July 17, 2017

Hartford lost Aetna, New York Didn’t Win It

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini was right. Of course Hartford can’t compete with New York City as a global corporate headquarters with Gotham’s vast array of resources — law firms, accounting firms, regulatory bodies, financial markets, national and international hub airports, universities, media, sports and entertainment, and on and on.
But, interestingly, none of Aetna’s prime health insurance and health care competitors is headquartered in New York City. Aetna’s move didn’t have to be. Connecticut and Hartford have great assets in the knowledge economy and a better quality of life for most employees than New York City. New York didn’t win it, we lost it.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have allowed Hartford, over the course of 50 years, to plummet from being one of the best run cities to being a municipal mendicant, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Shame on all of us who live in, work in or love Hartford.

At the same time we have let our state’s finances, public infrastructure and business friendly reputation deteriorate to an alarming and embarrassing legislative gridlock. Even if the General Assembly produces a budget deal, which is far from clear at this writing, it will be another stop gap measure, devoid of structural reform (not that the governor didn’t try).

It happened because we trusted to others to do our work. We have watched our political parties stray from centrist pragmatic ideologies to partisan opposition, but we didn’t get active politically. We trusted our political-governmental system, without noticing that — for the most part — people knowledgeable about the economy are not running for office anymore. Of the 186 members of the legislature, only about 40 percent are working in a business — the rest are in nonprofit, law, education, government and labor careers. There are almost no employees of large companies who serve as legislators because, sadly, they are not encouraged at work to do so.

We also harbored wistful memories of “The Bishops” — hoping that the large company CEOs would ride to the rescue with civic reforms. Well, let me give you a clue — it isn’t going to happen. With a few notable exceptions, global CEOs prefer to be globe-trotting. Most don’t have the time or inclination to lead civic renewal efforts. Even if they did, they have multiple cities and states in which their companies have major commitments of resources, and Connecticut has to get in line.

It may be that our current legislature, made up of well-meaning but part-time legislators who are constantly beset by special interest pleaders, simply cannot undertake basic structural reform any more. We don’t need just a two-year budget, we need a plan that will restore Connecticut’s economic mojo. But we are not getting one — the system isn’t working.

So what must we do? Roll up our sleeves. Just because Mr. Bertolini is right under today’s circumstances, he doesn’t have to stay right. We have seen this movie before — at the federal level. We would do well to borrow a model from the bipartisan 2010 Simpson-Bowles report, which created a long-term, federal budget stabilization plan. Connecticut needs its own Simpson-Bowles Commission and, unlike what happened at the federal level, we need to debate and enact the reforms it recommends.

Remember the prophetic words of Alexis de Tocqueville writing about America as he observed it in 1831:

“These Americans are peculiar people. If, in a local community, a citizen becomes aware of a human need which is not being met, he thereupon discusses the situation with his neighbors. Suddenly, a committee comes into existence. The committee thereupon begins to operate on behalf of the need and a new community function is established. It is like watching a miracle, because these citizens perform this act without a single reference to any bureaucracy, or any official agency.”

Stay tuned. The committee is forming.