Deciphering economic reports is often an exercise in divining beauty. The beholder's eye is key to the judgment.
So when Missouri ranked 43rd out of 50 states in a recent state-by-state study of economic output in 2011, the Missouri Republican Party immediately blamed Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, for the state's moribund growth.
Missouri's gross domestic product, a standard measure of economic output, barely grew at all, up only 0.04 percent for the year, far below the national average of 1.5 percent.
But when economics and politics meet, perception rarely mimics reality. Governors and presidents take way too much credit and receive far too much blame for cyclical changes in growth, unemployment and other economic indicators.
On the national level, for instance, Republicans blasted President Barack Obama when the Dow Jones industrial average took a 275-point dive on June 1. They were strangely silent five days later when it rose by a similar number.
In Missouri, economic indicators are mixed. Unemployment is trending downward, falling to a 40-month low of 7.3 percent. But overall growth, as it consistently has been for the past several years, is anemic. When it comes to economic policy, if the Republicans seek somebody to blame for the state's troubles, they ought to look in the mirror.
There is little difference in the economic policies of Mr. Nixon and the Republicans who run the state legislature. Both are committed to no new taxes, to cutting government jobs, to cutting corporate taxes that already are among the lowest in the nation and to continuing corporate welfare policies that steal revenue from schools and roads and health care.
The fact is that if Missouri's economy rises or falls in the next few months, the Democrat in the governor's mansion and the Republicans in the Capitol can share the blame or credit.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon and his political doppelgängers are focusing on the wrong priorities.
Excuse us for repeating ourselves, but for Missouri's economy to improve, the state must improve its education system, both K-12 and higher education. Study after study, across the country, across the state and across the St. Louis region, shows that structural workforce deficiencies are holding back potential for growth.
Lindenwood University economist Howard Wall has reached the same conclusion. Mr. Wall, a fellow at the conservative Show-Me Institute and a former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, minces no words when he discusses what should be done to turn the Missouri economy around:
"The debate we should be having is about fixing the schools," he told the Post-Dispatch's Tim Logan. "We're already among the most business-friendly states in the nation. Education, in the long run, is the only way we're going to grow our economy."
Partisan sniping won't heal what ails Missouri. The state needs a robust pro-education policy. It needs revenue to rebuild schools for the 21st century. It needs to reduce middle class barriers to college degrees by restructuring the state's regionalized and inefficient university system and increasing state funding to reasonable levels.
If Missouri wants to grow, it must invest in education.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact news editor Laura Johnston.