Economics, Public Administration, Reviews

A Big Renaissance

I want to talk about a book I just read, but first some reminiscing is in order. Fifty-seven years ago, in January 1964, I showed up at the Center for Research on Economic Development (CRED) at the University of Michigan. I had had a fairly mediocre academic record for two years as an undergraduate engineering student at Michigan Tech. I realized I wasn’t cut out for ‘rocket science’ and transferred in 1961 to Ann Arbor and into political science. That and economics were a lot more fun and, as well, I met my wife-to-be, Jane, in one of the classes.

I had to be self-supporting and when the professor of French politics, Roy Pierce, asked around if anyone knew French and could use a job filing newspaper articles from Le Monde for his research, nobody but me volunteered. I did even though I knew no French but I needed the pay. He, in desperation I’d guess, took me on and I spent the next two years learning ‘written’ French by puzzling out the subjects of the articles he wanted cut out and saved in his files. This linguistic knowledge paid off, when, as a graduate student, Prof. Wolfgang Stolper was looking unsuccessfully for a grad assistant to puzzle out a lot of documentation on Tunisian government budgets. He had brought back volumes of material after a sabbatical in West and North African planning agencies. Pierce recommended me because I could read French. I was newly married and needed money even more. The time I spent at CRED was my introduction to economic development.

Stolper, in turn, suggested that I might take a couple of public administration courses with Prof. Ferrell Heady, often called ‘the father of American public administration”, so I would have an understanding of how the government agencies whose documents I was interpreting, worked.  I did so and in 1968, after a stint as a foreign student advisor, I was close to finishing a draft of my PhD thesis, not surprisingly on French postwar economic development activities in North and West Africa. I needed a ‘real’ job by then as we had had three children, including twins.

A Pakistani friend of mine had gone to Winnipeg, in Canada, to teach and he contacted me about a possible job in political science at the University of Winnipeg. They needed someone to teach public administration and none of the existing faculty had ever taken a course in the subject. Since then, over 50 years, I have taught and worked in the areas of public administration and economic development, including some stints in government and university administration and consulting as well as running an economics think-tank. So, much of my professional life has revolved around issues related to economic development. This interest has included things such as technology, trade, communications, capital formation and the like.

Recently, I finished reading James and Deborah Fallows’ 2018 book on urban re-development,  Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America. (Pantheon, 2018). He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and she has been a linguist, education expert and a university Associate Dean, the last being something I have had experience doing.

From 2013 through 2016, they criss-crossed the US in a small plane, visiting mostly medium-sized cities and staying in them long enough to get a feel for what is happening in them. He went looking for signs of revitalization of what had often been run-down urban cores, while she looked in on school and educational innovations. Altogether, they visited, by my count, 41 places ranging from Columbus, Ohio on the big- city end to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, which has lots of grass, but is not a settlement.

Their style in the book is what I would call in-depth reportage. James Fallows is an experienced journalist and he tells what he sees and Deborah is not a tag-along; she visits educational institutions, ranging from primary schools to college campuses and looks for innovations that capture students’ imaginations and energy, while providing them with skills needed in the Age of Google.

Their core theme is that many American cities and towns have managed to reinvent themselves after a slow decline over decades that suddenly ‘hit bottom’ in the wake of the recession of 2007-8. Some have gone in for industrial attraction, others have focussed on turning almost-deserted urban cores into lively, active gathering places for Millennials and others. A big piece of this revitalization has to do with education reform that gives both ‘regular’ students new interest and enthusiasm and which also provides opportunities for both disadvantaged youth and those beyond their ‘teens to re-enter the work force with useful skills.

It is not possible here to do a survey of the happenings in 40-odd places around the US, nor could the Fallowses do it in the 12 pages they devoted to relating what they learned. In many ways, much of what they saw and experienced and then interpreted is that people in a variety of middling-sized cities got together and turns their downtowns into tourist attractions, tech incubator malls, new educational facilities or more upscale local amenities, including  downtown eateries, local beer pubs, entertainment venues, including sports stadiums.

There is nothing new in this, but it took a perceptive reporter and an educational reformer to make a multi-year visit to all these places and to stay in and around each long enough to grasp how  each was changing in reaction to its own needs and  its own opportunities and then write up what they saw and heard. The fact that they do not describe these reforms in a broader framework is not a defect in the book; Reporters report, academics and think-tanks generalize. One is rather useless without the other. The reporters have done their work well and it is time for the analysts to explain why it is that this phenomenon popped up in all corners of the country at about the same time.

Anyone who is interested in downtown revitalization ought to read this book twice, first to get the ‘feel’ of flying along with the Fallowses as they look at their chosen places and then to figure out from the clues they give why there has been so much downtown revitalization all across the country, all in the same frame. I see this kind of development in my adopted city of Halifax, Nova Scotia and I can think of who might be the people Jim and Deb Fallows might interview here, had they wanted to add to their collection. Something is afoot all over the place.