The news out of the UNM president’s office last week was good. In the face of the community’s vocal opposition to the scheme, he and the university regents have decided to put their plans to carve a retirement center out of the fairways and rough that make up the venerable North Golf Course near the Law School on indefinite hold.
The university is going ahead with its latest bond issue without including the revenue stream (estimated to be in excess of $2 million annually) the company which sought to develop the retirement center would pay for its lease to the property. Other UNM properties and projects have been included in the bond package to replace the money the golf course would have generated.
It didn’t escape UNM leadership that the neighbors who’d risen in defiance of the project included many of the community’s most influential and well-placed figures, not the sort to crumble in the face of slick architectural renderings or impressive profit and loss statements.
The university’s decision was not so much a surrender as a strategic retreat for temporary, tactical considerations. But its leaders have not lost sight of their primary goal: How best to turn this juicy plum, this parcel of choice real estate in a highly desirable location, into a profit center.
We can expect in the near future to see another version of “Let’s Make a Deal” with the golf course land, and you can bet that when it next emerges it will be with the enthusiastic support of most of our state’s opinion makers: the media and our elected local and state officials. And next time it will fly. Bet on it.
I can predict this because I just read the piece “Hot Air Gods” written by Curtis White in the December issue of Harper’s[xurl]. White explores our national idolatry, our worship of our favorite pagan god, our Baal: the marketplace. I recommend the article to you, but be prepared to be disheartened.
“Capitalism,” White notes, “as an ethical system has succeeded in convincing the people living under it that it is not a system at all but a state of nature.”
You can’t expect a fish to critically examine water’s suitability as an environment when it assumes water simply is nature; is what all life exists in. The fish can’t imagine another environment because it can’t conceive of nature as anything different from what it has always experienced.
Similarly, people who exist in a society that practices capitalism can manage the mental gymnastics required to square their “religion” of Christianity with their beliefs in capitalism because they have been convinced that not only is capitalism “natural” but it is actually, mysteriously, “moral.” You know, as we were proselytized in the ’80s: “Greed is good.”
Thus in our country today, it is considered heretical to question the primacy of “The Market.” You can practice whatever (any) other belief system you choose and our rigorously pluralistic culture will (perhaps grudgingly, but prodded by the courts, eventually) make room for you at the table. As long as you don’t let your creed interfere with our national worship of profit.
The greatest moral imperative in America is to turn a buck. The greatest failing is to pass up a financial killing. We punish the poor systematically because we want to use them as a caution for others: Don’t let this happen to you. And we never scratch our heads at how drastically this economic creed differs from that peddled by Jesus in the New Testament and practiced by wise men and women throughout the ages.
So, yes, I’m certain UNM will one day develop the North Golf Course. It will figure out how much of the land has to be set aside as a compromise open space to mollify the neighbors and it will lease or sell the rest. It will do so with our blessing because we only have one understanding of stewardship: Convert a resource to cash; as much cash and as rapidly as possible.
That is precisely what we expect public officials to do when we ask them to conduct themselves “in a businesslike fashion”--use the financial statement as the sole measuring rod for your success.
We rarely consider how dangerous and shortsighted this narrow definition of stewardship is. We have so many other dimensions to civic life besides the short-term bottom line, so many other ways that we as a people might want to evaluate the effectiveness of our stewards, elected and appointed.
Preserving, enhancing, beautifying a natural treasure and passing it on to future generations for their inspiration, their education and their enrichment—that’s an important role for a steward to play, perhaps more important than cashing out or selling to the highest bidder. So would teaching by example the validity of the ancient Indian wisdom that tribal elders’ decisions should always be made on the basis of how the choice will impact the people seven generations into the future—not on this quarter’s balance sheet.
There are many belief systems to trust in besides Baal. The market god needs to be repositioned lower in our pantheon. And an occasional act of defiance against his most basic tenets might be the way to start that process. Keep Baal off the fairways on the North Course.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.