Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Georgia's mixed economic picture merits a more thoughtful debate

Nuance is often the first casualty of an election, even before truth.

So we get press releases from one side about Georgia's worst-in-the-nation unemployment rate, and from the other about Georgia's impressive job growth. Each side can marshal facts to its cause -- and still miss the point.

The point is what anyone running for office would do -- can do -- to stoke Georgia's economy. And that's a little harder to discuss without understanding what's really going on.

For starters, even within one state, there's no such thing as "the" economy. The economy is different depending on one's geography and amount of education, among other factors. There are also differences from industry to industry, and Georgia's various industries tell a variety of stories.

Agriculture, health care, business services: These Georgia sectors hit multi-decade highs last year on a per capita basis, according to federal data. Certain types of manufacturing hit new lows.

It has become something of a cliche in Georgia to talk about how hard we were hit by the downturn in construction, but it's crucially true all the same. Since Georgia's per capita GDP peaked in 2005, construction has accounted for 30 percent of the losses even though it represents less than 4 percent of the state's economy. (These and all other figures in this column are adjusted for inflation.)

Construction went from contributing 2 percent more to per capita income in Georgia than in the U.S. as a whole in 2005, to 19 percent less last year. That's a heckuva wallop.

People continue to move here, a good sign because folks usually don't pick up and move to a place offering less opportunity than they had before. But construction hasn't rebounded in kind, because the earlier building boom left a lot of excess supply. In no small way, Georgia back then was borrowing economic prosperity from the future; unfortunately, that future is now.

There are knock-on effects, and not for the good. The textile industry, including floor coverings, remains much more important to Georgia's economy than to that of the whole country, even though it produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state's GDP. And yet, that industry accounts for more than 8 percent of our decline in per capita GDP since 2005.

Still, these kinds of outsized losses have camouflaged the fact that many other sectors continued to grow until the Great Recession hit and bounced back after it ended. Finance, information, professional services, wholesale and retail traders -- all continued rising after Georgia's economy peaked, and resumed moving upward after it bottomed out.

Do we need more government spending? (Hint: Education and health care are two of the sectors that continued to fare comparatively well over the past decade-plus.)

Do we need a government that spends less time making the tax code favorable to certain industries, and more time making it more favorable to all? We have heard a lot of that talk from Georgia's Republicans over the years, but we've seen precious few results.

From now until November, let's have less debate and posturing about the numbers, and more discussion of actual ideas.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.