Friday, August 22, 2008

“Just like a third-world country”

In 1985, the Australian Prime Minister used this phrase to suggest what his country would be if it didn’t get its economic development act together.  Australians were insulted by the notion, but they did heed the Minister’s call.  In 2008 Australia is a prosperous nation.

In 2000, I used the same phrase to try to spur Oregon’s ED efforts.  I use the two letters to mean economic development, but those of you who read it as erectile dysfunction aren’t far wrong.  Oregon’s economy is still limp.

This month, the former president of University of Wisconsin at Madison, John D. Wiley, uses the phrase’s shock value to jolt the cheeseheads.  His important editorial is in Madison Magazine.

Wiley attacks the staff of his state’s biggest industry association for insisting that the answer to every question is “cut taxes,” even as the association (and everyone else) watches Wisconsin’s education system deteriorate.  Wiley compares Wisconsin to other states, including neighboring Minnesota, and shows clearly that the most prosperous states do not have the lowest per-capita tax burden.

This reinforces the more international analysis I did for Review of Technology & Economic Development in ’05: “The U.S., under its current small-government ideology, is seeing its sick go without costly drugs, and its K-12 education system decline. The Scandinavian countries – the most highly taxed and regulated on Earth, and the bane of small-government dogmatists – are highly innovative and entrepreneurial. That Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway are innovative, congenial places to live illustrates what this journal has long noted: Economic development is served by having a healthy, educated populace.” (This paragraph also appeared in Social Culture and  High-Tech Economic Development: The Technopolis Columns.)

I spent today with management guru Ian Mitroff, a colleague at Alliant International University and at Technological Forecasting & Social Change. We discussed the Obama and McCain conversations at Rick Warren’s church.  Obama thoughtfully described complexities, while McCain told simplistic stories.  McCain walked away with the day.  Having evolved in simpler times, we are hard-wired to love linear narrative – even when it’s wrong. Inter-connected complexities leave us behind.

I advanced the notion that insisting on simple answers in the face of overwhelming evidence of a problem’s complexity can only be viewed as a mental illness. Our Dean at Alliant, Jim Goodrich, voiced a counterpoint, that it’s a common cop-out for academics to hide in complexities.  Both are true - and all three of us agreed that it is the job of the thoughtful person to make a complex story understandable (as Wiley does very well in his editorial) if we want large numbers of people to act. 

If we don’t, then only a handful of people will be willing to take action. The remainder will fall asleep, and it will be our fault.

So, shock phrases like “third-world country” are not enough; what’s needed is a compelling narrative of a complex situation. I did eventually provide one for Oregon’s ED sticky wicket, in an appendix of the City Club of Portland’s report on the Portland Development Commission.  Still not enough! Though the report got significant press coverage, the appendix was lost in the noise.  We have to keep telling the important stories. (Another thing academics are not good at.)

So far, Obama has conveyed only that he’s an admirably thoughtful guy.  He hasn’t yet shocked us (though his wife did, briefly), he hasn’t yet rhetorically cut to the heart of his complex ideas, and if he can find a way to tell the important stories, he has less than three months to tell them.

But Obama needs to be liked, and John D. Wiley doesn’t.  This gives Wiley more latitude in storytelling.  Maybe Wisconsin has a better chance than the country at large, come November.

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