ESSAY: Data… and the American Dream, Part Five

Read Part One

As American corporations continue to send jobs overseas, and as automation and mechanization continue to reduce the number of workers needed in industry and agriculture, our country’s economy has naturally undergone some serious challenges. Those challenges sometimes get reflected the quaint rural microcosm of Pagosa Springs.

Some experts on the subject of self-esteem argue that humans have a natural desire to engage in useful work, and thus feel useless and despondent when deprived of opportunities to make a contribution to their family and community.

Here in Pagosa Springs, some members of our working class are willing to live in cars or other vehicles, for the privilege of working at jobs that might pay $10 an hour. No one I’ve spoken to about this situation, here in town, seems comfortable or satisfied with such a housing situation. At the same time, no one is able to suggest a way to quickly and effectively address the problem.

So we count things, instead.

The lack of jobs in American manufacturing and agriculture has led us to a curious place, economically. Deprived of the chance to produce useful and desirable products, we’ve developed a collection of new industries whose work consists of counting things, and assigning values to the things counted. It doesn’t seem to matter whether anyone’s life is improved by this counting process, because at least the ‘counters’ and ‘value-assigners’ have something to do.

Over the past 50 years, this counting process has in fact become a high-status occupation, and highly paid work, as evidenced by the proposal made at the June 27 Pagosa Springs, whereby a division of Equifax will tell us how many visitors to Archuleta County fit into each of 71 demographic “buckets”… or “segments”… or “cohorts.” Equifax further claims that, once these tourists are counted and sorted, the data company will be able to tell us, in general terms, the best places to spend marketing dollars so we can attract “more of the same.”

All this, for a mere $50,000.

No one bothers to ask, “Do we really want more of the same?” Some folks might want more of the same, but… gee whiz, is that the best we can do in Pagosa Springs… to keep asking for more of the same situation?

Data expert Neil Aldridge advises local leaders that “doing what you’ve always done will get you what you’ve always gotten.” First Southwest Bank, June 27, 2017.

A few of the people who responded to Neil Aldridge’s ‘Data Driven Marketing’ presentation at the June 27 CDC luncheon had insightful questions. One such person was local businessman Bob Scott:

“If I have any skepticism about this [data analysis process] it’s on the front end: getting statistically meaningful data that would be adequate for you [Equifax] to make some conclusions about what’s going on. And I may be way off base, but I’m dubious about the community’s ability to get you that level of data.

“So tell me — I mean, I have no doubts about your company’s ability to crunch all this data and come up with great information — but what does Plan B look like? I we give you this huge file, and you say, ‘Nice try, guys, but this doesn’t tell me anything.’ I mean, you know, and I know, that Equifax knows everything about everybody on the planet and their spending habits. (General laughter in the room.) Isn’t there a way for you to say, ‘Okay, the data you gave us is fine, but we’re going to go right to the source. We’re going to go to Walmart, we’re going to go to Kroeger, we’re going to go to Wyndham — you know, however you guys do the magic behind the curtain, technologically, and really find out where these people are coming from, what they’re doing, what they’re spending. I mean, give us the Plan B. Because I’m dubious that we’re going to be able to accumulate enough meaningful information, for you to give real rifle-shot results.”

A couple of observations about Mr. Scott’s comment. First off, why would we believe that Equifax can come up with “great information”? Surely, they can come up with “some kind of information”… but will it be truly meaningful, in the sense of helping Pagosa Springs address the huge problems we are currently facing: namely, a depleted workforce, a housing crisis, and deteriorating infrastructure?

And secondly, how much “magic” does Data Driven Marketing have hidden behind their curtain, really? Mr. Aldridge characterized his company’s product as a series of graphs or printouts showing which “cohorts” tend to stay in motels and vacation rentals in Pagosa Springs. But can they show us which cohorts “love” Pagosa Springs? And here I mean “love” in a particular sense — in the sense of, caring about a place enough to contribute in a material way. Not “love” in the sense of, “I love the scenery,” but love in the sense of, “I love my children.”

Mr. Scott had asked a perceptive question. Can we assume that our local business owners are willing and able to provide the amount of accurate data that can facilitate a meaningful analysis by a company like Equifax — when no one has yet surveyed those business owners?

A perceptive question. But perhaps not the correct perceptive question.

I ran into my friend Bob at the bank yesterday, and he mentioned that he was renting a man-lift to access his roof timbers, as they were due for protective re-staining. I think he told me the timbers in question were about 30 feet above the ground. Bob is not a young man. I would estimate his age at 70+.

“You mean, you’re going to do the staining yourself? With one of those poisonous oil-based stains?” I asked. He confirmed that he was going to tackle the job himself.

“Bob, you shouldn’t be doing that kind of work,” I told him. “Hire someone to do it for you. A professional.”

Bob looked at me, as if I were crazy.

“Have you tried to hire help in this town?” he queried. “You can’t find anyone to do home repair work, or painting, or landscaping. They’re all booked up. You can’t find anyone to help…. I have no choice; I have to do it myself.”

Yes, we are currently living in a town where senior citizens are unable to find the help they need to maintain their homes… where retail businesses cannot find employees to stock the shelves… where the hospital struggles to find competent medical professionals… where our school district finds itself hiring its own School Board members to teach classes, in violation of the Board’s own hiring policies.

Archuleta County and the Town of Pagosa Springs — our local governments — are like a man trying to stop his sink from dripping, while rising floodwaters are undermining the very foundations of the house.

At one point in his presentation, data expert Neil Aldridge called up the old cliché… “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”

Our crises are staring us in the face, and they have nothing to do with “better, more expensive data analysis.” Yet we continue to dream the Big American Dream… where everyone will have a quaint suburban house… with a quaint suburban mortgage… and a poodle in the back yard… if only… if only we can attract a few more tourists…

We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. If we do, we’re done.

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.