What would a prosperous Louisiana look like? The answer to that question actually will depend upon how one views it. It will depend upon what part of our state you live in; it will depend on whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or in the rural areas; and it will depend upon the national economy.
If one lives in the Northeast area of our state that answer will be entirely different from if one lives in the Southwest area. To the folks in the Northeast the incredible growth of the Southwest is but a dream. The Southwest enjoys a proximity to the sea and is the terminus of the pipelines that bring our state’s natural resources in the form of oil and gas to the manufacturing and transportation that has grown up there. The Northeast section, so heavily dependent upon agriculture, has on the other hand seen a slow decline in opportunities and the attraction of capital. The Southwest is booming as the Northeast is suffering with a weak economy.
The same may be said for the nature of where one lives. In general there are three types of areas; urban, suburban, and rural. Each of which further characterized as either rich or poor. So if one lives in a poor area of urban New Orleans their perspective will be entirely different from one who resides in a rich area of urban Lafayette.
But is there any common thread that connects what we all think of when we visualize prosperity? That answer is complicated, but categorically yes. Actually the answer resides within one’s own psyche. There is by nature a limitation bred by one’s environment. But contrarily for many, one’s own personal initiative can change that self –imposed limitation.
American history is replete with examples of citizens rejecting their economic and societal constraints and seeking a better life. In the post- Civil War period vast numbers of African Americans abandoned the agrarian South and migrated north to staff the growing industrial boom. In the 1930’s many more people abandoned rural areas to move to cities to find opportunity that had not existed in their world. After World War II millions of people moved to take advantage of free education and abundant jobs as they built better prosperity for their families, at the same time reversing the trend of migrating to cities by creating suburbs.
But can such macro-economic drivers be applied positively to our state? Can we tap into a positive mental spirit to make us an attractive place for people whose main goal is prosperity? We know that over the decades tens of thousands of our friends and children have reacted negatively to Louisiana’s very real opportunity deficit vis-a-vis our neighbors. These “best and brightest” out-migrated to the greener pastures found in Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and other cities. We know that in just the last three years 67,000 Louisianans left for the same reasons. But can we find a way to make our state attractive to risk-taking Americans, the very kind that built the great industrial enterprises in the North in the 19th century and that built the great capitals of commerce in the South in the 20th century?
The answer is obvious, it has occurred many times in our history and there is no reason it can’t happen again. The trick is to confront our problems and to commit to a strategy to make our state appealing to 21st century entrepreneurs, those who will create the economic engine that we so desperately need.
Think about this for a moment, without its airport and a pro-business attitude Atlanta would be backwater country town still reeling from Sherman’s march to the sea. Without its no-income-tax policy and a commitment to unhampered business growth, Texas, much as we are now, would be a poor oil-producing and agricultural state.
What Louisiana must do is some deep reflection. It is probably too late to just emulate Texas and Georgia; they have a huge head start. We created our own Southwest Louisiana economic boomlet by contributing massive amounts of tax incentives, an option that is not sustainable statewide. So what should we do?
The answer lies in an evaluation of our assets and how we can make them work for us. Obviously we have oil and gas resources that we have relied upon for years. But what we did was to look upon them as just a resource to be mined and shipped out of our state. True, we used some as feedstock to be refined into mostly primary products that were also just shipped away. We missed the biggest opportunity to create prosperity-producing jobs when over the years we failed to secure finished product manufacturing plants to convert our primary products into actual usable goods. Many other states and nations thank us every day for sending them Louisiana-made primary materials that their high wage-producing plants need.
Is it too late to recapture some of that market? Well, if we actually reformed our state and made it pro-business and, with luck, especially if Federal policies were to attract manufacturing back into the country, we may yet be able to succeed.
A similar case may be made for waterborne commerce. We have the largest port complex in the Western hemisphere in our state. The problem is that though this asset does produce many jobs, the same argument as that of secondary manufacturing must be made. The majority of cargoes that flow into our ports are just trans-shipped. We have very few value added manufacturing plants or distribution facilities here, and so long as we are taxing business inventories we will not attract any. Worse, we have neither international banks nor many trade-related corporate businesses. In international commerce, the Golden Fleece of prosperity-creating jobs is those types of companies.
Is it too late to recapture some of that market? Just as above, if we actually reformed our state and made it pro-business and especially if Federal policies attract manufacturing back into the country, we may yet be able to succeed.
The list of opportunities to create a state, an economically-integrated state, based upon our assets, is endless. A state where Americans see the potential that if they move into it or start up businesses here they can actually make money and keep the products of their efforts. A state that welcomes them with open arms and makes long-term commitments that present the potential that their children will share in their prosperity.
But we must not lose sight that Americans migrate for generally one reason, they move when they sincerely believe that they have far better long term economic prospects if they do so. Our state’s history is of a frenetic attachment to a political philosophy and to political leaders that have always been contrary to our own best interests.
But elections have consequences and this election cycle is no different. If we get new leadership and if that leadership is committed to change, then we will finally have the answer to my opening question. Then and only then all of Louisiana will know what prosperity looks like.
It looks like what attracted all of our fellow Louisianans to leave our state in the first place.