Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2017

Currently: 102° — Complete forecast

Jon Ralston:

The plan is there, so what about some action?

Confession: I find it hard to be optimistic about the state’s future.

So, my pessimism imbued, when I see phrases such as “Nevada stands at a crossroads,” I think not of Clapton but Clicheville, and I want to take a detour as quickly as possible.

I readily acknowledge this skeptical predisposition as I confronted the 178-page Brookings Institution’s report on Nevada and economic development, an “intense five-month inquiry” that begins at that well-trampled crossroads and trudges over familiar yet annoying ground about unleashing potential, engaging globally and catalyzing growth.

And then I read it.

Beyond some cringe-inducing Pollyannaspeak, this report synthesizes the problems confronting our backward state and produces more startling data than any previous document I have seen. Excuse my brief sojourn in Clicheville, but it truly is a wake-up call.

The report soars above the usual binary thinking our faux leaders have afflicted us with — to tax or to cut — and exposes in a professional, scholarly and thoughtful way what too many have hid from for too long: Nevada has unlimited potential but is hindered by its lack of investment in higher education and lack of performance in lower education.

The study praises changes already put in place by Gov. Brian Sandoval — centralizing the economic development infrastructure in his office and regionalizing the approach that will be directed by his exceptional choice as czar, Steve Hill. Fine.

But the real jewels encased in the report are the stark statistics and unvarnished language in the rhetorical suburbs of Clicheville. To wit:

• “The weaknesses of Nevada’s workforce are closely associated with Nevada’s relatively low — and falling, based on the biennial 2012-2013 budget — levels of spending on higher education compared to peer states … With $558.9 million of state funding for higher education in fiscal year 2010-2011, Nevada provided the lowest amount of public support for higher education among states of a similar size (2-3 million people), and it ranked 35th among all 50 states for its level of state higher education funding on a per-capita basis ($211.44). ”

How low can it go? Nevada spends 0.44 percent of its gross state product on higher education compared with 0.88 percent in Arkansas and 0.96 percent in Mississippi, the study found. Oh to be the Mississippi of the West in this metric.

Message: It is about money, to some extent.

• “To be competitive in a knowledge-based global economy, workers are increasingly required to be skilled in critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and scientific thinking. In particular, proficiency and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are important prerequisites to enter many well-paid, high-growth occupations and industries. Increasing the entry of STEM students into higher education requires a solid grounding in STEM concepts and basic STEM skills during the K-12 years. In this respect, Nevada’s challenges in graduating STEM students from its institutions of higher education are directly connected to challenges further up the pipeline. Eighth-grade math scores for higher income students in Nevada are lower than for any other state except Hawaii and Washington, D.C.”

It’s about accountability and reform, some of which has begun in Nevada.

Message: It’s not always about money.

• “The state’s lack of sector diversity is not unrelated to the shortcomings of its current innovation system. Nevada lags other states and the nation on every indicator of innovation and R&D (research and development) activity included in this study. The state’s lagging innovation activity is intertwined with the dominance and the nature of its core industries, which do not typically attain competitive advantage through R&D investments.”

Anyone ever hear about our over-reliance on one industry and our lack of imagination? Don’t get me started on the gaming industry’s passive-aggressive opposition to any economic diversification that might dilute its economic and political clout.

Message: Research and develop, stupid.

There is so much more in the report —

found here — and it is well worth the read.

I was fascinated by the identification of seven sectors to target, including some usual suspects such as “clean energy,” which, of course, is a no-brainer in theory but not in implementation. I also was chagrined — but not surprised — to read how favorably diversification in the North compares with the South, “one of the least economically diverse major metropolitan areas in the country.”

But as impressed as I was at the substantive content, I finished with a depressing sense of déjà vu. We have been here before, lamenting the opportunity undercut by myopia, the bright future darkened by dim bulbs. I wonder if, unlike other much-admired studies of Nevada and its economic challenges, this one, too, will be praised and then shelved. Reading is one thing; doing is another.

Confession: I’ll be optimistic about this state’s future when we stop manufacturing plans and start manufacturing leaders.

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