A New Pioneer Act

Adam Garfinkle

Winter 2017

What if it were possible, over time, for public policy to help ensure there could be enough jobs available at sufficient pay to sustain a middle class that could underwrite American democracy? What if it could also reverse adverse climate change and the threat to biodiversity, set American agriculture on a more sustainable footing, put a dent in a range of burgeoning "lifestyle" medical epidemics, reduce income inequality, and stanch the hemorrhaging of the nation's social capital all at the same time? It is possible — by adopting a New Pioneer Act designed to transform America into the most beautiful and productive garden in the history of the world.

You'll be wanting some details about this claim, no doubt. But first it is critical to understand what a garden really is. For simplicity's sake, a garden is a union between natural endowment and human volition. Gardening is not an art, for in a true art there are few if any constraints to pure creativity. It is not entirely a science either, for in science all basic properties are given in such a way as to focus creativity narrowly. Gardening is more like a craft, and craft properly understood — as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster and Theodore Roosevelt understood it — is a wellspring of a virtuous and happy society.

America once excelled at basic craftsmanship and useful invention, and in many ways it still does. But too many of our people have forgotten how to work with their hands, losing skills that nurture mind and soul alike, that produce more than the social sum of their parts when joined in democratic communities of craftsmen, artisans, and their families. The ultimate purpose of a New Pioneer Act, therefore, is not just economic or even political — although it certainly is both. It is fully social as a byproduct, so to speak: It envisions a post-Fordist society in which life and work assemble to create fulfilled personalities, one that strives toward goals that are priceless instead of toiling to produce machines and disposable products costing such and so many dollars.

By allowing some lands now owned by the federal government to become new communities conceived as experiments in both new modes of self-government and new modes of agriculture, the New Pioneer Act could be a way to try out 21st-century solutions to some of our key problems, and to do it by taking those problems seriously while recognizing that we are short on real solutions now. It is an approach that draws on the best of the American tradition in an effort to revive America's lost faith in the future.


A pall of pessimism has descended over America in recent years, and if, as a former boss of mine used to say, optimism is a force multiplier, then pessimism is a decimator. That is because moods shape expectations, and expectations presage reality. Lincoln knew what he was talking about when he said, "Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be." Same goes for the reverse: Most folks can dump themselves into a funk if they make up their minds to do that instead. And in both cases, what goes on in individual minds is contagious, for, benign Enlightenment myths aside for the moment, we individuals are social animals whether we like it or not. One net result of burgeoning pessimism has been a massive hemorrhaging of social trust, a phenomenon releasing its own toxins as it drains communities of their strength.

Why the pessimism? Different people give different answers, and that's part of the problem: There's no consensus about what's ailing us. Nor, relatedly, is there any longer a consensus about what we Americans are doing living together in a single political community. That lack of consensus is itself a bad-mood multiplier, at least to the extent people are cognizant of it.

So what are some of the proffered answers? Probably the most common have to do with the economy. A strong nexus of disappointment has arisen from the intersection between slow growth and rising inequality. That disappointment has critical implications for American democracy going forward, because our form of presumed egalitarianism has become increasingly defined by material well-being and, to some unknown extent, the broad distribution of our bounty. The key challenge here is widely known but so far defies a convincing solution: How to generate enough well-paying jobs to sustain a middle class in the face of automation, disintermediation, and trade-based outsourcing of investment and production?

It wasn't always this way. Americans did not always measure their well-being mainly in material terms, and most Americans have not been much bothered traditionally by inequality. But it's that way now, and the connection between this form of disappointment and the pessimistic national mood is given statistical expression by one of the most common longitudinal polling queries: The answer to the question, "Do you think the next generation will be better off (materially) than their parents?" has turned decidedly negative in recent years.

For other Americans, the reason for the pessimism is ecological in nature: We're destroying the country and the planet, many believe, and the clearest indication is in climate change. Whether all the science here that most people take to be "settled" really is settled at all is beside the point for present purposes. What matters is what most people believe, and anyone can see that political systems here and around the world have failed miserably, for decades now, to stem the rising tide. So have all the advocacy groups whose aim has been to change public policy. The recent Paris agreement, despite the governmental spin put on it, is something close to a bad joke: It is an extremely expensive way to reduce the problem by a negligible amount, and even that depends on the governments of poorer countries using a trillion dollars a year in ways they've promised. You don't have to be a credulous person in general to believe that will actually happen, but it helps. Many people have become desperate and resigned, having concluded that we are doomed, so they cling to any hope, no matter how forlorn. They have become credulous for lack of an alternative.

For still other Americans, it's not the economy as such or global warming that sends their spirits into a swoon, but the dysfunction of our institutions, starting with the federal government and working its way down to educational, medical, legal, media, and other institutions besides. Whether it's the role of big money in politics, the scourge of upward redistribution via crony capitalism and parasitic rentier-elite behavior, or just the venal stench given off by our seemingly brain-dead political class, most patriotic Americans are disgusted by this spectacle of revisited plutocracy. The fact that we can't seem to win wars anymore, despite always winning the first big set battles, is just piling on for many whose faith in American governmental efficacy is circling the drain. The results of the 2016 election certainly confirm that this sense is widespread.

Still other Americans believe that at the root of all these distempers is a spiritual sickness — a failure to honor or even understand our inherited virtues and, for some, to place ourselves in service to God's will. We are plagued by moral races to the bottom in our institutions wherever we look, the resistance to which melts before a generation that has never been taught the fundamental difference between right and wrong — indeed, many young people have been taught that there is no fundamental difference, only shifting circumstances and the make-do balm of moral relativity.

The jeremiad approach to our social and political ills is the oldest American approach to trouble in our midst. You don't hear this sort of plaint much from those in the mainstream media, who think they are secular (although they are actually, if unwittingly, obedient to a different faith-based system). But the approach is far more widespread — and not just among so-called evangelicals — than most of the elite thinks. These are the Americans who hold with Thomas Carlyle that "all Reform except a moral one will prove unavailing."

The truth is that all of these answers are correct to one extent or another, but none by itself supplies an adequate understanding. Rather, they entwine to create the present mega-mess in which we find ourselves.

So why has the economy stalled out for so many Americans: Why did the Great Recession happen, and why has inequality risen? The answer is complex, and no conspiracy theory can account for it. But it's plain enough that the housing-market crash and financial crisis owed much to excessive deregulation abetted by crony politics. Spiraling inequality, in turn, owes much to the failure of the political system to adjust to new international economic and technological circumstances, and the power of concentrated money in our politics is certainly a part of the reason, in turn, for its failure to adjust. In an era in which capital as well as goods and services have been freed to flow internationally, a small but well-placed number of people have benefitted from policy not being adjusted, or being adjusted in some ways but not others.

Why has government, here and in many other countries, failed to do anything significant about the environmental challenges before us, from the destruction of habitat and the consequent threat to biodiversity, to the problem of global warming? The answer to this second question is the same as the first — complicated by inertia. The American system of government — through its very structure, inherited from the late 18th century — magnifies the universal logic of collective action in such a way as to advantage private concentrations of financial power over the capacity of government to control them. In brief, that is because a national society and a national economy predated the development of an effective national, or federal, state in America — which was not the case in Europe. But whatever the reason, the standard question in such circumstances — Cui bono? — is as much worth asking today as it was two millennia ago.

How people understand the intersection of these various factors tends to shape their core political views. Small-government conservatives like Ted Cruz think that government is the problem, and that abuses of private concentrations of power either don't exist or that the force of the free market will eventually tame them. It is true that the more the federal government tries to do, the more opportunities for parasitic rentier behavior there will be, and hence the more market distortions we will face. But it is absurd to think that only governmental excesses can destroy social capital and virtue.

Big-government "progressives" like Bernie Sanders think that the big corporations and banks functioning as upward redistribution levers are the problem, and that government is duty-bound to protect ordinary people from their depredations. There are such depredations, just as there were when Teddy Roosevelt decried the "malefactors of great wealth." But it is absurd to think that governmental excesses and distortions are not also a problem, or that governmental fiat can somehow substitute for or readily manufacture social capital and virtue.

There is a strict limit on the extent to which government can create a society; it is rather societies that create characteristic forms of government out of the raw materials their social histories have bequeathed. As Gordon Wood and others have taken pains to point out, America is an egalitarian society (to the extent that it is) not because it is a democracy; it is a democracy because America is an egalitarian society.

Taking a longer view of American history and its present circumstances together, our politics waxes populist from time to time because the structure of our political economy is plutocratically prone. It is plutocratically prone because such a liberal, relatively small-government structure needs "private" virtue embedded within the very sinews of society to limit its tendency toward excess, and when that virtue is wanting because of either too little religion or too much of the wrong kind, excesses are natural — as are eventual reactions to them.

That complex of relationships also explains why a political branding based on "hope" cannot in and of itself solve significant problems that have structural origins, and why extensive disappointment with the Obama phenomenon has for many only deepened the sense of ambient pessimism in the air.


How can we lose this pessimism and recover our traditional can-do American spirit? It has to start with articulating stretch goals that can energize us, for America works best when we Americans can identify a frontier to conquer. But goals alone are not enough. They have to be matched to a method that can plausibly achieve them.

One might think that, in the wake of a momentous and surprising election, our cup would be brimming with such stretch goals and methods to achieve them. But it is a measure of the terminal failure of imagination of our political class, and of our two major parties, that this is not at all the case. Neither major-party candidate articulated a program aimed at doing much that the two parties have not aimed at for decades. That has made the pall of pessimism worse, and helps to explain why the campaign fed mostly on anger, not hope.

The aim of articulating a New Pioneer Act is to help us see beyond the self-imposed boundaries on our political imagination. The idea is to draw upon the best of our political tradition but in a new way. In essence, it involves designing, passing, and implementing over the next decade a new Homestead Act and a new Morrill Act for the 21st century. The two acts integrated together compose the New Pioneer Act.

As is well known, in the 1860s, during Abraham Lincoln's first term, Congress enacted the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act. The first encouraged the settlement of the continent west of the Mississippi River; the second created the original federal land-grant colleges. (Two states — Pennsylvania and Michigan — had preceded the federal government in this in 1855 and created the model for the federal program.) Both bills embodied the 19th-century definition of the American Dream: Families could own their own farms, and express their liberty through self-sufficiency in rural communities. The land-grant colleges would help produce the science and technology to help them do it.

The basic deal was simple: The government would dole out federal land and some basic tools, and if after five years tenants could show that they had improved the land, they would be given the deed to it. The land-grant colleges were designed to help new homesteaders apply the most efficient and scientific methods then known to farming and animal husbandry.

The original Homestead Act was a mixed success at best. Only about 40% of claimants ever qualified to hold their deed. While no one could have known it in 1862, a few decades later many of those new homestead farms would go bust when commodity prices fell due to worldwide commercial-agriculture surpluses. Moreover, later attempts at cultivating marginal lands brought their own environmental problems — the best known being the Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, the Homestead Act did help a large number of people gain equity, and it sired a large number of productive farms and settlements in then-sparsely populated areas.

We've come a long way in the past 150 years. As with a few other innovative federal programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the G.I. Bill, that have succeeded in building social capital, a New Pioneer Act can far exceed the benefits of the original Homestead and Morrill Acts.

At the core of the proposal is a simple idea: The federal government, in conjunction with state and local government and elements of the private sector, should create new economic zones for purposes of prototyping new agricultural, infrastructural, energy, educational, medical, and commercial design structures. These zones would be exempted from some federal and state laws and regulations, but in return would have to prove themselves beneficial to the economy, the environment, and the lives of their residents and others.

We can create initially a small number (a total of three or four at a minimum, up to perhaps one per state) of new American living spaces, whole integrated communities, carved carefully out of the great mass of federally owned land. Without having to finance a wide range of degraded and increasingly obsolete legacy systems, these prototype zones could apply the latest and smartest technologies in an integrated fashion to the range of human needs. If they work, the formula will scale itself up thanks to basic market forces, because the design is predicated on such forces.

Where did this idea come from? There have been a number of similarly motivated proposals over the years. The late-19th-century "garden city" idea of Englishman Ebenezer Howard is a case in point. But my inspiration has been more local and recent.

A few years ago I attended a simulation on infrastructure development as an observer-subcontractor to the convening organization. More than a thousand professionals, involved principally in transportation infrastructure as engineers, planners, government administrators, businessmen, financiers, and so forth, attended remotely from three different cities to play a single simulation game. The simulation was designed in part to break down barriers among social constituencies of the transportation infrastructure system, but part of its method was to encourage participants to think big thoughts in order to overcome projected congestion nightmares leading up to the year 2040.

Participants did come up with bold new ideas, some of them project-specific and some of them conceptual in nature. But not a single one of these ideas deviated from the implicit assumption that the population nodal points now in existence will also be the ones in existence in 2040. In other words, participants construed their challenge as how to get people and goods efficiently from point A to point B to point C. It never occurred to them that they might change where point B and point C might be.           

It did occur to me, however, and it sent a shiver up my spine when it did. We can build new American living spaces, and we can do it smarter than ever. We can, for example, apply information technology to synchronize, co-locate, and make much more efficient the interplay of energy, communications, transportation, and sanitation systems. We could get more than the sum of the parts from our array of distributed systems rather than less, as is the case now, and a significant economic-productivity boost along with it. Unfortunately, our government offers no convening platform with which we could plan such new efficiencies. The New Pioneer zones would create one.

These new prototype zones would also be dedicated to the principle of subsidiarity, which means as much local self-sufficiency as possible, but without cutting themselves off from the rest of the country. No one would be locked in or locked out of such zones, and they definitely would not be gated or fenced. To that end, while authorization and design should be federal responsibilities, implementation and maintenance might be best left to state governments. (It may be, too, that some states will end up creating New Pioneer zones by themselves, showing other states and the federal government how they can work. If so, it would not be the first time the states served as concept incubators for national policy.)

It goes nearly without saying that such ambitious ventures would create an enormous number of jobs building and operating new communities. Beyond all the jobs involved with producing and processing high-quality food, there would have to be new schools, new hospitals, new transportation systems and power plants and businesses and baseball stadiums and art galleries and libraries and all the rest. But this is no public-works program — far from it. It would need to attract a variety of citizens: agriculturalists as well as bankers, carpenters as well as engineers, machinists as well as teachers. The aim is to create in each instance a real and organic community, not an artificial one planned from the top down — and most certainly not a utopian or socialist "command" one either. There would be a need for police and the administration of law, and there would be profits and taxes and banks and insurance needs — all the usual range of community functions.

Of course there would be arguments and tensions to deal with as always. But these new communities would have greater built-in political autonomy and hence legislative flexibility, within certain bounds, to experiment with public-policy designs as their experience requires. They would not in any sense be beyond the Constitution, but these prototype experiments should be enabled to try out new solutions to perennial problems — like drug and alcohol abuse, for example — and the rest of the nation could learn from the results. The same goes for elder-care and assisted-living arrangements, health-insurance schemes, technology-based political-referendum polling, and dozens of other opportunities. It could also offer another chance to attempt innovations in management-labor relations by involving workers in ownership relationships.       


But at the center of these new development zones would be, in essence, gardens — sophisticated, and necessarily labor-intensive, agriculture and animal-husbandry activities. It is food, in other words, that would be the first and foremost goal of innovative change in these zones. Again, we need to turn the United States into the largest, most productive, most beautiful, high-participatory, self-sustaining garden in the history of the world.

Students of 18th- and early-19th-century American history will see here at least a hint of the Jeffersonian/Lincolnian vision of Whig agriculture — scientifically infused "gentry" farming on a large scale. So this proposition is not a version of romantic locavorism in drag, nor is it a form of worship before the altar of Amish farming techniques, excellent though some of them are. Some may think this kind of vision is hopelessly antiquated, romantic to the point of absurd, something only a cartoonish Lorax could take seriously. They're wrong; it's decidedly forward looking. It certainly involves machines, too; we're not talking about "fifty acres and a hoe."

Massively more productive and self-sustaining agricultural innovation will be antiquated only when people no longer need good food, clean water, and fresh air. It will become unnecessary only when there is no market for higher-quality food — a market that is growing day by day as people all over the world realize increasingly what industrialized and commercialized food production has done and is still doing to their nutrition and health.

In the process, too, we should include environmental remediation. We should establish a national goal of making sure that, as new development zones are created, federal lands preserve habitat to sustain biodiversity. We should also make it a goal to plant a billion trees in a decade — a cost-effective way to deal with climate change. That is not too hard; it works out to less than four trees per adult American in ten years. (What, anyway, is Arbor Day for?) This project could be operationalized under the aegis of the Forest Service and the interior departments of the 50 states, with the assistance of an expanded land-grant college system. But that is not where the environmental benefits of this proposal end; it is just where they start.

Contrary to common knowledge, American agriculture today is not efficient when measured in terms of long-term, cost-effective sustainability. It depletes the soil, the most precious resource we have, and forces farmers to use fossil-fuel-based fertilizers to maintain productivity. Globally, industrial-scale monoculture techniques, especially deep tilling, contribute significantly to the production of greenhouse gasses — about a third of all human emissions. More advanced scientific methods of tilling, crop rotation, and field coverage can not only stop soil degradation (the loss of carbon to the sky) and critical loss of moisture, but they can also be an effective way of sequestering carbon already in the atmosphere. In other words, scientific farming could not only minimize the spewing of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere — it can also reverse some of it.

Above all, as already suggested, New Pioneer zones, multiplied to scale and focused on food production, may be the only way to generate enough middle-class-sustaining American jobs to overcome the twin challenges of globalization's seemingly endless supply of low-wage labor and, especially, high-capital robotics-infused productivity increases. Neither high tariffs nor greater trade-union power nor trade restrictions will revive the U.S. manufacturing sector sufficiently to work the miracles that politicians promise. And the argument that Americans can prosper by turning to service-related jobs en masse is an argument that only an economist who lacks a social filter for his data can make.

Two recent remarks illustrate the point. Gary Clyde Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute recently claimed that the benefits of free trade are "ten times the size of the losses" and that free trade helps poorer people because it creates lower prices for products. "The benefits," he said, "are skewed toward people with lower incomes because they spend a much larger fraction of their income on merchandise." In other words, people may lack work that provides financial stability, self-esteem, and dignity for their families, but it's no problem because they can buy mounds of plastic junk they don't really need from China and other low-wage manufacturing countries.

More to the point of a revived agriculture, in spring 2016, Eduardo Porter wrote a column in the New York Times explaining why a job-rich U.S. manufacturing sector is unlikely to reappear no matter what politicians promise. The otherwise-incisive analysis ends as follows: "Promises to recapture industrial era greatness ring hollow. The United States, though, does have options: health care, education and clean energy, just to name a few." Note that he does not name a newly revived agriculture designed to take advantage of what has always been North America's premier comparative advantages: exceedingly rich land and lots of it.

As already suggested, too, the agricultural core of this idea can be a major force in redeeming the health of Americans from the very bad food habits that are producing epidemic levels of diabetes, heart disease, and other killer "lifestyle" maladies that are overwhelming our health-care infrastructure. And if the incentive structures built into the New Pioneer project also succeed in attracting just a fraction of our disheartened urban poor from America's decayed inner cities to these New Pioneer communities, so very much the better.


These New Pioneering zones could not spring up overnight, of course. And they would have to begin, just as any successful development has begun, with a basic and sound economic foundation — whether farming, dairying, mineral extraction, or basic manufacturing — depending on location and market opportunities. So this is a long-term project based ultimately on market viability. But the purpose justifies the difficulty and the upfront costs, because that purpose is to show ourselves, yet again, what we Americans are capable of when we set our minds to it, and when we begin with as clean a slate as is reasonable to imagine.

To work as prototype zones, areas would need to be defined and somehow limited, at least at first, in terms of geography, economic base, and population. A key task would be to define the social and contractual organization of agriculture to strike the right balance in economies of scale. We are obviously not talking about either large numbers of very small family farms or vast Soviet-style collectives, but rather right-sized and networked cooperatives with land and tools owned not by the state but by private partnerships. The role of state government would be to provide a platform for the formation and registry of such cooperatives and to regulate them as necessary. There are several models for how to do this from around the world as well as from our own experience.

The selection of new pioneers, too, could be a difficult and controversial task. Incentive structures would have to be designed to get a workable mix of people and skills, but they would have to mimic the original Homestead Act in the sense that they must reward effort and patience with equity, whether that equity takes the form of a new farm, a new home, or a new business. Not all participants would have to be seeking equity; there would need to be paid service workers, too, just as there were on many post-Civil War Homestead Act farms. And like the original act — and like the G.I. Bill too — a New Pioneer Act would likely pay back upfront investment many times over in increased production and productivity advances.

As difficult politically, if not more so, would be setting the balance between the autonomy of these New Pioneer zones and their integration with the rest of the country. To give the experiment a chance to develop, we might need to regulate the involvement of corporations with gross annual receipts above a certain threshold, federally chartered banks, and national-scale insurance companies whose behavior could crowd out and distort local and regional initiative. This is a fraught matter, but there would need to be some way to protect new efforts from being inundated with "too big to fail" corporate actors.

The expansion of the land-grant college system would, of necessity, have to go beyond agriculture. To build attractive and successful pioneer prototype zones, with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural elements, state university consortiums would need to be shaped to deal with energy and telecommunications design, education and health care, smart architecture and transportation infrastructure, public health and sanitation issues, and more. Universities would have to partner with businesses and communities to realize these designs, and with regard to the latter we already have major voluntary associations that can help in Future Farmers of America and the network of 4-H clubs. Universities would increasingly be in the business of continuing education, and would also need to better balance education and training — which, unbeknownst to many Americans, are two different things. New forms for many universities could have the side effect of rescuing their business models, which are coming under increasing stress.

Because of the built-in attractiveness of these new economic pioneering zones, incentives would grow for students to focus on science (agronomy, in particular), mathematics, and engineering. Secondary schools in new economic zones, for example, could wisely team-teach science and mathematics. Creative innovation in all forms, such as experimental STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools, would be the watchword of these new pioneering zones. So would telecommuting, job-sharing, and flex-time arrangements at the office.


This proposal will strike many practical people as pie-in-the-sky. And there are daunting challenges to setting up and funding such a program even if it were passed into law. But its very ambition, and the challenges it poses, are themselves key to its purpose. Every healthy society — America perhaps most of all, given its origins — needs stretch goals, needs a vision for a time when bold new strivings become possible. It's when a nation stops thinking beyond its familiar ways of life that it's really cooked.

You don't think the New Pioneer vision is practical? Then what's your vision for the next America? We all need to be talking about the future, because the essential prerequisite for fixing our problems is the belief that we can fix them.

We have become so dispirited lately, and so angry, that we are at risk of becoming our own worst enemies. That must change: We have to make American dreaming acceptable in polite company again.

One way to do that is to reach deep into our best historical traditions. Americans have always taken the Abrahamic tradition seriously, at least until very recently. Genesis tells us that God himself planted a garden, in Eden. We are made in the image of God, and strive also to follow the paths of our founders and predecessors. Let us, then, roll up our sleeves and together plant a garden. 

Adam Garfinkle is founding editor of The American Interest.


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