Where Does Yankton’s Heart Lie? Thinking About A Community’s Future

Where does your heart lie?

Is it here?


Or here?

Portrait of Smiling Family on Steps

It’s a good time of year to contemplate this question, given the competing interests pulling at our heartstrings.


Family and good will toward man.

Sometimes the two can go together. Sometimes they cannot.

The first photo you see above is taken from “Rich Kids of Instagram.” It is a celebration of much of what our society has become to recognize as success — the mindless consumption of goods.

George Monbiot wrote an insightful essay about “Rich Kids of Instagram” that I encourage you to read in full. But here is an excerpt that gets to the point:

Perhaps I am projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research appears to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project”(5), is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness(6,7,8). But research conducted over the past few years appears to show causation.

At times, I have difficulties not succumbing to the temptations of materialism. I want to fit in with my peers. I want at least an outward appearance of success.

But this is usually tempered by a distaste for focusing too much on money — especially in light of the fact that the things that bring me happiness are not likely to bring me much cash. I could, after all, make more money in this town as a high-school drop-out than I could with my four-year degree and job as a journalist.

It’s a fact that frustrates me. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to put a price tag on happiness, as they say.

It’s this contemplation of materialism that has made me think recently that we in the Yankton area put far too much emphasis on retail development.

I understand its power: We need to be able to buy the things that people in other, larger communities can buy in order to feel satisfied and successful.

But I think that, ultimately, this is an empty promise.

Retail development won’t address the things we — and so many other communities in the United States — lack. It won’t bring higher wages. It won’t bring job protections. It won’t bring an inclusive community that looks out for its members no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, etc. It won’t bring new and exciting ideas that can help our city grow not just physically but, in a sense, spiritually.

You see, if Yankton is content to play the traditional economic development game, I am convinced it will lose. Demographics in the heart of the United States are certainly not in our favor.

More retail options or more jobs that can be found anywhere in the Midwest are not likely to change these demographics in any significant way. (And does anyone want to argue that North Dakota will hold on to its new-found population once the oil runs out?)

Rather, Yankton would be better off if it were to become known as a place where we value people and community above all.

What am I getting at?

I’m getting at something Benjamin Radcliff, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, recently talked about in an interview with The Washington Post. He has done research on how public policy affects human happiness.

I have organized my research around two dimensions of policy. The first is the size of government, i.e. of what it is government does, from the tax burden to the generosity of the welfare state to the total impact of the government in terms of its overall consumption on GDP. The second involves institutions that protect people in labor markets, which means labor unions and economic regulations (the minimum wage, mandated vacation time, etc.), which provide  a degree of sovereignty and power for workers in their employment relationships. Two sides of the coin: the general scope of what government does to make life more secure for people and the stuff that works specifically in terms of peoples’ work conditions.

Both types of policies contribute to what social theorists call “decommodification,” meaning limiting the degree to which in a capitalist economy people have to act as commodities in order to survive. You have to sell your labor power on the market. Decommodification measures how much people can opt out of the labor market, whatever the reason, and provides a way of judging to what extent have we made them free of market commodification.

More decommodification makes people happier, and it does so for rich and poor people, men and women, and controlling for just about any other thing. Similar empirical results obtain when considering total social spending on education, health care, total government consumption, the tax burden, a well-known OECD measure of employee protection legislation, even indices on the size of government and labor market regulation from the conservative Fraser Institute. The smaller the government, the less happy people are.

Another variable I find of interest is labor union membership and density, i.e. do you belong, and the percentage of all workers who belong the unions. People who belong to unions are happier, and, more importantly, union density is strongly related to levels of happiness for union members and non-members.

Let’s set aside the fact that many of the issues Radcliff discusses seem better suited for state or federal government policy.

What can the local government do to encourage this kind of community, where its people are decommodified and thus happier?

It is that question I think we should contemplate if we want Yankton to grow. It’s a kind of happiness that not many communities are selling, but for which a lot of people are looking.

What do you really want? More retail options and low-paying jobs or to feel more autonomous and spend more time with friends and family?

If the latter goals are pursued, I think more cultural and entertainment offerings will follow — which would make me pretty darn happy.

I realize I’m not offering much in the way for solutions here, but this it meant more to get the conversation started with you. This shift in thinking doesn’t necessarily have to start with local government. It starts in our homes and workplaces.

Let’s figure out where our hearts lie …

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