Politics & Policy

Kitzhaber and How the Left Cooks the Books

How we feel about economic development is no substitute for honest analysis.

The resignation last week of Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber was big news.

Big, but not terribly surprising. The Oregon attorney general’s office had previously opened an investigation into allegations that the state’s first lady, Cylvia Hayes, had improperly utilized state employees in the implementation of a new state metrics policy while she was being paid by an outside group. In the end, Kitzhaber could not stem mounting criticism of his fiancée’s dual roles as a gubernatorial adviser and a paid consultant with business before the state — both roles being well known to the four-term governor.

Alas, today’s social-media-driven news cycle will move on to the “next big story” in short order. But there is another aspect to this story worth our attention.

You see, the genesis of Governor Kitzhaber’s problems lies in Oregon’s decision to adopt the so-called Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), an alternative economic and social-welfare metric that is in various stages of review or implementation in five of America’s most liberal states (Vermont, Washington, Hawaii, and Maryland are the others), and which was the project Ms. Hayes had been paid to help manage in Oregon.

GPI’s alternative analysis uses 26 indicators (divided into economic, environmental, and social) to measure a jurisdiction’s overall “health.” The individual metrics used will come as no surprise to those who study the progressive playbook: income inequality, carbon footprint, resource depletion, and CO2 emissions are prominent economic/environmental indicators. On the social side, costs that are impossible to measure — including positive or negative values of housework, volunteer work, leisure time, and automobile dependency — are included in the index. Such “soft measures” are indeed convenient to those who wish to distance themselves from objective, value-neutral methodologies (such as Gross Domestic Product) that have long been the mainstay of economic-development science.

GPI is classic liberal snake oil for what ails anti-business states. Such knock-off indexes cannot change the objective facts of high tax rates and wealth flight, but they are designed to delegitimize them through a new and politically correct set of criteria more attuned to how one feels about economic development. The GPI mindset is especially useful in explaining away the effects of ill-conceived public policies on hiring and employment. If you are reminded of the famous White House attempt to explain away Obamacare’s destructive impact on job creation by pointing out the advantages of increased leisure time . . . well, so am I.

In reality, GPI represents nothing other than a convenient instrument for progressives to use in obfuscating poor economic performance. In other words, taxpayer beware whenever liberal politicians tell you they’re going to measure what really should matter to you — and why you shouldn’t worry that so many of your neighbors have retired to more tax-friendly states.

One of the five GPI states — Maryland — is Exhibit A.

Eight years of unrelenting tax increases (40 in all) and a labor-controlled, oppressive regulatory environment saw jobs, wealth, and corporate headquarters fleeing my state. Maryland’s Gross Domestic Product showed zero growth in 2013, ranking 49th in the country. All of which was a bridge too far for even this deepest blue of jurisdictions: Larry Hogan became only the sixth Republican governor of Maryland in 2014 on a transparently clear promise to “stop the [progressive] bleeding.”

Now, I’m just as interested in recycling programs, avoiding traffic congestion, and leisure time as the next guy. (Indeed, I would put my environmental record up against any one of my Democratic predecessors.) But I just don’t see how soft, non-objective criteria help policy-makers understand what ails job creation. Phrased another way: Hard data are much more valuable than soft in attempting to figure out why your 26-year-old is in living in your basement and not on a private-sector payroll.

It is ironic that a government program meant to instill progressive values in Oregon amounts to crony capitalism. If you find yourself living in one of the above-mentioned states and have come to the same conclusion, you might send an e-mail to your governor with the news that you have found a new way to save tax dollars: Try ending feel-good programs that tell us nothing and paper over real problems. Maybe, just maybe, we can return old-fashioned common sense to state government — our feelings notwithstanding.

— Robert Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is the author of America: Hope for Change.


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