Conservatives have been trying to roll back decades of Democratic programs, since they took control of state government. Now they are trying to rewrite Tar Heel political history.
North Carolina as Dixie Dynamo? Not so much, they say. Progress under Govs. Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt & Company? Not really.
The opening salvo was a column recently penned in The News & Observer by John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, the conservative think tank started by Raleigh businessman Art Pope.
Hood’s argument is that North Carolina’s reputation as a leader in the South is overblown, or as he puts it, the idea of North Carolina Exceptionalism is “a fairy tale.”
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Hood bases his assertion on statistics showing that North Carolina’s GDP between 1963 and 2010 grew only at the average of the rest of the South, and behind the national average. When adjusted for population, Hood says, North Carolina looks worse.
So Hood’s implicit argument – although he didn’t quite belly up to the bar to say it – is that North Carolina was wasting its money in building one of the nation’s great university systems, one of the best community college systems and one of the most extensive road systems, and in trying to be a leader in the arts.
If you are arguing for fundamental change, you are obligated to make the case that what has gone before is not working.
Triple whammy decline
The “conservative revolution,” as House Speaker Thom Tillis called it, has been built around the holy trinity of lowering taxes, shrinking government and reducing regulation.
To govern is to choose. Hood notes that conservative leaders believe in both competitive tax rates and public investments, as I might add, do many moderates and liberals. But the belief that North Carolina can have both the lowest tax rates and the best public educational institutions is a pipe dream – unless you’re willing to raise tuition to the private college level.
What Hood leaves out of his analysis – a relevant point, one would think – is that North Carolina was hit with a triple whammy: the collapse of its three traditional industries of textiles, furniture and tobacco during that period.
Do you think North Carolina would have been better able or less able to negotiate the collapse of its three economic mainstays without the top notch university and community college systems?
There are other problems with Hood’s argument.
Hood sets up a straw man for the purposes of blowing it down. He writes that “the Left” provides “a fictional account of state history,” in which the state was governed by “skin flint conservatives” in the first half of the 20th century, and then in the 1950s came Govs. Kerr Scott and Luther Hodges, who brought about an economic revival.
Expansion began in early 1900s
I know of no serious historian who makes this argument. North Carolina’s great push forward arguably began with Gov. Cameron Morrison (1921-25), although some historians say you should start at Gov. Thomas Bickett (1917-1921) or even Charles B. Aycock (1901-1905).
Between 1915 and 1925, state expenditures grew by 847 percent, the largest rate of increase in the country and triple the national average. The state began borrowing so heavily to build roads that by the end the 1920s, only New York had a higher bonded indebtedness than North Carolina. The state appropriation to the University of North Carolina quintupled between 1918 and 1929.
Hood chooses to call Morrison “a right of center leader,” who was a “constructive conservative.” Really?
If a governor tried Morrison’s governmental expansionary policies today, the Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the entire conservative apparatus would have declared a holy war on that administration.
Hood seeks to frame the debate as between “constructive conservatives” and “the left,” as if we were living in California and not North Carolina.
North Carolina ranked 45th in the country in state government per capita spending growth in the years between 2001-2011, according to a study released last year by the conservative Tax Foundation. Some left.
North Carolina has been governed by moderates, both Democrats and Republicans, until the current experiment to make the Tar Heel State a national laboratory for libertarian conservatism.
Hood finishes his column by saying, “When it comes to economic history, let’s stick to nonfiction.”