The Collapse of the promise of New Mexico and a possible path forward
This is a story about a place that seems to be hollowing out. A great promise dashed on the rocks of low expectations.
This is a story of New Mexico over the past 6 years.
There was a period of about 20 years when it seemed like something big was going to pop here. There was growth, hope and an influx of new people and new ideas. Innovators, job makers, thinkers, creators – they all came to this quirky place from the mid 80s on.
The high-water mark was somewhere around 2004 when Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class listed Albuquerque — of all places – as a top destination and incubator of the creative class.
It bears noting that this period of advancement and growth occurred under both Democratic and Republican leadership and that the fault for its demise does not lay with one political party or another.
In fact, apart from the staggering global economic meltdown, some of the causes for our decline lay in fundamental long-held beliefs by both parties. But I’ll get to that later.
Right now I want to tell a story.
My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I came back to New Mexico in 2002-2003. We had both grown up here, but our parents were getting older and we felt it fitting to come back and spend some quality time with them while we still had it. Besides, I’m a Democratic political operative and communications pro and 2002 was a pretty good time for those types of people to come back to New Mexico.
Upon our return we were in the midst of a New Mexico on the move. Our friends included law students, accomplished grant writers, artists, Web-design people, medical residents, physical therapists, actors and innovators. These were people who wanted to start businesses and generally build out this promising place. It was electric.
But it wouldn’t last.
One by one, people started to move away. The promise did not match the reality. People began bumping up into the age-old New Mexican syndrome of endless handwringing and naysaying about how things can’t be done, rather than what might be possible.
“But we’re New Mexico, we cannot possibly attract company X or industry Y.”
I saw friends beating their heads against walls trying to make something happen but being grinded down by obstacles such as a lack of a real private economy. New Mexico was a place of hope and promise, but there was no real substance to it.
Over time, nearly all our friends left seeking greener pastures and better opportunities.
This is not the “New Mexico losing its bright kids” narrative (though that’s a major problem). It’s New Mexico losing talented people who were attracted by the promise of the place only to find the promise empty.
Here’s a quick rundown of friends who left:
PR executive and entrepreneur; talented photographer and professor; pediatrician; Web-design guru and her engineer husband; nationally recognized business-process and organizational consultant; successful grant writer for national organizations; journalist; attorney; IT person; neurological rehabilitation therapist; retired attorney and arts supporter.
A fairly accomplished group – all gone from New Mexico because they couldn’t make a go of it. To a person, they are all happier in their new places.
Diagnosing the Problem
We can’t lay all the blame at the feet of the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis. That crisis hit everyone, yet New Mexico remains bleeding on the floor while our neighbors are moving forward to what is setting up to be a promising economic 2014.
And therein is the problem. While our neighbors may shoot forward and grow like weeds in 2014, we may see only modest growth. And that will give our politicians and business leaders the excuse they need to proclaim from the highest mountains how we stared down the apocalypse and are now on the rebound.
Nevermind that the basic underpinnings of our state’s economy remain unchanged, leaving us weaker and more vulnerable to the whims of oil and gas prices or government shutdowns.
We can prattle on about combined reporting and tax rates when the basic fact is this: We could likely take away the state’s income tax IN TOTAL and not pry one single company from our neighbors.
Sadly, our state’s economy is almost completely propped up by extractive industries and government jobs. Make no mistake – they have both served us well, but they are not enough.
The “sadly” is this: The permanence and historical success of those two sectors allow our policymakers and business leaders to be lazy.
There’s no need to build a 21st century workforce as long as our state is propped up by 19th century industries (oil and bureaucracy).
So we ride out the bad times, claim victory when things get a little better and ultimately change nothing in New Mexico.
My friends came to New Mexico in a period of historic high energy prices and government expansion – it made the state look rosier than it is. Once there is uncertainty or a hiccup in either of those sectors, the rosy picture evaporates and the ugly truth is revealed. New Mexico is a beautiful place to visit and, if you’re rich, buy a summer home. Otherwise, you’re in for a hard slog to try and get a bite out of a pie that never grows.
The Blame Game
We are all to blame.
While New Mexico is the worst place to raise kids; while people in the Colonias can’t even get running water or electricity; while brutal, senseless violence invades even our safest communities – we all just go along to get along.
Politicians nibble at the edges. Republicans cut some taxes and say they’ve saved the economy; Democrats throw a bone to the film industry and say they’ve helped diversify the economy. Neither side gets it.
The media is obsessed with stabbings, shootings, gore and, of course, pooh-poohing any unconventional idea that might shake things up.
The business community – so weak – panders to whoever is in charge. I was in the prior administration – they pandered to Richardson and now they pander to Martinez. This is partly because we don’t have a strong private sector that can stand on its own, and partly a failing of leadership in the business community.
Average New Mexicans? Well, we sit around and wait for something to happen. We’re resigned to a mindset of “what can’t be done” – because it’s all we’ve ever known.
A way forward – some recommendations
Children go to bed hungry and attend dilapidated schools in a state that has tens of billions of dollars in permanent funds and huge reserves.
To make change, we all have to get sick and tired of being at the bottom and work to do something about it.
Some leaders call the permanent funds a rainy day fund and warn that we should never, ever touch them.
Those people are borderline criminals in a state that is at the bottom of every good list and near the top of every bad list.
If New Mexico is ever to be that place of hope and promise, it needs to shake things up fundamentally. That means doing the following:
1. Create a long-term human-development fund to pay for adult basic education and workforce training. Leverage federal dollars.
Why? Because our current workforce is lacking. Companies cannot find qualified individuals, which makes attracting companies tough for economic developers. Plus, kids will do better if their parents have skills to get better jobs, live in better houses and provide more stability.
2. Diversify the economy.
Renewable energy is where the world is headed and New Mexico has a wealth of homegrown renewable resources that can help develop and diversify the economy. This is a 20-year play, but it’s a critical strategy to give us at least one competitive advantage against the states that have been eating our lunch since 1912.
Also, let’s shut up about pitting renewables against oil and gas. Both can co-exist. This is a falsehood created by the right. Don’t buy into it; it’s not a zero-sum-game.
3. Invest in early childhood – across the spectrum.
From health-care diagnosis to education, we need to do a better job of investing in our kids from birth through high-school.
Some will say: “You can’t just throw money at the problem.”
I say: our most important resource is the future generation of kids who will build us out of our current morass. Every dollar NOT put into programs to ensure we are raising the best and brightest is a dollar wasted.
It’s more important in a 21st century economy than roads or ports – so prioritize making New Mexico a statewide high-speed hotspot and haven for data centers and cloud computing.
5. Make Native Americans and traditional Hispanic communities part of the solution.
One thing our competition can never take away from us: New Mexico is blessed with a unique and rich cultural tradition unlike any other in the WORLD. Artisans, craftsman and people keeping community traditions alive make our state special. New Mexico should be a global destination for seekers who want to experience our culture, our cuisine and our rugged beauty.
Not working with traditional communities on how we can respectfully highlight these contributions to global culture is missing a huge opportunity.
6. Finally, don’t pooh-pooh the new.
We live our lives running down what’s new and what we don’t understand. And we’ve suffered because of it.
As a New Mexican, the next time you find yourself saying anything close to: “But that’s not how we did it before” – slap yourself. How we did it before doesn’t work.
Let’s welcome some new ideas and create some of our own.
We are leaving, for now. My wife has been successful and received a recent promotion, which means we will soon be moving to Austin. We are one of those families Joe Monahan talks about – the ones getting paid to leave New Mexico.
We have both been wildly successful in New Mexico and thank it and the people for our opportunities. Not the least of which is Diane Denish, who took a chance on me and is truly one of the good eggs.
In closing, New Mexico is not without its share of doers and thinkers and creators — all who want to take the state to the next level and turn New Mexico around.
Let’s hope these people don’t get buried in the sea of negativity and failure that has pervaded this place for far too long.
New Mexico will always be our home and we may someday return.
But now, like all our friends who left, we are going to check out those greener pastures for a while and wish all New Mexicans peace and prosperity.