The logic of purposely dumping American grown wheat into the Gulf of Mexico while large parts of the world’s population starved didn’t compute for high school math whiz Marianne Hill.
Her teacher’s short-form answer – the wheat dumping protected farmers in the Third World countries whose people were starving – equally befuddled Hill, who decided then to put her knack for numbers to work making sense of this science called “economics.”
It’s been a more-than-four-decade quest, with over half of that time spent in Mississippi as a state senior economist with the Center for Policy Research and Planning, a department of the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning. Before Mississippi came stints in Bangladesh as a visiting scholar and in Puerto Rico advising the island’s leaders on effective government participation in economic development. She followed that with five years in academia as a public finance professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.
The University of Maryland math graduate and holder of a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a doctorate in economics from Yale University retires next week. Her pursuit of economic understanding won’t end there, however. She’s got a book planned and other writing projects under consideration.
Among Hill’s specialties is economic forecasting, a skill she has used for years in producing the state’s Quarterly Economic Outlook and other periodicals. She also has often been called on to brief government and business leaders on the current and future condition of Mississippi’s economy as well as the nation’s.
Hill gets ready for such tasks by delving into the intricacies of Mississippi’s economic sectors and indices, and developing models detailing how they interact. The aim is to give insight into the state’s economy of today and tomorrow, Hill says.
As Center for Policy Research and Planning colleague Peter Wally puts it, Hill represents “80 percent of our thought processes around here.”
Academically and professionally, Hill’s focus has been on the role of government in economic development. On occasions in which she is asked what Mississippi can do to create a healthier business class, she has a short answer: “Entrepreneurial development.”
Go to a party in Jackson. You’ll encounter lots of lawyers and other professionals but “not all that many folks who see it their goal in life to start a business,” she says.
She says for proof Mississippi can grow its own, look at any list of the state’s major manufacturers. “They were founded in the state and have thrived here.”
Hill says she does not want to downplay the value of such huge economic development successes as Ingalls, Nissan, Toyota, General Electric and, more recently, Yokohama Tire. But an increased emphasis on developing what is already here would pay big dividends as well, she adds. “Often we adopt what is happening elsewhere as opposed to innovating and being leaders.”
In the most recent tabulation, Mississippi had the fewest number of patents per capita among the states, according to Hill. “It has been that way for some time. We get a lot of federal R&D money but not private.”
The absence of venture capital forces a lot of promising startups to leave the state. As this continues, Hill says, “You are just condemning your economy to only picking up what has started elsewhere.”
Closer assessments of young, innovative Mississippi companies and developing incentives to aid their growth would be a good start, Hill says.
“It is definitely the case that Mississippi needs to have an overall approach to economic development. But we also need to be investing and developing our own entrepreneurs.”
Her bottom line on Mississippi’s economic development strategy?
“I think there is plenty of room for adjustment,” she says.
As a student of Mississippi’s economy for 23 years, Hill has concluded the state can do a lot more to remove obstacles to economic success for low income workers, especially women and minorities. “Different workers in the state face different problems. There is not an emphasis on ensuring women have a career ladder to follow. Nor is there an emphasis on ensuring access to childcare for low-income women to enable them to do well in providing for their families,” says Hill, who helped create the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women, a state-authorized entity that provides information on women’s issues and recommends policies to public and private groups and individuals.
Blacks, Hill says, face far more obstacles than whites in Mississippi in terms of climbing up the career ladder. “We don’t talk much about that,” she said of the state’s government, business and civic leaders.
As an economist, Hill says the consequences of taking on public debt can’t be ignored. No one should buy things they don’t know how they are going to pay for, she says.
But Mississippi and the rest of the country have become too prone to exclaiming, “We’re so poor we can’t pay enough taxes to improve our schools, to improve our roads…”
Though Hill’s prescription for economic health would get a fast thumbs down from the state’s political leaders, she is hardly shy about where she thinks the state can gain the investment revenues it sorely needs: Large corporate entities in the state, especially ones that have operations around the country and internationally.
Her remedy would not involve new taxes, Hill says, just collecting more of the taxes that are owed. “We haven’t been as diligent as we need to be in monitoring” where multi-state corporation in the state say they are generating their income, she adds.
The state must be more demanding in knowing specifically where certain types of corporate income is derived and should develop reporting forms that can attain thorough accountings, Hill says.
Part of the problem is the absence of uniformity among the states in accounting for corporate income and its point of origination. “If every state has a different means of measuring income from corporate activities, then you end up with the potential for more corporate tax loopholes.
“If they claim the money was made outside the state then they don’t owe anything. Who is monitoring what they pay.”
An immediate fix, Hill says, would be to hire more state tax auditors.
Hill says if nothing else, leaders in Mississippi and other states should begin welcoming a wide debate on how to move their economies forward. “Economic development involves conflict among different groups competing for favored treatment,” she wrote in a recent email.
“Policies that move a region forward depend on all major players getting involved in policy debates: people just do not agree on which policies offer the greatest potential for higher incomes and a higher quality of life. Only debate clarifies which policies can lead us forward. Debate changes opinion and brings the cooperation needed for success.”
CONTINUE READING: Retiring economist to explore corporate power and wealth concentration
By fall, soon-to-retire senior state economist Marianne Hill expects to be hunkered somewhere in Maine toiling away on a book that examines the concentration of wealth and power in corporations.
The consequences of this concentration for everyday people and the communities in which they live will be a main theme of the book, says Hill, who plans to maintain her Jackson residence after retirement.
Here’s how she framed the theme in an outline to her publisher: “This book focuses on power and the economy in the belief that the greater our understanding of power and its role in the economy, the more capable we will be of achieving changes in our economic institutions that will advance the common good.”
Titled “Confronting Power,” the book’s ideas will stray from the conventional wisdom of, say, the Wall Street Journal. But that’s the whole point, she says — put new ideas out to stir debate.
Just maybe, says Hill, she may get readers thinking about a resetting of national priorities and concentrating “our efforts on the critical issues facing us.”
The first step to the reset, her book will suggest, is to change “who makes decisions and how in our leading institutions.”