I recently went to Austin to help my granddaughter pack and move back to Nashville. She had been attending St. Edward’s University in Austin and decided she wanted to return home. She told me that Austin had changed dramatically in the three years she had been there. It was growing so fast, and there was an influx of so many employees of the huge tech companies moving in, she felt it was losing some of its appeal. The Southwest flight from San Jose to Austin is affectionately referred to as the Nerd Bird.
Austin, situated on the fringes of Texas hill country, doesn’t have the natural resource riches that other areas of Texas have and certainly doesn’t have the natural resources that Baton Rouge and south Louisiana have. And therein lies the double-edged sword of living in a natural resource-rich area. I am always taken aback when I hear people, especially politicians, say that Louisiana is a “poor” state. This place has more natural resources per square mile than any state in the country. Poor? I think not. Has it been poorly managed? For sure. We have been blessed (or cursed) with river and offshore ports, oil and gas, incredibly fertile agricultural land, natural and man-made aquaculture, people culture, mild winters (and hot summers), and on and on. Austin? Not so much.
As a result, we’ve ended up with a 20th century extraction economy while Austin has developed a future-facing 21st century knowledge economy. While our leadership has often compromised for (insert Couyon accent here) “a shell road to the camp and free cable,” Austin’s leadership has focused on educating its population and attracting knowledge workers to build that future-facing economy. Dell, Oracle, Apple, Amazon and countless other high-tech companies call Austin home.
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Exxon, Dow, Copolymer, Texas Brine and countless other extraction based companies are the backbone of the Baton Rouge area economy. Fine companies they may be, but after these massive refineries, chemical and petrochemical plants are built, they don’t employ many people, and they generate environmental challenges that are subsumed by “a shell road to the camp and free cable.” And just for the record, these extraction economy companies require access to the Mississippi River and cheap and abundant natural gas. They can’t get that anywhere but Louisiana, and yet we shower them with massive tax incentives and greased wheels for the privilege of locating where they have to locate. An ironic curse of being natural resource-blessed comes with the insecurity of not being able to leverage it.
And Austin and Baton Rouge are a metaphor for the country as a whole. There are pockets of unbelievable prosperity — Austin, Nashville, the North Carolina triangle, North California, Seattle, all with future-facing, knowledge-based economies. These places are flourishing at the same time that pockets of past-facing 20th century industrial and heavy manufacturing places like Toledo, Peoria, Flint, and much of the industrial heartland of the Midwest are languishing. And as some wag rightly pointed out, the factory of the future has two employees — a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to make sure the man doesn’t touch the machines.
And while it’s going to be hard for the knowledge economy pockets to avoid the hubris that much of the industrial heartland displayed in the 20th century, I suspect they understand that and will try to be prudent.
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So what is the lesson for the Louisiana economy? Shocking I know, but it’s education. A massive emphasis from both the public and private sectors on public K-12 infrastructure and resources rather than the bifurcated private/public system presently in place, along with adequate public and private funding for higher education and workforce training that doesn’t require the institutions to play politics with competing cliques in the Legislature trying to protect funding for the institution in their respective districts. And an emphasis on developing in our culture the idea that being educated, ambitious, responsible and entrepreneurial is “acting Louisiana,” not forsaking your cultural or tribal identity. Actually it’s time for us all to Boot Up.
Cyril Vetter, a veteran media executive, is the author of numerous books and essays on Louisiana topics.