There's a controversy in town wrapped around the aerospace element of the new Vision 2 package -- actually there are several.
As regular UTW readers may know, I'm opposed to the more than a quarter of a billion dollar aero package: It looks like an insufficiently imaginative response to Tulsa's still huge opportunities in the aerospace arena and one too tightly tethered to a handful of long time "tenant" firms that occupy Tulsa's aerospace development district.
Irritatingly, the aero package was not shared or fully reviewed by anyone (prior to being approved for a slated November 6 ballot) save for Tulsa Metro Chamber leadership/staff, some of our local elected leadership and the beneficiary firms. Thankfully, T-Town has a rich and righteous tradition of reviewing public tax/development proposals with a much wider cast, including ordinary voters, the entire business community and media folks: project advocates who ignore this tradition usually regret doing so.
But the controversy goes beyond a humongous transparency problem with the aerospace proposition. We have a largely reactive cry in the last ten days from the local "go-back" wing of the GOP County Party, and some confused people in the dinosaur camp of the local Democratic Party. Both cadres are senselessly labeling all local joint business/public collaborations as "corporate welfare." This is a feckless, ahistorical outlook. And one that is delusional.
Nationally, the locus of feverish growth and innovation for most of the last half-century, and the one still aborning, has come from inventive partnerships of just this kind. Think about the pre-commercial spawning of atomic power, integrated circuits, computing, the Internet, supercomputing, cellular communications, graphical user interfaces, satellite/emergency weather warning regiments, the laser, genomics and other singular biomed innovations, the jet engine and medical scanning technologies. All these breakouts -- stuff that defines the economic dynamic of the last 80 years -- were hatched in extremely intensive and amazingly productive business/government/university collaborations.
These epic interplays have produced millions of new jobs, whole new industries and unimagined economic opportunities for America and for T-Town. And while the jury is still out, more than $105 billion in recent federal grants, loans and seed cap investments in green tech, space commercialization and bio med/info tech will surely shape the balance of our still new century.
And folks hoping that our great quality life, modest costs of living and "friendly" ambiance will make for an optimal future are off the mark -- they only get us so far. No, we also need the "fire" of locally spawned and crafted high prospect job/development efforts.
History & Positive Business/Public Engagement
Economic development -- that is, using every tool at a community's disposal to ratchet up job growth, new firm development and the expansion of existing companies -- is at the heart of the vitality of any community that wants a shot at greatness. Doing economic development in a fair, imaginative and equitable way also marks places that are counter-punching rising inequality and creating decent new wage opportunities for regular workers.
Regrettably, there are too many instances where public dollars have been used to prop up private operations that are fully capable of supporting themselves or situations where inertia is involved in public assistance to an industry or to firms that really don't need help anymore.
But in a torrid, interdependent economic world, where positive engagement is at the core of accelerated growth -- in places like Singapore, Austin, Boston, New York City, San Francisco and others -- a failure on the part of our local political leaders to explain the need to employ public resources, public purchasing processes and other assets to help foster job creation and next-step economic development is suicidal. It also displays an imperial disregard for the entire economic history of the United States.
Michael Lynn's new book, The Promised Land, does a fantastic job of outlining the long history of these quintessential collaborations -- fateful entanglements that range over the entire course of U.S. history.
Consider two straightforward examples of how public-private entanglement greatly benefited the U.S. economy and allowed us to advance.
The first is one that will be most familiar to many Tulsa readers, called "new gas."
Its genesis is wonderfully outlined in Daniel Yergin's magisterial history of modern energy, The Quest. Yergin details the mostly hapless early attempts by a handful of energy outfits in the '80s that finally came to fruition in the early '00s, only after Oklahoma's Devon Energy Corp. bought out Houston-based Mitchell Energy, including its radical new "light salt fracking" process.
Devon fused Mitchell's process with its own pioneering horizontal drilling systems and its mastery of 3D sub-surface imaging, and modern gas fracking was born. Mitchell Energy's nearly 20 year odyssey to master shale gas extraction was helped hugely by a bevy of 1980 windfall profits tax credits to encourage unconventional natural gas drilling.
The second, if also familiar item, is the genesis -- that is, the spark -- that led to commercial aviation as we know it today, begun in huge measure with president Herbert Hoover and his postmaster general Walter Folger Brown in the late 1920s and early '30s. Brown helped Herbert Hoover become president in 1928, and he is widely considered the person who did the most to craft what has become the airline industry in the United States.
Brown did so via agile use of federal air mail and a savvy consolidation of a nasty mess of under-financed private contractors. He and Hoover also pushed the use of former World War I aviators: Both thought they could be usefully employed as airmail agents/pilots. It seems fair to say, with only a tiny bit of oversimplification, that the U.S. airmail project fostered faster planes, better navigation, sturdier engines, more agile pilots and the whole corpus of commercial aviation.
The Local Nexus
There are a host of examples we could talk about including the new supercomputer facility at One Technology Center (New City Hall), funded in part with $800,000 of federal funds. Another instance: the Helmerich Advanced Materials Center at downtown OSU was funded using $40 million from the first Vision 2025 package.
Is this "corporate welfare" -- or is it simply a piece of the "American Way"? It is simply how every "hybrid economy" operates these days. I guess a "Randian" world where everyone stayed in their own "lane," would be sooo much better.
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