All I want for Christmas

By Mark Lautman

Published 12/24/10


I’ll be glad when 2010 is over. It was a mean year, and we were all diminished by it.

I’m pretty sure it had something to do with a long recession and a bitter gubernatorial election. But, it might be me. My friends who are Democrats think I’m a Republican, while my Republican friends think I’m a Democrat. When you force people who are losing economic ground and hope to choose sides, it’s especially toxic.

It made me think of a warning we got from my Peace Corps director in the early 1970s. On our first day in country, he warned us that the mentality of poverty was the biggest obstacle we would face as we tried to change the chronically poor communities we were there to help. He told a fable of a peasant being granted a wish by the king.

The peasant was unable to think of anything he wanted because peasants, by definition, weren’t supposed to be able to have things in the first place. The king pressed him and pointed to his neighbor’s hut.

“Look over there, your neighbor has 10 goats, you only have three. I can make it so you have 20. That way you will have twice as many as he does. Will that work?”

Perplexed by the offer, the peasant said, “No. I want you to kill seven of his.”

When people start thinking the economic pie is shrinking, they begin to look at their fellow citizens differently. The zero-sum economic conditions we are in bring out the Goat Killer in all of us. When the economy is growing faster than the population, everyone can earn more. In a shrinking economy, your gain comes at your neighbor’s expense.

Wishing for peace on Earth and good will toward men would probably be over reaching this year, so I’m wishing for just enough goodwill to suppress the Goat Killer in each of us.

My New Year’s resolution has two parts: Resist criticizing anyone who is trying to do something positive, even if I think what they are doing is stupid. And, be ready to sacrifice for an unknown – that is, be willing to support strategies with little or no certainty.

As we emerge from the recession, we will find that many of our long-held assumptions about how things work are no longer true. We have some big changes to make, and we will have to learn to act on them with less certainty.

Much of what we do in the name of economic development today was designed to deal with the conditions of 25 and 30 years ago. It was simpler back then. Qualified (skilled) labor was plentiful, we had capital under local control and thousands of companies were looking for new locations every year. When we landed one, they were with us for a while.

Every community with more than 10,000 people had a professional economic developer. Like personal injury attorneys, we scoured the rust belt and Southern California looking for employers.

When years ago my daughter Megan had to tell her fifth-grade class what I did for a living, she said, “My dad tricks companies into moving to New Mexico.”

I was a smoke-stack chaser back then and proud of it.

That was in the 1980s when I was working in Rio Rancho and economic development was primarily real-estate driven. All you needed to attract new employers was a building. What initially attracted Intel Corp. to Rio Rancho in 1980 was an empty 75,000-square-foot GTE facility.

The fact that Amrep, the company that built Rio Rancho, had another 200 contiguous acres for expansion, and the state and Sandoval County were willing to work with them on developing a competitive tax and regulatory climate was a compelling factor too.

Back then, Intel had no concerns about attracting qualified labor. It was the building and the industrial revenue bonds it wanted. If a community didn’t have an empty building, it had to build a spec building to be in the economic development game. “Build it and they will come” was the mantra of economic developers.

Real estate, infrastructure, access to capital and a competitive tax and regulatory climate are all still absolute essentials for economic development. But the lack of qualified labor is the Achilles heel of most of our communities now. The mantra of the economic development business now is, “Train them and they will come.”

That strategy requires a major overhaul and reconfiguration of our departments of Economic Development, Tourism, Workforce Solutions and Education.

So, try new things, try to be nice, and steer clear of the Goat Killers.