In the 78 years since Dorothy McKibbin set up shop, what we now call Los Alamos National Laboratory has spent $122 billion in today’s dollars. Where’s the economic development?
LANL itself has certainly “developed.” The lab now expends 10 times as much per year, in constant dollars, as it did in 1955 during the height of thermonuclear bomb development and has twice the total employment. More than three-fourths of LANL’s work is nuclear weapons. LANL warhead spending increased by a whopping 49 percent in just the last year, mostly to prepare LANL for its new mission as a factory for plutonium warhead cores, also known as pits.
In dollar terms, this program dwarfs every prior construction project in New Mexico, costing
$1.1 billion this year alone. By 2029 the new mission will have cost $13 billion, with no end in sight for the cost, pollution, risk and damage to Northern New Mexico’s identity and reputation.
LANL expects to have more people working on pit production than the Rocky Flats Plant did for most of its ill-fated life. LANL does not have enough space for all of its workers. Los Alamos County doesn’t have enough housing. The transportation network cannot handle the traffic. Hence the need for satellite facilities in Santa Fe and elsewhere.
How has all this spending helped the state’s society? That’s the main point, isn’t it? What is the purpose of an economy, except to support society?
As lab spending grew, New Mexico’s per capita income rank among U.S. states fell. Not until the 1980s were we among the very poorest states. New Mexico is now consistently ranked the worst state in which to raise a family or to be a child. For decades, New Mexico has consistently led all states in net federal spending per capita. Despite — or because — of winning the federal pork game, other states have pulled ahead, leaving New Mexico at the bottom of nearly every list.
Why hasn’t LANL’s gusher of money helped? For dozens of reasons, some inherent in LANL and others traceable to lack of imaginative leadership and our feudal politics.
These are structural problems, not individual failings. They range from our unpaid, meagerly staffed legislature that meets only a few weeks each year, to the very high salaries at the labs, which engender inequality and distort labor markets. LANL actively suborns our educational institutions and political leaders, while providing almost no actual goods or services. Why should it foster development?
In political, economic and intellectual terms, LANL is a toxic upas tree, a poison, in our public life. LANL spends lavishly but it also takes, and what it takes is dear.
More fundamentally, we do poorly because we lack the moral clarity and courage to strengthen our social and environmental contract. We have no clear moral basis for policy, no clear idea of who we are as a people and what we stand for. We are uprooted and unmoored, vulnerable to every carpetbagging corporation that promises a few jobs.
What has taken the place of a coherent, humane vision for society is the worship of money, which is now our public god. Our conquest by neoliberal ideas is all but total. In a peripheral zone like New Mexico, this will only produce more victims.
We have another choice. It’s been here all along. Saint Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” He lived that prayer. Santa Fe was named for that aspiration. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudate Si, is as good a moral road map for social and ecological development as any. Ohkay Owingeh elder Herman Agoyo said, “A new generation will have to be taught a new way of harmony, mutual respect, common interest, and love for each other and the planet.”
This is the same idea, and the only one which will allow our children to survive the devastating events ahead. It is much better economics than the trickle-down theories that form policy today.
Greg Mello is director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament-focused nonprofit.