Friday, September 25, 2015

Groping for trouts: order and the chosen good

No, we can put order anywhere we like. There’s not a trout we can’t tickle, a fish for which we can’t contrive a net. We can find forms in ink blots, clouds, the tubercular painter’s spit: and to the ants we can impute designs which Alexander would have thought himself vainglorious to dream of.  But to think of order and chaos in this relative way is not to confuse them, or put conditions out of the reach of judgement. There are clashes between orders, confusions of realms. Not every arrangement is equally effective. And we must keep in mind the relation of any order to the chosen good. - William Gass

Numbering one

Recently, Rochester was once again placed at the top of a list of [insert superlative] cities. This time it was Livability's third annual ranking of the best small to mid-sized cities in the U.S. Livability provides content marketing to help cities attract and retain business and residents. Three years ago they began ranking more than 2,000 cities with populations between 20,000 and 350,000 to create an annual list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live. Rochester ranked 1st on their 2016 version of that list.

What sets the Livability list apart from lists like Outside magazine's The 16 Best Places to Live in the U.S. (where this year Rochester ranked 14th) is its methodology. Where the Outside list is based on soliciting votes (mostly from residents one assumes), Livability's methodology is based on the analysis of more than 40 data points. It ain't bad for social science conscripted into the service of marketing. Livability hopes for a methodology that is "as thorough, tested, rational and transparent as possible." Publishing their method is a big step in that direction and you can judge for yourself what to make of it.

In the creation of their 2016 list, Livability instituted changes in their methodology that seems to have accrued in Rochester's favor. For even though Rochester's place on the list rose to 1st in 2016, its aggregate "Livability Score" dropped 11 points from 2015 when it was ranked 2nd. Fortunately for Rochester, last year's list topper Madison, Wisconsin saw its "Livability Score" drop 54 points placing it in 3rd place in 2016.*

Livability is well-aware that changes in its methods, data sources, modeling, etc. can and do result in changes in how a city ranks. Did Madison somehow get 54 points less livable over the course of a year? Did Rochester get 11 points worse? Do those questions even make sense? Probably not, but the matter of measuring matters.

Counting anything starts first with an accounting of what counts enough to get counted.

By all accounts

We like to keep score. It's one way we bring order to chaos. As William Gass observes, "we always feel threatened when confronted with something we cannot count." Thus we create and defend "a connection between what William James called the buzzing, blooming confusion of normal consciousness" and "the clear and orderly silences of mathematics." A connection that gives us "meaning, security, and management, in one lump sum."

The "buzzing, blooming confusion" that sometimes characterizes local planning is slowly moving toward connection with "clear and orderly silence" that gives us "meaning, security, and management." Most especially, management.

So it is, we find Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith speaking in her role as chair of the DMCC board at their 9.25.15 meeting, saying:
And then, the last thing is metrics and I know that we are all in - as in we in our family - that we are in violent agreement about the importance of really measuring our progress and thinking clearly about how we want to do that. And so, I am looking forward in the coming months about getting down to the specifics and the details... about how we're going to do that. And start to look at it so that our board and the community and the city and the county and all of our partners have a dashboard that we can look at that really gives a sense that are we at red or are we at green or are we in the middle in terms of the progress we are making.
And so it is that the DMC Economic Development Agency is charged in 2016 to meet monthly "with leaders in community services as well as the six policy areas of focus (Energy/sustainability, healthy communities, historic preservation, affordable housing, targeted businesses, and arts and culture), to identify a 'Quality of Life' scorecard that considers the public opinion."

Some months ago, during public hearings on the DMC plan approval, the Olmsted County Public Services Advisory Board testified to the city that implementation of the plan should employ measures that:
Include the “social determinants of health” (housing, education, income, transportation, others) as key factors in evaluating development proposals and future measures for health status and improvement.
Similarly, the Community Networking Group (CNG), comprised of private non-profit and public human and social service providers, local philanthropies, and elected officials who have met informally since April 2013, proposed that the DMCC board employ "Metrics that gauge progress toward positive health and social outcomes that promote and sustain an inclusive and healthy community."

Recently, participants of CNG met with Minnesota Compass to discuss developing a community dashboard. This discussion included DMC EDA staff and members from Journey to Growth.

These conversations about measures are just now starting in earnest. They will deepen as interested parties get down to "specifics and details." They will broaden as the scope of parties interested expand.

A counting coup

The various and varied accounts of what counts enough to get counted will as they develop give rise to the "clashes between orders, confusions of realms" Gass describes. Interested parties bring interests that seek to be served and measures that serve those interests. These measures will at times conflict and compete. (E.g., "heads in beds" vs the wages of those who make those beds.)

This conversation on what counts enough to get counted is the most important one we will have regarding economic growth. The metrics that emerge will give shape and substance to the community we become. These metrics will by their nature and function announce where we think we are heading and gauge when we might say we have arrived.

Determining what counts also determines who gets to do the counting. It is not for nothing these things get called "dashboards." Metrics are created for those who sit in the driver's seat. Determining what counts enough to get counted has much to do with who is empowered to take a turn at the wheel.

As Gass reminds us, we need to be mindful of "the relation of any order to the chosen good." All metrics are imbued with human values. Measures of livability, whatever form they take or function they serve, are moral choices. Whatever order we create reflects not "what is good" but rather "what good we choose." Let's hope we choose a good we can hold in common. Let's hope we measure up to making that choice.


*The city to watch is Bellevue, Washington: gaining only 10 points in its "Livability Score" but moving from 14th in 2015 to 2nd in 2016 due to Madison's plummet.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Just growth: it's all about the boats

A rising tide lifts all boats - John F. Kennedy

Boat people

The provenance of this phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" has been traced to the letter head slogan of the New England Council, a regional business organization.* It was used by President Kennedy throughout his political career and the use most often cited is a speech he gave in October 1963 defending a major Federal infrastructure project in Arkansas.
These projects produce wealth, they bring industry, they bring jobs, and they bring wealth to other sections of the United States. This State had about 200,000 cars in 1929. It has a million cars now. They weren't built in this State. They were built in Detroit. As this State's income rises, so does the income of Michigan. As the income of Michigan rises, so does the income of the United States. A rising tide lifts all the boats and as Arkansas becomes more prosperous so does the United States and as this section declines so does the United States. So I regard this as an investment by the people of the United States in the United States.
"A rising tide..." is a common enough phrase now. Its use usually poses as an easy answer to difficult questions regarding who benefits from economic development like that promised Rochester as a destination medical center. Like "High wage jobs create low wage jobs," uttering "A rising tide lifts all boats" frequently comes with the assumption that nothing more need be said.

In usage it goes something like this: "A rising tide lifts all boats," someone declaims. Those who own the boats nod approvingly.

Of course, "A rising tide lifts all boats" is only reassuring if one has a boat. Some do not have boats. Some boats are not in good repair. Some boats are very crowded. Rising tides can swamp some boats. People without boats might drown (or, as we also hear to approving nods, they "sink or swim" and that seems to be all that needs saying about that).

Boats and tides

Recently two economic data points were reported that say something about boats and tides.

The first is the Bureau of Labor Statistics County Employment and Wages Summary that came out yesterday (15.09.17) that reports Olmsted County had the greatest percentage increase in the average weekly wage in the first quarter of 2014 -2015 of the 342 largest counties in the United States. Though it ranked 303 in job growth, Olmsted County did place second in the increase for the average weekly wage ($120).

The second is the release yesterday of the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey that reports that the median household income for African Americans in Minnesota dropped by $4,500 in a single year. Poverty rates for blacks rose from 33% to 38%. In Olmsted County, we get reports yesterday that 50% of blacks live just above poverty.

Switching metaphors

These two data points don't compare apples to apples, but they do rest in the same basket of fruit. For me that basket is labeled "just growth". According to Benner and Pastor, just growth includes "economic expansion and social equity" and "an inclusive conversation about how best to achieve economic inclusion."

Among the factors they found that contribute to just growth is building a significant Black middle-class.
First and most directly, improved economic opportunities for African Americans helped raise income levels for a sector of the population that is all too often over-represented amongst the poor. Second, this middle-class presence was associated with more Black-owned businesses that were also more likely to provide employment opportunities for African Americans (even if just through the impact of social networks on hiring practices). Third, it resulted in more African Americans being represented in leadership positions throughout the region. These leaders, it was thought, were in both political and economic areas but the key thing was that they had both an interest in growth (typical of the middle class) but also an historic (and ongoing) experience with exclusion and thus a commitment to equity.
These outcomes did not the result from an "invisible hand," but rather intentional strategies to build diverse and inclusive economic communities.
...[T]he basic argument here is that having a substantial proportion of middle-class residents of a minority, typically disproportionately poor, racial group will result is less 'policy distance' between the poor of the region and regional leadership making decisions.....Keeping policy closeness the is task of organizers, movement builders, and civic leaders, and keeping and building a minority middle class might be the gift that keeps giving at least in terms of growth with equity. 

Back to boats

President Kennedy also said that day in October 1963, "I would like to see us in this decade preparing as we must for all of the people who will come after us." In Rochester, the conversation we must have in this decade (and the next) cannot be just about the rising tide, it must also be about boats. That is to say, it must be "a conversation about how best to achieve economic inclusion." Conversations about who has a boat and what shape is it in.

Rochester's rise to the #1 spot on's 2016 list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live is predicated in part on two local economic growth initiatives - DMC and Journey to Growth (J2G). Both of these initiatives contain or have links to strategies to include and promote participation of minority owned businesses.

The Supplier Diversity Initiative is a collaborative effort of Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Rochester, Mayo Clinic and Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc. The City of Rochester also has developed a Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise Utilization Plan as required by the DMC legislation and approved by the council last year.

These initiatives are important tools in building and maintaining boats for the incoming tide. The opportunities provided by these initiatives should be widely available and increased. The impact of these initiatives should be monitored closely and reported regularly. Any DMC or J2G metrics for economic growth should include measures that gauge economic inclusion.

“We may have all come on different ships," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "but we're in the same boat now.”


* see William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (1993) pp. 627-628

Note: Portions of this post appeared previously in June 7, 2013. See also August 26, 2013

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Talking TED Talk

We can properly speak of social and political institutions evolving in a more or less 'rational' manner, only if we consider the detailed ways in which such institutions develop - or fail to develop - in response to the specific requirements of changing historical situations. 
- Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding

One-hundred and thirty or so years ago you might have gone to a pitched tent or rented hall to see such a thing. The Chautauqua would have come to town and arrayed before you would have been the wisdom, wit, and wow of the age. Two-hundred or so years ago, you might have attended a Lyceum event and taken in a similar array. Both movements moved through the 19th and the early 20th centuries. A few Chautauquas persist today and claim an unbroken continuity reaching back a dozen decades.

Chautauquas and Lyceums were popular and sometimes populist venues. Both developed circuits with touring orators and notables seeking to educate, enlighten, entertain, push product, promote a cause or cure, and make a dollar or two. Apparently there is something to the appeal to this sort of traveling show that persists. For the last thirty years, this abiding appeal has manifested as TED.
TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.
TED would not be the first to believe that ideas matter - or to believe so passionately. Nor, as the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements before it make evident, TED would also not be the first to bring to its zeal for ideas a bit of show business - in roughly equal parts.

TED manages to stay shiny even after three decades, but not without some dings. TED has drawn criticism on several fronts (see here and here and here and here and here), but the one that I think sticks is that it is elitist. TED seems not to notice it confirms the elitist critique- or "myth" as they prefer to call it -even as it claims to "debunk" it.
In one sense, yes — we curate our speaker list and our TED Talks lineup very carefully. And we "curate" our audience at conferences to make sure we have a balanced, diverse group that can support our mission of bringing great ideas to the world for free. 
"Curating" the audience means you apply to sit in a TED conference seat and provide two references. If selected (assuming your references check out), you also need to fork over several thousand dollars. "But," TED wants us to know, they "also work hard not to be elitist in ways that matter."

Apart from the elitism critique, other complaints about TED tend to come from samplings of the curated subjects of the thousands of TED Talks now available or specific talks deemed by TED as especially egregious (notably, Graham Hancock, Rupert Sheldrake, and Rick Hanauer - curated, by others, here; and, notoriously Sarah Silverman).

Well, some difference of opinion is to be expected I suppose. Even the TED tagline "Ideas worth spreading*" includes an asterisk.

For a while posting videos of TED Talks, i.e., recordings of the right people talking to the right people, was one way TED sought to counter the elitist charge and try to accommodate "just folks" in ways that mattered. Then they began to spread the ideas worth spreading by allowing for "local TED-like experiences." Just as the Mother Chautauqua spawned daughter Chautauquas and tent Chautauquas, so too has TED spawned TEDx. 

These TEDx TED-like experiences were launched in 2008. Spring 2016 will see one come to Rochester as TEDxZumbroRiver. What can we expect? A curated event. What does that mean? Here's a clue:
Look for ideas, not speakers 
It’s actually not the person you should be searching for, but the person’s idea or innovation. This is a great way to decipher between a TEDx speaker, and an interesting person with an “okay” idea. What will the audience walk away knowing – that this person exists, or a new idea?
For example, if you were to describe a potential talk to a stranger and say more about the speaker (“this lady who runs that local charity,” “this guy who made this film”) than a specific idea, that's a clue that you need to go back to that speaker and find their idea, not their identity. 
So, what ideas are you looking for?
  • Look for new ideas that originate in your community but are widely relatable
  • Look for ideas that need to be defended – not something self-evident, but an interesting argument, perhaps with an antagonist.
  • Look for an idea the TED world hasn't heard before. (In other words, not a copy of a TED Talk you like!)
  • Look for ideas that change perceptions. (e.g., a scientific discovery that changes how you think about frogs, a philosophical argument that reshapes your notions of friendship.)
TEDx Speaker Checklist
Is this speaker...
  • a local voice that few people have heard before?
  • someone who can present their field in a new light?
  • someone with a perspective to which the global TED community may not have access?
  • diverse by demographic, ethnicity, background, and/or topic? 
TEDxZumbroRiver is taking speaker applications and nominations. Have at it.