Friday, September 4th, 2009
“The nail that sticks up gets pounded back down.” – Japanese proverb
This weekend I’m going to enjoy a little “Pure Michigan”, so I’ll leave you with this post asking for everyone to chime in on what they think the best and worst Midwestern cultural traits are. I’ll start it off – and let worst go first.
For me the worst part of Midwest culture is the active discouragement of the pursuit of excellence. It’s not just that people in the Midwest value the average or think good enough is good enough. They do, but it’s more than that. People in the Midwest tear down anyone who dares to have a higher standard or show a greater ambition. It’s not just that Midwesterners don’t value excellence – they don’t want anyone else valuing it either.
It’s a long standing condition. When my father came out of the service, he was berated by my grandfather for deciding to go to college. My grandfather told him he would be an idiot not to go work at the cement plant and start making good wages and earning seniority now. Thank goodness my dad was ornery enough to do what he wanted. I recently ran across an old neighbor who went to my high school about a decade before I did. He recounted how, upon telling the guidance counselor he planned to attend university, he was told there was no way anyone from such a small school could ever make it in college and he should be a welder instead. Today he has a master’s degree and a significant professional position. I remember myself in school hearing a repeated refrain of how there were lots of people “with book learning but no common sense.” Admittedly, in my case that might have been true, but I think it shows an attitude that doesn’t just not value education, but actively despises it.
Fast forward to today and I think of all the discussions on sites like the IBJ’s Property Lines blog. For every lousy to mediocre project that comes along, there are a chorus of people defending its merits. People who ask for better design – and keep in mind many of these projects have heavy tax subsidies – are told that they have no right piping in or, “it’s just student housing” or some other complaint that doesn’t just indicate a lack of personal concern with low quality urban development, but outright irritation at anyone who does.
This sort of attitude is so self-defeating because it is toxic to talent attraction. The Midwest requires that anyone who lives there surrender his ambitions, or else be subjected to endless questioning, discouragement and ridicule. Who is going to sign up for that except someone with some pre-existing roots or connection there? Not very many people. Locals seems to recognize this and don’t even attempt to market to the world at large, focusing all efforts on retention of home grown talent and boomerangers.
With human capital being perhaps the most important single driver of economic success in the 21st century, this portends a dim future without major change since today only a handful of Midwest places don’t suffer from this. It’s the American embodiment of the Japanese proverb above. Consider the stakes:
Urban policy is generally understood to include such things as housing, neighborhood revitalization, and poverty alleviation. While all of these are important to the success of cities, even in combination they don’t come close to equaling the importance of talent to the success of cities.
Talent—defined as the percentage of college graduates in a city’s population—explains almost 60 percent of a city’s success as measured by per capita income. To wit: If urban policy does not include the development, attraction, and retention of talent, it doesn’t have a prayer of making a real difference for cities. But this truth isn’t easily absorbed by urban leaders.
But if we could increase college attainment by just 1 percent in each of the top 51 metro areas—areas with a million or more residents—the nation will realize an additional $124 billion in personal income. We call that the “Talent Dividend.”
Break that number down locally and it becomes even more impressive. In Indianapolis, for instance, a 1 percentage point increase in college attainment would result in a $1.3 billion annual increase in personal income. According to the city’s leaders, that is roughly equal to the local payroll of the city’s largest employer, Eli Lilly. [emphasis added]
On the good side, what I like about the Midwest is its lack of pretense. Most people don’t pretend they are something they aren’t. They don’t care about fancy pedigrees or fancy clothes or money. It’s a place where “all honest occupations are considered honorable.” A place where nobody cares if you pronounce Pecha Kucha right. A place where the corporate manager and the common man might easily mingle in the same establishment. Where we drink PBR not because we’re hip but because “damn right our dads drank it” – and still do. There’s definitely something to be said in favor of this.
As with most things, the good and the bad are really two sides of the same coin. To sum it up in a word, it’s “modesty”. Whether or not that’s a virtue depends on one’s point of view. I can recognize its positives, but taken to an extreme, modesty devolves into prudishness (and I mean that in the broadest sense). It itself becomes haughty. It becomes suffocating. The Midwest suffers from that badly. If you ask me, this is a place that could use with a little more amour propre.
What do you all think? Would love to hear your take on the best and worst.
Have a great Labor Day weekend everybody.