In a few weeks I'll be flying to Las Vegas for Mike Konczal's bachelor party. It will be my 3rd trip to that man-made colossus in the middle of the desert. I've also been to Phoenix four or five times, which is something one endures in furtherance of being a Cardinals fan. I've also been through most of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and southern California. Generally I like the Southwest immensely, although I must admit that Vegas is more depressing than fun in my opinion. What never escapes me whenever I visit these places, though, is the stark reality that none of it should be there. It's a desert.
The cities of that region, especially Las Vegas and Phoenix, are growing exponentially. In 1900, Las Vegas didn't have a single permanent structure. It was a tent mining camp of 50 souls. In 1930 it was a barren railroad depot of 5,100. In 1960, well into the development of its glitzy casino and entertainment image, it held 64,000 people. In 2010 the Las Vegas metro area (including Henderson and North Las Vegas) checked in at 2,100,000 permanent residents. Phoenix was slightly bigger historically. In 1950 it had a population of 106,000. In 2010, Phoenix and its massive, sprawling, contiguous suburbs (Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Glendale, Gilbert, etc.) totaled 4,200,000 residents. This represents an increase of 900,000 in just ten years following the 2000 Census. And I won't even get into Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley, and southern California.
There is one and only one reason that this kind of unprecedented growth has been possible:
That isn't an oversimplification; no Hoover Dam, no Phoenix. No Las Vegas. No Los Angeles. Vegas and Phoenix barely existed in 1900 because they're in the middle of a goddamn desert. There is no water and there were no power resources. The dam brought the electricity and fresh water that allowed the growth of infrastructure, industry, and population in places that could not otherwise have any of it. Now, for a million bonus points, who built the Hoover Dam?
A) The Free Market
B) The Federal Government
C) State and Local Government
Congratulations, B is correct!
The passage of the legislation to build it took many years and was vociferously opposed by private utilities in Arizona and California (Nevada basically had no population to speak of until the Dam) because they feared competition from government electricity. They used allies in the media, particularly Hearst and Chandler, to label the project as socialism. Eventually Republicans in California realized that the overall economic growth of the state would be more beneficial in the long run than parochial concerns about the profits of Southern California Edison, and they threw support behind the bill that Calvin Coolidge eventually signed. In the long run I'd say that thousand-percent growth of population and industry in the Southwest has made local utilities more money than they lost to Socialist Electricity.
It casts the reactionary, ultraconservative politics of Arizona, Orange County, Utah, and Nevada in high relief to point out that the coyote population would outnumber the humans in the region if not for Big Government doing what private industry would not – elevate national, long term interests over short term profit. It also underscores how dramatically politics have changed over time, although much does remain the same. For example, Congress is no longer willing to elevate long term economic growth – say, the kind private industry might experience if the government took on the burden of providing health care for the population – over the limited, shortsighted interests of a small, powerful lobby.