The search for big ideas

Mike Dukakis is firing back at Gov. Rick Perry for his jab at Mitt Romney last night.

Perhaps you remember the moment:

Former Gov. Dukakis tells the Boston Globe “All I know is that Perry was nice enough to compare my economic record with Romney’s. But then, it would be very difficult not to do better than Romney’s.”

The reality? Politicians take too much credit — and dish too much blame — for things.

The early 1980s were a great time for Dukakis’ home state but not because of anything Dukakis did. It was more the ebb and flow of an economy.

True, the state had lost lots of jobs in the ’60s and ’70s as the state’s textile mills moved to the Carolinas.

But the explosion in jobs during the “Masschusetts Miracle,” as it was called, had more to do with luck. Dukakis and other politicians rode the coattails of some small companies that struck it big with a nation entering the computer age. Digital Equipment, Apollo, Data General, Lotus Wang Labs, Prime Computer, and Polaroid were the big employers of the time.

The unemployment rate in Massachusetts then was 2.7%

Why those companies were there in the first place, however, offers a more instructional view of the economy — and how jobs are created (rather than stolen from somewhere else) — than punch lines at political debates attest.

The answer: That’s where MIT was. And Harvard. That’s where the smart people were. If they’d been in Texas, maybe the companies would’ve been located in Texas, too.

Today, however, only four companies in the top 10 list of employers in the state have anything to do with technology. The rest are mostly headquarters of retailers who provide low-level wages — TJ Maxx (1) Staples (#2, that’s Romney’s company), BJ’s Wholesale.

There is one health-care industry in the list, spawned, perhaps, by the Boston-area’s hospital industry.

How much did a governor have to do with any of that? Not much, really.

Texas at the moment is hot, and part of it may have to do with political policies. Low housing prices and low taxes have encouraged companies to move there. Minnesota, for example, lost a fair number of high-paying railroad jobs when Burlington Northern merged with Santa Fe and everything moved south.

But that’s not really creating jobs; that’s moving jobs and while that distinction might be downplayed at the gubernatorial level, it can’t be ignored at the presidential level. Taking a job from Minnesota, for example, and putting it in Texas hasn’t created a job.

Lost in the assessment of the economy from the 1980s, is that its success depended on smart people with big ideas.

To the extent we’re running short of jobs right now, perhaps it’s because we’re tapped out on big ideas.

Anybody got one?