April 22, 2015
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
The political process often obscures truth and inhibits agreement. Too often each of us believes he or she knows what’s important but that the things you think are important are trivial and your insistence upon them is a sign of perfidy or cognitive dysfunction. On very rare occasions there is substantial agreement on a problem. This is good only because it allows us to attack someone else’s solution as near-sighted or disingenuous. It is inconceivable that an opponent might have a well intentioned idea that we simply think is a lower priority or might not work as well.
Increasingly politicians are realizing that there is no longer such thing as the grand mythological New Hampshire Advantage. Instead we live in the midst of economic stagnation that rarely hints at the former economic dynamism of our state. To their credit, most politicians fret every once in a while over this depressing economic reality. Most of them aren’t quite sure what to do but are pretty sure that what the other guy wants is wrong.
If you have the bad habit of reading this space with anything approaching regularity you know that I am continually harping on the remarkable growth of the 1980s and 1990s compared to the pathetic stagnation of the last fifteen years. The data are consistent across measurement categories but consider this one dramatic snapshot: Over the same number of months, the recovery of the 1980s created 118,000 jobs compared to 21,000 in the current recovery. This is not, as the poet says, your father’s Oldsmobile. Our economy used to hum and now it coughs.
Everyone tends to be critical of everyone else’s idea but at least people of all stripes and spots are now admitting that the status quo isn’t good enough. That, however, is where the agreement ends.
In general, I believe that anything that lowers the cost of doing business makes New Hampshire a more attractive state. That has traditionally been the way we do business. Some states (New York might be an example) amass large treasure chests and hand out loans and special tax statuses. This has not been New Hampshire’s way for two reasons. First, we can’t compete with the giant states in amassing war chests. New York has more tax burden to forgive and more coins in their fiscal couch than we tend to raise.
Second, we have had a historical preference for not picking winners and losers — which the government of any state tends to do poorly. If we have a program, we create criteria and allow any business which meets the criteria to apply. A notable current exception is the attempt to create programs and policies that apply only to one development in Dixville Notch. But that’s an exception based on romantic nostalgia that causes some to consider a proposal they would reject on principle were it located anywhere else.
Otherwise, job creation strategy falls into two camps. One group rejects that notion that businesses care about the cost of doing business and proposes instead to spend more government money. Their theory is that government “investment” is the key to stimulate our moribund economy. It would be wrong to say that all government spending has no effect but taking more in tax dollars and then doling them out does seem to presume that legislators have some superior knowledge base — a supposition somewhat short on evidence.
Others worry every time I suggest reducing our highest corporate tax rate. To them a quite modest cut isn’t enough to offset the beneficial results of increased government largesse. They’re quite right that the reduction is too small to have a dramatic effect but we’ll never lower the rate at all if we don’t start a little bit at a time.
One potential source of common ground is electricity. Some worry about high electric rates a little, others a lot. In January 2015, New Hampshire’s electric rates for all users were 65% higher than the national average. Much worse, for industrial users New Hampshire was 94% higher.
There is no worse signal we can send companies that use a lot of electricity like the high tech industry or manufacturers. With rates that ridiculous, if you tried to move your company to New Hampshire your board of directors can and should fire you for dereliction of duty.
At this point, electricity seems like more than a passing fad. Maybe we can agree 94% higher than the national average isn’t quite the right place to be.