More Than Employees: What Killed Our Local Economic Independence?

P1000702Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following with a kind of morbid fascination our American presidential race. Of particular interest to me is not so much where our two parties disagree, however, but where they in fact agree. Both parties openly acknowledge that the economy is not working as it should for everyone, and both parties have the same prescription: jobs – i.e. better employment options.  On the surface, this sounds great for those of us trying to climb our own respective career ladders or for those trying to get on a career ladder in the first place. And this of course must be a winning theme, because it seems to be the primary domestic issue in every presidential election I can remember. But honestly, this mindset just doesn’t sit right with me, and not just because of the influences of Wendell Berry and Planet Money, but because of our past. Looking back at American history, the concept of economic success as our ability to be employed by others is a fairly recent phenomenon. We were once a nation of small business owners, each of us creating a unique American Dream of our own with self-employment as the cornerstone. Today we’re a nation of employees looking for jobs that provide upward mobility. So what happened? Continue reading

Treasuring Places of Character

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One of my greatest joys over the last two plus years has been watching my son grow up. On the cusp of moving from toddler to little boy, I increasingly see the all-important role Paula and I have in shaping his character (enter, “timeout”). But environment has an impact too, and one of the best places for him to exercise his character is on the playground. Here, there are opportunities to take on new challenges such as scaling the ladder and trying out the big slide, to utilize his creativity in the sandbox, to learn how to interact with both the bigger and smaller kids alike. But as we explore playgrounds around Austin, we notice they’re not all equal. Continue reading

Questioning a Driverless Future

imageI was in Dallas last week attending the Congress for the New Urbanism’s CNU 23 Conference, turning over the question “how do we build places people love” with professionals as enthusiastic about city design as myself. One concept that kept popping up was that of the driverless car. What bothered me about the surrounding discussion though was this attitude of inevitability regarding our driverless future. No one seemed to be stopping to ask whether such technology actually provides a net benefit to our quality of life. To be sure, such cars may provide several benefits from a possible reduction in traffic fatalities to better mobility for the elderly, disabled and others isolated by our auto-oriented society. But what about the potential pitfalls? Have we considered those? Let me just share a few unanswered questions of mine ranging from the concrete to the philosophical: Continue reading

An Economy That Works for Everyone

I was touched today by a brief documentary that appeared in the New York Times called “Hotel 22” by Elizabeth Ho. This eight minute video documented the use of a 24-hour bus route by the homeless of Silicon Valley to get some temporary shelter and relief from the streets.  In watching the documentary, I kept thinking that our economy must do better for the least among us, for those who may not be W-2 employable. Why do people without money or the means or opportunity to make money have to live like this? Continue reading

More Than Job Creation

This week I want to simply share one of my favorite This American Life podcasts – “How to Create a Job” – because I think it identifies a critical vulnerability in the field of economic development as it is practiced today.

Stealing jobs from another place is not economic development.

Lowering taxes or stimulating spending is not economic development.

Economic development is an art: the cultivation both of our human talents and the land in a responsible way. The economy is about making these gifts useful, sharing them, and becoming better people in the process. Continue reading

Economics vs. Finance

imageOver the past few weeks, I have tried to make a very simple point: places have a strategic and economic interest in fostering locally-owned businesses. In addition to creating that unique charm and identity that attracts people and investment, locally owned businesses circulate more money within the local economy and help prevent money from leaking out in the first place. With these economic benefits (not to mention the social benefits associated with business ownership in close relationship with employees and customers), one would think that local governments in particular would be enthusiastic localists, engaging in policies that protect their own business communities from global forces hoping to filter local dollars to a corporate headquarters and on to stockholders worldwide. However, with few exceptions, local government has actively pursued exactly the opposite strategy: Continue reading

Accounting for Great Places

imageReading Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land, I was struck by the simplest thought: that “local” is more than a philosophy; it’s a physical attachment to a particular piece of earth. In fact, that very attachment is what makes us “local” and distinguishes us from national organizations that don’t have the same allegiance. Those businesses untethered to place are generally more interested in financial gain than the long-term health of the community. If the location no longer serves their interests these parties can simply pick up and leave, to the further detriment of the city. Continue reading