Sweet Home Politics

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017   |   Español

Author Archives: Kindred Motes

  1. Why Alabama Can’t Compete Internationally … Yet

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    Yesterday, Gov. Robert Bentley recognized eight Alabama companies for their excellence in exporting to foreign nations. These companies contributed to the more than $19.3 billion Alabamian exports that left our ports, runways, and railroads in 2013. Last year’s exports figure, released by the Alabama Department of Commerce, marks a fifty-seven percent increase in export revenue from 2009 levels.

    Despite this positive news, there is much to be done in Alabama before we can become the globally significant contributor that Gov. Bentley purports us to be. When it comes to analyzing the United States’ international exports, it is quite important to compare progress among peer states to gauge progress and identify potential for improvement.

    To do this for the state of Alabama, one should look at the figures of fellow states in the region. For example, in 2009, North Carolina’s international export figures reached $22 billion – $2.7 billion more than Alabama’s figures four years later. In 2012, the Tar Heel state reached $28.7 billion in exports. Those amounts are undoubtedly less than the official figures soon to be released from Raleigh concerning the state’s 2013 commerce statistics. Even if North Carolinian exports remained at 2012 levels, that would still amount to roughly $9.4 billion dollars more than Alabama’s 2013 figures.

    To be fair, comparing any state to another involves a certain degree of incongruity; none of them contain exactly the same resources, population, educational heterogeneity, or administrative imperatives in regard to public policy and commerce. Nevertheless, Alabama must assess and alter its openness to the international market if it is to continue its current growth in the global sector and become a bankable, truly viable option for international trade. To do so, it should address the following issues:

    1. Investment in Infrastructure

    If I could choose any of these four issues to be immediately implemented, it would be this one. It is essential for the growth of our state and our economy. As of today, none of Alabama’s four major cities have viable public transportation options aside from bus systems. Alabamian cities that do offer bus transit still do not provide timetables that allow for frequent travel without significant waiting times.

    Other states in the region, by contrast, have inter-city bus routes running dozens of routes every hour (see Triangle Transit in the Research Triangle region), rapid monorail or raised-track trains (MARTA in Atlanta or Metrorail in Miami), or public streetcars linking various parts of city centers (Chattanooga, New Orleans, etc.). If Alabama is to attract new businesses, it needs to be able to handle their workers.

    Our already crowded highways (particularly in the Greater Birmingham region) are not a welcome sight for corporations looking to move 500 or more workers into an area or invest in an existing company that might be unable to meet the investor’s delivery needs due to choked-up roads. To be absolutely clear, the lack of mobility in Alabama is not only inconvenient – it is a hazard to our health and detrimental to our productivity and quality of life.

    International companies know this – Singapore, Toronto, Beijing, Berlin, Mexico City, and London (cities within our top export locations) all offer rapid transit to their residents. If the opportunity ever arose to start a branch of a foreign company or organization in Alabama, why would its employees want to move to a place whose mere infrastructure would decrease their standards of living, time spent with family, and personal incomes due to transportation expenses? Simple answer – they wouldn’t.

    Until this changes, foreign direct investment within Alabama will play second fiddle to exports, and we will see our products leave our borders without gaining any additional in-state revenue from their production and consumption.

    2. Retention of Minds

    Many of Alabama’s colleges and universities are nationally ranked and recognized as being among the best in the region. Birmingham-Southern College and Spring Hill College, for example, are consistently ranked as being two of the best private liberal arts colleges in the United States. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is a world leader in medicine, and the universities of Alabama and Auburn have between them nationally renowned programs in law, business, pharmacy, engineering, and veterinary medicine.

    The state must do more to retain the educated minds that are graduating from these institutions and leaving the state to begin higher-paying jobs elsewhere. As it stands, most out-of-state students leave Alabama upon completing their degrees – and many native Alabamians (disclosure: author included) leave with them.

    With a vibrant, youthful population comes innovation and revitalization – just ask Durham, Nashville, Charleston, and Atlanta. If Alabama is to continue progressing internationally, it must retain its bright minds domestically. Successful corporations are far more likely to invest in areas where the concentration of educated minds is high. If Alabama loses its scholars, scientists, and innovators, our loss is someone else’s gain.

    We cannot afford to be foolhardy when it comes to retention. Alabama must fight to keep its students by providing an economic environment that values their skills and is mindful of their needs as first-time employees in an anemic job market. If it doesn’t, it will soon become an intellectually stagnant outpost within the fast- developing southern region. 

    3. Increased Incentives for Doing Business

    Alabama and its leaders must continue seeking out companies willing to invest in the state and bring their business practices, skilled workers, and spending power to our cities. To do so, it must offer incentives that are more alluring than those offered by the competition. To do this effectively, it should make a concerted effort to deregulate the process of acquiring new trade and business deals as much as possible.

    There are many situations in which bureaucratic red tape serves as a useful form of filibustering – this is not one of them. It does not help discussions about trade partnerships or aid the process of courting companies to relocate to a location – it merely frustrates potential investors by testing their patience, and can even drive them into the arms of an alternate deal they favored less than the one being negotiated in the first place.

    If Alabama is serious about drastically increasing exports and opening up the state for foreign investment, it should broker low or no-tax agreements for a contracted period of time to drive investment. Once a company is here, its employees invest in the local economy by purchasing or renting properties and contributing yet again every time they go to the grocery store, out to restaurants, or to the gas pump. At this point, Alabama can begin recouping the funds “lost” by such a low or no tax agreement.

    However, when you think about it, they aren’t lost funds at all; if the company hadn’t decided to take the offer, the state would not have made any money from an agreement and it would be operating without the added tax funds and revenue gained from all those skilled, insured workers who are not reliant on the state’s welfare or benefit systems (and are therefore contributing more to the state economy than they are taking out). Offering temporary incentives for investment involves a brief deficit for a potentially long-lasting surplus. In the end, it’s a win-win. Companies are pleased and the state thrives.

    4. Resist Montgomery Groupthink

    This final issue is perhaps the most dangerous to the continuation of economic growth, international trade, and foreign investment in Alabama. Unfortunately, it is also the issue that will prove the hardest to overcome. Alabama’s capitol is far too homogenous in its political distribution.

    This is no surprise – just ask any Democratic politician in their Montgomery office (if you can find any). The acrimonious tone directed toward any opinion differing from Montgomery talking points stifles intellectual engagement within the legislature and makes the state a laughingstock – even within the largely single-party southern political climate.

    The administrative and legislative branches in Montgomery must become more interactive – they desperately need the fresh ideas that policy institutes, universities, researchers, and non-profit organizations have to offer. They deride the ideals coming from the “ivory towers” of our universities, accusing them of teaching everyone to think the same way – yet they have isolated themselves to the point of forming a legislative theocracy. It is time for the legislature to govern in a manner that is representative of the republican (not Republican) ideals it once championed.

    Instead of focusing on limiting reproductive rights, finding and deporting undocumented immigrants, and defending policies that limit an individual’s ability to access federally-funded healthcare, Alabama’s government should be devoting its time and resources to legislation that edifies the state through infrastructural improvements, economic incentives, educational support, and respect for ideological diversity. Until this happens, no progressive company will fully embrace it through investment – foreign or otherwise.

    Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not trying to make the perfect ideal the enemy of the good practice. It is fantastic that Alabama is strengthening its relationships with other nations through international exports and investment – that’s the exact sort of thing that must continue in the future. But because we need the economic investment to continue thriving in an ever-globalizing world market, we should be increasingly mindful about what we can do to ensure our survival within it. Now is not the time for digging our heels and clinging to antiquated practices; if we resort to doing so, the heels we dig in the ground today will mire us in it tomorrow.

  2. A Snowstorm Revealed Birmingham’s Biggest Problem

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    Southern cities have been historically lax with their planning for winter weather. After all, we rarely see periods of heavy snowfall, and even fewer periods in which snowfall sticks. Nevertheless, Birmingham must address transit before its own growth becomes unsustainable: if the city cannot formulate a viable transit plan for its existing residents, how will it ever be able to manage its future ones?

    Birmingham is experiencing a period of growth and revitalization that hasn’t been seen since before the city’s population decline in the latter half of the twentieth century. New apartments, lofts, businesses, organizations and restaurants are opening up shop or relocating to the Magic City each month.  Young professionals are making the city center their home, reversing the trend of suburban flight perpetuated the previous generation. For young Alabamians, it seems, Birmingham is the place to be again.

    Growth, however, rarely comes without costs. The problems facing Birmingham and the Greater Birmingham metro are numerous, and they have been discussed ad nauseum by public policy planners and municipal administrators. None of them, however, were as obvious in this week’s winter snowstorm as the transit problem.

    When faced with unexpected amounts of snowfall, the city was unable to salt, sand or plow the streets to a degree that would allow its residents and commuters to drive home safely. As a result, many faced finding a hotel and staying in town, leaving their children in the care of schoolteachers overnight, and even having to walk home after abandoning their cars on the deadlocked highways and streets.

    To be fair, this problem is not unique to Birmingham; Atlanta, for one, faced similar issues, and other cities throughout the region have been historically lax with their infrastructural planning for inclement winter weather. After all, the South rarely sees periods of heavy snowfall, and even fewer periods in which snowfall sticks to surfaces.

    Nevertheless, it points to a greater problem that Birmingham should address before its own growth becomes unsustainable: if the city cannot formulate a viable transit plan for its existing residents, how will it ever be able to manage its future ones?

    According to the U.S. Census in 2012, the city of Birmingham had a population of over 212,000. The metro area, comprising of all the major Birmingham suburbs and municipalities, had a population of almost 1.14 million. For a regional comparison, this puts the Birmingham metro population at about 30,000 less than the New Orleans metro and 450,000 less than the Nashville metro, respectively.

    Comparing Birmingham to its peers’ rankings and statistics on WalkScore.com helps to visualize the magnitude of the city’s transit problem. The site ranks cities based on their public transit availability, bike lanes and general friendliness to walkers’ access to main sites necessary for life within a city (grocery stores, post offices, laundromats, etc.). The website notes that Birmingham “has minimal public transportation and does not have many bike lanes … most errands require a car.” Of the following southern cities, Birmingham’s walking score ranks dead last (at 33) and its transit score is even lower (24):

    1. Nashville, Tenn. : 91

    2. New Orleans, La.: 56

    3. Tampa, Fla.: 46

    4. Atlanta, Ga.: 46

    5. Columbia, S.C.: 35

    6. Birmingham, Ala.: 33

    One of the largest impediments to efficient public transit in Birmingham, and the greater Birmingham metro especially, is a lack of public services cohesion between the city and its outlying cities, towns and neighborhoods. The sprawl of the late twentieth century, once lauded for its promotion of the suburban ideal and life away from the city’s noise and pollution, has perpetuated the metro area’s crippling dependence on cars and exacerbated daytime traffic in the city center. In the evenings, the mass exodus over the mountain and down I-65 has contributed to air pollution, hundreds of automobile accidents annually, and numerous hours spent waiting in gridlocked traffic on a day-to-day basis.

    The city of Birmingham and the Greater Birmingham municipalities cannot dither any longer when it comes to a comprehensive plan for transit reform. It shouldn’t take a snowstorm to illustrate the crucial need for alternative transit options in a metro with over a million residents. Birmingham’s bus system is dilapidated and unreliable — but at least it has one. The same cannot be said for many of the metro areas, whose residents struggle to afford the climbing automobile maintenance costs, rising gas prices, and cost-prohibitive insurance that allow them to simply make it to work every day.

    Birmingham’s growth and revitalization is a fantastic thing, and the re-concentration of citizens within the city center will hopefully be a boon to catalyzing transit reform inside the city limits. But truthfully, that isn’t enough. It isn’t just about Birmingham; over 900,000 people live outside the city limits. The time has come for the Over-the-Mountainers to sit alongside residents of College Hills, Hoover, Roebuck Springs and Five Points South to formulate a development plan for a transit system that will benefit the entire Greater Birmingham metro.

    In the meantime, let’s push them to invest in a few more salt buckets and snow plows. Even if it’s only once or twice a year, it looks like we’ll need a few.

  3. The State of Alabama Has a PR Problem

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    You can say what you want about the English, but they’ve been keeping tabs on America for quite a few centuries now. They’re good at knowing what’s going on with us — just watch any BBC news report or listen to any UK radio station online and you’ll hear an update on American news, entertainment or politics.

    These reports add to the information about the United States that is disseminated each day around the world. Our current affairs, even on a regional or state level, aren’t just local fodder anymore. They’re international news with repercussions that span further into the future than you’d probably like to acknowledge.

    For Alabamians, though, no argument over the power of a collective group’s memory (or, more poignantly, its inability to forget) is necessary — it is an aspect of life that many of us encounter each time we find ourselves across state lines or national borders.

    Almost daily, I meet a new person in the United Kingdom who registers polite interest in my American accent by asking, “Where in the States are you from?” These moments, I always think to myself, must be incredibly awkward and frustrating for Canadians. Nevertheless, for me, they’re somewhat reminiscent of the Southern manners I was raised to value. So I’m usually filled with the feeling of mattering again, instead of being a twenty-something roaming around unnoticed in a foreign country.

    Unfortunately, the responses I often get to my answer — Alabama — make the warm feelings turn into fickle sensations that leave far too quickly.

    I’ve only lived here for six months, but negative responses have ranged from “Alabama? Isn’t it quite racist there?” and “Do you still repress your minorities and women?” to “Is it hard growing up without the Internet?” Somewhere along the way, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Research Park must have gotten lost in translation, since we’re assumed to live without the most fundamental of late twentieth-century technological advances.

    Now, if you’re thinking these questions are solely the product of non-Americans abroad, you should pay more attention to the stateside representation of Alabama.

    There is a cultural malaise regarding Alabama that Alabamians are seemingly incapable of shaking. When breaking news of an offensive incident occurring in Alabama airs nationally, there is a palpable sigh across social media — Oh, the nation seems to sigh, It’s them again. What happened this time?

    Our state has become the wicked-grinned uncle of the republic whose idiosyncratic behavior has long since lost any ability to evoke sympathy. Its antics are no longer shocking, its perennial problems have tested the patience of even its most ardent defenders, and its legislative statements no longer resonate with any sense of credibility outside of the state.

    Indeed, if the state were viewed as a corporation — complete with employment goals, sales figures, marketing tactics and retention rates — few would argue that the public relations department faces one of the most daunting tasks in Montgomery: changing preconceived notions of Alabama that have been part of the American cultural fabric for centuries.

    We haven’t given them much help, either. In fact, I’m afraid we have become a state defined more by what we are against than what we are for. Now, though, is the time for us to change the conversation from what “we aren’t anymore” to “what we’ve always been.”

    • •   A state of innovators, intellectuals, policymakers, activists, authors, administrators, executives and musicians.
    • •   The state where the first open-heart surgery of the Western hemisphere was performed in 1902.
    • •   A state of workers who built the rockets that put humankind on the moon.
    • •   The state of Heather Whitestone McCallum, the first deaf Miss America, who devoted her life toward advancing the quality of life for children with disabilities.
    • •   The homeland of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, the most valuable corporation in the world.
    • •   The land that nurtured the literary imaginations, musical stylings, and cinematic interpretations of Capote, Lee, Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and The Alabama Shakes.


    However we decide to go about it, the time for us to change up the conversation has come. We have faced the demons of our past and we will continue to do so. We must never forget our past, and we should commit to learning from it at every opportunity.

    In the end, though, we must fight for our reputation by responding to our critics with the hard work and due diligence that pays mind to their critiques and asserts our willingness to help ourselves. The state has far too many positive attributes that are drowning in a parochial wasteland of its own history. It’s time to bring them into the national focus — this time for all the right reasons.

    Plus, if we’re ever going to get internet, we’ve got to do something, haven’t we?

  4. Robert Bentley Praises Veterans While His Policies Snub Them

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    Dear Reader:

    Gov. Robert Bentley is a facts-and-figures sort of guy. As the self-professed “salesman for the state,” it is undeniably important that he should be. However, when comparing his recent rhetoric to his record, a noticeable contradiction comes to mind:

    Just last month, Dr. Bentley announced that he was creating a commission to study ways in which the state might support its newly returned veterans. His office in Montgomery called this issue “critical,” and noted that veterans’ problems adjusting to their return home are often “long-lasting.”

    Why, then, would the governor ignore any option that might provide more immediate relief to Alabama veterans in favor of an exploratory commission that might not lead to relief anytime soon? Why might he refuse to accept an option that would immediately benefit thousands of Alabamians by granting them access to an infrastructure of support and services that have already been established? If this issue is one Montgomery deems “critical,” then why doesn’t its response reflect that urgency?

    Partisanship. Pure, unadulterated partisanship.

    Let’s take a look at the facts and figures:

    According to the Urban Institute, there are over 13,000 uninsured veterans in the state of Alabama. These veterans comprise a portion of the more than 250,000 uninsured veterans nationwide who would have been eligible for healthcare through the very Medicaid expansion that Governor Robert Bentley (and 22 other governors) turned down. Only one-third of those 13,000 Alabamian veterans are enrolled for healthcare services from the Department of Veterans Affairs – the only remaining healthcare option for uninsured veterans in the state. Another third of them are ineligible for V.A. services at all.

    Gov. Bentley’s refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion advocated by President Obama’s administration is directly at odds with his expressed desire to make life easier for Alabamian veterans and their families. Indeed, by denying uninsured veterans’ access to healthcare, he makes their lives much, much harder.

    With that being said, I do not doubt that Dr. Bentley has the utmost respect for our state’s veterans and their families. However, when he turns down nationally ordained services just to prove a partisan point, they (and countless others) bear the brunt of that decision. No commissioned research or press conference in Montgomery will change that fact; it is one that the Governor would do well to remember.