Louisiana is a state both blessed and cursed with natural resources such as oil, gas, timber, seafood, and agriculture. But a recent Wall Street Journal article drove home the depressing fact that educated young people are fleeing Louisiana for better opportunities. Our hardworking citizens have been fortunate to have good paying jobs producing and refining these resources while alleviating America's need to rely on foreign sources for these commodities. However, our myopic political class has squandered opportunities to diversify Louisiana's economy beyond natural resources and forced us to ride the boom and bust cycles of the commodities markets.
We lived well in the 1970s as oil prices skyrocketed due to Middle East influences only to crash and burn in 1984 as the bottom dropped out of oil prices. Our seafood industry was decimated last year by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and has yet to overcome the unfounded fears that our seafood is unsafe. Our timber industry is at the mercy of Canadian loggers who are able to flood the market at their desire, and a housing industry still searching for a bottom from the market bubble artificially created by government regulators pushing housing fairness over buyers' ability to repay inflated mortgages. Our farmers face competition from South America as conglomerates morph rainforest into farmland to flood our markets with cheaper goods as our government ratchets up regulations and taxes.
Our young people have grown up watching this drama unfold only to be left with the correct impression that dependence on commodities as the foundation of your economic survival is a losing proposition. While important components of a successful economy, agriculture and natural resources are woefully inadequate as a basis for economic competition on a diversified global stage. At the end of the day, commodities are just that: commodities. Louisiana oil, rice, or timber is no more valuable than anyone else's and only benefits from its proximity to markets through reduced transportation costs. When taking labor costs into consideration, developing countries will always be more competitive due to their citizens' willingness to work for less as the cost of improving their lot in the world.
In America, we have driven home the point numerous times that success in today's world demands a college education, and we have invested in universities to provide this prerequisite to success only to see a generation of college graduates delivering pizzas due to a lack of job opportunities. Our political class, both at the state and federal levels, have continued to strangle opportunities for economic growth that would lead to economic diversity and employment for our children to realize our dreams of a life better than our own. In Louisiana, we look with envy at our neighbor Texas with its dynamic economy and wave as our graduates trek towards the jobs we are unable to offer.
Bobby Jindal came to power as Louisiana's governor promising to fund economic development to reverse this trend, only to waste millions funding a chicken processing plant in Farmerville and a hybrid car scam in Monroe as jobs disappeared in the natural resources sector. Jindal is touted by his press corps as an economic wunderkind out to usher Louisiana into the 21st century, but his performance belies that description. Various factors have provided him with ample opportunities to demonstrate his ability to handle crises better than his predecessor, but she didn't exactly set that bar very high and his seemingly scripted concerned performances usually interrupt his heavy out-of-state fundraising schedule.
When James Carville crafted Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign around the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," he wasn't plowing any new ground because it's always about the economy with voters. Louisiana's college graduates are voting with their feet as they traverse to other locales offering the opportunities our political class is unwilling to consider. Growing up in north Louisiana, I heard numerous stories of how the powers that be conspired to keep outsiders from coming in to disrupt the low wages they enjoyed, and how retailers were quoted vastly inflated prices for land on which to open shop as short-term greed triumphed over long-term economic growth.
Louisiana is paying for the economic sins of its past as our aging population stares at photos of grandchildren they look forward to seeing at Christmas if they're lucky while dreading the possibility that they end up in a nursing home with no one to care for them in their golden years. Expanding companies dismiss consideration of Louisiana with the oft-heard complaint that there are not enough qualified workers to justify locating there, even though our graduates excel at these same companies across the globe. The fault for the current predicament lies not with the business sector; it lies squarely on the political class who refused to break old monopolies of local power that would allow penetration by outside economic forces. These myopic local interests have jealously guarded their small pies at the expense of smaller shares of a larger pie that would dwarf their current positions.
Other states have overcome situations similar to Louisiana, but only through drastic measures that demonstrated a break with the old order and a willingness to chart new courses. Alabama offered Daimler-Benz unprecedented incentives that were beyond their expectations to wrest a Mercedes plant away from South Carolina and create economic growth in the staid Tuscaloosa area. It takes unprecedented acts such as this to overcome stereotypes among the business class that a state is uneducated, corrupt, and hostile to outsiders. Louisiana has a thriving movie production segment in Shreveport through the Katrina catastrophe that forced moviemakers out of New Orleans, but we can't rely on such accidents for our economy to thrive. We must begin the hard work of planning and building toward the future.
Louisiana has usually lagged its neighbors in embracing change. We've been the last southern state to throw off the established Democrat regime and sweep Republicans into power. We can't afford to continue watching our neighbors prosper at the expense of our graduates if we want to retain the hope of possible future competitiveness. Soon, there won't be anyone left to compete.
Tom Roberson blogs at tomroberson.wordpress.com.