While there is much to applaud in a recent editorial (“Boom times on the Hill need to be shared,” Our View, Nov. 10), the main point — that the “entire region” could “thrive” from an expansion of Los Alamos National Laboratory — doesn’t hold up to even casual scrutiny.

More broadly, the editorial’s neoliberal assumptions, coupled with the lack of any vision for green, resilient, democratic communities and a real social contract, make Santa Fe ripe for plucking not just by the nuclear weapons industry but by hungry capitalists of all stripes.

The political heroin offered is similar: the promise of high-paying “jobs” for a few, the benefits of which will supposedly trickle down to the many.

Over 75 years, LANL has spent roughly $130 billion, a vast sum anywhere but especially in Northern New Mexico. Yet LANL has not generated shared prosperity nor social development. A very few have benefited economically. Most have not.

Besides permanent pollution and more than 1,600 federally documented occupational deaths, what does the region have to show for the money and talent poured into LANL? What has been built for people? For New Mexico?

Nothing whatsoever.

Now LANL wants to hire a few thousand more people, principally for its expanding plutonium and related weapons missions and their support functions. Why would this mission, quite different from LANL’s research and development identity and history, be better?

If present plans proceed, LANL will become the “dirty lab” in the warhead complex, as a LANL spokesman privately predicted 25 years ago.

LANL’s hinterland remains highly unequal and poor, with some of the worst human development statistics in the U.S. An “aura of apartheid” dominates the region, even in tony Santa Fe. Where’s the “thriving?”

Most of the reasons LANL hasn’t and won’t create economic development derive from its raison d’etre as a nuclear weapons facility. Only a few percent of LANL’s budget goes to unclassified civilian projects (in which LANL’s competence and relative value are doubtful, to say the least).

LANL was not built nor is it funded today to benefit New Mexico. Local benefits are incidental and secondary at best, and they come with heavy costs.

LANL was built on the Pajarito Plateau primarily because the site was isolated and “scenic.” LANL’s isolation and “scenic” topography are now intractable challenges to its grandiose plans. Better regional transit — essential regardless — will not overcome LANL’s isolation. To grow as planned, thousands of additional housing units are required in Los Alamos itself. Is Los Alamos ready for that?

LANL salaries are very high, especially for the region. Aside from making LANL a potent engine of inequality, which has very negative economic and social effects, this creates fewer jobs per dollar than other federal spending, while sucking in precious local talent like a black hole.

LANL’s high-income households save, rather than spend, a much higher fraction of their income than other households, and their spending is less local.

Most of LANL’s best-paid employees are hired from elsewhere, which benefits the region — uh, how, on a net basis?

Meanwhile, LANL’s blue-collar jobs are unavailable to many of the people who most need them. It’s a world apart.

Most importantly, LANL suborns the attention and loyalty of our political and civic leadership, providing false answers to the economic, environmental and social problems we face. Instead of coming together to truly grapple with these problems as if our children’s lives depended on us — which they do — we talk about LANL “jobs,” a narrative that centers our attention on LANL, not where it belongs — on our communities.

Greg Mello is executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

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(7) comments

Charles Reichhardt

I normally don't respond to arguments made in such bad faith; however, I will make an exception in this case. Greg Mello does not understand what apartheid was and how it was implemented in South Africa. For those of you that are too young to remember, all you need to do is Google it. Comparing LANL to apartheid is not only completely absurd but also highly insulting to people who had to live under apartheid. Greg Mello and the LASG make sweeping claims that make no sense in terms of economics. The claim that Los Alamos has not provided any benefit to New Mexico is never backed up by any data whatsoever, and can refuted by simply pointing to the data that currently twelve thousand people work at LANL and over the years upwards of 70,000 or more have been employed at LANL. Other claims such as "only a few percent of LANL's budget goes toward non-classified work" are simply incorrect and again can be easily checked. Mello also forgets that classified research has countless times led to outside spin-offs and this occurs in literally every research institute that has a classified component. Mello has consistently misunderstood or misrepresented how the concept of inequality is actually used in economics since economists have long known that there are many situations in which inequality is increasing while simultaneously all the economic strata are rising to higher levels, giving a positive net result. For example, if Bill Gates moves into a town and needs to build several mansions there, it will create more higher paying jobs even though the town will technically have a substantially increased wealth inequality. LANL's blue-collar jobs are not unavailable to many people as Mello claims. LANL helps retain local talent rather than having that talent move out of the state. Attracting skilled workers who move from elsewhere to work at LANL leads to more local spending by definition, not to mention the many times these people stay on to create their own local business, which happens all the time with people who have moved to Los Alamos.

Charles Reichhardt

Greg Mello

Dear commenters -- Although I doubt that many of you, will see this comment, I will try to find time to expand on this abbreviated essay, which used up every word I was allowed, in a kind of FAQ which The Los Alamos Reporter has offered to publish. A glance at the comments you have made suggest that some of the readers need to read more carefully, and respond to what I actually said rather than what you thought I said. Some commenters, like Hamlet's mother, "doth protest too much," suggesting that the myth that LANL makes New Mexico a better place is a powerful, deeply invested one, despite the absence of supporting data.

Cristiano Nisoli

It is certainly true that an expansion of Los Alamos would not automatically mean the magical solution of New Mexico’s many and sadly well known problems. Then again the Lab is known for national security, weapons, and science. Solving New Mexico’s problems is not among its missions. Serving the US citizens is.

Indeed no amount of federal intervention would: many variables are involved in the prosperity of a state. That said, it is hard to imagine that northern NM would be better off if 2.5 billion dollars would be deposited elsewhere by the federal government, rather than here. To think so would certainly constitute a demented proposition. And it is a fact that the lab tries to contribute to the surrounding economy as much as it can.

The comment about the “higher salaries” demonstrate embarrassing ignorance of how the job market works. Attracting highly skilled professionals here (or indeed anywhere) can only be achieved by offering salaries that are competitive at the national level. Software engineers with a college degrees in the silicon valley often make more than many PhDs in Los Alamos.

Rather than complaining about an expansion of Los Alamos the author should perhaps ask himself why there aren’t instead ten other economic/professional realities of similar size both public and privates (as there are, e.g. in San Francisco). Wouldn’t the state be better off in such case? I suspect it would. But what do I know.

Microsoft comes to mind. It was founded in Albuquerque. But then left. Why? Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps the author considers that a positive event. Indeed Microsoft here would have “increased inequality”. Inequality is rather awful indeed. Equality is much better: everybody equally poor.

Khal Spencer

The New Mexican editorial stressing economic windfalls was a little too dreamy for me, too, given that fact of the last 130 billion bucks not being a magic bullet for our "tony" islands in the midst of places left behind. But not the first case of seeing a cash cow rather than a defense establishment that does, for whatever else you can criticize, offer high paying jobs for those who can qualify. I wrote an essay for the LA Daily Post a while ago asking if Bombs for Profits was a good model after the Council up there demanded that the Laboratory stay privatized not because it was good for the lab, but because it would be a bigger cash cow for the county. The Lab exists for a national security mission and should be scrutinized for its purpose and whether the money should be spent on something else. But beware of what you wish for--Federal funds are likely to be spent elsewhere for something else.

My wife, who once ran the entire remedial program for a college that served a lot of disadvantaged students including a lot of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, grumped that you cannot blame the Lab for Northern New Mexico's socioeconomic problems. I'll quote her because she has the bona fides to comment on our educational and training doldrums. Like a university that hires those with advanced degrees, the talent pool is far bigger than a state.

Couple points. I'd like to know where that 1600 occupational deaths comes from and whether these were clearly work related. I don't doubt Mr. Mello's research credentials but a source or sources would be illuminating. Secondly, I don't blame the lab for New Mexico's poor educational outcomes that limit people's upward mobility. We own that since that is a state program and our social issues are home grown. In Hawai'i, we lamented that our best students fled to the Mainland since there was more opportunity there and Hawaii was a dead end for the ambitious. Maybe its time for us all to look for our problems in the mirror. Federal labs and bases are not a substitute for home grown economic health and it seems we ought to know that by now.

But my takeaway from this editorial was that Federal largess has not made New Mexico a better place. Perhaps a smaller role of the Federal Government and more self reliance, possibly with less funding going to Washington and more spent wisely at home, would be an improvement. Fat chance of that in a state that values education so incidentally that we fund scholarships by promoting gambling.

Arnold Ziffle

Wow, Greg Mello's true colors shine through. Such venom. Reminds one of Pol Pot. So bringing high caliber scientists, engineers, professionals, and managers to New Mexico somehow is bad for New Mexico. Where does he think people spend their money? A lot of it goes to places like Kroger, which every one else in NM shops at too. Probably most of NM's disposable income flows to Kroger shareholders and Kroger's out of state vendors. But it's not Kroger in in Mello's cross hairs, it's the place that his a huge net economic boon for New Mexico. Am I hearing some implied racism that some how Los Alamos scientists are not real New Mexicans? The word Apartied is telling, even if I can't even figure out what context he's using it in. Mr Mello has really dropped the veil and shows his obsessive hatred of others is his real motivation, since this has nothing at all with making NM a better place. Even his thin-air statistics like 1700 workplace deaths over 75 years is just spin. Indeed given his attitude I would think he would be smiling and saying all those deaths were a good start. He's disgusting, so why does the New Mexican keep printing unsupported trash.

Dr. Michael Johnson

"LANL’s high-income households save, rather than spend, a much higher fraction of their income than other households, and their spending is less local.

Most of LANL’s best-paid employees are hired from elsewhere, "

Wow, such evil and awful people, why does NM tolerate these kind of people......I find this attitude so typical of NM culture, and why we are last in most all categories.

Kimber Heineman

This is biased and ignorant. Where is the study you did to prove that LANL employees are hired from elsewhere, save more and don’t help the economy? This is simply ridiculous and untrue.

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