Jeff Mitchell likes to get away.
These days, that might mean a vacation to visit a friend in Berlin.
But, as a college kid, it meant a hitchhiking adventure that spanned nine months and a good deal of North America.
And, as a young professional, it meant veering wildly off the expected course for an Ivy League-educated economist. In his early 20s, Mitchell was talking interest rates and volatility with executives at global financial institutions. It was, he recalls, a “surprisingly high-powered” position, and his peers typically used it as a springboard to MBA programs at the likes of Harvard and then to Wall Street careers.
But Mitchell took the unlikely step of heading to Central America to work with nonprofits on housing and energy projects in low-income communities.
That led him to a doctoral degree in economic geography and, after a few university faculty positions, to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.
Funded in part by UNM, but mostly through contract work with state and local governments and other organizations, the bureau cites its charge as providing “credible and objective data and research to inform economic development and public policy in New Mexico.” Mitchell joined the bureau in 2004 and became its director in 2014.
At BBER, Mitchell gets to exercise his analytical brain while also satisfying his desire to work on projects with obvious real-world applications.
“What sort of drew me to this job is we do academic research, but it is very applied. We’re working with agencies and towns and organizations, governments in New Mexico on policy. What’s the impact of this on communities? What’s the impact of this on state finances?” he says. “So, in a lot of ways, I never thought of it in these terms, it’s kind of the logical outcome (for me).”
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: I tried to figure out where I fit in. Probably everybody says that but, as high-school cliques go, I was sort of not in any of the cliques, but sort of between many of them. I was in class with the academic achievers, but didn’t really find that to be my crowd. I was a basketball player, but I didn’t really seem to find the jocks to be my team.
Q: What were your interests back then?
A: Basketball, baseball, football. And figuring out how to leave home most importantly.
Q: You grew up in Waterford, Conn. What’s Waterford like?
A: It’s kind of like a small town. If you look at Connecticut, (it’s) kind of an interesting place because the Connecticut River runs north-south, right in the middle. And if you’re to the west of that, you’re kind of in the New York suburbs, so it’s kind of like what people think of as being Connecticut, the wealthy New York suburbs. I lived all the way to the eastern part of the state, which was much more Catholic, Irish, Italian, Greek, working-class.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My father owned a very small business where he wholesaled candy. A business he inherited from his father and that none of his sons took on.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My very first job was working at a restaurant. It was what was called Harbor Drive-In. We grew up along the coast, so there were a lot of those summer seafood shacks, so I was in charge of cutting, like, 80 pounds of onions for onion rings, and making coleslaw and making tartar sauce in the back room.
Q: Not a career path you wanted to pursue?
A: I was 16 years old. I kind of liked it because all the people in the front were all the cheerleader girls, so I thought that was a pretty good setup. Only two guys worked there, so it was a good deal.
Q: You ended up at UConn thinking what about the future?
A: I have no idea what I’m doing. … Literally zero thought (about the future). It was like let’s get out of here. Went to UConn. And then I guess (got) kind of scared that “Oh, my god, I’m going to college. These kids are going to be really smart.” So I decided that I had to work really hard and I did very well. … After my first year, I took a year off and sort of went on a hitchhiking extravaganza. I went from Connecticut to Seattle all the way down the West Coast to Guatemala, all the way through Mexico back up along the East Coast, so I was gone for like nine months, pretty much hitchhiking the whole way, and I spent a lot of that time in Mexico and Guatemala, and kind of started to see the world differently and see how other people lived. And that was a really pivotal event. Because then I sort of came back with clarity, I think, a purpose. Like “OK, now I know what I want to do. Now I know sort of the environment I want to be in.”
Q: Which was?
A: Sort of international development, looking at how local communities and economics work, etc. So, when I got back, I applied to other schools. Got into Georgetown and Columbia and Penn. But basically went (to University of Pennsylvania) and sort of – bang – I was on it, studying economics and political science and a lot of stuff that was mainly Third World-oriented.
Q: You moved here to teach at New Mexico State University. Were you looking to come to New Mexico?
A: Yeah, I pretty much sat down and a lot of these things after a certain point were pretty deliberate. I wanted to go live in the Southwest because, in my periods of traveling, hitchhiking, I’d come out here several times, I just found it really, really beautiful and I loved the pace, and I had spent a lot of time in Latin America. I kind of felt like the place was very relevant. I was very interested in the border issues, so I came out with a job at NMSU exactly to do this.
Q: What was your first research project for BBER?
A: The first one I worked on, I was incredibly lucky. McCune approached us and hired us to work on arts and cultural economy in Santa Fe. That was the first large-scale (study on) the role of arts and culture in local economy and helped us identify what was necessary to grow that economy. And after that came Albuquerque, and we’ve done seven or eight in different smaller communities and we did the big one for DCA statewide. It’s kind of funny, I didn’t really have any (specific) background. I mean, I loved art, but I didn’t really have any particular expertise in art economics, but have certainly developed it in the last 12 years.
Q: What have you learned about N.M. through your deep research that has surprised you?
A: I think I had a reasonable view of what New Mexico was when I arrived here. In a lot of ways, the very positive parts of New Mexico have been confirmed again and again. The harder part is that I’ve been here 18 years, (and) the long, complicated history can make the place quite resistant to change. A lot of the state is very resistant to change. It’s like, once you find your place in the community, people work very hard to keep that to avoid anything that seems threatening to that. And so the way I perceive it is there’s a lot of really great assets in the state, but it seems in many ways to be unable to capitalize on them because the community is very risk-adverse. It’s risk-adverse. That’s the word I would use. It has very long, well-established ways of doing things and anything that seems like it’s going to be outside of that model, anything that is going to involve a different kind of risk, is considered very skeptically. Whereas I think what we’ve seen in the last five years nationally is risk has been well rewarded during the recovery, the national recovery, but New Mexico remains somewhat unwilling to take those risks and hasn’t really seen success in the area that a lot of other states have.
Q: What do you wish the larger New Mexico community knew about BBER?
A: Maybe this is a little bit of a sales-y thing, but I don’t really feel so. I think that many people – policy-makers, businesses, government agencies, nonprofits – make a lot of important decisions based on gut instinct. But good, evidence-based, research-based decision-making pays off, and that’s the work that we do. I think what happens is, in budget crunches, those are the types of things you want to avoid, yet it’s at those times when reliable information is most important. My vision of what BBER does is provide carefully considered information and analysis for people to be able to make policy decisions about the economy, about communities, housing, you name it. This is something for 15, 20 years has become the standard in many parts of the country, evidence-based programming. Let’s look at a program in terms of “Let’s collect the data and figure out is this working or not.” This whole attitude is something that we’re somewhat late to the party. “Oh well, we’ve always done it this way” or “It seems to me” or “My community likes it like this. It’s what we’ve always done. Why change now?” With the increased access to information, you have much greater opportunities to make informed decisions and, just as important is, other people are. Other states are.
Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: “That was really clear.”
Q: That’s probably the nicest thing you can say to someone who’s presenting you with a lot of data.
A: Yeah. “You can take really complicated stuff, and make it clear and understandable.” That is definitely my favorite one.
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: My biggest pet peeve, because now I work at the university, are people who don’t know how to park. (When) you see the two spots and they park right in the middle and they take up two spots. I hate that. It annoys the hell out of me. Inefficient parkers. (laughs)
Q: What is one food you can’t live without?
A: I’m a ridiculously healthy eater. Not by any design. I could say something boring like pizza, but I’m not going to. I’ll tell you what I miss: seafood. I’ve lived in a lot of places along the coast and that’s the one thing. I mean, I love New Mexican food. I love the food you get here, but the one thing you don’t get here is fresh seafood.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: All kinds of guilty pleasures. There’s nothing better than occasionally just blowing off an afternoon unexpectedly and going to do something that excites you – going for a long bike ride or going to a movie or driving up to Santa Fe for the day, whatever. I wouldn’t have told you that a couple of years ago when I had a boss who was on top of things, but now I guess I can get away with it.
Q: Do you collect anything?
A: I studiously avoid it. You can write that.
Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?
A: Tall, intense and absurd.