Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Land Rant

Mallory has a post up about the nature of guilt and justice regarding American Indians today. I personally reject the guilt and I'm not sure that today's justice can be or should be applied. It's not that I am against the Indians. Like most Americans, I would favor the preservation of Indian language and culture. I like the fact that Indians are persisting and even prospering in places. I also like the fact that many are prospering within the mainstream economy. As a conservationist, I would love to see Indian lands preserved in their natural condition. Tony Hillerman is one of my favorite writers. I cried watching Dances with Wolves. What can I say? I haven't shot a buffalo in years.

The issue in my mind is that we are all victims, subject to the cruel Malthusian forces of economics and nature. And we are all victors. We are the ones who are alive today, no matter what our genealogy might tell us. We are all the ones who have benefitted from the exploits and exploitations of our ancestors. We are the products of the past, but we are not the past.

The forces that made us are usually underestimated. We think that we should have done this or that, but at the time there was really less choice than you might imagine. If I choose not to take money from an anonymous lost wallet, it does not mean that the wallet will remain unmolested until the owner returns for it. Economic opportunities will be exploited without mercy. We are all descended from those who picked up the wallet.

But we don't have to settle for that. Collectively we can make the rules better. Government can and must be redesigned to have sufficient strength, competence, and wisdom to impose justice and fairness on today's transactions, to preserve the productivity of the land for future generations. We don't have to sit idly while the Pirates pilfer our pensions and poison our planet.

Our government has, in fact, always tried to act in this way, to protect the land, to promote the common interest, to defend the helpless. It is however, a stupid and corruptible government, a rickety compromise, designed to balance multiple contesting forces and preserve some residue of sanity in our collective actions.

I've talked about alot of this before, and I imagine I'll be talking about it again. At any rate, I'm re-posting the comment I left for Mallory below:

In a capitalist, market-driven society, there is a terrible pressure to make the best use possible of land -- that is, to make the most economically productive use of that land, or any other resource. On the Jersey shore, for example, you will, in many places, find developers circling like vultures, looking for any means possible to acquire an underdeveloped lot. The phenomenon is called "tear-downs". They buy the comfortable old summer homes at high prices, tear them down, rebuild with giant, attractive modern homes, and still reap enormous profits.

During my life I've seen many productive farms eaten up by the tide of suburban growth. Farmers could not afford the property taxes; their children did not wish to become farmers because of the unfavorable economics; developers squeezed them out somehow. Sometimes they sold part of the land to finance the remainder. I have heard that even Foxcatcher estates, made famous by the duPont murder case, has been sold to developers.

Standing against this tide are local zoning boards and conservation groups. They can put the profit out of reach by mandating extremely large lots, or limiting the number of water hookups, or specifying rigid building codes. Sometimes they can purchase the development rights from a farmer in order to keep the land intact.

But these organizations are staffed by people. People are subject to persuasion and bribery. Believe me, these people can be very persuasive, and there is enough money there to pay for a lot of corruption and legislative influence. For instance, they can pay a town official to promote an anti-noise or anti-odor ordinance. Then they pay community members to complain about farm odors or noises.

This is the kind of pressure the Indians were under for a couple hundred years. They were defenseless against the farmers, just as the farmers are defenseless today, because the land was economically underutilized. This profit opportunity was more dangerous than that of the Gold Rush because it was relentlessly exploited and attracted swarms of the most unscrupulous men. The process fostered a vicious and profitable anti-Indian sub-culture. Are we personally responsible for this? Not unless we are in the position to change the flow of economic history.

1/3/2006 2:46 PM

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At Tuesday, January 03, 2006 11:00:00 PM, Blogger Frank Warner said...

For at least 50 years, we've known the biggest problem with American Indian reservations is that the Indians own their land in common, which means they own no land personally.

Without the sense of personal ownership, the reservations provide no incentive to improve anything. The result: Little improves, and the Indians are no less dependent on U.S. taxpayers now than they were 50 years ago, and the Indians are not happy about it.

Worse yet is the recent development of casinos. Once again, Indian tribes are being told not to improve themselves, but to count on windfalls without effort. And in the case of casinos, it's a windfall that ruins whatever culture the Indians had left.

OK, I don't like to point to problems without offering a solution, so here's one:

Set aside the vast beautiful centers of each reservation as permanently protected nature preserves. Then, at each reservation, set aside a large peripheral residential area, divided exactly in half: Half of the residential land would be owned by the Indians in common, the way reservations are owned today.

The other half would be divided into privately owned lots of equal size, and one lot would be given to each inhabitant (man, woman and child) of the reservation. Let the Indians buy, sell and trade this land with Indians and non-Indians, and watch the reservations' economies grow, their schools improve and their hopes rise.

At Wednesday, January 04, 2006 8:08:00 AM, Blogger mal said...

a couple of FYI's for you.

The Shakopee Band of Ouijibwe (SP?) are reportedly netting over 1 mil per year per member from gambling proceeds

Tear downs are also going on in prime areas of California too. Newport, Santa Barbara, San Diego et al

Some of the last farmers in Orange County Calif have had their ownership put under pressure by "Urban renewal" and the latest condemnation for redevelopment approved by the Supreme Court.

Money talks. I just hope it is not the only voice we choose to hear

At Wednesday, January 04, 2006 10:27:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...


The sharks are always circling. The people who know what the sharks are up to can't do anything about them because of the Bandwidth Tyranny.

Gambling only makes money because of an artificial shortage enforced by the state governments. These artificial monopolies will fade as the sharks habituate the population to the presense of casinos. Casinos will eventually go up everywhere except Salt Lake City. The Indians will then have to think of something else. Eco-tourism would be my preference.

At Wednesday, January 04, 2006 11:03:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...


If you're going to divvy up the land among the current inhabitants, equal size lots would probably not be the fairest way to go. There are so-called "cake-cutting" algorithms appropriate for producing win-win proportions so that everybody gets the kind of lot they want.

I'm tempted, but not completely willing to endorse your libertarian solution. The fact that nobody has stolen this land, or forced out the Indians, or found some way to make a deal for it, indicates to me that the current use may be the most economically productive.

I agree with you about the deleterious impact of dependency and windfall profit schemes. The other dimension of the situation is that we are not willing to allow the individual Indians to suffer the consequences of their actions. This is a form of Social Security, driven by our generally low opinion of Indian competence -- and by our feelings of guilt. We value what we think the Indian culture could be or should be, and so we are willing to subsidise it. We regret what has happened to them and preserve their communal ownership in order to make some sort of amends. I don't know how much of this is good or bad.

The normal course of events would be the complete dissolution of the reservations and the dispersion of the populations into the mainstream culture, where some would succeed and some would fail, just as it is for the rest of us. This is actually what is happening under the covers in spite of the reservation system. Mainstream culture sneaks in. Successful members of the tribe go elsewhere, visiting occasionally like the rest of us might visit our grandparents on the farm. Some tribes do better than others, finding novel ways to preserve and promote some version of their culture while accommodating the tacit demands of the larger culture.

The fact of life is that we can only go forward. We will never recover the life of the old tribes, but I'm hoping we can at least maintain the extra dimension, the cultural variety that they contribute. I don't know how we're going to do that, but I think the first step is finding out how to make government work better.

At Wednesday, January 04, 2006 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Frank Warner said...

The exact formula for dividing up American Indian land among the Indians is not so important as the divvying it up itself. The lots could be identical sizes, and they could be dealt out by lottery.

The principal idea is that each Indian would own land personally, with the right to build on it, sell it, trade it or buy more land. The current system is suffocating the Indians. Personal ownership would build on personal pride and personal initiative, of which Indians naturally have as much as anyone else.

The fact that no one has forced the Indians out of these reservations does not indicate the land’s current use is the most economically productive. It indicates only that most Indian land is remote. But because of common tribal ownership, almost none of it is economically productive in a way that puts Indians to work or allows them to apply their skills and creativity.

In the meantime, the Indian culture, as most Americans imagine it, is vanishing. If you go to any Indian reservation, you’ll find most of the teenagers aren’t sitting around studying tribal traditions. They’re watching American TV like other American teenagers, and a disproportionate number of them act and talk like inner-city kids. So much for subsidizing Indian culture.

Dividing the residential areas of Indian reservations into tribe-owned and individual-owned areas would test whether reservations are the problem, or whether the real problem is the lack of personal autonomy on the reservations. If an Indian can never say, “This is my house,” or “This is my auto repair shop,” then there is little left for him to plan for.

Better federal and tribal government would help. But better government doesn’t cling to destructive policies. It abandons them.

At Thursday, January 05, 2006 12:06:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...


I think that Joe Leaphorn might see it your way, but Jim Chee might not. I really don't know whether land distribution would be better, but I'm leaving room for the possibility that applied libertarian formulas do not fit all situations. Cultures really do foster different ways of thinking, which is a very good thing.

I yield to no one regarding my respect for the power of The Market to improve people's lives in general. I do, however, see that it can devastate lives in particular. This might be a case where they are more particulars than generals.

The structural ineptitude and corruption prone nature of government is, IMO, the explanation for a lot of the world's suffering and most of the dysfunctional aspects of reservation life. Improving the communication interface between the the people who push the levers and the people who get pushed is vital.

By the way, I think that FreeFrankWarner exemplifies part of that solution. Honest bloggers who focus on specific viewpoints and educate themselves on specific issues provide stronger links in the TruthTelling network than ever existed before. The good memes are no longer being scattered on shallow soil.

This network has matured to the point that it can effect legislative change in blunt ways, such as the PA Legislature pay raise revolt -- an internet coup. It might be a while, though, before it can disentangle all the issues affecting American Indians and distribute that information to the right places.

Meanwhile, it might be nice to locate and defuse the future Michael Browns of the BIA.

At Thursday, January 05, 2006 11:35:00 PM, Blogger Frank Warner said...

One more point:

I'm not proposing a divvying up of all American Indian lands among the Indians. I'm proposing only that a portion of it be divided up.

In other words, I'm not advocating a thorough libertarian plunge. I'm suggesting a side-by-side comparison.

First, as I said, the tribes should decide forever to protect the main natural regions of their reservations. You might not have noticed, but many of these formerly beautiful Indian lands are being trashed with junked trucks and discarded mobile homes.

Second, set off a large area of each reservation for villages and other forms of residential and commercial development. HALF of this area should be divided among all Indians for personal ownership.

I could be wrong, but I doubt the persistent poverty and hopelessness on Indian reservations are due primarily to structural ineptitude and corruption, unless you concede that denying each Indian the right to own a piece of land is itself structural ineptitude and corruption.


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