Custom and culture's worst enemy speaks

  • Thomas Michael Power


The West is certainly changing, but cultural beliefs rather than economic facts tend to dominate our dialogue.

Because those beliefs are tied to a vision of a good society rooted in stereotypes of a simpler, less-corrupted-by-evil America, I see them as a type of economic fundamentalism. Consider these characteristics:

Worshipping at the rearview mirror. Economic change is not necessarily economic decline. There is nothing more hopeless than trying to hang onto a previous century's technology, economic organization or products. A community's well-being cannot be protected by hypnotically staring into the rearview mirror, stoned on nostalgia, chanting the mantras of a previous era's chamber of commerce.

Rewriting history. Our previous economic base, we are told, gave us fairly steady jobs that paid decent family wages. They created working towns as opposed to resorts or suburbs. But if our mines and mills, farms and ranches provided fairly steady family-wage jobs, why is it difficult to find a prosperous mining, mill, railroad, or ag town?

Enthroning muscle, sweat and testosterone. Economic fundamentalists believe that the type of goods produced by the earlier Western economy is superior, especially compared to contemporary service production. In the early 1800s, almost 90 percent of the nation's population was engaged in agriculture, mining, logging and fishing.

Today, less than 10 percent of the population is engaged in such primary activities. Most economists believe that it has been the shift of workers out of extractive activities to more productive pursuits that allowed our modern economy to be built. That is, improvements in our standard of living were tied to exactly the types of shifts in employment that fundamentalists now decry. Those shifts have been steadily under way for two centuries.

Not coincidentally, the emphasis on primary goods production and the sneering at service production tends to glorify the male-dominated pursuits of cowboys, miners, loggers, railroad workers, etc., while dismissing the types of work women have tended to do. Economic activities tied to muscle, sweat, testosterone and competition are seen as more reliable and real than economic activities that make use of the mind, heart and cooperation.

It simply is not true that service employment is economically inferior to goods production. Service production is not "burger flipping" and "tourist smiling" (HCN, 8/5/96).

Services are medical care, educational efforts, design and engineering, computer assistance, financial instruments, business management and organization, communications, counseling and spiritual guidance, entertainment, etc. Services are characterized by pay as high or higher than that in goods production, by superior lifetime advancement opportunities, by higher rewards for education and skill, by lower unemployment risks, and by significantly higher skill levels.

Puritan ascetics may object to these upscale positive characteristics as yuppie corruption, but those objections are plausible only in peculiar religious or cultural terms. They make no economic sense.

Opposing economic development and diversification. The economies of our non-metropolitan Western communities are losing their frontier-like, natural resource-dependent characteristics. Fundamentalists bemoan this loss of the West's economic uniqueness. They sneer at the transformation that is taking place, labeling it the suburbanization of the West.

What is happening is what has happened in almost all other parts of this nation: The West is undergoing economic development and diversification. Because of that we are losing the quaint color of frontier living and the primitive colonial dependencies that put a single economic activity at the center of an unstable economic world. One certainly could insist on continued natural-resource dependency. This might be more romantic, but its human and community cost would be high: ongoing instability and gross dependence upon declining industries that ultimately ends in ghost towns. "Better ghosts than suburbanites," the fundamentalist economic kamikaze responds.

Given that half of all farm family income in the West comes from non-farm sources, our farm and ranch families would be among the first to suffer from a reversal of this economic diversification.

Only by commercial exploitation can one know and appreciate nature. The fundamentalist fears that we are losing our roots in the earth and to particular physical places as we stop working the earth to bring forth nature's bounty. Because of that loss of intimate contact with the earth, we will not know how to protect the landscapes we love and upon which we depend. Those not connected to the land by commercial motives, apparently, cannot understand and protect it. In general, of course, this is preposterous. We have a lengthy history of the commercial development of North American landscapes to dramatize just how it is that developers get to know the land. It is not a pretty story.

The new economy that is developing in the West is not turning its back on the natural landscape. Quite the contrary.

The new economy recognizes the full range of valuable environmental services that flow from our landscapes and seeks to balance, manage and protect that full range of value, not just the few that can generate short-term cash flows. Residents are not growing increasingly ignorant of natural forces and systems. As active recreationists, as educators, as entrepreneurs seeking to make use of the landscape, as environmental activists, as natural resource managers, as scientists, and simply as good citizens, we seek to understand the landscapes which drew and hold us here.

Thomas Michael Power is professor of economics and chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana. He is author of two books: Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place and Environmental Protection and Economic Well-Being: The Economic Pursuit of Quality.

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