Knowledge of state's economy is vague

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By Harold Morgan

Mythology provides the thread throughout discussions of New Mexico’s economy.
By recently telling an Albuquerque real estate group (and no doubt many others) that we must “commit to diversifying our economy,” Gov. Susana Martinez also says our economy is not diversified.
Another common line is that the federal government share of our economy depends on the decisions of some bureaucrat, one bureaucrat, that is, in Washington.
The fear mongering desired image is that this one bureaucrat, sufficiently annoyed, could at a stroke close everything federal in the state.
Early in her most recent Senate campaign, Heather Wilson explained the real world to me. For better or worse, it is nearly impossible to eliminate a government activity.
Every activity has a constituency, she said. If you try to eliminate something, that constituency and all of its friends and relations appear from the woodwork to protest and delay. Nearly always the constituency wins.
Three sets of numbers provide a vague idea of the structure of our economy and of what is happening. Emphasis on “vague.”
They are gross domestic product from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (dollar value of output), employment from the state’s Department of Workforce Services (wage jobs) and County Business Patterns (establishments, employees and pay) from the Census Bureau (census.gov/econ/cbp/index.html).
The structure of the numbers creates much of the difficulty. The numbers don’t tell the economics of business sectors.
As an example of the usefulness of the numbers (and of why we don’t know our economy, diversified or otherwise), consider the professional, scientific and technical services sector (PSTS) in San Juan County, aka the Farmington metro area.
County Business Patterns says the PSTS sector had 255 business establishments employing 1,351 people during the pay period including March 12, 2010.
That group included lawyers, accountants, engineers, testing labs, marketing consultants, environmental consultants, veterinarians, and computer design services.
When reporting the job numbers, only for the entire state and the three larger metro areas (Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces) do the state and the feds provide a total for the PSTS sector. No detail appears.
Engineers in San Juan County can be presumed to be associated with coal production and oil and gas, rather different businesses. Los Alamos County has a lot of independent engineers for its size.
They most likely have something to do with Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bernalillo County’s engineers might tie to Sandia National Laboratories or Intel or aviation. No way to know.
The numbers tell us we have varying numbers of engineers in different places who might work with certain industries.
But we are unable to put the pieces together to build an economic picture of the state and the varying places within it.
Landscape architects are another PSTS sector. A guess is that the economics of being a landscape architect relate to construction.
In 2010, a time of major construction doldrums, Bernalillo County had 54 people working for landscape architecture establishments, down a third from the happy times of 2004.
We tend to think of construction as meaning houses and commercial buildings.
But the sector includes people who build pipelines, an activity relating to oil and gas, it seems to me, and roads, which depend in major part on the state transportation department and the continuing nine-figure gaps between desired and actual road building and maintenance.
As is my tendency, I have gotten carried away with the numbers. The matter of economic diversity will have to hold for a week.
While the numbers fail to provide anything beyond the most general picture of our economy, a fair argument exists for diversity both for the state and within the big science research sector built around the national laboratories.