Thoughts on the Beginning of the Haslam Years

Gov. Bill Haslam
Image courtesy of tn.gov
Saturday, former Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was sworn in as the 49th Governor of the State of Tennessee.

I didn’t watch the inauguration, but I did read the incoming Governor’s remarks.

Tennessee, like most states, is facing a great many challenges. Some of which are due to the current economic climate made worse by a downturn that has been a dominant problem in our nation since 2008, and some of which are due to the new realities that come with a globalized world that has been building and expanding since before the early 1970’s.

In his opening remarks as Governor, Haslam gave us some clues as to how he intends to govern, and some of his priorities. As with most opening remarks, they are filled with hope and optimism, as well as a recognition of the challenges that face the state.

There are a couple of key phrases that I took from this address that I think, will have a big impact on both the future of Tennessee and inform us on Gov. Haslam’s leadership style. Some of these phrases play on universal ideas of building a shared future together. Some place the responsibility squarely on the individual.

These two ideas, of a shared future, and individual responsibility, have been features of politics for eons. There’s nothing particularly instructive about these themes, as a general statement. Where these themes pop up in the address gives us, perhaps, a better indication of how the incoming Governor intends to lead.

Below, are some selected quotes from the address. I encourage you to read the whole thing and draw your own conclusions.

Posture

After the voters speak freely and openly through the ballot box, the time comes to set aside those things that separate us, and join our hands and our hearts together to aspire to greatness.

This is one of those quotes that is included in just about every inaugural address. Considering the partisan divides, and the huge Republican majorities in the State Legislature, I’m not sure that there is much political desire to reach across the aisle, particularly from the new majority.

The political calculus is clear, they don’t have to reach across the aisle. Considering how long they’ve been in the minority, I seriously doubt that there is much appetite for bi-partisanship. Early indications, particularly from members of the Shelby County delegation in response to the ongoing school debate, show little if any willingness to engage in “reaching across the aisle”.

Over the next few weeks there will be a litany of bills filed as both houses of the legislature prepare for the work that’s ahead of them. Gov. Haslam’s reaction to, and posture toward these legislative initiatives will say more about how he intends to lead than any words he might offer. I’ll be watching intently to see how the new Governor reacts to some of the more radical ideas that will likely come from the fringes of the Republican Party.

Unemployment

The incoming Governor also touched on unemployment through the lens of personal responsibility.

A person under-employed as well as those unemployed seek to discover a future in front and not a fleeting image from a rear view mirror.

But please understand this point: Government stands ready to assist, but government is not the solution.

Offering hope through workforce development, technical training and work keys are building blocks on the road to job recovery and job security. But equally important is the individual determination and drive to invest the time and energy and hard work to be more.

There are those who are convinced there is no penalty for giving up and dropping out of school – a job will be readily available. But, for those who give little, there will be little in return.

By invoking the well worn idea that “government is not the solution” Gov. Haslam continues a common thread in conservative ideology.

Workforce development and technical training are critical to ensuring our workforce has the skills to compete in an ever more competitive market, but so is the support that keeps these people engaged in seeking work in an environment where new work in all sectors is scarce.

Training without support is like teaching someone basic survival skills then casting them out into the wilderness without the basic tools. Knowledge may be power, but no educational system that I’ve ever encountered has ever adequately prepared anyone for the challenges they find in the job market.

All of this is wrapped in the idea of “personal responsibility” that is most likely informed by modern ideas of the “rags to riches” fables written by 19th century author, Horatio Alger. While the theme of hard work and personal responsibility to achieve success resonates with most Americans, the reality of these fables is that none of these characters achieved this success alone. As the Wikipedia article notes:

All of Alger’s boys’ novels rework the same plot: a young boy struggles to escape poverty through hard work and clean living. However, it is not always the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed.

So who will be that “wealthy older gentleman”? If government can only provide the assist, to use basketball terminology, who will put the ball in the basket, and at what cost?

The truth of the matter is that most people suffering from underemployment or unemployment don’t want to be suffering from either. I have little doubt that these very people are doing everything they can to make their lives better. But waiting for someone to give them that “lift up” out of a sense of altruism isn’t a strategy to help people improve their life situations, its a cop out.

The key is that government, employers, and workers all have to play together like they have a shared interest in the outcome of the game. That is not, and has not been happening, as we’re all aware in the wake of the financial system imbroglio. Until that happens, our the unemployment outlook will continue to suffer, and rely on government to carry the weight of a recalcitrant private sector.

Education

Education is another common theme the incoming Governor touched on.

We cannot accept 28,000 students dropping out every year without completing high school. As leaders, our job is to help define reality for all to see and to understand – educational achievement is the real key to the future.

The expectations and standards of education for EVERY STUDENT in Tennessee are high. This is the time to continue significant education reform – and shame on us if we let this moment escape without meaningful action. The path for better jobs now and into the future requires more than the current 1 out of 5 Tennesseans over the age of 25 who have a college degree.

This is my commitment to you: We will improve our teaching, learning, retention and graduation. Every student deserves a great teacher, and every school needs a great principal. The tools will be in place – the rest is up to each of us to seize the opportunities.

Solving the education gap in American society is something that every politician in the past 30 years has laid claim to, and none have achieved. The problem is, every approach that has been used to date doesn’t take into account for all the players involved. Teachers, Administrators, Students, Parents, and Policy makers all have a role in education. You cannot focus your actions toward one and not impact the others in some way or another.

Since the 1980’s most of the focus has been on teachers, administrators and the standards they are responsible for, leaving the responsibility of parents and the living conditions of students largely out of the mix. By focusing on these “bad slices” rather than the whole pie, politicians have found a good scapegoat, and can claim they are looking for a solution to the education problem.

Of course, since, “Government isn’t the solution” in Gov. Haslam’s mind, one has to wonder just what he has in store for the hundreds of thousands of children receiving their education thanks to government funded schools.

Only time will tell.

While its clear, at this point, that I view the new administration with as much, if not more skepticism than I did the previous administration, I do wish Gov. Haslam the best. I also hope that the Governor will use the wealth of policy research at his disposal rather than conservative frames, no matter how moderate, to guide his policy.

I hope, but I am not hopeful. No matter what Gov. Haslam does, he still has to deal with a legislature dominated by people more interested in pushing an agenda than finding a solution. No matter what Gov. Haslam does, he’ll have to deal with this reality, and on that front I wish him luck.

In other news, Edited to add:this isn’t encouraging….

See Also:

Haslam’s Speech Mostly Well-Received by Dems
Smooth transition should help new governor
Bill Haslam sworn in as Tennessee governor; message is cautiously upbeat

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