Sirota, Sharpton & Montana’s economy

In this past Sunday’s Daily Interlake, Helena-based Democratic consultant and political reporter David Sirota discussed himself, his upcoming book, his research for the SF Chronicle, his education myth story, and himself (again<g>). Finally, he got around to talking about how brave he was to “question the planet’s richest man”. This was a reference to a question he asked of Bill Gates at Montana’s recent economic development conference held in Butte.

If you check out David’s site and blog, you’ll get a pretty clear picture that he’s not too fond of either party’s elected officials, nor of big corporates. I should note that, generally speaking, David’s view of the widespread corruption in government (and most corporates, for that matter) aligns somewhere in the same neighborhood as mine, but I sure don’t share his negativity about the reasons Montanans have to be optimistic about the economy, global or otherwise. You can be cynical about the government and some corporates and still be optimistic about business. And I am.

Back to the question…

Sirota asked Gates why Montanans, much less Americans, should be optimistic about the economy. But he didnt phrase it like that. Instead, he used the tiring approach of including his opinion and several jabs at Microsoft as part of the question, in what feels like an attempt to Al Sharptonize the question.

According to the Interlake piece on the opinion page, the question Sirota presented to Gates was: “Why does he think Montanans – or any Americans, really, – should be optimistic about the economy he (Gates) describes and the ‘good paying’ jobs he says he offers when we know that companies like Microsoft are aggressively trying to outsource more and more jobs to cheap overseas labor markets?”

Journalists are supposed to ask smart questions and report the news, not make the news. I just don’t get why experienced, professional journalists feel the need to add the “So, when did you stop beating your wife?” thing to what would have been a good question. To make it worse, he taunts Gates with “and the ‘good paying’ jobs he says he offers” (emphasis mine), knowing full well that Gates isn’t stupid enough to respond to them. The intended result? He gets away with implying that Microsoft doesn’t offer good paying jobs, an asinine assertion.

So let’s get to the core of David’s question: Why should Montanans be optimistic about the economy?

There are a number of reasons that I see on a regular basis.

In Northwest Montana, for example, there is a thriving entrepreneurial culture. For example, New Media technology companies like Auroras TV are using local programmers, paying big city wages and treating people right. A new, funded, media company like the Flathead Beacon starts up using a cast of journalism pros that almost exclusively hail from U of Montana. Businesses like Resource Label USA move TO the Flathead from other parts of the country not just to enjoy the mountains, but because the people available to employ are more employable.

Why are they more employable? Sirota refers to Gates’ mention of the need for better education as “regurgitation of the Great Education Myth”. He says that it is a myth that (according to Gates) “all a state like Montana has to do is better educate its work force in order to compete” and in fact, the problems stem from inadequate wage/labor protections in international trade agreements.

Interesting concept. It seems like he’s saying “We don’t need smarter people, we need more/better government restrictions on foreign trade.” Dumber Montanans is what we need? Surely that can’t be what he means. Ironically, the last 2 times I saw Resource Label CEO Don Farris speak, he noted that 9 in 10 Flathead-area prospects who apply at Resource are employable, vs 1 in 10 in Tennessee. Why? One reason he notes is the quality of the education that employment prospects demonstrate here. You know, because of that “Education Myth” thing.

But it’s bigger than that, and this is the thing I think David missed out on when trying to use Gates’ comments as evidence to prove the Education Myth: “Even if Montana had the best education system on the planet, how can Montana workers compete with workers in developing countries making the equivalent of slave wages especially when Microsoft is already showing that it has every intention to outsource at all costs?”

First off, workers in developing countries making “slave wages” aren’t competing with workers in Montana unless their employers are just plain stupid. That’s like trying to compete with WalMart on CD and Fruit of the Loom prices. Will smarter people solve every problem? No, but smarter people sure do help.

See, entrepreneurs all over Montana don’t have to compete with Microsoft programmers in Redmond OR India, don’t generally care what Bill Gates does or says, and create successful, thriving businesses in Montana DESPITE what goes on in chambers in Helena and Washington DC. That’s what someone who has actually started, grown and run a business knows: entrepreneurs find a way. They dont make excuses about what’s happening in Helena, Washington, China and so on. They make it happen. Doesn’t mean they ignore Helena and Washington, but they don’t let them become barriers and reasons not to be successful.

I wish more members of the professional press would take advantage of the opportunity to be entrepreneurs, much less employers. It’d make business journalism a lot more interesting.

My take? Montanans have cause to be enthusiastic about the economy. We don’t have a ton of huge businesses employing 20,000 people in the manufacturing sector – the kinds of businesses that Chinese companies often compete favorably with. Instead, look at how many businesses in the state employ 5 or fewer employees. These are the businesses that make the economy strong because of the balance they provide. Not just service sector employers, but manufacturing and professional businesses as well. Because Montana’s population is small, client growth occurs outside the state. Result? Many members of the latter 2 sectors are net exporters, getting the majority of their revenue from outside Montana. That’s money that economic development folks LOVE to hear about.

Staying on top of the issues David brings up is important. Letting them become excuses for not being successful is dumb. Don’t do it.