Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Noble: Stubborn South Carolina could learn from Ireland

Speaking of planning ahead to discuss necessary changes to South Carolina's reality, Charleston businessman Phil Noble has some suggestions. Writing in the Free Times, Noble laments the recent federal report on states' economic growth rates during the past decade, and its evidence that our economy has grown at more than one-third below the national average.

South Carolina, dragging in at well below national average, again. Even in our own region, our growth rate from 2000 to 2010 left in us 11th place -- out of twelve places. But smiling faces, beautiful places, everyone!

The federal report "shows the damage done when our state’s political leadership is guided by shallow ideological platitudes instead for a solid long-term economic vision and plan."

I believe I'm familiar with this hymn and can sing along without the hymnal

These numbers show a huge gap and they are not just abstract numbers of some fuzzyheaded government economist — they mean less money in our citizens pocket’s, fewer and lower paying jobs, and a state that is falling further behind.

In short, the numbers paint a picture of a state that is failing to effectively compete and win in the increasingly competitive global economy of the 21st century.

Who is responsible?

For the last eight of these 10 years we have had a Republican governor; all nine statewide offices are now Republican; and both the state House and Senate have had Republican majorities for all 10 years. The Republicans are in charge.

Instead of a clear economic vision for our whole state to rally behind, they have given us nothing but buzz words and corrupt special interest politics. All we hear is “cut taxes, cut the size government, cut education funding, give tax exemptions to those who hire the best lobbyist, private school vouchers” ... on and on it goes.

Instead of focusing on developing thoughtful, innovative policies that produce long-term economic growth, they have simply relied on playing status quo politics and spouting cheap political rhetoric that wins elections with divisive wedge issues.

The results have been political success for the Republicans — we are now essentially a one-party state — but it has meant relative economic stagnation for our state and suffering for our people.

Let me offer a better alternative — Ireland.

Why Ireland? In 2007-08, the Moore School at USC did several comparative studies and found we were similar in both economic and political terms. The two are roughly the same size in land mass and population; both historically had a low-income agricultural base; and both suffered under ‘foreign domination’ — the Irish had the English and we had the Yankees.

Though in recent years Ireland has run into some economic troubles, beginning in the early 1990s their unprecedented economic growth saw the Irish real GDP double in size over the course of a little more than a decade. Ireland grew its per capita income from 81 percent of the European average to 137 percent in 15 years.

Two factors accounted for this amazing economic growth: (1) a clear economic vision shared by the whole country, and (2) a consistent strong commitment to education.

During this mid-90’s period, I spoke at an international conference in Dublin and the leaders of all three of Ireland’s major political parties made speeches to the conference about their vision for the future. Amazingly, each of the three cited essentially the same five economic goals and strategies. There were some differences in emphasis but the leaders of the three parties all shared the same five-point plan.

Second, the Irish secret behind the Irish miracle was education. They made huge and sustained investment in education at all levels and especially higher education. By the middle of the last decade, Ireland led all of Europe, by a wide margin, in per capita science and engineering graduates.

At the Dublin conference, I met and became friends with Ruairi Quinn who was the Irish finance minister at the time. Over the years, we have remained friends and he has periodically invited me to come speak at various conferences. Ruairi is the quintessential Irishman — he even looks like a leprechaun — and in many long conversations over many fine pints of Guinness, he provided me with great insight into their success.

At it’s most basic level, the people of Ireland simply grew tired of always being on the bottom (sound familiar) and demanded that their politicians set aside their partisan rhetoric and work together to come up with a sound economic strategy.

They did. And when the voters perceived that a politician or party was playing politics instead of sticking to the plan, they punished them at the polls.

This was basic democracy at work — and something we desperately need in South Carolina today.

We need to learn from the Irish. We must find a way to break through the shallow political rhetoric of the Republicans, which has ensured their political success but robs our people of a strong and vibrant economic vision for our state.

We need to all get serious and work together and develop a shared economic and education vision for our state.

We can do better. We deserve better.

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