I was recently listening to a distinguished historian of Russia talk about the difference between Angola’s economy and Russia’s. There’s not much, he said. Both are run by authoritarian regimes, both are dependent on resource extraction, both have the means to improve their economies, both lack the will to do so. Those who lead the two economies are concerned more with lining their own pockets and making sure they and their friends get theirs. The future? To hell with it. They’ve got cash flow to make it to next week.
Just as in Russia or Angola, Oklahoma has fallen into the resource trap. We’re dependent on oil money for making next week’s payroll (or finding the pennies to cover the state budget). The future? Forget about it. I can hear state legislative leadership now: “We’ll worry about the future when the price of oil swings back around. When it does, oh! The things we can do. Build schools and reinvest in infrastructure! And cut taxes, to stimulate economic growth, of course!”
It’s the Wildcatter’s Prayer as state policy. And where do people go once they make their money in Oklahoma? Once they’ve extracted their wealth? Well, the Gaylords went to Dallas, as many OU students do after graduation.
A tale of two states
Places that are rich in oil and gas will get the kind of future they deserve. A state that invests in its own future, that saves oil and gas revenue for bad times, is a state that can have good public services and build a future of responsible, happy citizens. It would amass the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, almost one-trillion dollars, and it would use it responsibly to ensure the state’s future solvency when the oil runs out. Let’s call that State A.
State B, on the other hand, might use oil revenue to keep taxes on the wealthy low. It won’t invest as much as it should in infrastructure. It’ll have worse public services and worse public health compared to State A. Its citizens will be generally unhappier and earn substantially less doing worse work that wears their bodies out until they are no longer able to work. Its politicians, like in Angola or Russia, will be more concerned with the best interests of private oil concerns.
State A looks a lot like Norway. State B looks like where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.
You get what you pay for
Oklahoma, my home state, now faces the greatest crisis of its 110 years of statehood. How do we transition from an economy based almost exclusively on low value-added goods (fast food), low value services (security for oil and gas, like in Cushing), and resource extraction (oil and gas production and other mining) to an economy that is fit for the future and can create jobs that will attract and retain the kind of well educated people that Oklahoma’s leaders claim to want to attract and retain?
A state that was truly interested in its future wouldn’t have cut its own flagship university’s state appropriation more than 40 percent since 2002 (when adjusted for inflation). It would have focused on expanding nationally recognized programs and would have provided the university resources to expand where it’s most needed.
Currently, OU’s School of Meteorology manages a $161 million NASA grant to lead a first-of-its-kind climate-science mission. I doubt anyone in the Legislature’s majority party knows about it or cares. Since the project concerns climate change, it’d require them to accept that OU’s world-class climate scientists weren’t part of a Chinese conspiracy to make America noncompetitive or something. But it’s right down in Norman, just off of Highway 9. No thanks to the Legislature or current President Donald Trump, it’s all paid for with federal money from the Barack Obama years.
And before someone says, “Cut football!” allow me to remind you that OU is one of only a few universities with a completely self-sufficient athletics programs, thanks to the leadership of OU President David Boren. OU’s Athletics Department actually cuts a six-figure check to the libraries for books and electronic resources every year (though more donations are always needed).
Oklahoma could build on its nationally competitive university and create a place with a higher quality of living, good-paying jobs and an economy ready for the future. But the future of this Oklahoma, the one that the state Legislature voted for in this year’s state budget, is a place where a job doesn’t require much more than the ability to say, “Welcome to Walmart.”
I’m often told, “Yeah, but we have a lower cost of living!” Well yeah, we do, but my response remains a simple one: “You get what you pay for.”
This is my public goodbye
I’m doing my best to leave Oklahoma, because I’m willing to pay a bit more in income tax (and a bit less in sales tax) for a substantially better quality of life. It makes me sad in many ways. This is my home state, but why stay where I don’t feel wanted? Where there’s not much in it for me other than a teaching job in a dysfunctional school that pays marginally more than what I make as a graduate student working half-time as a research assistant?
I can imagine an Oklahoma where I might want to live. Where there’s a quality of life that’s more than, “Yeah, but rent’s cheap!” Well, it’s not much more expensive in some nicer places. Unlike some of my friends, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for this place to magically improve overnight.
So, this is my public goodbye, I suppose. And I’m sorry for you all.
You get what you pay for. And the oil’s not going to last forever. Only when the state is ready to face that fact will it be ready to face the future.