Commentary

Christensen: Low taxes, little government, ridicule – NC has seen it before

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2013 

We have seen this before in North Carolina – the reign of the green-eyeshaded men who thought low taxes trumped all, and if there were any coins left in the till at the end of the day they would throw it into the education pot.

It was called the 1800s. And Walter Hines Page had a name for them. He called North Carolina’s leaders “the mummies” as in very old, well-wrapped, very dead Egyptians because of their complacent conservatism.

Page, who died in 1918, is Cary’s most famous son. His father founded Cary. Walter Page would become a newspaperman, co-founder of a famous New York publishing house, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, then the nation’s leading magazine; and finally U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War I. Page Auditorium at Duke University is named after him.

In a piece written for the Raleigh State Chronicle in 1886, Page decried North Carolina’s lack of “intellectual and social progress.”

“It is the laughing stock among states,” Page wrote. “It isn’t the people that are wrong. Who is it, then?

“It is the mummies. And the mummies have the directing of things.”

‘Most slothful of states’

Nineteenth-century North Carolina was dominated by conservative Democrats who valued low taxes and small government above everything. North Carolina had among worst schools in the South. North Carolina’s illiteracy rate among whites was 19.5 percent in 1900, the worst in the South, followed by Louisiana with 16.3 percent. The national average was 4.6 percent. North Carolina and Alabama spent 50 cents for each school-age child, the lowest in the South. The national average was $2.84 per child.

Having comedians such as Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert ridiculing us is old hat.

In 1924, humorist Irvin S. Cobb wrote that North Carolina was once “the slouchiest and shabbiest and most slothful of the states lying below the Mason-Dixon line.”

The 1800s were dominated by the Jeffersonian idea of limited government in the earlier part of the century, and then by Reconstruction and recovery from the war in the latter part of the century.

Heavenly appeals for help

Few states took the idea of minimalist government as far as North Carolina. All of the 1800s was a case study of the proposition that North Carolina works best with bare-bones government.

In 1828, the General Assembly’s education committee, calculating that it had a better chance to promote public education through prayer and fasting than by moving a bill, appealed to “God Almighty” to help educate North Carolina’s children because the state would not.

In “The Tar Heel State” historian Milton Ready wrote: “North Carolinians had, by 1826, created a yeoman’s paradise without progress. … In education, North Carolina established the nation’s first state-supported university, then let it languish for years. ... Led by (Sen.) Nathaniel Macon, an easterner who thought Jefferson too radical in his views of government and the Constitution, North Carolina made a vice of frugality and of economy in all its affairs.”

This is how North Carolina earned the nickname “the Rip Van Winkle State.”

20th-century prosperity

The 20th century turned out to be a different story. North Carolina’s 20th-century journey was one of expanding growth and prosperity. It was done, in part, with the assistance of major expenditures on education, roads, universities, the arts, research parks and community colleges. In 1900, North Carolina spent 21 percent of the national average on education. By the end of the century it was spending 86 percent of the national average – a long multigenerational, boot-strap slog that has never been a straight-line advance.

By the end of the 20th century, North Carolina was one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

Of course, there have been major problems in recent years, especially with the collapse of the textile, furniture and tobacco industries, that have given us a persistent unemployment problem.

19th-century agenda

Conservatives have employed the Rip Van Winkle narrative for their own.

In a column written a year ago, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, argued that the state had again fallen into a Rip Van Winkle stupor with a record state budget deficit, uncompetitive tax code, and a burdensome regulatory climate that was discouraging businesses from locating here.

“Now that the General Assembly is once again awake and alert to the problems plaguing the state’s business and residents,” Berger wrote, “perhaps we can shake that Rip Van Winkle State nickname once and for all.”

The problem with conservatives claiming the Rip Van Winkle story is that they are pushing the 19th-century agenda of low taxes and little regulation that accompanied the state’s mummy period. It looks like an old wine with a new label.

At the same time, they are taking steps to trim, if not dismantle, much of North Carolina’s 20th-century strategy of using the tools of government that helped North Carolina emerge in the 21st century – to quote conservative writer Michael Barone – “as one of America’s leading-edge states.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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