Cavemen in Neckties

This is hardly a new subject–TNR’s Alec MacGillis among others did some serious investigative reporting back when Rick Perry was a viable presidential candidate–but Louise Story of the New York Times takes a long look at the whole sleazy business of state-funded “investment incentives” for corporations as exemplified by Texas, and how it affects public budgets and services there and elsewhere.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, and reflect on the systemic atmosphere of corruption that surrounds the “race to the bottom” of state and local government officials happy to trade off revenues, regulations, every law or ordinance protecting the citizenry, and every shred of self-respect, in exchange for the right to grip-and-grin with “job-creators” at ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Pols who go along with the game often care nothing about the public services they’re trading off or the low-wage, non-unionized workers who are the alleged beneficiaries. It’s also how your average redneck pol can instantly become known as a shrewd wheeler-dealer when all he’s really doing is acting as a corporate agent shaking down taxpayers and pocketing a “pro-business” reputation and perhaps some campaign contributions–not to mention legitimizing all the time he spends hob-nobbing with and sharing the lifestyles of his new corporate friends.

Careful readers may deduce that I take this subject kinda personally. It’s true. The pathological game Story describes is a chronic disease in my native South. But when I worked in community and economic development in Georgia in the 1980s, there was a sense that the “race to the bottom” was a thing of the past, that we were finally ridding ourselves of craven habits of whoring ourselves to “investors” that went all the way back to Reconstruction, and realizing that economic development meant enhancing, not despoiling, our own material and human resources. Republicans as well as Democrats were beginning to “get it,” talking about education and skills levels and quality of life as more important than low taxes and wages in stimulating economic development. A guy like Rick Perry was viewed as a throwback, a caveman in a necktie.

Now cavemen in neckties have made a big comeback, and more and more Republicans are making the lowering of business costs the main point of public policy at both the state and national levels. It’s useful to look at a place like Texas and see where it all came from, and where it inevitably leads.

UPDATE: Commenter TJ flatteringly asks for links to previous stuff I’ve written on this subject. Off the top of my head, here’s one that also discusses the nationalization of the “moonlight and magnolias” approach to economic development in the states (notably Wisconsin) and at the federal level.

You may be interested to know one of the first times I wrote about this was actually in a speech deriding the old (yet now supposedly fresh-and-new) southern approach to economic development that was requested, refined and delivered by none other than then-Georgia governor Zell Miller, in 1991. That’s how far the rock has rolled back down the hill.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.