Please, Lord, send us another boom

 

I’m always inspired by the stories of the little old lady or gentleman who spends 50 years in a blue-collar job and somehow squirrels away millions of dollars. Like Robert Read, the Vermont mechanic and part-time J.C. Penney janitor, who was found, upon his death, to possess a deposit box crammed with stock certificates worth $8 million. The money went to the local hospital and library, according to news reports.

I wish I could be that frugal. (Though Mr. Read may have taken his frugality to an extreme; his lawyer said, “He wouldn’t even park close to my office because he didn’t want to pay for parking.”) A retirement-advice columnist said that if I had just started saving around $5,000 a year back when I was 25 years old, I would be a millionaire by the time I hit 65. But I didn’t listen.

Of course, back then saving even $50 a month seemed impossible. It’s hard to swim ahead confidently when you can barely keep your head above water. I have less sympathy for those lottery winners and professional athletes who do earn enough to save for a rainy day, but utterly blow their money. Unfortunately, some of the communities that have ridden the boom-and-bust roller coaster of the energy industry fall into this category, too.

As senior editor Jonathan Thompson reports in this issue, Farmington, New Mexico, which sits atop the fossil-fuel-rich San Juan Basin, has enjoyed almost a century’s worth of the euphoric financial highs generated by high commodity prices, often for decades at a time. And yet, when the price of gas guttered out in 2008, and then oil did the same late in 2014, the town was as ill-prepared as ever to cope with the sudden loss of well-paying jobs and reduced tax revenue. It had never set up a rainy-day fund, and its leaders, while acknowledging the need to diversify their economy, have taken only timid steps in that direction.

One can only hope that the current double whammy of low oil and gas prices will spur the West’s many Farmingtons to quit talking and start acting. It is possible; state governments in Wyoming and even in New Mexico have set aside billions in taxes paid by the industry, and that money is helping to maintain schools and keep other essential services going even as tax revenues continue to seesaw dramatically. But the wisdom of that approach has yet to filter down to the local level. So far, Farmington’s basic strategy, as Thompson notes, is to simply wait hopefully for the next boom, just around the corner.

Or, as the bumpersticker adorning thousands of trucks around the West’s oil and gas patches so succinctly proclaims: “Please God, send us another boom; I promise not to piss this one away.”

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