The Future of the Western States

Is the West's future half empty or half full?
by | August 2010

The West feels like it's on its own domestically, and soon may also go it alone in search of new economic opportunities overseas. That's the sense from two veteran observers of the Western states who see both peril and possibility ahead.

"You have an area that doesn't have the business clout other areas of the country do to get the attention of Washington, D.C.," says independent public-opinion pollster Adam Davis, a partner at research firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall in Portland, Ore.

A crisis is a crisis, but Davis, whose three decades of work have focused on the Northwest and Pacific coast, says there are regional differences. "The housing bust has really hurt the West," he says. "It affected everyone from sawmills to construction to real estate attorneys, the nursery business -- everything." He worries that economic doldrums, a jobless recovery and social upheaval could add up to something unprecedentedly bad: "We think it's been tough up to now. We haven't seen anything yet."

For states in what's regarded as the new Mountain West -- Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- the conclusion is a good deal more sanguine. Mark Muro is the Washington, D.C., research director of Brookings Mountain West, a new partnership between the Brookings Institution and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I think this is an important sentiment, [but] it's probably in some ways a healthy one," he says about the sense of alienation Davis sees on the coast -- and his own work that's picking up in the Intermountain West.

Muro remains confident in the vibrancy and visionary qualities of what he calls "the Western Proposition." "Self-help is a huge theme in the West -- both as a matter of necessity but also as an ethic. Self-reliance is going to be critical to finding truly sustainable indigenous sources of growth."

The Mountain West usually bounces back from every recession and leads the economy forward, but that hasn't happened this time. Muro says there is a two-part prescription for what ails the region. First, "What we really need is a two-way partnership where Washington, D.C., leads on those things where it must, but continues to empower regions with greater flexibility." Second, "A consumption-oriented, fossil fuel-oriented, commodity economy needs to be replaced by an export-oriented, greener, innovation-driven economy."

Muro stresses that the second change can be pursued with or without the first. A Brookings study released last month shows how "increasing the nation's and metropolitan areas' exports holds out the potential of generating significant, high-quality job creation in the U.S. and its regions."

When you reorient yourself to the Pacific Ocean, what old geography books called the Far East reappears as the Near West. "Export jobs are good paying, and export markets -- especially in Brazil, India, China and other developing nations -- are growing at a time of tepid growth and a sluggish recovery at home and in the West," says Muro. "So for individuals, companies, regions and the nation, stressing exports in goods and especially services makes a ton of sense and offers -- in our view -- a critical entry into the 'next economy,' which will be increasingly export driven, low carbon and innovation fueled."

While acknowledging regional variation -- "different places are differently placed" -- Muro says the West's problems and prospects matter to the country as a whole because it's still most likely where the future will be discovered. "The region is the rest of the nation, only more so in some ways."

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