A letter to Ken Ulman

Dear Ken,

Thanks for inviting me to your reception last Thursday, an invitation that (after a reminder from Jessie Newburn) I was happy to accept, because I think on balance you’ve done a good job as county executive and also because I thought it would be fun to spend some time among the movers and shakers of Howard County. I’m not very forward in social settings so I didn’t stop by to say hello, but now that I’m back in my element I thought I’d bend your ear for a few minutes.

My fellow bloggers Dennis Lane and Tom Coale think you’re serious about running for governor; if so I commend you for doing so given the likely bumps on the road ahead for the world, the nation, and Maryland: Europe crashing and possibly pulling us into a second depression, burdensome public and private debt, and likely Federal and state spending cutbacks in the years ahead—not to mention the continued impact of globalization, climate change, and the possibility that someday computers may take over most professional jobs (no, I’m not kidding).

So, what to do? I’m a Democrat, and think the Republican party has run out of gas intellectually in terms of policy ideas that could improve our country and our state. But that doesn’t mean the Democratic party is that much better, especially if we rely primarily on partisan redistricting and the inertia of Maryland voters to stay in power and then fail to meet the challenges of the coming years.

What are those challenges? Primarily to jump start economic growth and improve productivity in an era of extreme economic dislocation, while at the same time helping people survive those dislocations and find a productive place in the new economy that emerges. You talked a bit along those lines the other evening; allow me to comment briefly on those remarks and provide my own thoughts.

Providing a safety net for those who need it is a traditional Democratic value. You name-checked Healthy Howard and a follow-on effort to create a Maryland health care cooperative (presumably a reference to the Evergreen Project). It sounds like a good idea, and I wish it well. I don’t have much more to say about social services issues in this post, and in general leave blogging about such issues to Duane St. Clair, who does a much better job that I ever could.

On the economic development front you mentioned the Inter-County Broadband Network (which I’ve previously blogged about) as well as your recent trip to Silicon Valley. Here I do have some thoughts: Wiring the state is like setting tables in a restaurant; it doesn’t guarantee anyone’s going to show up to dine. In particular I’m pessimistic about the idea of this region becoming the Silicon Valley of cybersecurity given the area’s reliance on Federal defense and intelligence spending, the secretive nature of the work, and the barriers to participation by those not holding security clearances—the polar opposite of the entrepreneurial and open culture of the real Silicon Valley.

How to promote such a culture? One possible approach is to combine a traditional social safety net with a relentless focus on the free market: to promote the economic liberty of everyone to produce and sell useful goods and services while at the same time helping everyone to fulfill their inborn potential to be a productive contributor in the free market (and be rewarded accordingly). As I’ve written previously, there are Maryland-sized places that do this well, and we can look to them for guidance.

In practice this first means looking seriously at the business-friendly initiatives proposed by the major business lobbies, but pushing back when such initiatives seem designed simply to reward incumbent players and ensure a docile work force. Then talk to someone like Trevor Greene and ask what he thinks Democrats should do to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses like his. What about the challenges faced by the growing population of self-employed professionals? Talk to Thursday Bram and David Hobby. Could we do a better job of promoting street entrepreneurs? Have Mr. Howchow introduce you to the folks on Route 1 who are enlivening the culinary landscape of Howard County.

Of course, small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs don’t drive major job growth; for that we need to attract companies in emerging industries, the potential Apples and Googles of the future. So, for example, look at the emerging personal genomics industry and ask why one of the leading companies in that space (a firm funded in part by Maryland-based VCs) can’t sell its service in Maryland. If we’re going to be touting Johns Hopkins and NIH as foundations for a biotech industry then we also need to look at regulatory factors that influence whether biotech entrepreneurs will want to locate here.

Suppose we can more effectively unleash the forces of free market innovation. Where do we want that innovation to be focused? As TJ Mayotte recently discussed, we need to have places that are economically productive enough that they can generate sufficient tax revenue to cover the costs of both constructing and maintaining government-created infrastructure over the long-term. And the places that are more productive than anywhere else are cities; in fact, cities become relatively more productive the larger they grow.

As Chris Leinberger discussed recently (in the same room where you held your reception)
cities provide walkable urban places where people like to live, and make investments in mass transit and related infrastructure much more cost-effective than in suburbs (as Sarah has noted). Howard County would be a more economically productive place if relatively more people lived in Columbia Town Center, a region like western Maryland would be more economically productive if relatively more people lived in Cumberland, and Maryland as a whole would be economically productive if relatively more people lived in Baltimore.

How to accomplish that? Part of the solution lies in addressing perceived disadvantages of cities relating to school quality and public safety, and another in discouraging growth outside cities by reducing government subsidies for inefficient land use. And part may also lie in reducing the barriers to growing cities and overcoming heartfelt but I think ultimately misguided objections to higher-density residential development—the exact problem you and the county council successfully addressed with Columbia Town Center, with support from the folks at Columbia 2.0 and others. The goal: that anyone who wants to can afford the advantages of living and working in a socially, culturally, and economically vibrant urban environment.

To conclude, we need to look beyond the traditional way of thinking (blue state vs. red state, liberal vs. conservative, Maryland vs. Virginia, and so on) and come up with more creative ways to make Maryland a better place without changing what we love about it. As Trevor Greene remarked in the post I linked to above, maybe we should take some things from column A and some things from column B. If FDR could steal ideas from socialism to help save capitalism from itself, maybe it makes sense to steal ideas from free-market libertarianism to help save big-government liberalism from the rut it’s gotten into. FDR was reviled by rabid socialists and rabid capitalists alike, but everybody else seemed to like him just fine. Perhaps that would be true here as well.

In any event I enjoyed the reception, and wish you luck in your future career wherever it may take you. Thanks again for the invite.

Frank