If South Carolina wants to attract greater economic development, it should go by the book.
Or, I should say, “books.” As in reading, writing and arithmetic books. School books.
People around the state are constantly wringing their hands and beating their heads against the wall searching for the holy grail: better jobs with higher pay and a diversified economy.
A new book gives a glimpse at our future by looking at our past. It shows we have short-changed our greatest asset: our people.
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Lacy K. Ford Jr. writes about it in “Citizen-Scholar: Essays in Honor of Walter Edgar,” edited by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. and published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Ford is a history professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
His is not the only telling essay in the book that honors Edgar, our state’s pre-eminent historian and founding director of the USC Institute for Southern Studies.
Truth is stranger than fiction in Charles Joyner’s wonderful essay, “Furling That Banner; The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina, 1961-2000.”
And Beaufort’s John M. McCardell Jr., who lives in the former home of Robert Smalls when he is not off teaching history and serving as vice chancellor and president of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., writes about William Gilmore Simms.
In a way, both their essays are related to the one on economic development. Joyner shows a racial divide around a flag that is also evident in a gaping school achievement gap. And McCardell tells of the abject poverty after the Civil War, when Simms and everyone else was “virtually penniless. ‘As poor as Job’s turkey,’ (Simms) reported to a northern friend,” McCardell writes.
Ford writes of “Twenty-First-Century South Carolina’s Economic Development Dilemma: The Evolution of Crisis, 1950-2014.”
Despite our move from the farm to textile jobs, our subsequent international infusion from BMW and Michelin, the boom in the service industry centered around tourism and retirees, and the arrival of Boeing in the Lowcountry, Ford identifies a stubborn South Carolina problem.
He says it is “a challenge best identified, in simple terms, by the failure of South Carolina to gain significantly on the national standards of living (defined in terms of per capita income) for more than 30 years.”
Even with superstars like the late Roger Milliken of Spartanburg, who turned a private textile firm into the state’s greatest producer of intellectual capital in terms of patents, the state struggles.
After the great economic boom following World War II, South Carolina looked down in 1970 and saw a per capita income hovering at or near 80 percent of the national average, Ford writes.
“South Carolina since that time has ranked consistently among the 10 poorest states in the nation,” he writes.
He tells about the time home-grown entrepreneur Darla Moore told the state legislature that “South Carolina’s ‘permanent state of ignorance’ left it poorly equipped to compete in ‘a knowledge-based economy predicated on technology.’ ”
He tells about the time Harvard’s Michael Porter studied our state.
“The legacy of ‘limited investments in education, skills, and research,’ Porter insisted, constrained the state’s later development efforts,” Ford writes. “To enhance its economic competitiveness and raise per capita income, Porter emphasized, South Carolina needed to enhance its commitment to the creation of human capital in the state: to the system of public education, including higher and technical education as well as K-12.”
We don’t need better companies, lower taxes or greater economic development incentives. We need better workers. And with that will come venture capital.
“In the knowledge-based economy, the traditional practice of building skills once jobs have been created must yield to a new approach that creates an intelligent workforce and uses the quality of that workforce as a recruiting and job creation tool,” Ford concludes.
“Such an approach is expensive and carries some risk and is hence politically difficult, but it would benefit the state over the longer term. The state must invest more heavily in the education and training to overcome a long history of underinvestment. Without such an investment in its people — all its people — South Carolina will likely consign itself to a prolonged period of economic stagnation.”