I have a working theory to explain the existence of pundits like the New York Times’ Gail Collins, self-parodists who find themselves incapable of escaping the intellectual shallows of liberalism: they must all be secretly financed by a group of wealthy conservatives who regard providing endless fodder for bloggers on the right to be a form of public service.
In Collins’ newest dispatch from the outskirts of sentience, she travels to Williston, North Dakota, a sort of 21st century boomtown where unemployment hovers around one percent thanks to the huge oil reserves now accessible from the Bakken formation.
The reality of the economic dynamism in Williston is so painfully clear that Collins is forced to present it in a fairly positive light, though that doesn’t keep her from some of the reflexive sneering of a Manhattan imperialist (she sniffs that there’s a Wal-Mart instead of an adequate mall and that “The most ambitious restaurants would be classified under the heading of ‘casual dining.’).
Because Williston’s success is fueled by conventional (read: useable) energy, however, the gravitational pull of Collins’ liberalism kicks in when, in the second half of the article, she sets out to expose the unseemly side of Williston’s growth. The results are pathetic.
First, Collins takes a swing at fracking so half-hearted that she doesn’t even seem to have bothered indulging her reflexive impulse to crib some talking points from a Huffington Post op-ed by Alec Baldwin (lest you think I’m joking, it’s here). Her devastating critique includes the fact that the process “uses a lot of water” and makes the town dustier. Well.
Where she really goes off the rails, however, is in her attempt to portray the local economy as a thing of horror:
… Right now … there’s no place to live. Honestly, no place. To house its teachers, the school district has already purchased two apartment buildings, which have long since been filled even though the residents are all required to share their homes with another teacher. Superintendent Viola LaFontaine has taken to the radio airwaves, urging citizens to come up with places for the new faculty to stay.
“We’ve been getting good applicants,” LaFontaine said. “But they’ll make $31,500. When they find out an apartment is $2-3,000 a month, they say they can’t pay that.”
Yes! Housing costs in Williston, N.D., are approaching those in New York City. Many of the oil workers stash their families back wherever they came from, and live in “man camps,” some of which resemble giant stretches of storage units.
If the place you love can’t quite climb out of the recession, think of this as consolation. At least you’re not living in a man camp and waiting half an hour in line for a Big Mac.
Ms. Collins, meet supply and demand. Supply and demand, meet Ms. Collins.
What our fearless columnist is describing is the typical trajectory of boomtowns. The sudden surge of demand sends prices skyrocketing. But if her view extended beyond the tip of her nose, Collins might realize that this is the predicate for a second round of employment growth and a general lowering of prices. When demand is so high that a remote region of North Dakota can charge rents rivaling those of the beating heart of New York City, it’s an open invitation for developers to make their way to Williston, relieve the housing shortfall, and get rich in the process. Ditto the overcrowded restaurants. That means new jobs created. And the increased supply means lowered prices.
One final note: it’s telling that teachers are Collins’ go-to example. Reading her column, one could reasonably wonder how Williston’s housing stock could be both (a) so expensive that it’s prohibitive for many potential tenants and (b) filled to the gills. The answer: private-sector workers are making more than enough to meet the demands of the city’s rent. Only in the public sector, where wages are set by government diktat instead of the market, are crucial employees priced out of a place to live. That’s a real shame for the teachers of North Dakota. If the school system was privatized, they’d all be getting rich now too.