Alex Jones: Two visions for North Carolina

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2022

An archetype of North Carolina’s economic lifeblood has contained, at various points, the following scenes: the rustic horror of a plantation slave labor camp; the grimness of company-town mills that persisted here long after New England had moved on; a smoky cigarette factory; and an air-conditioned, glass-cube office building teeming with college-educated knowledge workers. This diversity didn’t only result from organic economic change. Like all developments in political economy, the state’s economic evolution was influenced by diverse visions of how North Carolinians should work and produce. And seldom has the contrast between economic visions for our state been starker than it is in the Trump era.

Though it pains us to acknowledge it, for nearly two centuries, North Carolina was an economic backwater. “The state of the public mind in North Carolina is mysterious to us,” said President Thomas Jefferson, exuding the indifference that most Americans felt toward what after Jefferson’s death would come to be called the Rip van Winkle state. By the turn of the twentieth century, North Carolina had begun to industrialize, though even there historians such as UNC’s Peter Coclanis dispute how extensive that industrial growth really was. Still, textile, furniture, and tobacco-product manufacturing began to complement the state’s historic economic core of agriculture. This was the era when mill villages became a fixture of the Piedmont.

Despite all the industrialization, by the 1950s, North Carolina still ranked 44th out of the (then) 48 states in worker wages. Appalled, Governor Luther Hodges sought to reconfigure the state’s economic-development strategy to attract higher-wage jobs. (Ironically, the low-wage, dead-end textile industry that dominated the state economy was the same in which Hodges had made his fortune.) Hodges and several Triad-area businessmen turned this vision into reality by founding Research Triangle Park, a groundbreaking experiment in high-tech economic development through public-private partnership that has transformed the state.

Should the economy look like a dusty mill village or a well-landscaped, 21st-century congregation of laboratories and corporate buildings? You may have discerned my  own preference. But the debate rages within North Carolina political circles as to whether we should emphasize a Jeffersonian minimal-government approach or return to the progressive vision that held sway in economic policy from the days of Luther Hodges to the fall of the legislative Democrats.Conservative Republicans favor an economic vision that grew out of the conservative textile industry. This entails low wages, aggressive union busting, and unwavering political obedience to corporate demands. As in the company mill towns of old, workers in this version should exhibit absolute loyalty to their employers, resist any efforts by the labor movement to organize them in unions (which, in the heyday of the mill-village empire, were often derided as “socialistic”), and simply accept their lot as lowly laborers destined to forever earning a pittance. The expectation is that both workers and politicians will take a deferential and unquestioning stance toward the state’s (largely out-of-state) economic royalty.

Progressives disagree with this market fundamentalism and Third-World docility to corporate power. Most modern Democrats want an economy that moves forward with the people and rewards their labor with a living wage. Defying the “socialist” label, they welcome modern, high-paying industries, and compete for them by offering attractive incentives like a highly educated workforce and business-friendly policies. Having attracted the jobs, Democrats seek to equip North Carolinians with the skills necessary to earn a good living.

Ironically, the progressives are really the traditionalists. For 60 years prior to the Republican counterrevolution, North Carolina pursued what Bill Clinton would have called an “invest-and-grow” strategy. GOP leaders want to go back far deeper into history and embrace a strategy more fit for the desperate plutocrats scavenging for any jobs they could bring to the state. In this as in so much else, Republican legislators are not tradition-minded conservatives but reactionaries trying – and, for now, succeeding – in returning the state to a poor and benighted past.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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