You can’t accuse John Kitzhaber of thinking small. After seven years of tilting at the windmills of our hopelessly inefficient national health care system, he is running for governor on a platform of transformational change. The theme of systemic transformation has permeated his public speeches since his last stint as governor, and it is also the central idea behind his economic strategy for Oregon, which he presented to the public yesterday at the Portland offices of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
If ever there was a time for transformational change in Oregon, it is now. Joblessness is rampant, wages are stagnant, and scarcity has given birth to increasingly ugly partisan battles. Big change is in order, but what exactly to change, and how?
Kitzhaber’s economic strategy, developed in collaboration with Robert Young, an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon, contains strong ideas for building on Oregon’s strengths. It calls for aggressive investments in areas where Oregon has a distinct edge already, such as energy efficiency and woody biomass. A statewide campaign to retrofit all public buildings to make them more efficient would create jobs immediately and sharpen the state’s green edge. An effort to thin forests responsibly to reduce fire risks while feeding the state’s growing biomass industry could bring new hope to Oregon’s struggling timber towns.
The plan also targets a few of Oregon’s most glaring weaknesses, such as a lack of access to capital, and minimal foreign investment. Kitzhaber says there is a “huge opportunity for direct foreign investment from countries like China that need a place to invest their substantial cash reserves.” He’s right. There is. But the canyon between recognizing China as a source of capital and receiving capital from China is deep and wide.
In many ways, for all of Kitzhaber’s emphasis on transformation, his economic plan is glaringly short on details, especially numbers. And while it has been presented as a bi-partisan solution, key elements discussed briefly at yesterday’s event, such as doing away with the kicker and reducing Oregon’s reliance on the income tax, are sure to spark furious fights once they are revealed.
But while Kitzhaber’s economic plan does not strike me as a polished document, it has proved a good conversation-starter. The Kitzhaber campaign’s website for ideas has received dozens of suggestions from Oregonians ranging from jobs for the removal of ivy and blackberry bushes to a statewide microloan program for small business start-ups. This ongoing call for ideas, and the democratic crowd-sourcing tactic of allowing readers to vote in support of promising suggestions, is a refreshing innovation.
When Kitzhaber reflected on the position Oregon finds itself in, his conclusion yesterday was that “we’re going to have to innovate our way out of this.” In that vein, he wants to reform the state’s educational system, restructure the public finance system and, while he’s at it, transform the health care debate to focus on not only how we pay for health care but also what we are purchasing. Again, no one can accuse him of lacking big ideas.
I’ve always been impressed by Kitzhaber’s intellectual capacity. He is clearly capable of understanding incredibly complex systems at a level of depth few can match. His work on health care has been visionary. But is he capable of actually making the changes he’s calling for? And do we really need these changes? Is the huge, systemic transformational change he’s calling for on multiple fronts the solution to Oregon’s economic woes?
What do you think?