Real losses: Western exceptionalism doesn’t mean immunity
November 20, 2008
There is a house in Rawlins, Wyo., that won’t sell. It’s a bargain, too, at $135,000. In fact, there are 43 houses in Rawlins selling for under $150,000. This is a booming energy town with a housing shortage. People in Rawlins have money. Wyoming has, in fact, the fastest growing median household income of any state.
So why does this house remain on the market?
The mortgage crisis created far from Wyoming has changed the rules on borrowing money. No more nothing or 3 percent down. It’s 10 percent up front, and not that many people have $13,500 lying around.
This shifting dynamic is one more blow to the concept of Western exceptionalism. We’ve heard it all our lives: In the West, we’re different. We’ve got great expanses of public land, we’ve cornered the market on natural wonders, we have individual freedom and pay little heed to government, and we certainly don’t care how they do things back East.
But whether it’s ranchette, ranch-style or ranch, it doesn’t matter; we are common and we are connected. This region is just as liable as any other to feel the splintering jar of the cue ball caroming in from New York, London or Shanghai.
The crisis also threatens one of the few stabilizing elements of the West. Despite a history of boom-and-bust economies and a transient workforce, homeownership has always been high out here. Utah, for example, is the only state where the homeownership rate has never fallen below 60 percent. We’ve put our eggs in one basket—our homes. Now, forces far from our public-land states threaten that investment.
This shattering of nest egg wisdom reinforces a lesson the West has learned the hard way. Diversity matters in all forms—demographically, ecologically and economically. In the last 40 years, commodities have continually shrunk as a percentage of the West’s economy. That’s a good thing, but now, with energy prices soaring, it’s tempting to slip back into old ways. Let’s don’t.
In July, oil-and-gas-rich New Mexico was projected to enjoy a $400 million budget surplus. Then it fell to $225 million and now, the projected surplus is around $80 million.
If Lehman Brothers—which was founded in the same year that California gained statehood, 1850—can get caught with its financial pants down, so can we. Our economies of tourism, healthcare and creativity require just as much attention as do oil and gas.
The crisis has also driven home the fact that most Westerners live in cities, and all are feeling the brunt of bad choices made in New York and Washington, D.C. Western cities are reeling from real estate losses. During the last quarter, at least 40 percent of all homes in Las Vegas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix were sold at a loss.
Yet the fundamental lesson isn’t financial, it’s political. The West has often been the lair of the ideologue. They come in all guises, including Ted Kazcynski (Unabomber), the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Branch Davidians, Proposition 13 (California taxpayer’s rights) and the Aryan Nation. For every reasonable soul we have sent to Washington—Montana’s Mike Mansfield, Idaho’s Frank Church—we elect true believers ready to fight liberals masquerading as moderates who are out to squash our way of life. This includes politicians like Richard Pombo of California, Barbara Cubin of Wyoming and Helen Chenoweth and Larry Craig, both of Idaho.
Although both Democrats and Republicans share equal blame for allowing this financial mess to deepen and fester, it was precipitated by having a pair of ideological Westerners at the helm. Both Bush and Cheney have been blind to differing opinions and market signals. That made me wary of two more Westerners, John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin. She told a crowd gathered in Carson City, Nev.: “You understand the need to put the pride back into America and into Americans because we can do this again. We are an exceptional nation.”
If this continuing crisis has taught us anything, it’s that the West may be exceptional in spirit, but it’s no different from the South or the East when it comes to weathering economic changes in fortune. An emphasis on pride is hardly the point; we need common sense about living within our means.
Owning a house now has global implications.
Samuel Western is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Sheridan, Wyo.