Remote Work Might Save American Democracy

I think, quite often, about the Wrigley Taproom in Corbin, KY.

Late one night during a motorcycle road trip I found myself at a hotel off of I-75. The depth of my poor planning was revealed when I realized that not only was I in eastern time and therefore many restaurants would be closed already, but also that this hotel was in a dry county*. Google maps proved to be our savior though, and just across the freeway we walked into this amazing spot: a beautiful old building repurposed into a cozy watering hole with amazing craft beers and even more amazing craft food. An IPA that would feel right at home at Oscar Blue’s and blackened salmon tacos is not what I was expecting in the rural south. The staff had ink, a rainbow of anime hair colors, and I saw LGBTQ pride bracelets. This could have been Madison, WI or Portland, OR.

At some point during the pandemic, I started thinking about what it would take to Flip Wyoming.

Flip Wyoming

I have seen other versions of this idea, but I will claim independent discovery.

I once listened to a podcast with a former NASA astronaut who was now working for Elon Musk at SpaceX. The podcast host inquired why it was so important to get humanity to other planets instead of working with all possible zeal on making sure Earth remains a somewhat livable place. He answered “Well, that’s Tesla. Tesla is plan A, to electrify and have solar panels and combat climate change. SpaceX is plan B.”

So we’re spending billions upon billions working on space travel and colonizing Mars. Not just Musk, but Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and others. Why don’t we just flip Wyoming instead?

In the 2016 presidential election the breakdown in votes was the following:

  • Donald Trump: 174,419 votes
  • Hillary Clinton: 55, 973 votes
  • Gary Johnson: 13,287 votes

A mere 130,000 votes, a population in a city roughly the size of Joliet, IL, could make Wyoming purple and “leans Democrat” if they were all liberal voters. Wyoming’s 3 electoral college votes are less important than 1 or 2 additional senators and a template showing that this can be done. (Using the analogy of a single city, obviously the rest of the state would still vote for a Red senator).

So goes the thought experiment: educated STEM workers tend to be somewhat liberal. At the very least, they are less allergic to math and facts and “reality” than your average QAnon adherent. Rather than spending untold billions on colonizing Mars, simply run fiber to a quaint town in rural Wyoming and announce that Microsoft, Google, and Apple will be opening R&D outposts there with total potential employment of around 200,000 people. I’m oversimplifying a few dozen pernicious issues, but I’ll address those later. Wyoming is now a purple state, potentially electing a Democratic governor, at least one Democratic Senator, and becomes another swing state in national elections. How many billion dollars would it take to do this?

Thank You, COVID

As the COVID pandemic drug on and remote work became more and more likely to be a permanent aspect of American life, I made an observation. My own company, and the companies of everyone in my circle of trust, were shedding tech employees like a husky sheds in July. In Texas. Those of us in flyover states can’t compete when Facebook offers to hire a developer for $200k. Extrapolating this trend into the future, it seemed to me that this could fundamentally change America. No longer forced to pay obscene amounts for a closet in San Francisco or Boston or Seattle, tech workers flush with cash might just do a little research on small town America. If I throw a dart at a map and I learn that Stillwater, Oklahoma happens to have a couple of microbreweries and fast internet, I might just consider moving there for the lower cost of living and the lifestyle. Every single town like Corbin, KY with a Wrigley Taproom of their own in America suddenly became a potential tech hub. A small one, at least.

I had put this idea away as a fun novelty to talk about with friends. Out of nowhere, an old colleague sent me an email:

“…In other news, I’m also moving back to Wisconsin at the end of the month. We bought a place in Galesville and are enjoying the one benefit Covid gave the world: remote, distributed teams are a thing. My daughter lives in Fox Lake, so I have an excuse to come down near Hartford. It would be good to see you and Jen again… 

This guy is a heavy hitter. He lived in the flyover states near me for a while when his children were young, and then went right back to Seattle where he could get the most challenging work. This humble genius, doing cloud-scale work I was never able to do in Wisconsin, now lives in a town of 1,400 people at least 5 hours from a major airport. Is this actually happening?

So What?

So what happens if a few highly paid programmers move to Corbin, KY, other than it’s going to be harder for me to get a good seat at Wrigley?

We know that globalization and technology has left a large portion of America behind. Sure, there’s the “Wal-Mart effect” where everyone benefits a tiny bit from lower prices, but overwhelmingly the benefits accrue to a few people in a few areas. Those few areas become radically overpriced and increasingly difficult to live in, but no one is crying alongside wealthy crypto-bros lamenting how little space they got for $700,000 while Americans in the flyover states are dying from opioids.

The portion of America that’s left behind is increasingly angry. Angry people without hope, feeling betrayed by their government and their fellow Americans, are more and more open to exploitation by someone who claims to speak for them. Someone who claims to be able to improve their situation. Lose enough local businesses to globalization, lose enough relatives to deaths of despair, you’d be keeping an open mind to new ideas too. Hell, if things got bad enough I could probably convince an out of work factory laborer that a narcissistic billionaire actually cared about them…

But we know that educated tech workers, especially “whites with degrees” tend to be a little bit more liberal, or at least “center” by today’s standards. They tend to be more tolerant. It’s easy to be tolerant when you’ve got a financial emergency fund and your kids have healthcare and you’re saving for early retirement. They tend to be willing to spend just a little more for the organic chicken, and at least in theory they are OK with a little bit higher taxes if it means clean air, clean water, and the most vulnerable can still afford their insulin. They expect to pay property taxes and they expect those to fund decent public schools. We know this not because of some massive statistical abstract, but because they vote for candidates who claim to support these very things.

When these people move to Corbin, KY, the Wrigley taproom does a little more business. Everyone makes more tips. The quaint downtown shops sell a few more craft supplies, and the local tax base goes up. They get involved in the local school boards and they vote. They talk to their neighbors, and maybe sometimes they politely point out that, no, there isn’t a migrant caravan on the edge of town ready to rape and kill everyone.

It can actually happen. Just google “Boz Angeles”.

The thing that must happen to realize this utopia, however, is that the smug upper-middle class knowledge workers must stop shitting on their rural fellow Americans. The very same people who would decry the outcomes of a system full of racism and historical disadvantage have no problem assigning 100% agency to those unlucky enough to be born too close to a Baptist church. If a black teenager in New York gets in with the wrong crowd and winds up in jail, we say he’s a victim of circumstance and we should show mercy. Become an anti-racist. Plead for criminal justice reform**. But if the brainwashed and lied-to and left-behind citizens of Knox County Kentucky suffer countless deaths of despair and diabetes? We say they’ve made their bed by voting for Republicans and they deserve their terrible life outcomes. We say that this is what they must want, really. We say they are obviously morons for wanting this.

Gerrymandering will always be a problem. And, sure, the way the current Republican party is behaving I wouldn’t be shocked if local ordinances denying the vote to anyone with a single avocado or more than one computer in their household started popping up all over the country. Purple cities, purple counties, purple states are good for America though. If a political party has to actually compete for your vote to hold power then maybe they can’t run candidates who talk about “Jewish space lasers” or how “Italian hackers changed the election results via home thermostats.”

A great reshuffling of tech workers to the flyover states could save American democracy. A great number of people could find themselves living next door to someone from a group they never understood. Increasing the tax base in the forgotten corners of America could make just a few people remember that there are good reasons to want a functional government. Competitive states reduce the odds of actual lunatics winning major-party nominations. If every state is a swing-state I can stop caring about the nail-biter vote counts in Florida. It seems like it might be happening.

I still say we should try to flip Wyoming, though.

* Corbin sits at the nexus of Whitley, Knox, and Laurel counties.

** We should still do all these things.

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