The recent drop in the price of oil has been welcome indeed to most Americans, for it portends a boost of epic proportions for the economy. However, the blessings of cheap petroleum do not fall evenly across the land. In Texas and Oklahoma, as in other oil-producing states, the drop from $40 to $15 a barrel has brought a budget crunch greater than anything experienced during the so-called “Great Depression.”
Both these states have taxes on oil and gas which are based on the selling price of petroleum. Lower prices thus mean lower tax collections. In Oklahoma, for example, every drop of one dollar in the price of a barrel of oil means a direct loss of $11 million in tax revenues, and there is a ripple effect in the economy which brings the tax shortfall to about $40 million for each drop of one dollar in the price of a barrel of oil. For fiscal year 1987 Oklahoma will have almost $500 million less to spend than it had last year despite huge tax increases in 1984 and 1985. This means a budget cut in FY 1987 of 17 percent from the budget of FY 1986; the largest cut in any year in the 1930’s was only 10 percent. To the south, Texas is looking at a decrease of $1.5 billion in state revenue.
Legislators therefore are scrambling for places they can make drastic cuts—naturally, this means cuts that will not reduce the income of the “good old boy” network. Inasmuch as more than 50 percent of the budget in both Texas and Oklahoma is spent on education, public and higher, there is the—temptation to make cuts in this area. To do so, however, would be extremely shortsighted.
In the two centuries since the birth of the republic, numerous observers have offered theories about why democracy has thrived here. Writing under the name J. Hector St. John, Michel de Crevecoeur observed in 1782 in Letters from an American Farmer that the newly arrived immigrant to American shores pushed out to the edge of the limits of settlement; there he was forced to shed his European modes of thought and adopt those of the New World; there he dropped his old prejudices and attitudes to form new ones. In short, it was the frontier which transformed him from a Frenchman or German or Englishman into an American.
One hundred and eleven years later, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian, focused his attention on the same question—and arrived at the same answer as Crevecoeur: the frontier was responsible for promoting democracy and Americanism. In 1893 the young Professor Turner gave an address before the American Historical Association, entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He asserted that the frontier was the decisive factor in welding together an American nation and nationality distinct from other nations and nationalities, as well as in producing distinctly American traits.
The frontier, to Turner, was a state of mind as well as the area of sparse settlement where “savagery met civilization.” It was the area where the dominant traits were individualism, freedom, inquisitiveness, ingeniousness, materialism, strength, a laxness of business morals—and democracy. The frontier was a “safety valve of abundant resources open to him who would take,” meaning that the natural resources of the nation should be placed in the hands of those who would make productive use of these resources.
Thus the frontier produced an American nationalism that favored lenient land legislation, internal improvements at government expense, and a protective tariff. Yet, paradoxically, it also meant a hearty dislike for authority, a belief in individual initiative, and the free-enterprise concept.
This new man, this American frontiersman, gained a reputation for getting things done. He excelled in the production of tangibles, and thus he had little time for philosophizing. He was not known for introspection but for work! All the words used to describe a frontiersman—independence, courage, self-reliance, initiative, individualism, industry—implied work. On the frontier the man who painted a picture or composed a symphonic piece had no one to view or listen to the result, but if he cultivated his fields he had food on the table year-round.
This attitude about practicality and work was reflected in the folk heroes of the frontier. In Europe folk tales were concerned with princes and princesses, with vacant kingdoms and fairy godmothers. The central figures of American folk tales were Paul Bunyan, who could cut more timber than other men; Pecos Bill, the cowboy; Kemp Morgan, the oil-field driller. Our heroes were workers!
Even our universities and colleges developed along different lines from those in Europe. Ours trained graduates to work at specific tasks—as accountants, engineers, scientists—while European universities graduated people who (supposedly) could appreciate the arts. Only after graduation was the European told to look for some practical application for his education.
Yet according to the census of 1890, a fact which Frederick Jackson Turner noted, the free land in the West—the frontier—largely was gone. No longer could young men and women seeking a new start or older people looking for somewhere to start over again find free or even inexpensive land in the West. If it was a frontier of free or inexpensive land which had kept democracy alive during the first century and more of the republic, how then was democracy to be kept alive in the years ahead?
During the 20th century it was the widespread availability of education—especially higher education—which prevented class lines from becoming rigid. The average poor youth desirous of advancing his economic and social station in life found that a university degree opened doors of opportunity. Anyone wishing to become an officer in the Armed Forces needed a bachelor’s degree; anyone wanting to work at the white-collar level found such employment easier to get through a university placement service; certainly those wanting to enter the professions needed to go to college; and anyone wanting to enter the civil service above GS 7 (other than through political appointment) found that a college diploma made civil service exams easier.
Thus today it is ironic that Texas and Oklahoma—two states where, supposedly, there is a belief in the work ethic of the frontier and a hatred for rigid class lines, where, supposedly, there is a dislike for privilege based on inherited wealth—should be talking of raising tuition as a way of cutting government expenditures. The combined cost of tuition, textbooks, laboratory fees, and room and board have already increased to the point where it is virtually impossible for the sons and daughters of the poor to work their way through college.
To this, legislators reply that every raise in tuition and dormitory fees has been offset by the awarding of additional scholarships and loans to the needy. This does not enable students to feel they have earned their education, but rather that they are the recipients of state welfare. Moreover, this growing reliance on Federal and state loans and scholarships means that state and Federal bureaucrats increasingly are determining who will be the next technological elite.
Democracy and free enterprise, which have produced an abundance envied around the world, demand that higher education be available to all willing to work for it, not just for those born to wealth and privilege or else able to curry the favor of the bureaucracy. This fact somehow seems to have escaptd legislators in Texas and Oklahoma, states founded by men and women who believed in the work ethic and in individual choice, not in bureaucratic paternalism or inherited privilege. Such is the road to making America a land of rigid class structure, not an oasis of democracy and free enterprise.