Things about Arizona at 100
It's centennial week in Arizona, and the local media are doing their part. On Sunday, the Arizona Republic had a clever front-page display of wishes for the next hundred years from readers. My favorite was that Arizona enters the 21st century before its over. Another asked for less conservative politics (good luck with that). The paper is trying very hard and doing good work. Inside were some quick hits by state worthies about what you should know about Arizona. They were relentlessly upbeat, as is a requirement for being viable here as a worthy: "The good people of Arizona have always had grit"; "We defy a stereotype as some might see existing in Maine, Texas or California"; "We are an iconoclastic bunch"; "It's a fantastic state with an early history that is just special," and, from Gov. Jan Brewer, "There is nothing that can't be accomplished here." Draw your own conclusions.
As usual, the rest is left to homey. "Every dirty job that comes along...," as Clint Eastwood growls in the original and best Dirty Harry film. So what are some things you need to know about Arizona? It's one of this blog's missions, but I'll try to put it into short Gannett-ese (sorry, my crack graphics/design team is off):
1. Arizona is not metropolitan Phoenix. Even though Phoenix-like mass-produced sprawl housing and shopping strips have spread statewide, most of Arizona has very different history, topography, cultures and socio-economic challenges from the big concrete blob in the center of the state.
2. Arizona is a welfare queen. As is common with red states, Arizona receives more in federal benefits than it pays in taxes; it is a "net taker" at $1.19 received for every dollar paid. By comparison, California gets 78 cents for every dollar. But the dependence, as the right-wingers would put it, goes much deeper. From pacifying the Apache and bringing the railroads, to the great water projects, electricity for air conditioning, infrastructure for sprawl and the Military Industrial Complex, Arizona has required and enjoyed huge outlays from the federal government.
3. Arizona is a risky experiment. As Rogue readers know, the reclamation of the Salt River Valley was the closest thing to a trial of large-scale socialism ever attempted by the federal government. Now the entire state has embarked on an experiment that makes it fairly unique in America: How many people can you stuff into a hostile desert with climate change happening and only going to get worse.
4. Arizona lies about water. The available water supplies are far less than boosters claim and are certainly not enough to sustain a Sun Corridor of 8 million people living in sprawled single-family tract houses, aside from being in Third World die-off circumstances. The public mendacity on this issue is morally criminal, and the private machinations to "prove" 100-year water supplies, etc. would no doubt cross the legal line if investigative journalists wanted to do more than crusade against those evil public employees. The state's water issue is complex, but inside the complexity is scarcity, not abundance. No technological fix will change this reality. And the unwillingness of the elites to even discuss this dangerous situation is beyond irresponsible. "Sustainability" has become one of those meaningless words, but the outcome here will give full force to "unsustainability."
5. The Mormons have more power than you think. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is greatly intertwined with the Anglo settlement of the state, and has often played a beneficial role. It is not being anti-Mormon to note that the church's influence in politics, legislation, business and public policy is far greater than its numbers. This distorts all these areas because everybody else is so disorganized, many just here to be left alone. And we lack the Mormons who are building extensive light- and commuter-rail and improving downtown in Salt Lake, among many good projects,
6. Power has always been highly centralized in Arizona. In the old days, the railroads and mining companies ran the state. Now it's the Real Estate Industrial Complex, the extreme right and the LDS. Behind the scenes, as in every hydrological society, there's the one who controls the water, such as the Salt River Project. Interestingly that Arizona has grown to be populous and highly urbanized, yet it hasn't developed the many, often competing, nodes of power that one would expect. (And, no, it's not because "we're a young state.")
7. Arizona is based on extraction industries. This is another thing that, curiously, didn't change with tons of people and cities. Once it was digging and smelting copper, mining for other metals, cutting timber and exploiting the land for grazing and growing. Now it's subdivisions, other sprawl land plays and extracting populations of people who will put up with anything as long as its hot. Each has huge externalities, including vast environmental costs and exploitation of labor. Another result is the poisonous use-up-and-move-on mentality.
8. Arizona is capital poor. From the first mining operations in the 19th century, Arizona needed major capital investment from the east as well as federal largesse. That never really changed, despite a few attempts at serious economic development. Unlike California, for example, Arizona never had a "Big Four" and other capitalists who made their fortunes here and stayed, making it a major center of capital. Such an outcome would have led to a much more diverse, prosperous economy, along with well endowed universities, cultural institutions, etc. Thus, the state has fewer assets — and a bad attitude — to attract world capital markets today. The major exception, until the Late Unpleasantness, was real-estate hustles. And the pensions, savings and Social Security/Medicare brought by the huge retiree golfing cohort (oh, we "defy a stereotype").
9. Nastiness is nothing new. Every state has skeletons in its closets. Ours include the Bisbee Deportation, defrauding of Mexican-American farmers by sleazy Anglo promoters (part of a long history of land fraud), internment of most of the state's Japanese population during World War II, segregation in many places during Jim Crow and stealing the land from its tribal owners. So SB 1070 has plenty of company. That said, nastiness and self-destructive and immoral policies didn't always triumph. Barry Goldwater, Carl Hayden, Ernest McFarland, John Rhodes and Mo Udall would be aghast and not a little pissed at most of their successors.
10. Arizona has an identity crisis. Unlike, say, Ohio, most residents weren't born here. A large number don't really consider it home, as in a place that requires civic engagement and sacrifice for the greater good. They may say they "love it" and "Talton hates Arizona," but somehow they are always against every effort to improve the state, preserve its treasures and ensure a quality future (which Talton crusaded for, and paid the price, and for which the Resistance continues to fight). Along with this diffuse Anglo Arizona, we have a diverse Latino population, many stretching back generations, others — at least until recently — here to prop up the economy and then go back home. What is an Arizonan? It's a more complex question than 50 years ago. And "iconoclastic"? Please. Most of Anglo Arizona is as conformist as any Sinclair Lewis setting. It's just conformity to right-wing extremism, civic disengagement, gun culture, defensiveness and Things We Don't Talk About (e.g., water, climate change). Russell Pearce is the establishment.
This commentary was originally posted on Rogue Columnist.
Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.