North Carolina's Race To the Bottom

It isn't discussed enough, but we all pay a price for those precious jobs
N.C. Department of Cultural Resources

The News & Observer's Rob Christensen, on the right-wing takeover of North Carolina government. It's more or less what we knew already.

Here's the question most worth asking, though, to my mind: Where's all this going?

What's the endgame? Surely a fundamental transformation of the state is at hand; a transformation into what?

I know what the stated reason is: jobs. We need jobs, gotta have the jobs, do whatever's necessary to get jobs, the tonic for what ails us is jobs jobs jobs. Which is fine. But Christensen's column hints at the price:

North Carolina’s political history through the 20th century has been one of government expansion — of a poor rural state trying to industrialize. It did so by using government spending as a tool — funding public schools, building the finest university system in the South, creating one of the largest road systems, building a broad community college system, creating the Research Triangle Park and the N.C. School of the Arts, and starting the nation’s first state-supported symphony and art museum.

This was often done over conservative opposition.

Sometimes the efforts were led by liberals such as Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford, Kerr Scott. Other times by moderates such as O. Max Gardner, Luther Hodges, Dan Moore, and Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

For the most part, the state’s business community championed those efforts. Their view was to let Alabama and Mississippi have the region’s lowest taxes; North Carolina would take a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to modernization.

Kiss that goodbye. Now the Tar Heel State is just another duck in the park scrambling after the occasional tossed morsel of bread, and the states — especially in the South — are in a mad race to see who can most emulate Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma. So you can celebrate the MetLife jobs announcement all you want, as long as you keep firmly in mind that North Carolina silver-plattered $94 million in tax incentives to the insurance behemoth, and Charlotte and Mecklenburg County promised nearly $3 million in tax rebates. That's a whole lot of money that won't be repairing roads and bridges, educating students and maintaining water and sewer lines. (It also gives the lie to the notion of "job creation"; in this context, it's a zero-sum game in which states poach manufacturing and tech jobs from each other, as even Pat McCrory has alluded to.)

In December, The New York Times published a remarkable investigative piece that showed precisely how much of the public's money cities, counties and states have been spending over the last 25 years or so in the economic development game, and the numbers are truly astonishing: More than $80 billion each year in a nation where public infrastructure is crumbling and governments at every level are running short of money to provide even basic services. There's a searchable database, too, with totals and beneficiaries: North Carolina spends $660 million per year, $69 per capita. South Carolina, smaller and poorer, is an even bigger spender at $896 million per year, $194 per capita. The Carolinas are roughly in the middle of the pack in both total and per-capita spending.

At the top of the spending heap is Texas, at $19.1 billion and $759 per person, and where has this massive investment gotten the Lone Star State? To be sure, plenty of companies and jobs (there's this site, just in case the prostitution metaphor wasn't obvious), and also an extraordinarily high number and percentage of low-wage workers, not to mention generally dismal infrastructure. So Utopia it ain't, despite all that public money going to all those wonderful corporations.

So where's North Carolina headed? Texas' way? Mississippi's? Do we really want a "business-friendly state" that battles it out with Virginia and South Carolina over who can be most like Alabama?

And why, after a stunning era of progress that's turned North Carolina from a backwater to one of the most forward-looking states in the country, does our state government want to sprint full-speed in the opposite direction?

UPDATE: I swear I wrote this Monday. On Thursday, Kevin Siers at the Observer busts out with this. Great minds.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest