January 28, 2023
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One tech-savvy tomato farmer’s outlook for our business climate


When he accepted the CSU Channel Islands Technologist of the Year award at the university’s annual leadership dinner on April 19, Casey Houweling, a transplant from Canada and an agribusiness pioneer, put his finger on one of the biggest topics in business today.

“This is a great country,” he said, lauding the climate of coastal California, the creativity of its people and the opportunity it provides. But Houweling went on to express his worries about the future.
California makes it hard for entrepreneurs to fulfill their dreams. And, to try to catch the spirit of his comments, he was concerned that if the process of getting a business up and running doesn’t get easier, America could lose its competitive edge.

In Houweling’s case, the company is a cutting edge, environmentally friendly greenhouse operation located in Camarillo. It uses solar power, very little water and no pesticides to produce thousands of pounds of high-quality tomatoes year-round. It employs technically savvy workers and pays them well.

Houweling softened his critique by saying he didn’t want to offend the country that’s hosting the operations of a Canadian entrepreneur. But, as he pointed out, “it shouldn’t be this hard to do the right thing.”
Others have also been sounding off.

Writing in the Sunday New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tom Friedman described the perils of making the big public policy adjustments necessary to perk up the economy. He described the American government as a “vetocracy,” where the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority means that a collection of small but powerful special interests can block just about everything.

Vetocracy, he added “undermines the secret of our success: a balanced public-private partnership.”

The “Buttonwood” column in the April 14 issue of The Economist magazine had a somewhat different take on what’s holding us back. Drawing on research from economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Buttonwood analyzes the role of “extractive elites,” a term used for dictators and their cronies in developing countries who rob the wealth produced by oil and diamonds and short-change everybody else.

In their new book “Why Nations Fail,” the authors make the case that the extractive elites become so powerful that they resist and destroy any efforts at reform.
Looking at the sluggish performance of the post-recession recovery in developed countries, Buttonwood wonders if two different types of industries that extractive elites flock to are holding back growth in the U.S. and Europe.

The financial services industry is one, continuing to stake a claim to more than its fair share of talent and profits, leaving the core of the economy too weak to innovate and create jobs and resisting reform at every turn.

The second one is public-sector unions. In addition to demanding higher pay and bigger pensions, the public sector is capable of slowing the process of innovation and job creation through regulation and through their opposition to labor market reforms.

A vetocracy where a supermajority blocks common sense approaches and public-private partnerships is an almost perfect description of California’s broken budget process — even after some recent reforms.
A place where rules get in the way of getting projects off the ground describes the environment for permitting new buildings that prevails across much of the Central Coast.

A place where work rules are driven by an entitled mentality and not a robust competitive market for labor certainly describes the plight of most California employers.

Casey Houweling might not have known that distinguished columnists from the Economist and the New York Times were in his corner when he spoke his mind on April 19. But it seems there are some academics who would agree with this forward-thinking tomato farmer in Camarillo.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.