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Will S.C. miss the future?

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Phil Noble

You may not know the name, but we in South Carolina need to listen to Larry Page. He is a very bright and very rich young man.

A few years ago, he and his college roommate, Sergey Brin, started a little company with a funny name that has done right well. It’s called Google.

In a recent interview, Page was asked about what makes companies grow and thrive or shrink and die. His response was simple. “Do they miss the future or do they get it?” he asked.

The more I have thought about this simple phrase, the more I’m convinced he is right and the more I think this applies to South Carolina. Do we “get” the future?

The fundamental truth of Page’s comment is that it applies to lots of things besides just companies. A few examples:

u Countries – Think about the British Empire. As World War II began, the popular phrase was “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and indeed it didn’t. The Empire stretched around the globe, contained hundreds of millions of people and was the dominant world power. But London politicians fundamentally missed the growing global desire for self-determination and independence of the millions of black and brown people they ruled. Within a couple of decades of the end of World War II, the Empire had shrunk to a few obscure islands scattered around the globe and the United Kingdom.

u Companies – In the past, being designated a Fortune 500 company meant stability, influence and economic staying power. In recent years, all that has changed. Of the original 500 companies listed in 1955, only 57 exist today. Nearly 2,000 companies have come and gone from the list. Today, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Dell and Google are among the biggest on the list, yet they did not even exist less than a generation ago.

u States and cities – The once mighty and dominant states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana have all had long years of steady decline. Their success was based on the traditional heavy-industry manufacturing models of mass production. The information age and service economy were the future – and they missed it. And the same goes for cities as well. Who would have even thought that Detroit, the home of the almighty U.S. car industry, would go bankrupt – all within a few short years?

For one reason or another, these institutions missed the future. They did not understand the powerful social, political, economic and cultural forces and trends that were emerging and changing the world.

And, of course, the opposite is true as well. Those smart, agile institutions, companies and countries that do understand the future and react can change, adapt and prosper.

In addition to the companies listed above, think about Silicon Valley, Austin, Seattle and Nashville. And countries like the former Soviet Bloc states of Estonia, Czech Republic and Korea – all have booming economies with young and vibrant cultures.

How does all this apply to South Carolina? Looking back over our history, we can see examples of where we have both gotten and missed the future – where we have prospered and where we have failed.

In colonial days, South Carolinians figured out the new economic model of a plantation economy and we thrived with first indigo, rice and then cotton. We were one of the richest places in the world and nine of the 10 richest men at the beginning of the Revolution were South Carolinians. But we missed the future in not seeing that slavery was a horrible evil and its rightful defeat plunged our state into unspeakable poverty, racism and ignorance for 100 years.

The cotton-mill boom was an example of Palmetto state businessmen getting the problems of high wages in the textile industry of the Northeast and understanding how to attract them to our state with low wages.

Despite some temporary prosperity for a couple of decades in the 1960s and 1970s, though, the next generation of business leaders did not get the future and realize that China, India and other such low-wage countries could out-cheap us, which they did in leading to the collapse of the state’s largest industry.

Today, most would agree that our state’s leaders get it in that we have figured out how to attract such high-tech companies as BMW, Boeing and the other 1,233 international companies that do business in our state. But there are increasingly troubling signs that our politicians don’t get it as to the type of strong and vibrant education system required to sustain these increasingly high-tech businesses of the future. In the last four years, state government has cut funding for education – both K-12 and higher education – by almost 25 percent. This is the biggest reduction of any of the 50 states.

So, back to Larry and Sergey, and what we can learn about “getting the future.” There are many possible lessons in all this, but the common thread of success is technology, education and creativity.

These three factors were present in most all these successes, and absent in most all the instances of decline.

We don’t have a Google in South Carolina. We don’t even have a single Fortune 500 company headquartered here. Georgia has 14 and North Carolina has 15. And unless we relentlessly focus on these three factors – technology, education and creativity – we likely never will.

As for me, I’m betting on the smart kids working on their computers with the crazy ideas about the future.

Phil Noble is president of the S.C. New Democrats