The Changing Economy and Local Culture

By: Bill Whaley
17 July, 2011

Today economists agree that the rise of debt-ridden capitalism and decline of the consumer economy has changed expectations for the next decade. While the politicians and their public relations mavens ignore reality, the average American or European is experiencing the pain of the world-wide financial struggle. In America income inequality grows even as wealthy financiers gamble in the stock market, making untold fortunes, based on bets and “gaming the system.” Job growth is practically non existent. New Mexico ranks not last but 51st in job creation. Truly, we are not included in the fifty-state national confederation.

The cycles of economic highs and lows in the northwest quadrant of the state began long ago as the indigenous cultures adapted to climate changes, gathering at Chaco, then dispersing due to drought, soil depletion, and deforestation. Subsequently, the riverine Pueblos formed along the Rio Grande or gathered together in Navajo country and survived. The population numbers increased or decreased in response both to weather conditions and conquest, whether Spanish or American.

The general population numbers in the 20th Century responded similarly to climate and geographical limitations even as capitalism exerted its influence: Recessions, the Great Depression, the WWII boom, the post-war let-down, the cold war rise of the welfare state, tourism as a force, and the formation of the mostly Hispanic political class. The latter lobbied for federal largesse successfully as a rule.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, we saw how the cash economy had replaced the smaller agro or trade and barter system of small merchants and artists of the of the 20th Century. The second home economy, tourist and art sectors created a patina of higher expectations and a false vision of endless growth. Now the worldwide economic downturn is producing a decline in local revenues in both the governmental and private sectors—real estate, construction, art and retail, hospitality.

At Taos Pueblo, buffered by sovereignty and special federal considerations, residents continue much as they have historically—even if the details of daily living have changed. They own their land, debt free. Due to Indian Gaming and tourism, they have a marginal cash income and federal largesse continues to dribble into the coffers. In terms of watersheds and agricultural resources, hunting and foraging, the Tribe is in the driver’s seat for the long haul.

Transient Anglos or newcomers, an historic minority, generally have the education and/or mobility, family connections or resources, to leave the area if necessary. Today’s successful artists show and sell their work not in Taos but in urban centers. Second homers arrive and thrive with retirement income in hand. A few of the ne’er do wells and spiritualists or aging hippies are stuck due to investments in real estate or their inability to adapt. Long ago they chose to live with reduced expectations.

The majority or Hispanic culture dominates the politics and, consequently, shoulders the responsibility for leading the community into the new era of lowered expectations. One can see how the struggles among parciantes—the conflicts over priority or custom on the ditches, the competition for water in the acequias—has been transferred into election-year battles. The real changes in the culture appear to crystallize at the ballot box and in the attempt to control various political entities: the Town, the County, the Schools, and the Coop. Last century’s parciantes and family patriarchs are this century’s patrons and politicos.

In the political culture, power and money, status and jobs—not water and crops—are the driving forces. Economies, like cultures and nature, are mixed. Despite their parochial blinders, ultimately the politicos need the private sector as a source of income.

Today, historic frugality among parcientes has been replaced by the public excesses of politicos.

The Pueblos have survived due to an uncanny mix of economic and cultural resources, cash and ritual. Finding the right balance is always a trial and an experiment. One can’t argue with two thousand or more years of survival and success. Adaptation and change seem like part of the DNA—the residual effects of 10,000 years of the indigenous culture in New Mexico, and hundreds of thousands of years of Paleolithic generations prior to that. And the culture of belief –in “time immemorial”–maintains its spiritual practices.

In America, short-term gains, immediate gratification, seem like the rule not the exception. In local politics, the envidia-sponsored political movida may satisfy the need to one-up a political competitor and the need for retaliation. Frequently, the latest public proposal or political issue is mere justification or window dressing for masking a private motive or personal grievance.

As long as there is enough money, the policy mistakes or economic errors can be contained by the larger community.  But today, we are confronted in Taos with a number of ponzi projects based on the economics of growth. Gross receipts and property tax revenue, energy income, and state subsidies for schools are all in decline.

Yet, most elected officials govern as if they were looking backward.

As the bills become due for the new jail, justice, and administration complex, the County will feel the financial pinch associated declining property values and GRT income. Road maintenance and other services could suffer. The $48 million complex could have been built for half that sum or less but the prevailing egos of the commissioners would not be satisfied with a more modest facility.

The schools have already laid off teachers, seen a decline in enrollment, and experienced an almost catastrophic generational change in the quality of education. Across the community, parents and grandparents are shocked by the decline, the high drop-out rates and poor test scores of the majority of students.

Ten years ago, the Coop was seen as a proud and valued part of the community but now has fallen onto the twin forks of  hubris and greed. The trustees have saddled the members with millions of dollars in debt for cock-eyed projects—Propane and Broadband or one man’s folly–the Command Center.

We hear the “good old boys” at Town Hall (except for the Constant Gardener)—despite the empty storefronts and depletion of energy affecting the historic tourist town–are negotiating to relieve the Coop of the Command Center and associated debt. In effect the community leaders want to shift the burden from more than twenty-thousand rate payers to the town’s five-thousand or fewer tax payers. The town owns a plethora of five-thousand square foot plus empty halls and buildings on Civic Plaza Drive and Cruz Alta St.

Apparently, the elected officials want you to bet on a new cop shop and E911 Center whether you need it or not—at a location a few miles south of downtown.

While citizens in the rest of the country—even in Washington—are discussing ways of reducing the size of government, Taos leaders are expanding their reach and grabbing more and more public resources from each other and the general public. Ultimately, not everybody can work for the Coop or the Town or live in the county’s new hotel. Students are voting with their feet against the local school system.

Apparently, Los politicos understand how to share in the “abundance” but not in the “shortages” during the years of drought—which have already begun. While each entity possess one or two clear-headed thinkers, the majority seem to close their eyes.  The smarter natives, I have noticed, in Taos just ignore los politicos.  Amen.

Category: KCEC, News, Politics, Taos County, Taos Municipal Schools, Taos Pueblo, Town of Taos | RSS 2.0 Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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