Free & Clear: August 2012

Going beyond conventional thinking
By John Hood

If you live and work in North Carolina, you have a front-row seat for some of today’s most compelling dramas — even if you don’t plan to be anywhere near the Democrats’ national convention in Charlotte this summer.

Like any society, this state has a mythic tradition. A major theme in ours is that we are a reserved, hardworking people who prefer accomplishments to accolades. The state motto is esse quam videri, “to be rather than to seem.” We pride ourselves on refusing to prance or preen for the attention of others. We like to say that North Carolina is “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit,” by which we mean Virginia and South Carolina.

Like other myths and legends, the “modest North Carolina” meme has some basis in fact. Through much of the state’s history, our cities were relatively small and attracted little national notice. Our economy was based in rural places and small towns, in stolid industries such as farming, textiles and wood products. Other people made fast cars, big movies, high technology and political controversies. We made cigarettes, socks and sofas.

But the image of North Carolinians as economic and political wallflowers faded away a long time ago. We still make cigarettes, socks and sofas — but now we make a lot of other things, too. Our cities grew rapidly as rural Carolinians, urban Yankees, suburban Midwesterners and others came looking to build new lives for themselves and their families. Charlotte became a financial capital. The Triangle grew famous. Triad communities reinvented themselves. Even our college sports programs brought the state notoriety with national championships and compelling personalities.

Our leaders began to play on the national stage, be it Terry Sanford as a race-relations moderate in the 1960s or Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt as prototypical New South politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Helms-Hunt Senate race in ’84 signaled that American politics was about to get more competitive and expensive (essentially the same thing, by the way). A fresh face, John Edwards, won his Senate seat in 1998 and was on the national ticket in 2004.

There was always a bit of blarney in North Carolina’s protestations of modesty. After all, someone who talks incessantly about how humble he is qualifies as a braggart. What changed in the latter decades of the 20th century is that a combination of economic, cultural and political factors put North Carolina in the national spotlight. Our reality caught up with our aspirations. And we liked it.

In 2012, the spotlight remains on the state. But its glare is not always so flattering. As Barack Obama prepares to accept his party’s nomination in Bank of America Stadium, the venue’s namesake is beset by a host of woes. With the state’s economy ranking among the weakest in the country by standard measures such as unemployment and income growth, he may find it an inconvenient place from which to ask American voters for four more years of Obama-style recovery.

Some Democrats are eschewing the event to avoid association with the president’s unpopular policies, the state’s scandal-ridden Democratic Party or John Edwards’ creepy grin. Still, even if the Democrats were convening somewhere else, North Carolina would be a big part of the national political conversation this year. We are a battleground state in the presidential race. Of the 25 most-competitive contests for U.S. House, four are here (only Illinois has more, with five).The highest-profile governor’s race this year is former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory’s effort to defeat Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to become the state’s first Republican governor since 1992.

Beyond politics, North Carolina is a stage for other important national debates. Finance and real estate still play disproportionate roles in its economic mix, for example. Are U.S. banks too big to fail? Should Washington respond by regulating them even more heavily or forcing them to break up? Should state and federal leaders stop using special tax deductions and mandates to favor real estate over other forms of investment? The state has a lot riding on answering these questions correctly.

The fate of higher education is another national issue with a Carolina flavor. For decades, we counted on heavily subsidized public universities to be our economic engine. But given the state’s relatively weak economic performance and concern about campus productivity, should the focus shift toward online learning and other innovative ways to acquire and certify job skills? Have universities become distracted from their core academic missions by ancillary enterprises such as fielding semiprofessional sports teams and delivering medical care?

On political, economic, educational and other matters, the nation is watching what happens in North Carolina closely. Surely we can offer the audience more than just political scandals and economic malaise.

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation. You can reach him at jhood@johnlocke.org.