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Born Poor?

Santa Fe economist Samuel Bowles says you better get used to it

February 3, 2010, 12:00 am

Consider these two numbers. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.

The first number is 3,500.

The second is 32.

The first is how many jobs Santa Fe County lost in 2009, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

The second number is how many jobs the state Economic Development Department claims to have created in Santa Fe last year.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that something is wrong with this equation.

But Samuel Bowles is a genius—or, at least, a certified smart person. Bowles heads the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute, which is home to dozens of big brains imported from all over the world. If he’s right, those troubling job numbers are only the start of New Mexico’s problems.

Indeed, if Bowles is right, the state needs to completely rethink the way it does economic development.

“Bowles is a very well-educated guy with a real interesting background. He’s not of the ilk of most economists up in Santa Fe,” Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, says. “His ideas are not always run-of-the-mill.”

With haves becoming have-nots at an alarming rate, now is a terrible time for run-of-the-mill ideas.

Like most states, New Mexico’s economic policy is aimed at attracting corporations—and the bigger the better. In his Jan. 19 State of the State speech to the New Mexico state Legislature, Gov. Bill Richardson promised to “oppose any tax increase that hurts our efforts to keep the state economically competitive and create new jobs—such as increasing personal income taxes, rolling back our capital gains tax cuts or decreasing business tax incentives.”

He isn’t far out of step with President Barack Obama who, in his State of the Union speech nine days later, called for the elimination of “all capital gains taxes on small business investment” and a new “tax incentive for all businesses, large and small, to invest in new plants and equipment.”

There is brainpower behind both arguments.

“Most economists would support the argument the governor has made,” Tom Clifford, chief economist for the Legislative Finance Committee, tells SFR. “Sam Bowles would probably disagree.”

In so many words, yes. Bowles steers clear of politics, but his findings—gleaned from decades of poring over demographic surveys, other economists’ research and in-person visits to places like the slums of India—have obvious relevance to lawmakers’ debates within the Roundhouse.

Especially when it comes to how those thousands of out-of-work New Mexicans might regain respectable livelihoods.

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