For a state that loves the free market as much as South Carolina claims to, we hand out a hell of a lot of corporate welfare for companies to come here and do business. And to hear the politicians and boosters tell it, it's all done with the best intentions. After all, these new businesses are creating jobs and expanding the tax base. But anyone who understands the politics and the culture of this state must be suspicious that at least part of their motivation is the warm feeling they get from giving money to rich people.
In recent decades, this state and its counties and municipalities have doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development incentives to companies like BMW, Boeing, Michelin, and many others, mostly in the form of tax breaks, but also special infrastructure improvements, employee training, and other plums. Nothing is too good for a company that will promise to come here and build a plant.
Has it worked? Well, that depends on what you mean by "work." I'm sure a few people would say that giving companies millions of dollars for doing what they intend to do anyway is just swell. And there is no question that developers and financial service providers have made a lot of money here in recent years. But our roads and schools are more crowded than ever, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our air and water are threatened. South Carolina still has the worst public education in the nation. We still have among the lowest standards of living and personal income. We still have among the shortest life expectancies and highest infant mortality rates. Go down the list of quality-of-life indices and South Carolina remains among the worst places to live based on all quantifiable data.
What do entrepreneurs and corporate executives look for when they go shopping for a site for a new factory or corporate headquarters? Richard Florida set out to answer this question in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida explained to Minnesota Public Radio, he wanted to know if the key to economic development was not where companies decide to locate, but where people choose to live. He compared a list of powerhouse high-tech cities assembled by one research institute with the gay index — a list of cities with disproportionately large gay populations — compiled by another researcher looking at similar questions. "And lo and behold, the lists looked the same," Florida said.
Smart companies are looking for smart people, not just a public dole. These are the people Florida calls the Creative Class. They are scientists, engineers, architects, designers, writers, artists, musicians, and anyone else who uses creativity as a key factor in their business or profession. The Creative Class comprises some 40 million members and more than 30 percent of the nation's workforce. It will continue to shape our economy and culture for generations.
If South Carolina was smart, we would not be cutting taxes to the bone, as Gov. Nikki Haley and her GOP allies in Columbia advocate. We would not be throwing money at companies and begging them to come here. We would be building our infrastructure, improving our schools, developing our cultural amenities, and producing an atmosphere that creative people would want to live in.
One way to do that is to put out the welcome mat, to announce to the world that South Carolina is a diverse and tolerant place, that we do not discriminate on the basis of race or creed, gender, or sexual orientation. In other words, it might be time for us to improve our gay index. So here is my suggestion for developing our economy and making our state a more free and livable place: This Saturday at 11 a.m., the third annual Charleston Pride Festival parade will strike out from Park Circle in North Charleston and head down Montague Avenue to Virginia Avenue. It's a short route, so it should be easy to schedule and easy to participate, either as a walker or an observer. Anyone who is serious about making South Carolina an industry and business magnet should be there. That goes for Nikki Haley and every official who supported subsidies to bring Boeing to town.
Such a gesture would send a very clear message that South Carolina is open for business and that we are a tolerant and welcoming society, looking for smart, creative people to bring their brains and talent here. Business and industry will follow.
That's a bold strategy for this conservative old state, and it would cost taxpayers nothing. If our leaders were really leaders, they would join in Saturday's rally. We will see who shows up.