There’s A Progressive Vision for the North Carolina Economy and a Regressive One

by | Sep 2, 2022 | Politics | 1 comment

North Carolina’s economy has looked at various points in history like the rustic horror of a plantation slave labor camp, the grimness of Satanic mills that persisted down south after New England had healed those wounds, a smoky cigarette factory, and a glass-cube office building teeming with tech workers trying to change the world. 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.

For 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. And 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 than had prevailed in the state’s economy, which was then dominated by the textile industry in which Hodges had, ironically, made a fortune. Hodges and several Triad-area businessmen reified this vision by founding Research Triangle Park, a groundbreaking experiment in high-tech economic development that has transformed the state.

Should the economy look like a dusty mill village or a pristinely landscaped and strikingly metallic 21st-century congregation of laboratories and corporate HQs? You may have discerned my 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, unapologetic union busting, and political obedience to corporate demands. As in the mill villages, workers should exhibit absolute loyalty to their employers, resist any efforts by the labor movement to organize them into unions (which in the heyday of the mill-village empire were often derided as “socialistic”), and accept their lot as hard-driven laborers 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 free-market fundamentalism and Third-World docility. Most modern North Carolina Democrats want an economy that moves forward with the people and rewards their labor with a living wage. By no means socialists, they welcome high-tech, high-paying industries and are willing to provide incentives to bring these companies to the state. 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 succeeding–in returning the state to a poor and benighted past.

1 Comment

  1. TC

    Insightful Alex. I think you were a bit too kind to the robber baron archetypes that think they and they alone ‘built’ North Carolina into the friend of the businessman and worker’s paradise they like to portray it as.

    I hope you won’t mind my piling on here just a wee bit. Let me start with the current and work backwards down the timeline. At present, the most moronic thing that I think I’ve heard with regard to the Republican party is, “Republicans represent the working class.” Oh? When did this occur? Moreover, how? Every economically based policy, act, law, and legislative initiative runs counter to the blue-collar laborer that works for someone else in order to provide the necessities of their lives. They do this, living hand to mouth for the most part, paycheck to paycheck. These people are deplored as poor money managers, drains on public assistance programs, and in the micro view, are chattels to be manipulated.

    Thomas wrote an excellent lead into this piece for Labor Day. Extoling the virtues of organized labor and what they brought. Their contribution to labor was no less revolutionary than the industrial one that brought insane sums of money to the despots and robber barons of the of the first paragraph. They formed initially in New England and when the people there started to assert themselves over the poor wages and even poorer working conditions, they moved South for cheap labor. Cheap unskilled or semi-skilled labor. The few of the South have built their empires off of the many. Cotton, tobacco, furniture, textiles. When the opportunity came to off-shore and take more advantage of cheap labor and subsequently sub-standard quality products, they took it. Their profits continued to grow as well as the CEO compensation. Last I heard, the average CEO salary was in the range of 300-500% (I’m kinda ballparking it there; the point remains valid, not wholly precise) more than the person working on the factory floor. The person who actually made the widget with which the ‘company’ thrives. But that poor ignorant soul has been brainwashed to believe that if he makes more, he will have to pay more. Not realizing that he is going to have to pay more regardless. Other people in other places are not so gullible and fight to increase their standard of living. And at the end of 20 years, he/she wonders why their lives have not improved across that time. Indeed, I wonder.

    Strange though; the things that people are lead to believe or convinced of as truth. They are conditioned to believe that they have an equal place at the table to contribute and negotiate their compensation and benefits. What they don’t know is, they have two choices in accepting the position they are offered; accept it or reject it. They have no ability to negotiate a contract; they are not a corporation. The employer in this case under the rules used to form contracts, is the corporation. They negotiate contracts with other legal entities (corporations). Not so the individual. The individual isn’t told that. Teachers are given boilerplate contracts when they are hired. Try and find a teacher that was able to negotiate the provisions and terms of that contract. They have no ability or legal standing to do so. So there is no equal place at the table without representation.
    Ah yes, the ‘socialist’ union. This from the antebellum styled Mill Village. I guess if unions are truly socialist in nature, the mill village in turn, is communism. There’s just no political component. The company owns the store, the mills, the housing. In some cases, paid the workers in company script that was only good in the company store.
    Let’s talk about the rules all these businessmen like to hide behind. When confronted with some abhorrent behavior, they run ever so swiftly to position themselves behind the rules. Then cry and bemoan how they are being ridiculed and picked on; they are playing by the rules. And they are. Rules they made or helped make. Rules that have favored them and been put slowly into place across decades so that they can leverage the marketplace and work force. Rules that grant them every advantage. Rules that run absolutely counter to the ‘free market’ since there is nothing free about it. I guess they do prefer to play by the rules. Who wouldn’t under those circumstances?

    Finally, and this is simply a broad, very broad and generalized observation about right now, but, did anyone else happen to notice that over the last three or so decades while wages remained essentially stagnant, and the obscene profits many corporations were making without paying taxes, and the salaries of the CEO’s inflated right through the stratosphere, there was no mention or consideration of inflation. The money was flowing up. There was certainly no problem with that…for them. Then, when the money started flowing down to the people who actually did the work. The ones who actually dirtied their hands to produce, suddenly inflation became a problem. Sure, it dove-tailed itself nicely into the picture due to ‘shortages’ due to COVID shutdowns and a shortage of labor. But it also provided a way to ensure that the money kept flowing up and even though you made more, you had less.

    And that poor person is still living hand to mouth and wondering why. Yeah, I wonder why too.

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