Sometimes my readers spend time thinking about an issue at some length, and write me a note about it, and suggest I write about it on the blog — and I realize it will be days before I find time to think about it as much as they have (if I ever do), so… why not just post that reader’s thoughts? Sort of what I did with Kathryn’s contribution the other day… although I solicited that; this one just came in over the transom.
Anyway, here’s what Mark Stewart thought yesterday after reading an editorial on the subject in The State:
I read The State editorial this morning and thought that they came close but missed the boat on a few key points that might make for an interesting discussion on your blog.
After education, I believe that the Port of Charleston is perhaps the most important driver for economic prosperity across the state over the next fifty years. I don’t normally grandstand on words like this, but I would argue that this issue may be one of EPIC proportions for South Carolina. As happened with airline hubs, the emergence of a new shipping paradigm, the 50’ depth for super-container ships, will render obsolescent most of the remaining American ports as far as international trade goes. Only a few of the ports will be viable in this new world. This will lead to an even greater consolidation of economic activity.
The clear winners will be Los Angeles/Long Beach; New York/NJ; Norfolk, VA and Seattle. But there will likely be a few others. One of those might be a Southeastern port. At present Savannah is the nation’s fourth-largest container port. But it has a serious issue – it is 35 miles up a river which is now only 42 feet deep. As Charleston did in the 1830’s when it drove the first Southern railroad to Augusta, The Port of Charleston has the opportunity now to seize back the economy of North Georgia from Savannah. With a mega port, South Carolina would have the opportunity to become the hub of the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, funneling the economies of Atlanta and Charlotte along the way – and possibly also of Florida.
Georgia recognizes this need/opportunity in a way that South Carolina does not. And yet, the Obama administration did not support Savannah’s request to begin the dredging process just as it did not provide funds to Charleston. I believe this is because, unlike with New York and Norfolk, it is not clear who the winner will or should be in the Southeast.
That’s an opportunity.
But here is where The State’s editorial missed the entire picture. Simply dredging Charleston is not the answer. The real problem is on the land. The thing that will hobble South Carolina’s future is the current lack of a robust port to railroad connection. What is the point of dredging the harbor channels to a depth of 50 feet if the intermodel connections to move freight throughout the state and region efficiently are not there? Now trucks clog I-26 and the local roadways in North Charleston and yet that city continues to fight more complete rail access to the Port terminals. Worse still, the largest container terminal is on Mt. Pleasant and not even near a rail line. So the issue really isn’t whether all politicians support the allocation of federal funds for dredging, it’s does the State of South Carolina support the creation of the landside infrastructure that would make the decision to dredge deeper a rational one?
The second point that the editorial touched on, but did not hammer home is this: Sen. DeMint wants to promote legislation to have the Corps of Engineers be the party ultimately responsible for selecting which of America’s ports are dredged to the new trade standard. What he seems not to understand is that this is not a scientific process of comparing variables. It is instead a political knife-fight. Yes, items such as channel depths, distances to open water, intermodel connections, and port terminals are critically important in advocating one’s position. But what we are really talking about is the economic future of our state. It’s not just that there will be winners and losers; it is that the winners will see compounding economic growth. If Sen. DeMint does not understand that this is an issue of politics and that the U.S. Congress will be the ultimate battleground, then maybe national politics isn’t the right place for him. We are not talking about philosophical viewpoints on the issue of earmarks; we are talking about representing the State of South Carolina in the most important battle for our long-term economic vitality and growth. Senator DeMint is not showing any sort of leadership on this issue – in fact, it appears that he does not even realize what the issue is or that the fight is already on.
Do I agree with Mark on this (as I do on most thing, although not all)? Well, really, I agree with him and The State both. And I’ll add that, like The State, I’m a little more sympathetic than Mark seems to be toward Sen. DeMint’s desire to have the Corps decide. I think that’s a solid, Good Government 101 approach, and I hesitate to endorse Mark’s approach of saying we just need to squeeze all the political advantage for SC that we can out of this situation.
Again, I like The State‘s approach — concede the rightness of the senator’s original intent, but point out in no uncertain terms that such laudable original intents do NOT excuse his subsequent boneheaded behavior on the issue. Here’s what I mean:
Mr. DeMint says he’s focused on convincing the Congress to change the law so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can use its own judgment to decide which projects to pursue, rather than abiding by the political dictates of the president and the Congress. It’s a wonderful idea, and not just because any honest evaluation of our nation’s ports needs would conclude that the Charleston harbor is a better investment of federal dollars than other ports whose deepening is being funded. But there is no realistic chance that it’s going to pass, which means that he has an obligation to work on Plans B and C as well. (If Mr. Wilson or any of our four new members of Congress have any plans for getting the port deepened absent a presidential request or a congressional earmark, they’re keeping them to themselves.)
Would their signatures have guaranteed that President Obama included the funding in his budget? No. In fact, Mr. DeMint might well be correct when he says that it would have made no difference. But he might not be, and the need is so great, and the cost to him and Mr. Wilson so low that it is simply incomprehensible that they would refuse to lend their names to a letter. Their refusal is akin to a mother whose child needs a life-saving operation she can’t afford refusing to sign a letter that her husband wrote to a charity asking for help simply because the charity’s director roots for a different ball team than she does.
One more thought, on one facet of this issue: At some point, South Carolina has to make a decision which it’s going to respect more: the desires of the rich Yankees who move to Charleston (and rich neoConfederates allied with them) and don’t want any nasty commerce spoiling the quaintness they paid for, or the desperate need of this whole state for economic development. Or maybe South Carolina has already decided, and decided wrong. In which case, it’s time to think again.
And finally, I want to thank Mark for getting me to address this important issue. And I addressed it in the best possible way, in the mind of an old assigning editor: I got somebody else to do all the work. Cindi Scoppe and many others who worked for me as reporters will recognize my modus operandi.