Will Louisiana ever be able to throw off the yoke of its own form of populism?
The societal stakes are high. We can keep doing the same things and continue to sink into irrelevance as the state drags its citizens with it, or we can plot a new course and join the rest of the New South in its successful quest for growth and prosperity.
The political stakes are just as high. How can visionary leaders convince the people that the Great Depression era folly of believing in a “chicken in every pot” paid for by the “man behind the tree” has left us a state drained of economic vitality and locked in a constant struggle against social decay?
The problem is our people are accustomed to a whole lot of free stuff paid for by someone else. A hundred years ago, when the free stuff started flowing from state and local government, there was an endless supply of petro-dollars available to pay for it.
But as the expression goes, all good things come to and end. Though hard to pin down, perhaps sometime in the 1970s the largesse began to wind down. But the people, succored on Louisiana Huey Long-style populism, still wanted all that free stuff and politicians wanting to give it to them have not had the courage to tell them that the hayride ended a generation before.
The most extreme form of populism today is called “equity,” and it comes courtesy of the woke crowd. But whatever brand political activists and the media chooses to put on this ideology, it means the same thing: a belief that government has a duty to transfer wealth directly or indirectly from one segment of society to another.
A political twist in Louisiana has been the practice of redistributing wealth while deferring payment for such transfers far into the future. In this way politicians in the near term can get the credit for dishing out unbridled spending on health care, pensions, salaries, and other things politicians called recurring expenses, while kicking the can far down the road to someone else to figure out how to pay for all that swag. A case in point are the billions that we will have to find soon to pay for unfunded pension systems.
Pretty slick populism if I say so!
After the 1970s or thereabouts, the approach became if oil dollars were not there, other business dollars were, and they surely would pay for the populist giveaway. Business was expected to a pay a fair share (talking points for being heavily taxed), TV trial lawyers hooked the people on the addiction of the legal lottery, infrastructure deteriorated, education languished, pensions exploded and were paid for with debt, and on and on.
And all the while the people kept up the incessant demand for all the wonders of populist government. Little linkage was ever asserted between free stuff and ability to pay. The thought process amongst politicians being what had once been paid for through the petro-boom, could now be paid by whatever non-energy business remained. A great narrative, except for one nagging problem. Business votes with its feet and for a generation we have watched Louisiana’s prospects for prosperity evaporate on the heels of the constant out-migration of business and smart people.
So, returning to my first question, will Louisiana ever awaken to the realization that a hundred years of its own special populism has left it last in everything?
The answer is who knows. Based upon the current governor, I am skeptical, but hopeful about the next. In the last cycle Eddie Rispone, an unknown political figure but a soldier for education, growth, and prosperity, came within a cat’s whisker of defeating a sitting governor. That was a feat unknown in Louisiana history, and it demonstrated a growing disdain by voters for doing the same things over and over and expecting better outcomes. To misappropriate a phrase, in a way Louisiana seems to have become Woke to the folly of populism.
Let us be optimistic, maybe, just maybe the next governor and the legislature will get the message that the people are tired of holding down last place and have the leadership and political courage to change Louisiana’s course. Maybe that way the voters will finally drive a wooden stake into the heart of Louisiana’s populist past and open the way to better times.