(Opinion) — I moved from New York to Laramie in 1988, when cheap foreign oil made drilling for domestic reserves unprofitable. Unlike unemployed roughnecks, who’d walked away from vehicles and homes, I came for a job — teaching creative writing at the University of Wyoming. The salary ($28.2K) wasn’t so hot (my New York friends groaned), but it included benefits, and thanks to severance fees paid by the minerals industry, I wouldn’t have to “give the governor” a dime.
Like most newcomers with romantic notions, I was looking for change more than high pay. I soon rented a funky cabin on the Big Laramie River, 30 miles from town, and fantasized that a single rugged individualist like me would soon be two-stepping with cowboys down at the bar.
But strangers were suspicious characters in Woods Landing. A university administrator, an outsider, complained about his high electric bill, a faux pas, as the rural power company was run by his next-door neighbor. My landlord, an artist, had shared the green shack with her lover — another gal. Then she rented it to a woman who left her miserable pets to fend for themselves while she flagged for highway construction crews in other counties. What, locals wondered, would this new citified single lady, also a UW prof, get up to in there? For almost four years, they kept their distance and waited to find out.
Isolated on the Big Laramie, I pondered the folksy signs and sayings that seemed to offer prescriptions for my Wyoming life: “If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It,” was a motto never heard in New York, an economic “energy center,” where whatever didn’t change demanded rethinking. Were the stickers on pickups, “Welcome to Wyoming: We Don’t Give a Damn How You Do It Back Home,” aimed at me? And what about, “Stop Whining,” “If You Don’t Like it Here, Leave,” and “Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps”? (Were those the wee loops on the tops of my used gold parade boots?) Most unnerving was the expression I heard when natives didn’t know I was listening: “Our Way of Life.” Was my new state an exclusive country club, open only to insiders?
While on one hand the maxims advocated self-reliance and proud survival on high desert plains, on the other, they concealed warnings for presumptuous newcomers: We own this place. Don’t try to change it. Cowboy up or ride out on the horse you rode in on. What was the difference, I wondered, between “Our way of life” in a boom-and-bust state, where the population had sunk to 458,400, and Xenophobia — defined as “an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, or that which is foreign or strange.”
Meanwhile, my students feared they’d betray their birthright if they abandoned small, remote towns for overcrowded cities in other states, or even Jackson. I soon heard that only the Wyoming-born could win major state offices. In 2014 Gov. Matt Mead announced that three new additions to his staff were men with “Wyoming roots.” And last May, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services introduced a new program, “Wyoming Grown,” designed to bring natives home by clueing them into job opportunities. Hayley McKee, the information officer, said that in the last eight months 26 professionals have been placed.
Yet, as the 21st century got underway, “Our Way of Life” took a sucker punch. The world finally acknowledged that climate change was real, and billions of tons of CO2 spewing from coal-fired power plants played the largest role in higher temperatures, storms, tornadoes, floods, impending food shortages and species’ extinction, not to mention lung and heart conditions. Thanks to new EPA regulations inspired by the June 2014 Clean Air and Climate Change Act, followed by the Paris Agreement on climate change, U.S markets were no longer buying the 400 million tons of publically-owned and federally-regulated Powder River coal that 15 mines had railroaded out every year. And largely dependent on fossil fuel fees, 11 percent of state revenues went down the drain. As 2015 ended, coal stocks continued their dive, the industry reeled from debt, two companies went bankrupt, U.S. coal production fell to its lowest level since the 1980s, and coal mine workers applied for unemployment insurance. This past Christmas, New York Times reporter James B. Stewart wryly joked that we could extend coal’s future by putting more lumps of it in bad children’s stockings. Then, on Friday Jan. 15, the Obama administration landed a knock-out blow by announcing a “pause” in approving new coal leases. If the National Mining Association had any doubts, it now knew that the Feds intended to keep coal in the ground.
Coal’s dim future was already a sensitive issue in 2012, when Tom Buchanan, then president of the University of Wyoming, was pressured by coal-county legislators and the Wyoming Mining Association to raze Chris Drury’s $45,000 campus installation, “Carbon Sink” — a spiraling circle of beetle kill lumber that morphed into coal. Yet the sculpture only symbolized what everyone knew: that CO2 emissions were largely responsible for tepid winters that allowed lodgepole predators to thrive. By 2015, the warmest year yet, Gov. Mead, the university’s School of Energy Resources, and legislators beat their breasts like ancient Egyptian mourners after the Pharaoh’s death, and asked what offerings coal would need to embark on its afterlife.
You’ve heard the proposals: What about turning the mineral into a gas that makes plastics, pharmaceuticals, paints, and food sweeteners? (Those gasification plants are costly to build and also eject CO2). Could Wyoming cash in on iffy CO2 sequestration technologies that neutralize emissions in different kinds of reservoirs, or better yet, enhance oil recovery? How about shipping Powder River coal to Asia? (The states with ocean ports said no, and, it turned out, Asian markets could access closer, cheaper suppliers as they, too, began phasing out coal.) Meanwhile, Wyoming’s renewable energy sources, wind and sun, and a new nuclear technology, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, in use in Europe, didn’t engage imaginations preoccupied with schemes for coal’s second coming.
“Thank God for the rainy day fund,” Wyomingites sighed, meaning the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, flush with $1.8 billion. But states can’t retire and live off their savings, like I did. And how long will Wyoming’s other non-renewable fossil fuels — oil and plentiful natural gas — hold out (centuries?) before they, too, go the way of coal, coal methane gas, and the dinosaurs that left their bones in Como Bluffs?
The governor suggested diversifying the economy. (Not a new idea.) True, Wyoming is one of three states (with Texas and West Virginia) where the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 10 highest employment quotients are energy related. Other industries, Mead affirmed, would make state coffers less susceptible to energy downturns. He focused on clean, high-paying technology companies, (Colorado has 495 in Denver alone), and proudly announced that Microsoft had expanded its Wyoming operation by 25 jobs. (A positive move, but to put it in perspective, the new Google campus in Boulder, Colorado, will add 1,500 positions to the 300 the company already had.)
Diversification is a soul-stirring word, but what does it call for? Not just a few companies, expanding high speed wireless broadband, but a wider business base, including small manufacturers. They might choose Wyoming over China and Vietnam when they got a load of the Cowboy State’s lack of corporate and income taxes, less stringent regulations, and low union participation, as well as federal tax incentives for staying and producing in-country. (New Wyoming businesses do pay a franchise tax.) But one crucial factor is missing: Asia’s abundant labor force. You can’t attract a factory that makes, say, mattresses, or diesel-hybrid electric tractors, or even a meat packing plant without potential workers.
A viable workforce demands an increased population. (Wyoming is the least populous state in the union.) And where in Sam Hill will the state get that? The answer, my friend, is blowing in a gale-force wind: The answer is people from other countries — yes, Immigrants, including refugees, with other religions, languages, traditions, and skin colors, who are unlikely to share “our way of life.”
These people, who may have suffered human rights abuses, war, economic and political oppression, don’t think that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” As I write, the foreign-born that the state needs to transform its economy are walking through 31-mile tunnels under the English Channel, and risking their lives to cross turbulent seas in inflatable rafts. They’d love to have a job, a home, and a school for their kids in a peaceful place with beautiful scenery. And, I bet, they’d be happy to pay a state income tax, like the one Tax Reform 2000 suggested. (Sixteen years ago the group of legislators and economists estimated that a small, flat-rate tax would raise $153,633,405, only about $5 million less than the 2016 budget shortfall. And, they pointed out, every state on Wyoming’s borders, all red but one, has an income tax, except South Dakota.)
Other governors realize that paying taxes is one of the ways that immigrants expand local economies. Michigan’s Rick Snyder called for a new program to attract and welcome the foreign-born, citing statistics that said newcomers were more than three times as likely as non-immigrants to start a new business. (They also filed more international patents.) Cities, too, have adopted pro-immigrant initiatives. Despite Congress’s discouraging rhetoric, Washington, Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis, Charlotte, Louisville, Tucson, and Dayton have pledged to create immigrant-friendly climates because they recognize that new arrivals who attract businesses also start them, spend gobs of money, and pay sales, income, and property taxes.
Actually, immigrants already reside in Wyoming. The American Immigration Council’s statistics say that in 2013 one in 10 Wyomingites was Hispanic or Asian. The foreign-born made up 3.5 percent of the population, or 20,081. (All but 5,000 were “authorized.”) Comprising 4.1 percent of the workforce, they paid $105.9 million in federal taxes and $38.5 million in state taxes (property and sales). Like immigrants elsewhere, many are better educated than natives. As a Dubois summer resident, who buys groceries in Jackson, I can vouch that the thriving tourist town’s restaurants, motels, and grocery stores depend on Hispanic and Eastern European workers. (The former owner of the Italian bistro, The Yellowstone Garage, once told me that Hispanics had saved the restaurant and hotel industries, and are the only restaurant employees who still have a work ethic.)
This brings me to Syrians — for Wyoming, largely a symbolic issue, as the U.S. hopes to settle the 10,000 in cities where Syrian communities already exist. Instead of joining 27 Republican governors who rejected the war-ravaged victims of Assad and ISIL, Gov. Mead, who ran into political flack when he sensibly proposed a refugee center, should have begged for 5,000. With federal subsidies, nonprofit grants, a committee to create acceptance strategies, and a chunk of that bulging rainy day fund, the state could have stimulated its own economy by building the strangers housing in Casper, where Monster.com now lists 691 positions, mostly for drivers and sales associates. Like your grandfather and mine, the foreign-born who worked the Butte copper mines, and my cab driving Ethiopian friend in Denver, immigrants know you gotta start somewhere.
Diversity, however, describes not just changes in population, or a good business mix, but personnel in individual organizations. A study from The Center for Talent Innovation shows that companies benefit from hiring diverse employees, instead of safe “cultural fits,” like their friends, who root for the same team, look and act like the boss, and share his or her taste in movies and books. Research shows that homogeneity breeds complacency; and the mere presence of someone from a different social background improved workplace performance and accuracy. The strongest teams employ different ages, races, and genders, as well as members with “acquired” diversity, like military experience, foreign language skills, and time spent abroad. Leaders who are receptive to unexpected or challenging questions, and support new ideas, increase their companies’ profits and capture new markets.
Which brings me back to the Manhattan emigrant I was long ago. Although I made no waves in rural Woods Landing, I shook up the university’s English department. I said what I thought in faculty meetings (a cultural no-no), challenged students to excel in harder courses, and designed a visiting writer program that hired authors from many states, including Wyoming, who also taught community members. As my own contribution might indicate, the diversity that energizes a single workplace, could energize an unsustainable fossil fuel-based economy.
So how to fix what’s broke? Sure, create a Refugee Center to vet Muslim immigrants and dream up new lives for coal, but grow the workforce with ambitious newcomers who will have a profound personal stake in enjoying and enhancing their American home.
But what will keep the new residents from moving to Oregon? Before you roll out the welcome wagons, stop saying, “Our Way of Life,” and tear off that xenophobic bumper sticker, “We Don’t Give a Damn How You Do it Back Home.”
— Vicki Lindner is an Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Wyoming, and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she serves on the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She is the author of a novel, co-author of Unbalanced Accounts: How Women can Overcome their Fear of Money, and many essays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles.
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