In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, in one conversation an interlocuter questions another on how he went bankrupt, resulting in the now well-known response: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” The witty reply is one that can be applied to many situations: falling asleep, financial crises, rogue waves, avalanches, and even death. However, it may also be applicable in at least one very positive situation: West Virginia’s economic resurgence.
If West Virginia’s problems have accumulated over several decades of mismanagement, then it is safe to assume that an economic rebirth will take some time too, unfortunate as that may be. During past decades, West Virginia not only acquired a slew of bad policies and an overly-centralized government, but in so doing, also acquired something much stickier, and much harder to solve: a bad reputation. As English author, Ernest Bramah once put it, “A reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment.”
One certainly hopes that decades of bad policies will not equal a correspondingly long bad reputation, but it does give a sense of just how hard it is to dispel negative notions about a place or a people. Now, for a bit more bad news: not only is West Virginia competing with its reputation and past for better policies and more opportunities, it is also competing with the world.
Though West Virginia may be doing better with its economic and education policies in recent years, other states – and countries – are not simply staying put. Remember, West Virginia isn’t simply competing with the Virginia’s, North Carolina’s, Arizona’s, and Ohio’s of the world, it’s competing with the Mexico’s, Costa Rica’s, Hungary’s, and Japan’s of the world too.
Between competition from states, countries, and a reputation for anti-opportunity, it starts to become clear why prosperity and economic growth can be a difficult thing to capture, let alone keep and sustain. So, that’s the negative side of the ledger, but what about the things West Virginia now has going for it? Luckily, there are many things that will contribute to what is likely to be a gradual improvement.
First, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of education policies that allow parents to customize their child’s education. West Virginia has the preeminent such policy in the country with its recently-passed Hope Scholarship program. This program will allow parents to tailor a unique education experience for their children. While it may take a while for West Virginia’s parents to acclimate, it will be huge for attracting new families to West Virginia. The impact of COVID, mask mandates, and union missteps will be felt for years to come. When paired with Hope, the ingredients for a sea change are there. Remember, gradually at first, then suddenly.
Second, the pro-worker reforms of the last few years will have an impact, as well, especially policies like right-to-work and paycheck protection. As right-to-work continues to spread across the country, the policy will become less icing and more key ingredient to the economic growth cake. But, it is something that West Virginia had to do for its workers and growth prospects. These policies are necessary, though not sufficient by themselves, think of them almost like infrastructure. While you may not get bonus points for having them, it is an expectation.
Third, as America continues to age, efficient delivery of healthcare will be an expectation. The recent telehealth reform will help meet that expectation and make our healthcare system that much more attractive to prospective Mountaineers.
While there is much more to do in the realm of regulatory and tax reform, taken together, education, healthcare, and workplace reforms will be key ingredients to West Virginia’s more positive economic trends. Over time, opportunity migrates to freedom.
One final note: beware of those who wish to cast doubts on West Virginia’s reforms and/or tie such reforms to slow growth – the reversal process takes time. In the bet on whether West Virginia will thrive in the coming years, never “take the under” on freedom. One day, we will wake up and realize that the “suddenly” has finally arrived.
Garrett Ballengee is the Executive Director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.