When I was elected mayor of Kalispell in 2009, the economic outlook was bleak. Bleak as in: the worst economic recession since the 1930s. Rolling foreclosures, folks desperate for jobs, locals fleeing to the oil fields of North Dakota. I remember being told the Flathead Valley had a “12-year inventory” of platted residential lots built up, with no perceived opportunity to liquidate in the future. We all wondered if the Flathead Valley could ever recover. City policies created during the height of a roaring economic boom turned out not to be the panacea for relieving taxpayers from funding our infrastructure needs. I can recall my efforts being focused primarily on getting vertical construction – any construction activity at all – moving in order to bring hope back to our community. I remember in 2010 being angry when an out-of-state construction company won the bid to build the first leg of the Kalispell bypass. I, like many others, felt that job should go to a local contractor and local tradesmen.
Fast forward to 2017. My, how the pendulum has swung. Unemployment is at an all-time low, real estate prices have fully recovered, and construction activity abounds. And that out-of-state construction company I spoke of in vain? Well, it brought me my husband, so I have (mostly) rescinded my negative commentary on that issue.
What caused the return to prosperity? With all due respect to local and national legislators, government cannot take credit. Our national government is every bit as dysfunctional today as it was in 2009, and perhaps more dysfunctional than ever before. Dodd-Frank, the financial regulation that Wall Street condemns as being anti-free market and anti-economic growth, was intact when the economy rebooted. Low interest rates may have some effect on purchasing power, but appears to have had little effect on job creation. Regulation may have placed false pressures or stimulus on an economic recovery, but would we have recovered without regulatory interference? Historical depictions of market fluctuations tell us, “probably.” So, assuming the economic pendulum swings in cycles, while basking in the glow of economic prosperity, we are wise to keep one eye toward the pendulum swinging toward less growth at some point in the future.
Few saw the most recent recession coming and perhaps that was due to unrealistic optimism, rabid consumerism, and volitional blindness to the impending mortgage crisis. Many of us were focused then on “keeping up with the Joneses.” We couldn’t see what we didn’t know, what we did not want to know, and hadn’t experienced. Now, having had the painful experience of a recession, we cannot be deaf, dumb and blind to the next economic swing. Government can’t sustain this economic boom; it can barely sustain itself.
So, if periods of economic prosperity are unreliable, self-reliance may be the best alternative. By this I don’t mean we all need to grow our own food and catch rainwater in basins, but creating a life that is sustainable by our own efforts with minimal reliance on outside forces may be a way to prosper without regard to swings in economic activity. Such a notion strikes me as inherently Montanan, and in preparation for the next pendulum swing, I’d wager most of us will do just fine so long as our focus is on “keeping up with the Montanans.”
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.