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NM culture an economic hurdle

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A business executive who moved from the Midwest to Albuquerque for a new job four years ago found himself chatting with someone at a party not long after he arrived.

Like most newcomers I know, he was bedazzled by New Mexico’s beauty, art, sunshine and lovely people at the same time he was shocked by the state’s poverty, crime, schools and ineffective government. He was certain things could be done to make our schools and our economy better, he told his new acquaintance.

“It depends on what you mean by ‘better,’ ” came the reply.

The executive was shocked. How could less unemployment, higher income, better-educated children and all of the social improvements that go with less poverty not be better by anybody’s definition? “It was a paradigm changer,” he told me earlier this month.

I can find no data or studies showing that some meaningful number of New Mexicans are so skeptical of lifestyles you find in more prosperous states that they prefer our underperforming economy, but anecdotes abound.

Operators of a now-defunct factory in northeastern New Mexico told me that most of their workforce quit every hunting season. The employees made enough money during the first part of the year to satisfy their needs, and they would rather hunt than accumulate some extra cash.

An elementary school teacher in Santa Fe had an especially bright and promising young girl in her class who was eager to learn more than she could during the regular school day, so the teacher gave her some extra work and tutoring after school. The child’s parents asked the teacher to stop the additional lessons. They explained that the child’s destiny was to stay home and care for younger siblings, then her aging parents, so there was really no point in her getting extra education, and it was giving the child expectations the family would not support.

Heirs to a Taos County land grant tried to claim all of the property within the historic boundaries of the grant in 2010. They said that heirs who had sold their property to outsiders over the course of the past 150 years had done so illegally and that any non-heir who bought property in the grants held an invalid title. At a meeting I attended, land grant activists said their goal was to revive the communal farming that had disappeared as heirs sold their land, some of them presumably so that their kids could go to college. I wondered how many heirs who might now be accountants or physicians would be interested in returning to a life of subsistence farming.

A plant in northwestern New Mexico found it expedient to hire almost twice the staff it needed because, on any given day, half of the staff wouldn’t show up for work.

The town of Taos has been struggling to extend the runway at the local airport for years. Supporters say a longer runway would enable bigger jets to land, along with their affluent passengers willing to spend money locally. Opponents say the longer runway would enable bigger jets to land, along with their affluent passengers willing to spend money locally.

Everyone knows people who moved to New Mexico precisely because it has not succumbed to the pace or the values of Texas or California. Indeed, these are often the folks most vehemently opposed to projects like extending the Taos runway, according to a banker I know up north.

I am certain that anyone who has criticized New Mexico’s baffling embrace of dysfunction in the service of maintaining lifestyles has received the same sort of hate mail and hate calls that I receive, which boil down to: “If you don’t like it here, leave.”

For lack of a better explanation, this looks like a manifestation of culture.

While other states were developing commercial cultures, New Mexico was developing a culture of insularity and suspicion. Think of California. It was a Spanish colony that had ocean ports. Those ports allowed California to engage in trade. Involvement in trade breeds a culture of trust, engagement with the world and access to capital. Commercial skills as rudimentary as proper bookkeeping are learned by a large portion of the population. Individual initiative is rewarded.

At the same time, New Mexico’s economy consisted of subsistence farms jammed into a few narrow river valleys. New Mexico was hundreds of grueling overland miles from any trading partners. New Mexicans learned self-reliance and hard work, but they also learned suspicion of outsiders and new ideas.

I’m guessing here, of course, but I think it is safe to say that, when it comes to building a thriving economy, New Mexicans are their own worst enemies.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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