Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Prospect on Strickland:
'May Not Feel Your Pain, But
He Senses Your Insecurity'

The current issue of the American Prospect contains a remarkable cover story, written by one-time Working With Words commenter Ezra Klein, about how a slate of newly elected Democratic governors offer hopes for real innovation in a number of large, economically troubled states, including New York, Massachusetts and Ohio. Because the section dealing with Ohio's Ted Strickland is so extraordinarily insightful (reported before the election, it explains the man and his platform better than anything else I read anywhere else), and because the piece may not remain online indefinitely, I'm reprinting the Strickland portion here, with apologies (and thanks) to the magazine. In April, I linked to and enthused over Klein's cover story on Al Gore, and he subsequently stopped by to leave a comment.

In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the concept of 'creative destruction,' capitalism's chaotic process of crushing established companies and replacing them with nimbler, more temporally attuned competitors. In Ohio, however, Schumpeter's logic has broken down. As the Toledo Blade reported, since 2000, Ohio's 'businesses eliminated 216,000 manufacturing jobs, 21% of its base. But they hatched a mere 40,000 jobs for a net loss of 176,000.' Destruction has eclipsed the creativity.

Into this sad story strides Governor-elect Ted Strickland. A steelworker's son from one of the state's poorest counties, Strickland speaks slowly, in plodding prose peppered by 'ums' and 'ahs.' He evinces no fear of cliches, and is refreshingly uninterested in impressing outside reporters. In a state that voted for 25 of the last 27 presidents, decided the 2004 election, and will be critical in 2008, Strickland proved the sort of edgeless candidate who compelled political journalists to profile...his opponent. Last July, the New Yorker spent 6,140 words on the Ohio gubernatorial race and the Republican nominee, Ken Blackwell. The paragraph--there's only one--focusing on Strickland begins at word 5,776. He went on to crush Blackwell by 25 points.

But Strickland's genial blandness obscures a fairly surprising agenda for Ohio: he wants to restore its mojo. Ohio's economic annihalator has harmed more than its economy: it's torn apart the Buckeye state's self-esteem. And for Strickland, recovery is partly mental. Ohio, after all, is where John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was based; where the founders of Firestone, Goodrich and Goodyear tires made their discoveries and ran their factories; where the Wright Brothers labored. But what was once the engine of industrial America is now a relic of it. Ohio ranks 50 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in its ability to retain educated individuals between 19 and 24 years of age. On an average day, 45 more people leave the state than move into it. Which may be why Strickland's policy platform seems as targetted to restoring Ohio's confidence as much as its economy.

To the new governor, the two are inseperably linked. 'I don't think a single thing needs to be done or can be done to bring about the confidence that you rightly describe has been lost by Ohioans,' he says. Instead, there are a lot of things. Almost all of them revolve around education and technology. 'As a candidate,' he says, 'I visited what I would call some cutting-edge efforts to develop new jobs through new industries. I visited a nanotechnology facility started by a Case Western researcher'--and here his voice quickened and lifted for the first, and only, time in our interview--'another was an advanced-materials facility creating parts for heavy equipment but, when you lift them, it's like lifting styrofoam. And I was told the lighter material was stronger, more durable, more resistant to corrosion! those are just two examples of where I think Ohio may be seeing manufacturing going, without just trying to recapture what has been.

But how do you create an Ohio defined by futuristic materials rather than anachronistic industries? To pick through the detailed policy proposals released by the Strickland campaign, it's a combination of educational incentives, targeted investments in advanced industries--and sefl-affirmations. 'Because of the changing nature of our economy, we've got to have a continuous system of education,' Strickland insists. The gateway to this educational system will be a credit-card-sized piece of paper given to every adult learner. 'Because nothing opens doors in life like a quality education,' his campaign literature enthuses, 'a Strickland administration will issue an 'Ohio Open Door Card' to every adult learner. The card will show in one place all their learning accomplishments, while opening the door to every funding source each individual qualifies for.

It's an odd idea. Businesses, after all, can easily access an applicant's educational background, laid out in clean bullet points across their resume. This card, rather, reminds the individual that he or she is educated, skilled, trained in tomorrow's industries. One imagines dispirited job-seekers pulling it out in moments of doubt to bear witness to their self-worth. The next policy on the page, 'Accelerate Ohio,' promises 'a free, entry-level certificate that will certify to employers that Ohioans have the skills to get a keep a good job, and help give adult learners confidence in their ability to get a promotion, complete college or certification or move into another track.' Ted Strickland may not feel your pain, but he senses your insecurity.

Even confident, cutting-edge workers need an economy able to utilize their talents, though, lest they emigrate from the state. And Strickland's agenda includes a prominent focus on renewable energy investment--to the tune of $250 million a year. When I asked Strickland what single policy he'd keep if forced to jettison all but one, he answered that he was unequivocally 'committed to building a new energy industry in Ohio.'

Ohio, however, will scarcely be alone in seeking a renewable energy sector: such plans were a dime a dozen in 2006. But Strickland thinks his state has an edge: 'I believe Ohio, because of its geographic location, resources, manufacturing history and workforce, is particularly well-positioned to pursue clean-coal technologies, wind power, significantly expanded production of alternative fuels...It is possible for us to realize some fairly early success in this area, and we are going to make the strongest possible effort to do that.' Add in his promise to construct a broadband backbone across Ohio, and he's fulfilled, at the least, the atmospherics and priorities of a 21st-century economy.

But will it work? Reinventing the economy of a Rust Belt state is no small order, as Michigan Governor Jennifer Granhold can attest. A recent study out of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank spelled out Ohio's challenge. Analyzing 75 years of comparative state data, the authors found that 'the largest factor underlying relative income difference in 2004 were patents, followed by education, then industry specialization.' Patents, here, serve as a rough approximation of a state's technological innovation. In 1954, Ohio ranked sixth in patents generated. In 2001, it was 20th. As for college education, in 1940 Ohio ranked 27th. In 2002, Ohio was 39th.

Technology, education and a bit of confidence in the state's innovative abilities may be just the right prescription for Ohio. Whether Strickland's combination of statewide self-esteem building and targeted investment will stimulate such sectors remains to be seen. But if they do, future political reporters may find him a little less gray than they thought.


At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Jim Kenny said...

Interesting numbers throughout. One has to only read the obituaries to learn that despite a ranking of 27th for college education in 1940, we were still drawing grads from every other region. In other words, we were draining brains to NEO. When that stopped is immaterial to why we never but those brains to work on what was next. We still can.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it well, Jim. Putting good brains to work on what's next is what it's all about.


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