I began my professional career almost 45 years ago as a research assistant to one of the great economists of the 20th century, Arthur Okun.
At age 39, Okun became the youngest chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, a record that still stands. He later tragically died much too early at the age of 51.
Along the way, he produced some remarkable economic research, creating “Okun’s law,” which relates an economy’s growth rate to its progress in reducing unemployment, and inventing the “Misery Index,” which is the sum of the national unemployment rate and the inflation rate – a number that, despite the anger in the electorate, historically is quite low.
Okun’s most famous book, “Equity and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” argues what the title implies: No nation, or even city, can have it all.
Change the word “efficiency” in the title to “growth,” and the tradeoff with equity still seems to hold in too many places.
Take Wichita, for example. A Brookings Institution interactive report published in May compiled measures of both equity or “inclusiveness” and growth for all major metro areas in the country. Surprisingly, at least to me, is the good news that Wichita ranks seventh in the country on the equity dimension (Allentown, Pa., is first).
The report suggests that, relative to almost all other metros, we afford more upward mobility for our citizens and more broadly share our economic growth, such as it is.
That’s the good news. The bad news, and this should not surprise you, is that Wichita’s economy is among the slowest-growing communities.
Ideally, I think most of us would like to eliminate this tradeoff. That’s probably impossible – it’s why economics has been called “the dismal science” – but the terms of the tradeoff can be improved.
After all, there are periods in both our local and national history where economic growth has been strong and pretty widely shared – think 1950s until early 1970s and most of the 1990s.
So, how can we grow faster and more equitably, both locally and nationally? Not to oversimplify, but two words pretty much sum up the answer: innovate and educate.
It is not an accident that our largest university, Wichita State, is reshaping its future through its Innovation Campus, which will accelerate innovation and provide good jobs for students and graduates along the way.
Likewise, our legislators can do Wichita a big favor by approving the planned merger of WSU and Wichita Area Technical College, which will strengthen both institutions. When the merger is approved, WSU will have a “practical, real world” track for many of its students, while WATC can become an even better pipeline for students with technical skills to gain, if they want, a broader university education.
Meanwhile, our state and city must find our way out of the budget mess in K-12 education, which has made continued funding uncertain. It would help if, at the same time, our legislators and local school board found a way – consistent with the Kansas Constitution – to provide more funding to support performance-based pay for teachers while giving Wichita – and Kansas – students more school choices, as is true in other major cities.
In combination, paying more for good teaching and school choice would improve the equity-tradeoff for Wichita’s next generation.
Robert Litan, a Wichita attorney and economist, is adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @BobLitan