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Perhaps what happened in the 90s wasn’t a boom

Essay by Ed Quillen

Growth – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE AMERICAN WEST is notorious for its “boom and bust” economy. In the past the booms and busts were tied to commodity prices; there was a mining boom in 1877 when silver was fetching $1.20 an ounce, a bust in 1893 when it was 78¢ an ounce and dropping, an energy boom in 1980 when crude oil was $38 a barrel, a bust in 1983 when it was $12 and dropping.

Commodity prices, however, remained low in the 1990s, yet by most accounts the Mountain West enjoyed a boom. So what was different this time around?

That was the question posed in Boulder by the Center of the American West, which recently hosted a two-day conference with economists, geographers, demographers, historians, and other certified experts. I did not attend the conference, just the aftermath: a two-hour presentation of some conclusions on Dec. 1.

One interesting comment came from Brian Black, who’s not a Westerner. He professes history at Altoona College in Pennsylvania, and his specialty is the first American oil boom, which started in 1859 with Edwin Drake’s first oil well in an isolated valley of northwestern Pennsylvania and ended in 1872 when bigger and better oil fields were discovered elsewhere.

People in other parts of the country look upon busts as failures, he said, while we Westerners seem to be rather philosophical and see busts as part of the natural order of the cosmos.

Also, when things go bust in the West, people tend to move on to greener pastures — if the molybdenum mine at Climax closes down, then one finds work at a gold mine in Nevada or a dam project in Peru. Conversely, when the economy tanks in coal-belt Pennsylvania or West Virginia, people hunker down and find a way to stay.

That was news to me. I had assumed that everybody thought pretty much the way we do; there are good times and there are hard times, and we have about as much control over them as we have over the weather. A blizzard or a drought isn’t a “failure,” it’s something you either escape (perhaps by moving to the tropics) or cope with.

But what do we mean by a boom? I’d like to think I know one when I see one, but it’s hard to define. The classic western “boom” was a place and time where an individual could get rich quick — like Horace Austin Warner Tabor with his grubstake share of the Little Pittsburg Mine above Leadville in 1878, or Winfield Scott Stratton with his Independence Mine above Victor in 1893.

By that definition, though, there haven’t been many booms. Individuals might prosper during good times, but seldom is there enough gold lying around for an individual to scoop it up with a few hand tools. In general, the wealth that comes out of the ground emerges only with machinery beyond the purchasing power of an individual; the company that owns the machinery may pay decent wages, but working individuals aren’t turning into coupon-clipping capitalists.

THE CLOSET MODERN ANALOGY to such a “boom” might be the great Internet excitement of the late 1990s. If I had only had the foresight to register the “” domain name for free in 1993, I could have sold it for a few million in 1999 — and with my financial talent, I’d have probably bought Enron stock with the proceeds.

At any rate, what we experienced here in the 1990s wasn’t a gold-rush-style “boom.” Our population grew, but it didn’t go from dozens to thousands inside of a year, the way that Creede or Cripple Creek or Leadville boomed in days of yore.

Another difference between our ’90s “boom” and the traditional “boom” — or the Western energy boom of the 1970s — is demographic. Primarily, those booms attracted the footloose young men with the strength and stamina to be miners, lumberjacks, and roughnecks. Our 90s boom attracted an older population — retirees, empty nesters, lone eagles, modem cowboys.

But again, was this a “boom” just because the population increased at a rate greater than the national average? Population growth might be one indicator of a better local economy — but not necessarily, or Calcutta and Mexico City would be among the richest cities of this world.

SO, AS SEVERAL OF THE PANELISTS remarked, we have a hard time defining a “boom.” Whatever we had in the ’90s, when population and real-estate values generally rose in Central Colorado, it wasn’t like the silver booms that created Custer County in 1877 and Mineral County in 1893.

This one happened when commodity prices were low, and it’s odd for the West to prosper then. In general, the West does well during inflationary times and suffers during deflationary times. Look at recent history. Prices were fairly stable in the 1950s; mines and sawmills closed then, and the rural West did not fare well. Move to the inflationary 70s, especially near the end of the decade, and the West was roaring along with uranium and oil-shale development, and there were also mines under development to extract $800 gold and $25 silver.

Whether our currency should inflate used to be a major political issue — albeit one that probably peaked in 1896. By that analysis, we’re a nation of creditors and debtors. Debtors like inflation — borrow $1,000 when wheat is $1 a bushel and pay it back with wheat that’s $2.50 a bushel. Creditors prefer a stable dollar, or even deflation, so that the dollars they’re repaid are as valuable as the dollars they lent.

Align those interests by political parties, and you’ve got the inflationary Democrats representing the debtors and the deflationary Republicans representing the creditors in the election of 1896.

I don’t know that the parties’ political philosophies have changed. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in some traditional Republican economics. He fought inflation and prices dropped — including the prices for commodities produced in the West, like gold and silver, timber, molybdenum, beef and oil — so our western economy tanked, supplying mostly abandoned houses and boarded storefronts.

But those Republicans are clever folks. If people voted their “interests,” then a hurting West would have voted for the Democrat in 1984, since Reagan’s economic policies certainly didn’t advance our interests.

However, the GOP spinmeisters came up with “values.” It now sounds rather cynical and self-serving to vote for your “interests” when you can be noble and idealistic and support a candidate who “shares your values,” even if his economic policies basically consist of taxing the poor and subsidizing the rich.

To put this another way, no matter how much Republicans say they’re for “fiscal responsibility,” they always increase the national debt. And why is that?

The people who profit from a national debt — the people who hold treasury notes and bills and collect interest — are people of means who tend to vote Republican. The people who pay that interest, having it deducted from their paychecks every week, are people who tend to vote for Democrats (or at least, they’ll vote that way when they’re thinking about “interests” rather than “values”). Little wonder that the national debt more than tripled during the Reagan-Bush years, and is rising again under Bush the Younger.

But I can’t draw much connection between the size and direction of the national debt and the prosperity of Central Colorado. And with the experience of the 1990s, when times seemed pretty good hereabouts — at least if you owned some real estate — I can’t draw the customary connection between commodity prices and the economy of Central Colorado.

So what did happen here in the 1990s? It wasn’t exactly a boom in the classic sense, and it may not have been a boom so much as it was a transition.

For about a decade, I’ve been arguing that the Mountain West was organized as a hinterland for Chicago, to provide markets and raw materials. Western farmers bought from Sears, and ranchers sold cattle to Armour, and a Chicago-based railroad profited from that traffic. But that economy peaked in about 1970, and now we’re being organized as the easternmost suburb of Los Angeles. We supply Los Angeles with water and electric power and a place to dump trash, and we provide an almost mythologic place that teems with quality recreational experiences.

WE’VE GONE FROM selling cows to selling the cowboy image. Culturally and economically, we’re moving from the Midwest to the West Coast.

In the December edition of Atlantic Monthly (perhaps my second-favorite monthly magazine), David Brooke (author of Bobos in Paradise) has a long article called “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” He’s trying to explain the differences between “Red America” (interior, voted for Bush) and “Blue America” (coastal, voted for Gore).

Primarily, Brooke compares his place of residence, Bethesda in Montgomery County, Maryland, to Franklin County, Pennsylvania. It’s only 65 miles away on the map, although it seems much further to him, since it has “no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble.”

Brooke compares Red America (alien country to him, and from the tone of the article, to most of his readers) to Blue America:

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors. We sail; they powerboat. We cross-country ski; they snowmobile. We hike; they drive ATVs…

“In Red America, churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing. In Red America the Wal-Marts are massive, with parking lots the size of state parks. In blue America the stores are small but the markups are big.”

LIKE MANY OTHER essayists who have examined the differences between the Bush and Gore counties in the past year, Brooks misses some significant factors about the Mountain West. Bush Country is presumed to be a zone of wholesome, church-going people in stable families.

But that’s not true of the mountains — Republicans may win the vote, but the Mountain West’s divorce rate is higher than the national average, we lead the nation in illegal drug consumption, and we’re at the bottom of the list when they’re counting people who are in church on Sunday morning.

In important ways, we’re not like the rest of Red America — but nobody important has noticed that, and so we will continue to be mischaracterized by the Atlantic, and National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.

(Liberal or conservative, those East Coast writers insist on viewing us as stereotypes instead of spending a few minutes examining census data for divorce rates or church attendance.)

To continue, Brooks didn’t visit Central Colorado on his expedition to Red America. He visited south central Pennsylvania. Much that he observed there would apply here, although it probably fit better a dozen years ago.

RED AMERICA is a place where ostentation is scorned and people dress plainly. It’s not a place where there’s a lot of money, but people feel good to be getting by. That suits me. Another thing about our Red America that pleases me is an observation by a Presbyterian minister who said that “the range of opinion in Franklin County is much wider than it was in [his previous residences of] Cambridge or New York. ‘We’re more authentically plural here.'”

But the Blue America that Brooks describes has some things I enjoy, too: interesting ethnic restaurants, brew-pubs, complex coffee concoctions, National Public Radio.

People make more money in Blue America, but everything costs more, too — especially real estate.

Perhaps that explains the “boom” of the 90s in Central Colorado. Upscale Blue America began moving into what had been depressed Red America. Blue had some money to spend, and the Red economy and culture adjusted accordingly.

As I said, there are aspects of both that I like, such as the plain speech and honest opinions and lack of pretension in Red America, and the variety and energy and creativity of Blue America. And since we’re quite different from most of Red America, perhaps it would be possible to contrive a place that offers the benefits of both as more of Blue America arrives.

That’s mostly wishful thinking, of course. But we were probably never as stereotypically “Red” as some would believe. And in the past few years we seem to have mixed Wal-marts and galleries, skiing and snowmobiling, wine tastings and county fairs, mountain biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, designer beer, elk steaks and double lattés rather well.

Perhaps that might explain this “boom” that wasn’t like any other “boom,” even if it doesn’t predict whether another bust lies ahead.

–Ed Quillen