Irish Miracle sets example for South Dakota

May 23, 2007 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

It’s called the “Irish Economic Miracle” and with a little vision and a lot of courage, we could reproduce it in South Dakota

Simply put, Ireland went from one of the poorest countries in the European Union to what is probably the most prosperous.  While Britain ’s economy drags, France fights with old welfare-state ideas and Italy ’s negative birth rate has created a worker shortage, industry from all over the world has flooded Ireland with new jobs.  And they didn’t go there for cheap labor.  Per capita Irish adult income is almost as high as it is here in the USA .  Irish immigrants in America are returning to the country of their birth in record numbers.  It’s so serious that it’s getting hard to find an Irish bartender in Boston anymore.

How did this nation finally beat the chronic, grinding generations of poverty and starvation that was bad enough to inspire literature like Angela’s Ashes?  Tom Friedman talks extensively about the turn-around in his latest work, The World Is Flat. 

But the definitive paper was written by Pierre Fortin from the University of Quebec .  Professor Fortin says that economic growth in Ireland had four component policies: 1) commercial Policy, 2) industrial Policy, 3) tax policy and 4) education.  They created a climate friendly to business by dismantling their European-style socialist economy while, at the same time, filling the country with highly skilled workers by encouraging virtually free post-secondary education.

The first three policies – market driven commercial, industrial friendly and low-tax - already exist in South Dakota .   But the way we finance post-secondary education would require courage and vision.  We need an overhaul.  We already have a great public university system, thriving vocational schools and great private and tribal colleges; more than enough to educate the next generation of workers, if only everyone who wanted education could afford it.

This is probably political heresy.   I often hear that we’re spending enough on higher education.  We don’t need a broader scholarship system.  Private student loans are available.  So what if the interest is a little high.  Besides, kids leave the state when they get educated. 

I could accept these arguments if the system worked.  It is apparent that what we are doing is not good enough, not when seats are empty in university classrooms and kids are not getting educated.  Statistics show that most young people, who are educated in South Dakota , stay in South Dakota , including many who come from out of state.  More would stay if there were more high-paying jobs.  In reality though, other states come to our job fairs to recruit teachers.  The best we have are being tempted to leave home and by our own neighbors.  And we let them.

When a person opens a business he or she expects to initially lose money.  A good business person goes in with enough investment capital to hold on until the venture turns a profit.  Our society needs to take the same view.  We will lose money for while if we follow the Irish model, but in time the investment will pay off. Three of the four policies outlined by Professor Fortin are already part of the South Dakota economic creed.  We enjoy a great quality of life.  The cost of living is still reasonable.  People will migrate to South Dakota for education as they did in Ireland , putting down roots and increasing the population.  Businesses will migrate for the trained work force.  In time we have our own economic miracle.  Why not?  After all, our weather is no worse than Ireland ’s.  Different, but no worse.  But we will have to be patient.  It took Ireland more than ten years to see the results of their changes to education policy.

A bold plan like this will take courage and dedication.  The governor who starts this program will not be in office when the benefits begin to accumulate.  Most of the legislators asked to vote on visionary programs will no longer be serving when the vision becomes reality.  But I have faith that our leader’s can overcome the usual trend for immediate gratification legislation and day-to-day politics.   After all, the Irish did.

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