Optimists head west to a land of light-headed exuberance
December 6, 1998
by Irwin Stelzer
If you want to understand why America keeps expanding, put some distance between yourself and the East-Coast home of Wall Street and the financial press. In Boston you are immersed in the past: ivy-covered buildings in which Mayflower descendants got their tickets to the Wasp worlds of investment banking and Wall Street lawyering - until the junk-bond inventor Mike Milken, the merger maven Joe Flom and their ilk substituted talent for breeding as the key to success.
In Washington you are immersed in a combination of hypocrisy and slime that makes it painful to watch the evening news and morning talk shows. Perjury is not perjury if it is committed to avoid embarrassment, say Democrats. And it should not be punished, say Republicans, if the polls, which in Washington trump principle every time, suggest voters would rather avert their eyes than stare truth in the face.
Even New York is not a bad place to give a miss now and then. True, Mayor Rudi Giuliani has made it a safer, richer and more civil place. But the emphasis is on fighting change: bribe the baseball champions, the Yankees, to stay by using taxpayer funds to build a new stadium for their millionaire owner; persuade the New York Stock Exchange to stay by offering to subsidise to the tune of $600m a new building for wealthy stockbrokers; dole out money to this and that company to persuade them to keep their headquarters in New York. The city seems on the defensive most of the time.
Things are different out west. And I do not mean in California, where smoking a cigar in a cigar bar is illegal and where arugula (a salad) seems to be the preferred main course in many restaurants. I mean Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and what Timothy Egan in his new book, Lasso the Wind, calls "the sunset side of the 100th meridian".
In that part of America, the focus is on the future - on building things, on accommodating the masses moving from the East and West Coasts to the southwest and the Rocky Mountains.
In Nevada a house goes up every minute. Phoenix, Arizona, receives 30,000 newcomers every year and turns dreary desert into lush lawns at the rate of an acre per hour. Colorado's Front Range of the Rockies puts up 1,000 new homes every week. In Las Vegas almost-new hotels are demolished to make room for gigantic new ones that lure tourists by replicating Venetian canals and Egyptian pyramids.
All this construction provides work for an unlimited supply of Mexican immigrants, who can be seen at American Express offices queuing up to send a good part of their pay home to their families.
Roam around and talk to some of the people who have moved. A young black man relocated to Arizona from California because opportunities for restaurant managers are better in Phoenix. A young waitress and communications student came from New York for the freedom to pile into her Jeep and drive off into the open spaces at weekends. An older waitress left the Midwest to live where she can afford two acres and a pair of horses. A property broker abandoned the New York clothing business after being mugged. All have one thing in common - optimism about the future.
They are virtually uninterested in the things that absorb Washington's politicians. It is not that, after careful thought, they have decided the president should be let off. It is that they have made up their minds he is a liar and have crossed him off the list of people they should spend time thinking about - time that can be better spent worrying about the things local politicians affect: crime and education.
The solution to crime is seen as obvious. Lock up the bad guys, preferably in unpleasant surroundings, and keep a gun handy should anyone violate your home. As for education, home learning and school vouchers are the best solutions to schools that do not work.
The solutions to environmental issues out west are more elusive. People seem torn: they do not want to inhibit anyone's freedom to live where they choose and to drive cars as big as houses. But they want to preserve the natural amenities that lured them to the west. So they argue - yet they keep building: homes, ballparks, museums, retirement communities, office buildings.
And they keep spending. Out west all talk is about rising share prices and property values, the new hotels and malls going up and the shortage of waiters, lawyers and building workers. On the day after Thanksgiving, stores were jammed and judging from the shopping bags, these were customers, not lookers. They snapped up every bargain in sight. Retailers are cheery and expect Christmas sales to top last year's by some 6%.
Egan says it best: "Given a chance, the west will leave most people feeling a sense of light-headed exuberance." True, Asia has its problems, America's steel industry is being decimated by cheap imports and businessmen grouse about margins squeezed between rising labour costs and prices held down by imports and discerning shoppers. That is the stuff of the East Coast press. Out west, the sun is shining on Americans and the prospects seem limitless.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.