If you are a business conservative like the people who run the Arkansas Policy Foundation, the true measure of a chief executive is how much economic growth he produced when he was in charge — at IBM, the White House or the state Capitol.
So the Policy Foundation, the little Republican-leaning think tank at Little Rock, did a study of the 11 Arkansas governors since World War II using the monthly federal employment statistics from January 1945 through last month. And here’s the amazing, unfathomable and impressive thing: It made the results public!
Depending on your bias, the results were predictable or completely counter-intuitive.
The worst governor? Mike Huckabee, hands down.
The best pro-growth governor? The liberal Dale Bumpers, 1971-75.
They were not aberrations, either. Liberal, activist Democratic governors produced more new jobs for Arkansans on average every year that they were in office than Republican and conservative Democratic governors, by far.
Governors who talked endlessly about building a solid business climate and creating jobs, starting with “Business Ben” Laney (1945-1949) and ending with Mike Huckabee, fared poorly. Liberals like Bumpers, David Pryor and Sid McMath did magnificently, far outpacing the national growth rate.
Bumpers had annoyed chambers of commerce a few weeks after taking office in 1971 by announcing that he was not going to “chase smokestacks” but would instead concentrate on protecting the environment from industrial pollution and insidious development and investing in education and health care through progressive taxes. He did what he promised, and figure this: The best eight years of job growth in Arkansas history followed.
So if the Labor Department statistics seem to disprove the Policy Foundation’s thesis that taxes and activist government kill growth and jobs, why did it make the study public? Could it have been to embarrass Huckabee and thwart his run for the presidency? The study will show up soon in the on-line literature of the Club for Growth, which opposes Huckabee as a tax-and-spend liberal. Huckabee maintains that he is the most conservative governor in Arkansas history.
Huckabee comes out worst in the study because he is the only one of the 11 governors whose job-growth rate — slightly under 1 percent a year — has been lower than the national rate for the same period. The Policy Foundation did not report it, but Huckabee’s rate would have been half again better — 1.5 percent — if he could count only his first four-and-a-half years, when Arkansas shared just a little of the great national boom in jobs during the Clinton administration. During the five-and-a-half bust years of George W. Bush, Huckabee’s Arkansas barely scored with a growth rate of only three-tenths of 1 percent, much of that new government jobs. That was terrible, but at least it was a trifle better than the nation as a whole.
Here are the Policy Foundation’s job-growth rates for governors, from top to bottom, with the simultaneous national rates in parentheses:
• David Pryor, 1975-79 — 5.4 percent (3.7)
• Orval E. Faubus, 1955-67 — 5.1 (2.6)
• Dale Bumpers, 1971-75 — 5.0 (2.4)
• Sid McMath, 1949-53 — 4.1 (3.1)
• Bill Clinton, 1979-81; 1983-92 — 3.5 (2.1)
• Jim Guy Tucker, 1993-96 — 3.4 (2.7)
• Ben T. Laney, 1945-49 — 3.3 (1.9)
• Winthrop Rockefeller, 1967-71 — 2.8 (2.1)
• Mike Huckabee, 1996-2006 — 1.0 (1.3)
• Francis Cherry, 1953-55 — 0.6 (-0.8)
• Frank D. White, 1981-83 — -0.8 (-1.2).
To recapitulate their careers, Faubus, Bumpers, McMath and Clinton raised taxes significantly, Pryor came along on the heels of four years of tax increases and Tucker raised taxes slightly and battled fruitlessly for the largest highway tax program in history. Laney, Cherry and White were tightfisted advocates of a pro-business, low-tax government. Rockefeller was the most liberal governor in history but failed to enact his giant tax program. Huckabee talked anti-tax but raised taxes and borrowed more than the others.
Cherry and White, who made industrial development his life, may be excused because their short regimes were dogged by national recessions. But all except Tucker governed some during national recessions, Bumpers and Cherry the longest — a year each.
There is a caveat to the liberal growth years. Even in the best of times all the new jobs generally were low-paying ones, and Arkansas gained little ground on the national well-being.
So does the Policy Foundation’s painstaking work on the governors mean that higher taxes and wider government investment almost uniformly pay off with more vigorous economic growth, or does it mean nothing at all?
Nothing at all is probably closer to the truth. National economic policies may shape the business cycle to a considerable degree, but the most earnest and effective governor is limited in what he can do unless he can set in motion policies that sharply raise the education level and well-being of the people. No one can claim to have done that.
Huckabee’s best answer for now is to give him 20 years and see if the taxes, public debt and investment in kids’ health and schooling means prosperity. See if that plays with Republican voters.