those goofy loans."


J.B. Kochanie said...

I see that one of the key ingredients in hotdish is the ubiquitous cream of mushroom soup, aka as the Lutheran binder. Finally, I understand what Luther meant when he proclaimed, Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen. Poor guy was stuffed after all those casseroles.

Sungold said...

It's little known that among Luther's 95 theses were the following:

"Christians are to eat hotdish daily if possible, but at least once a week at church potlucks."

"Good Christian hotdish is based on Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup."

Now, my hometown had several other churches in addition to the Lutherans, so you did see Cream of Chicken used as an alternative.