Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and
“jobs,” economic development, is what they …
If you are not reading the Urbanophile, I think you should. Aaron Renn brings a new perspective to the discussion of local government, planning and economic development issues that should be required reading all over.
Aaron’s essays are usually detailed, well-documented and powerfully convincing. In a recent short essay, though, I think he was exploring something that he didn’t completely unpack. It’s unnerving to pretend you know what someone else meant to say, like I did to Matthew Turek last week week (Las Vegas bookies put it at 5-4 that I got something wrong). But Aaron’s brief post generated such a response from people who I suspect were more equipped to read between the lines on this topic, that I think what he wrote is worth exploring a little more. And from a sheer power and thoughtful provocation approach, I definitely think you should hear what he has to say.
Ask any civic leader the number one thing they want for their town and “jobs,” economic development, is what they will likely tell you. Yet when you look at the incredibly poor economic development track record across America, despite… billions of public dollars pumped into projects ostensibly designed to produce it, it’s enough to prompt one to question whether or not economic development is actually really wanted at all.
Jane Jacobs once said that “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” This, in a nutshell, is why policies and programs that might actually move the needle and generate economic development are not implemented. The politicians, power brokers, businessmen, non-profit executives, etc. all at some level benefit from the status quo. Anything that disrupts the status quo is a threat to them….
Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real. [emphasis mine]
I agree with Aaron’s assessment here, at least behaviorally (he doesn’t do any psychoanalysis of why, which would probably make a mess of the point of the passage anyways).
If the purpose of economic development is to change the economic direction of a community – whether subtly or profoundly – then the conflict between rhetoric and revealed preference that Aaron theorizes makes sense. If nothing else, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. If your work and your mission is about “profoundly subverting” the status quo, or at least of changing something in the hope that it will work better, fear of that change would logically create a headwind against any such efforts. That’s a universal — whether in economic development, transportation planning, your own sleeping patterns, you name it. Welcome to Sociology 101.
And if you come to economic development from an old-fashioned sales-oriented approach – what I uneasily termed the “Old White Guy” paradigm – then you are probably not equipped to fight that headwind – or you might avoid venturing out into it. If your only tool is a hammer, you’ll have a hard time cutting a bevel joint in the woodwork.
In this context, the ongoing incentives debate in economic development circles is both a central issue, and a red herring. The money involved, and the lack of other funding sources, necessitates that we make certain that we are using those resources to get the most impact we can squeeze out of them. And for me, the strongest takeaway from the light that has been shown on incentive practices to date has been that… we really don’t have the information we need to answer that question conclusively.
But the squabbles over incentives – yes-no-yes-no-yes-no – threatens to pull us away from the bigger issue, the realization that should keep you up at night, if it’s not already doing so:
The world in which we work, the world of the communities in which we have this responsibility to make something work better than it is…that world has changed and is changing. With stunning, mind-blowing speed. It’s changing from top to bottom, locally and globally.
And we don’t know where it’s going.
Any cause for confidence that we used to have, any sense that we can predict the future or make comfortable projections from today to tomorrow, should take a flyer out your window, if it hasn’t already done so.
2005, or 1995, or 1975, isn’t coming back.
It’s not surprising that electeds and staff and communities resist change. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t have that choice anymore. It’s gone, or going – maybe not today, maybe not next week, but soon. Way sooner than you think. You and your community, and your electeds, can stick your collective head in the ground, or you can start to build your capacity to handle change. And like anything else, it’s a matter of baby steps before you learn to run.