Traveling around Arizona, it’s difficult to imagine how the state can turn itself around, even if a majority understood the term. For most, a turnaround would mean a return to 40 percent population growth every decade, more sprawl, more “active adult resort living - with championship golf,” more spec retail development and office “parks” to house the real-estate outfits, mortgage boiler rooms and call centers.
The dirty secret is that as an economy, Arizona outside of Phoenix and Tucson is “the Third World,” as a prominent booster economist once told me, not for attribution. But among the states Arizona, including Phoenix and Tucson, performed dismally on almost any measure of economic well-being except for housing starts and population growth, the latter a mixed indicator that carries huge costs, too. And this was before the Great Recession.
Now tourism is in freefall, even before the Jim Crow anti-immigration law (and a Tea Party ‘buycott’ is of questionable help considering the bulwark of the “movement,” New York Times spin notwithstanding, is economically distressed whites).The exurban and rural sprawl building of the mid-2000s is dead and decomposing. Even tony Sedona is suffering. Another striking fact is how dependent rural Arizona has become on everything from food to gasoline to Wal-Mart Chinese goodies trucked up from Phoenix, even as it has added huge gobs of new people. This region was once the epitome of localization, along with distribution via railroads. Now Flagstaff’s rail yard has been ripped out and the two tracks of the BNSF “Transcon” run through alone, heavily ballasted for speedy passage as if this were the middle of nowhere.
It’s not merely that Arizona produces little now, but that such a layout is highly vulnerable, not least to the future of peak oil and its much higher gasoline prices. The forest looks sick despite the wet winter. Climate change is bad enough, but one wonders whether this miracle of creation can withstand more than 6 million people and their cars in a place far beyond its carrying capacity. Then there’s the once-magical Verde Valley, profaned by sprawl around Cottonwood that makes Phoenix look like a model of planning, all sucking water that will be needed by the Salt River Project.
In Phoenix, one of the most arresting aspects of the depression - for the city has never been through anything like this - continues to be the relatively light traffic. I drove from Sky Harbor into midtown, hitting the Papago/Red Mountain/51 merge headed to Seventh Street at 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday. Easy motoring. Three years before, it would have been an impossible mess. The air was relatively clear, even though the ozone and other vaporous car-vomited poisons congregate in north Scottsdale and Fountain Hills.
Not that I’m optimistic about a Great Reset where we learn the lessons of the near-collapse and build scalable communities, sensible transportation choices and a real economy. Most Americans will cling to the old order and the dreaded deficit will be used as an excuse to prevent the transition to a sustainable, competitive future. But that may prove little comfort to Phoenix. The sprawl housing model is grievously wounded, being dependent on more and more leverage and house prices rising every year at double-digit rates.
Phoenix was indeed among the fastest growing metros, but it was driven by the ever-growing housing stock and jobs associated with this phenomenon. People were doing worse even before the roof caved in. Nearly 30 percent of families are below 150 percent of the poverty line. Those in poverty grew from 13.5 percent in 2000 to 19.3 in 2008 citywide. For the metro, the numbers grew from 12 percent to 16.4 percent.
As the media engage in silliness about “putting a different spin on Arizona’s image” to counter the “bad publicity” over the quite substantial anti-immigration law, so few serious conversations are taking place, especially outside the few activists and outspoken citizens I will call the Resistance. Everybody seems shell-shocked; they don’t even know what questions to ask. One might be, “What is growth?” Or “What good is it as Arizona measures it?” It is the god that failed.
Jon Talton is a journalist and author living in Seattle. He writes the “On the Economy” column for the Seattle Times and is editor and publisher of the blog “Rogue Columnist” (www.roguecolumnist.com).