First, take action to make
the whole lake rise
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
POLITICAL NOSTRUMS often become obnoxious with excessive application. Some simply start out that way.
For me, one that has always fit in the latter category is “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
I’ve never denied that there’s truth in it. At least, I intuit that there’s truth in it. I’m no economist, but it’s always made sense that if you pump more wealth into a reasonably fair and open economic system, many people’s boats — if not most people’s — should float somewhat higher. Not all boats, of course, what with the poor always being with us, but there was logic in the saying.
I still didn’t like it. It was too devil-may-care: Don’t worry about whether everybody’s boat is seaworthy; just don’t impede the tide, and assume everything will be copacetic. It’s like something one would say over drinks at the 19th hole, followed by: “I’m fine. Aren’t you fine? Well, then everybody must be fine.”
Oh, and don’t give me a bunch of guff about “class warfare.” I enjoy a round of golf as much as the next man. That doesn’t mean I have to adopt an air of insouciance toward society’s have-nots. So the “rising tide” metaphor always left me a little cold.
At least, it did until last week, when I heard it put another way: “The whole lake has got to rise for my boat to rise.” That implies a sense of responsibility for raising the water.
Harris DeLoach — chairman, president and chief executive officer of Sonoco Products — said that Wednesday, when he and other state business leaders presented their “Competitiveness Agenda” for the 2006 legislative session, which starts Tuesday.
This is an agenda with considerable juice behind it, since it is being promoted in common by the state Chamber of Commerce, the Palmetto Institute, the S.C. Council on Competitiveness and the Palmetto Business Forum.
The groups banded together last year to push successfully for tort reform, retirement system restructuring, a measure to encourage high school students to choose “career clusters” that help them see the point of staying in school, and “innovation centers” to connect university-based research to the marketplace.
They had less success advocating adequate funding for highways and health care, but overall, the stratagem showed what could happen when state business leaders combine their clout and let lawmakers know they’re truly serious about some issues.
“This time last year, I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive,” said Chamber President Hunter Howard, who has carried water for his organization in the State House lobby for many a session. But once he tried a “whole new approach… going after the Legislature with really a stick kind of approach — but in a nice way,” he was pleased with the results.
There will no doubt be those who detect an odor of self-interest whenever business people push for anything. And there’s truth in that, too. Mr. DeLoach does want his boat to rise, after all. But the encouraging thing is that he and the others leading this coalition understand that for that to happen, the water has to rise for everyone. Rather than simply saying “I’ve got mine” and being satisfied, they are pursuing policies that — whether you think they’re smartly crafted or not — acknowledge the truth that we’re all in this together: If the least of these in South Carolina are left back, so are we all.
Take tax reform, for instance. As my colleague Cindi Scoppe noted in a recent column, the business sector is determined not to be outsqueaked by homeowners to the extent that businesses bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden.
But there’s good in that. Lawmakers are coming back to town this week all in a sweat to get angry residential property taxpayers off their backs, which creates the danger of overreacting yet again with little regard for the stability, fairness and efficacy of the overall tax system.
Basically, the business honchos are saying what this editorial board has said for years — that however much emotion swirls around property taxes or some other outrage of the moment, the goal should be “comprehensive tax system reform.”
Of course, the biz types have a few things on their wish list that most of us would never think to ask for, such as workers’ compensation “reform.” (I put that in quotes because I haven’t decided whether it’s reform or not.)
But I’m still struck by the extent to which these business leaders seem more interested than many of our politicians in doing, as Mr. DeLoach put it, “what’s good for the whole state,” seeing that as the way to benefit them all.
Those who reflexively distrust the private sector see it as wanting nothing more from government than to cut its taxes and leave it alone. But too many aspects of this agenda give the lie to that.
In fact, “We’re referred to as the group that wants to raise taxes,” said Carolina First Bank CEO Mack Whittle. “Well, we’re the businesses that pay the taxes” (about 43 percent of the total, asserts the Palmetto Institute’s Jim Fields). “We have to look at the road system; we have to look at education. And if it does take more revenue, then so be it.”
So it is that you see the business community leading the charge for kindergarten for all 4-year-olds who need it.
It is, in large part, the kind of agenda that reflects what real pro-business conservatives — the kind who have a proven ability to meet a payroll, and a realistic grasp of what it would take to provide better paychecks for all South Carolinians — see as the state’s real needs.
What they come up with differs necessarily from what professional “conservatives” who are all theory and no practice tend to advocate. You know, the Grover Norquists, and those w
ho would play along with them.
Am I endorsing this whole agenda? Of course not. I haven’t begun to make up my mind about significant portions of it. Others I know I’m against. For instance, while I welcome these groups to the comprehensive tax reform cause, my colleagues and I staunchly oppose some of the particulars they advocate under that umbrella — such as imposing spending caps on local government. And we disagree with their position on the powers of the Ports Authority.
But I do like the stated attitude that underlies much of this approach. Like Mr. DeLoach, I want to see the whole lake rise.
First, take action to make