Converting swords into plowshares

September 29, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

CURRENTLY, THERE are three competing views of Maryland's economy making the rounds: the doomsday version of economist Charles McMillion, the stardust rendition of state Economic Development Secretary Mark Wasserman and the on-the-one-hand, but-on-the-other medley of the state's corporate leaders.

To be sure, each has its own ax to grind but lacing the wit to put on a good circus each of the three reports offers a half a loaf of bread instead. And, as is usually the case, the same numbers crunched through three different calculators offer vastly different interpretations of what's really ailing Maryland.

What we have, then, is a variation on the old joke -- put eight economists in a room and you'll get eight different opinions.

Take Mr. McMillion first. His exercise in verbosity in Sunday's edition of The Sun seems to be more than anything else a complaint that he's been ignored. A study he directed five years ago has been molding in some reliquary every since.

Mr. McMillion (a terrific name for an economist) sees Maryland's economic problems influenced darkly by a "complacent public culture of branch officers and a horsy/duck/ski crowd," that back-of-the-hand observation presumably intended for what is known as the "valley set."

The former Johns Hopkins University Public Policy Institute economist rattles off the usual litany of numbers about job gains and losses, economic engines of growth and concludes that his 1,500-page report "has been largely ignored in preference for cynical promotional programs of empty promises and misinformation."

That's as good an introduction as any for Mr. Wasserman's sunny-side-up testimonial. With a predictable political twitch, Mr. Wasserman checked in on The Sun's op/ed page two days later with a burble of optimism that vaguely resembled Gov. William Donald Schaefer's howdy-doody valedictory state-of-the-state speech.

Why, we've got so many "cornerstones" in Maryland, Mr. Wasserman contends, that if they were laid end to end we could build an economic cathedral the size of Mary Our Queen, stained glass and all. Check 'em out: manufacturing, modernization, commercializing technology, targeting promising industries of the future, coping with the challenges of defense downsizing, capturing a large share of the investment in mid-Atlantic distribution center, spurring globalization of the Maryland economy, enhancing the competitiveness of Maryland's tourism industry, committing Maryland to the development of a system of life-long learning, investing strategically in infrastructure. . . anyway, you get the picture.

Mr. Wasserman concludes: "Maryland holds the promise of emerging as a 21st century powerhouse if we band together and take advantage of strengths." Say what?

The third report, underwritten by a consortium of Maryland businesses, addresses the state's preparedness to wean itself off of a defense economy and convert to a non-defense based one. The report was prepared by the University of Baltimore's business school.

On the up side, the report concludes that Maryland has a skilled and highly productive labor force. On the whiney side, however, the study gave the captains of industry exactly what they paid for: Overall taxes and wages are too high; there's a lack of local financing for business and expansion; and Maryland's environmental policies and permitting process inhibit economic growth.

There you have it, folks, the Maryland of your choice. What the three reports do agree on, though, is that Maryland has taken a heck of a hit. Yet despite the great bloviation of words, nobody yet has figured out how to convert swords into plowshares.

For defense means more than those who manufacture killer weapons. It involves hundreds of side industries and businesses that have little or nothing to do with government. What we are witnessing is the nasty little revelation that Maryland is not as diverse as the government's human trumpets once boasted.

And it's an ironic twist, too, that technology is not creating the job bank that was anticipated. In fact, the opposite is true. Technology is more a source of unemployment that employment and it's virtually obliterating Maryland's middle managers.

Business today is portable. It can go anywhere a satellite transmission can take it -- which is anywhere. Brazil's economy is booming at the expense of America and so, too, is India becoming a nation of low-wage computer programmers.

Thomas R. Malthus, the 18th century British economist, observed that eventually the people who do society's dirty work will be the ones who make the money. Trouble is, nobody wants to get their hands dirty.

Finally, government has lost control of the economy. The international scheme is so vast and complicated that the old paradigm has been destroyed. It no longer matters in the counting houses around the world where Mr. Schaefer travels, what the president says or how Congress votes.

Maryland is paying a high price for peace.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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