Friday, January 04, 2008


Lake Francis with the Rocky Mountains in the background.

We are all concerned about economics these days, perhaps esp. on reservations where things are getting better -- maybe too slowly. A recent study of rez econ suggests that they are generating about a billion and a half dollars both for themselves and the rest of the state.

I keep trying to develop my own doctrine of economic success and this is what I have so far: two principles. First, that profit is increased by complexity. This is because profit comes from moving goods, services or energy across gradients, that is, from a place where the commodity is plentiful to a place where it is scarce but desired. The second is that mechanisms for prosperity and development depend upon stability. If laws, the weather, society, technology change too rapidly or drastically, it produces uncertainty and confusion.

So these two principles are balanced against each other, because moving stuff across gradients can change the situation but it is compensation for change that produces the progress in development.

If things change too quickly, in too major a way, too unexpectedly, without compensation, the whole system can lurch out of control Consider fur-trapping: one instability was over-trapping, so that the beavers became scarce, but the real disaster was the fashion change that made beaver felt hats unsaleable. The over-trapping was predictable, even to the simplest denizen of the frontier, but maybe not so easily was the fashion change predictable except to urban observers of the scene far removed from trappers.

What I draw from this is the conclusion that the reservation, in its present complexity, is doing quite well because there are many points of entry for new workers and businesses, as contrasted with the old days when there were only a few players: the government, the tribe, the school, and a little circle of white merchants. That last, a little circle of white merchants, is what now characterizes the small and shrinking high-line communities based on the mono-culture of irrigated agriculture. The unforeseen threat is the disappearance of the water: no snow pack, no run-off, no irrigation. What that throws into sharp focus is the sloppiness of early legal arrangements about water rights and access. The assumption was that Indians would die out so there was no need to be too careful. The Conrad Brothers simply built Swift Dam at the headwaters of Birch Creek and let the paperwork follow in time.

But the sticklers DID do a tight job of creating the Pondera Canal company and guarding the water impounded in Lake Francis. The town cannot, for instance, draw water from the lake for the town’s trees and lawns without buying shares in the company. So now they are laced into their own corset.

Beyond that are the dynamics of the one-celled social entity versus the multi-celled. We spent a lot of time on this in workshops about church growth. A one-celled church includes maybe a hundred people, all pretty much alike, and this is the most natural and easiest way for a congregation to form -- or it was in the old days. What has changed for churches is the cost of a building and minister. Now the minimum size that can support these basics is more like two or three hundred, unless they are exceptionally prosperous or committed. Valier is still pretty much a monoculture and at about three hundred adult residents is still barely able to operate as a single-celled unit. The same several dozens of business-owners and leaders rotate through the town council chairs until they are exhausted, but they feel obligated to protect their own interests.

Since the interests of the leaders are in maintaining the status quo, even though they realize that progress requires change, most new things come either as appearance (new street signs) or needy infrastructure (not enough water, government rules about sewers). Councilmen make agreements without public notice and all surveys are controlled “to suit Valier.” This is encouraged by the high level of criticism from people exceptionally sensitive to change (low-income, elderly), but it totally evades the input of new people with new ideas. Even those who move to town with relatively high prosperity and experience are generally excluded by simply not letting them know what’s going on. Realtors collaborate in this -- they are not frank.

Sometimes determined and wealthy new residents DO manage politics by checkbook, not because they are interested in the town but because they are managing major projects that might stir up resistance and therefore need to know and influence local politics. They move on when their projects are done.

So, complexity on the rez means prosperity or at least the opportunities for it -- and uniformity in small towns means stagnation. This baffles those church-attenders who have believed that success is based on virtue! Isn’t it virtuous to protect one’s family and home and business? Not when virtue is defined as the maintenance of the status quo. Whether the origins of the idea are in the class-based European society or in the steady-state understanding of an ideal world according to the Bible, the consequences of the assumption can be deadly. Mono-culture is not just a problem in crops, where it can mean that one new disease or pest can wipe out square miles of grain.

But the rez community should not get cocky. Alongside the creation of many new opportunities are many new pitfalls, for what is opportunity but the chance to risk and fail? In the old days problems were managed by simply striking camp to leave or by throwing out the trouble makers. That tendency persists among people who move constantly among the schools and tribal housing, never achieving commitment to one course of action long enough to build up equity and skill.

So the successful community is one that manages a balance between change and consistency, judiciously balancing one against the other. The rez should learn from the small white town and the small town should pay attention to the rez. The forces preventing healthy exchange and understanding are about the same on both sides: fear of the future, longing for the past, preoccupation with one’s interests in the present.

1 comment:

Bitterroot said...

Fabulous post, Mary.

Happy New Year!