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The Incredible Lightness of Our Economy…

Yesterday SDXB and I hiked to the top of a hill in a desert preserve park on the west side of town. In the fine, clear weather, we could see for miles in all directions. And what could we see? Sprawl.

Mile on mile on mile on mile of sprawl, most of it cheaply built housing for people who don’t earn much (the median household income in Arizona is around $47,000—not great, when you figure for most households it represents two people’s salaries). In square miles, the city is now larger than Los Angeles, the avatar of ticky-tacky sprawl.

When you consider the sheer size of the population, it’s amazing that the cost of living here is relatively low. The reason for this much-ballyhooed low cost of living is low wages. The business interests that control the local government see to it that right-to-work laws keep wages down. Phoenix residents earn well below national medians. In Arizona, for example, educators and librarians earn about $5.20 an hour less than than the median national pay in their trades. In the legal profession, hourly pay is $14.23 below the national median for comparable work. Healthcare practitioners earn almost $6 an hour less than their counterparts elsewhere.

What are all these people doing here? Today,  hard to tell: the most recent figures I can find are dated 2005. Since then, many residents have moved away, as jobs have disappeared and homes have been foreclosed.

But in 2004, about 8 percent of greater Phoenix metropolitan area workers were employed in construction. If you added in those who working in “financial activities” (presumably in banking and lending) and in trade, transportation and utilities, you come up with 617,000 people: that’s 36 percent of the workforce.

So when Arizona was booming, over a third of its population was employed in building and selling houses. In other words, what we were doing was employing people to build and sell houses for people who build and sell houses.

The data above don’t count people who work for construction suppliers like Home Depot, lumber yards, masonry suppliers, plumbing and electrical supply houses, and the like; it may not include groups such as Realtors, interior designers, landscape designers, and nurserymen; and it certainly doesn’t include government workers engaged in building inspection, environmental oversight (such as it is), transportation planning, and tax collection. In 2004 the largest employer was the state of Arizona, followed, as a distant second, by Walmart.

Well, obviously, if the proper study of Man is Man, then the proper economy of humankind is serving other humans. Still, something seems oddly circular here, not to say unduly limited. Our problem in this state is that we don’t produce much. Through much of the twentieth century, our economy was based on the Three C’s: Cotton, Cattle, and Copper. All of those activities made something. Generally the manufacture wasn’t what you’d call environmentally friendly, and in fact these enterprises tended to siphon resources out of the state to the moneybins of vastly wealthy men back East. However, something at least came of it all.

Tourism, which arose in the early part of the century, eventually expanded to join the Three C’s as a major economic engine. And then: Construction.

To accommodate this fourth C, our august leaders made a conscious decision to rid the state of agriculture, reroute water to the cities and suburbs, and pave over the fields with asphalt, concrete, and stucco. What all the sprawl-dwellers were going to eat was never explained…we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about that, eh?

Yesh. Allegedly responsible civic and state leaders quite deliberately decided to create the vast, overweening, and ultimately disastrous fungus upon the land that anyone can see from the top of any of the low hills in the valley. It was as though they studied Los Angeles, identified everything L.A. did wrong, and then chose to do that.

An economy that produces nothing and does nothing other than feed on itself is doomed. IMHO, we’re seeing that doom, here as in Las Vegas and in other Southwestern cities. Our leaders took us down this path; our citizens didn’t seem to have the sense to realize where we were going, and now…here we are.

2 thoughts on “The Incredible Lightness of Our Economy…”

  1. In the early stages of the housing meltdown, I read about a town in FL where almost every house was in foreclosure. Turned out that what was thought to be a diverse economy was not: real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, builders, etc, etc. Everyone was in the housing business one way or another.

    Sounds like you and SDXB at least had a nice walk above it all.

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