Sunday, January 15, 2017

T. K. Whitaker as a model for Wyoming?

Irish politician T. K. Whitaker died this past week.

He would note be well known, or indeed known at all, to Wyoming's politicians. But maybe he ought to be.  He was a conservative politician whose economic reforms revolutionized the Irish economy.  As one of the columnists for the Irish Times related the other day:
In Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, a conservative 19th-century Italian aristocrat is shocked to find his beloved nephew is running away to join the revolutionaries. But the nephew famously explains: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
TK Whitaker was the greatest of Ireland’s conservative revolutionaries. He wanted things to stay as they were and, in a culture ravaged by mass emigration, people to stay where they were. He grasped the great paradox of his time: that Ireland could not be stabilised without radical change. He did not imagine just how deep the transformation would be. But he had the intellectual authority, the political skill and the quiet charisma to force a sclerotic state to alter the way it thought about itself.
Whitaker sponsored reforms that revolutionized the Irish economy with the goal of keeping the Ireland of the past.  He didn't quite succeed as his reforms sparked more change than he anticipated, but in some ways, he was a huge success.  Ireland went from being a country that, as late as the 1950s and 1960s, was hemorrhaging its young population at a stunning rate to being one where its Irish expatriates have been returning home for a long time. Ireland, which has a relatively small population by European standards, lost 500,000 people from 1945 to 1960.

Ireland's post independence economic policy was based on the one thing it had, farm ground, and the economy was based on protectionism from 1932 on.  It had an inward looking economy, which is admittedly different from Wyoming's but the way Whitaker approached the economy should be instructive to us nonetheless.

The key to that was Whitaker's realization that the Irish economy created a situation where there was no economic evolution or growth at all  Ireland completely missed out on the post World War Two European economic boom.  In part this was almost intentional in that Irish politicians wanted to keep Ireland Irish, which in their view meant protecting the near agrarian lifestyle that seemed to define Ireland.  Whitaker, a conservative, wanted to preserve that too but he also realized that perpetually hemorrhaging its young population was not going to achieve that goal.  Whitaker worked on slowly changing the economy to open it up to industry which in turn lead to the Celtic Tiger era of the 1970s-2000s and the Celtic Phoenix economy since 2007.  That stemmed the loss of the young.

A person can debate, of course, whether Whitaker's goal was really realized.  Ireland, like other countries that go into sudden wealth, hasn't handled all of it well and its culture has been done some damage.  Some nations, such as Norway, have handled such transitions better than others.  But his legacy cannot be ignored and provides a lesson.

Just this past week Governor Mead address the hemorrhaging of Wyoming's young.  This has been something I've heard politicians speak about since I was young, and I'm older than Governor Mead, a bit.  Living in Wyoming long term is not easy and it involves a conscious choice of choosing to live here over better economic prospects elsewhere.  It also means living in an economy that somewhat mirrors Ireland's in that the soul of the state is in agriculture, no matter what the Legislature may believe, but it is not possible for average Wyomingites to enter that field.  Like Ireland, you have to be born into the land to work it, usually.

I'm not suggesting that we should abandon agriculture in any fashion, and Ireland did not. But Whitaker realized that the traditional Irish economy was depleting the country of its young.  Wyoming has over the years emphasized an economy built almost exclusively on mineral extraction. That brings people in, usually temporarily, in boom cycles and takes a lot of people out, including natives, during bust cycles.

Moreover, because the economy is so heavily based on the extractive industries it puts the state's young in a difficult situation in which they have to determine if they want to enter that industry themselves, which many do not wish to do so, or one of the industries that supports the extractive industries in some fashion, or leave. That's a harsh thing to have to decide.  Quite a few people spend their entire careers until retirement living elsewhere and then coming back by which time, frankly, they aren't really the Wyomingites they were when they left.  You can't really work in Los Angeles for 40 years and come back the same person, with the same likes, and some concerns.  Indeed, that's not really even fair to your adopted state which supported you in your livelihood and which maybe has some claim on you when you retire.

As I'm not a T. K. Whitaker so I don't know what that economic change would fully entail, although I've given my views of it before.  I'm sure, however, that it entails looking outside the box at what we have and what we don't.  But when we've said that before, we've largely done nothing.

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