You Think Working Where You Work is Bad? Try Working Here
The reader might have noticed the Curmudgeon often writes about the effect of community culture on economic development policy and administration. The reason is simple. His experience has taught him that communities, even in the same state, want different things from economic development, choose some policies and programs–but not others, and “operate” their economic development programs in rather distinctive ways. Communities have their own way of doing economic development. And that way may have precious little to do with professional norms, practices, and the various disciplines of academic models and theories.
Culture is not receptive to conventional economic development research methodologies and analysis. Culture is “soft and fuzzy” — i.e., hard to measure, tends to produce low correlation ratios, and is usually best uncovered through case studies. All of these factors cut against the prevailing grain of current economic development research.
Also, the idea that communities want different things, that is to say they can have different economic development goals, directly challenges the prevailing wisdom that economic development pursues common goals whatever the community, its size or location. For example, many assert that job creation is a universal, common denominator economic development goal pursued by all communities. The Curmudgeon disagrees. So does Meredith Ramsay, we think. Her case study of two Eastern shore Maryland communities strongly disproves the notion that even neighboring communities are alike in their economic development wants and policy process.
A brand spanking new economic development book which deals directly with culture, community and economic development has just been recently published. The book is Meredith Ramsay, Community, Culture, and Economic Development: Continuity and Change in Two Small Southern Towns (2nd Ed) (Albany, New York, SUNY University Press, 2013).
Dr. Ramsay’s second edition book is a case study of two rural small towns in Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Crisfield and Princess Anne. Suffice it to say, these two towns are not gazelles in anything, and both have been in very serious decline for most of the last century. Despite being in the same county, and practically cheek to jowl neighbors, they are very different communities, originally settled in the seventeenth centuries by very different people. Despite the many years since their original settlement, however, Ramsay finds they still hold many of the old attitudes and social-political patterns. Despite being neighbors in the same county, the culture associated with their long-standing and distinct settlement history still exists and distinguishes the culture and the economic development policy process of each community from the other.
What is Somerset County’s culture and how did it affect economic development?
Describing in detail the culture and history of this county and the two communities is not our primary concern in this article. Rather, an understanding Somerset County’s two cultures helps us better understand how local economic development rests upon a set of community values and expectations which can persist for ungodly long periods of time. Any resemblance of these values and expectations to those taught in school or in professional forums should not be assumed. Instead, from Ramsay, an economic developer should assume that (1) if you are going to work in sub-state economic development don’t assume that the past is no longer with us and (2) that every community is identical and economic development from one community can be cloned to any other. If you doubt either proposition, you should read Ramsay’s book in its entirety.
Ramsay asserts that the political cultures of these two communities began in the 17th century as a consequence of their distinctive settlement patterns. That culture, as she demonstrates, despite huge changes which include the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization, the New Deal, Great Society, and the smartphone, still exists today and is evident simply by looking at its politics, economics, and popular culture.
Somerset County itself was from its beginning in the 1600’s was divided between “watermen (Crisfield) and farmers” (Princess Anne):
…two quite different, mutually antagonistic sectors, ‘North county’ and ‘South county’ have preserved their differences and rivalries into the present. Each of the two sectors has its own commercial center and outlying villages. Princess Anne, the county seat, is the center of commerce for the declining agricultural industry…. the city of Crisfield … is the commercial center for the dying seafood industry…. (p. 25)
Somerset County was part of the Tidewater, tobacco plantation economy of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After the tobacco economy collapsed in the early nineteenth century Princess Anne went into decline and so did Crisfield when in the 1930’s the oyster-beds became over-harvested. Until the Civil War, the majority of the county’s population were slaves or freed slaves; today 42% of the population is black–nearly 57% white. Most farmers are black, the watermen mostly white, and fish packers are black. More than one in five county residents live under the poverty line and the county overall falls significantly below the federal median income. Lest the reader believe we have yet another example of rural decline, the county is urban, included in the Salisbury-Ocean Pines Micropolitan Statistical Area. Amazingly, in 1910, the county population was 26,465; today (2010) it is 26,470–in 1860 it was 24,992. There ain’t much change going on in this county–despite serious economic decline.
The history of the county reflects a deep and pervasive legacy associated with slavery and the old Tidewater white elite. Ramsay’s history demonstrates prolonged southern reconstruction mentality has persisted, almost unchallenged, through the New Deal, boom and bust, the Great Society and the arrival of the internet. Lynching (1933) and burning crosses, fire hoses and attack dogs (1964) were not unheard of in this history; and school integration under federal ultimatum occurred in 1969. Until 2010 no black had ever been elected to county-wide office; amazingly, no black was elected to the Princess Anne municipal government until 1990. The old Tidewater culture has withstood it all.
According to Ramsay, a “planter’s regime” controlled, and still controls, for the most part, county government. With the collapse of the plantation economy, the planter’s elite moved into real estate, other development-related sectors and to this day the families of this old elite still control the area media and financial institutions. The county is controlled by this old in-bred plantation elite-oligopoly–it has been since the 17th century. The county motto is “semper eadem” (“always the same” — this is really true!). The control over politics throughout the last several centuries reminds the Curmudgeon of Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.
Ramsay focuses greatly on the planter oligarchy and how over the years it has transformed into what political scientists call the “growth coalition”. It was the planter elite-growth coalition that established the Somerset County EDC in 1981. The EDC remains firmly under the control of the growth coalition to this day (according to Ramsay). It has consistently pursued its version of growth since its establishment. As Ramsay demonstrates, the problem with this growth coalition (which is supposed to crush its opposition in the pursuit of growth and profit) is that it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. It controls the EDC and everybody else ignores the EDC — and the EDC’s projects on the whole, fail.
EDC officials claimed the county could not afford to be selective about the kinds of industries that it tried to attract, and the results of their efforts reflect that desperation. [By 2013 the EDC] had succeeded in recruiting and retaining little more than a medium security prison. Negotiations for this project were conducted with state officials in secret and it was not until the ground was broken that it became general knowledge that a prison was being built. (p. 47).
The prison provided higher wage local employment opportunities, luring in the entire police department. Later, a secretly recruited food processing facility literally sucked the water table dry, and unleashed a foul stench that destroyed tourism–all before it went bankrupt less than a year after it had relocated. The downtown Crisfield site remains vacant to this day–as does a public housing project announced twenty years ago. Each of these projects came fully laden with real estate and financial conflicts of interest with the elite who controlled the EDC.
As it turned out, the residents of each community — and their politicians for the most part — never got on board with the economic development agency. They opposed it or ignored it throughout the EDC’s existence. Over the last few decades, one of two things happened: either (1) the economic development agency riddled with conflicts of interest and (2) the local business community, including its chamber of commerce, was split and usually not very supportive as well. The so-called growth coalition couldn’t get its act together.
For a county that desperately needed economic development, the residents simply failed to support the economic development initiated by the old county elite. Ramsay demonstrates that the principal reason for community level opposition was the persistence of social and political cultures which believed economic development to be a threat to the culture and community residents. These residents did not want conventionally defined economic development.
Some added lessons to be learned from all this are (1) not all economic development projects wind up being success stories — a fact seldom mentioned in the various case studies which are pervasive in blogosphere and the trade literature; and (2) an EDO need not be a bastion of neutral professional expertise, but instead can be captured and used to achieve goals and projects contrary to what the community desires.
Neither of these lessons is particularly new or insightful to anyone practicing economic development at the community level, but they do point out that something, Ramsay asserts which is the community political culture, can really get in the way of economic developers doing “their thing”.
We sense that Ramsay’s chief explanation for what she found revolves around her uncovering of a “subsistence regime-culture” which dominates the political culture of the county. To us her subsistence-regime-culture raises the question as to whether “growth” and the pressure on economic developers to grow the community in some way (people, jobs or even taxes, for instance) should be taken as an automatic expectation. The desire to grow may indeed be dominant among communities, but some communities, and the cultures they possess, may be quite comfortable without growth — indeed a subset may very much fear growth. The idea that economic developers can ply their trade without having to produce growth — but some other mix of goals — is intriguing. And we would think that the working “style” and policy process for an economic developer working in such a community would be very much different than in a growth focused community.
Subsistence-regime-cultures have usually been associated with traditional or developing societies and rural areas; “the moral economy of peasants”, a culture based on “risk avoidance”, the maintenance of shared values which are perceived as threatened by change are examples of where subsistence-regime-culture could thrive. In the USA, we, the Curmudgeon thinks, tend to think of these types of communities as being rural, in out of the way places; they are also thought of as cultures of decline, often immoral, and obsolete “gone with the wind” civilizations.
Perhaps, but any of these examples could be found in the background of many of our communities — especially when those communities are confronted with rapid change they cannot easily digest. The Curmudgeon is particularly struck by the reaction of ethnic and racial groups to urban renewal in blighted neighborhoods of our 1950’s and 1960’s big cities. These were urban subsistence-regime-cultures in existence where they were not supposed to be. They proved to be the force behind much of the riots of the 60’s and the demise of urban renewal. One could easily argue that community development was an economic development response to these types of communities.
Ramsay demonstrates that political culture froze much of the residential population out of the decision-making process in both communities (through in different ways), perpetuated county-level control by the old family elites, isolated the EDC and its projects, and instilled in most of the non-elite community a belief that economic development threatened the destruction of what little economic strength the residents perceived would be of benefit to them. To these residents any success of the EDC projects promised to destroy the way of life which residents, on the whole, wanted to preserve. Accordingly, the residents resisted virtually every economic development project that slithered through the EDC’s pipeline.
Ramsay spends considerable time discussing and offering support for this last point. In essence, she offers evidence that rather than risk change through economic development, community residents preferred to maintain their subsistence life style and income level. Residents in desperate need of jobs, higher wages and economic development resisted such efforts for three decades and, again, continue that resistance to this day. The only change of recent years is that for the first time, the power of the county plantation elite has been challenged by the election of blacks to the county circuit court (legislature).
Be glad you’re not working here: the economic development world turned upside down
The reader, being an economic development professional, might shudder at working in the Somerset County EDC — with its “old boy” board of directors and conflicts of interest all over the place. But the EDC’s strategies of attraction, real estate development, creating jobs and associated multiplier-induced prosperity, tourism, increasing downtown traffic, even attracting a state prison would not seem so far-fetched–actually would seem quite conventional and a reasonable prescription for some level of job creation and revitalization. The trouble was/is that the residents, and even the general business community, wanted no part of it.
Ramsay, being a public policy/political scientist, recognized that the Somerset County’s desperate need for economic development contrasted with low public acceptance or desire for economic development was to say the least counter-intuitive and unexpected. For this reason she rejects the conventional economist maximization of profit/pleasure as appropriate to these communities. The usual model uncovered by political science regime theory calls for a private-real estate growth coalition regime to dominate economic development decision-making–and any resistance to it would be mediated by a mayor or political leader and be eventually overcome. In Somerset County that the regime met with sustained multi-decade defeat in an economically declining county which. if anything, should be demanding more jobs and more economic development was, to say the least, mystifying.
In the Curmudgeon’s personal experience, based in New York, this need for economic development and lack of support of, economic development was not unheard of. Somerset County is certainly an extreme outlier, but is not so weird as one might think.
Ramsay’s explanation for why this illogical situation occurred in the first place and then endured for decades to the present day is that economic growth was viewed by each community, for different reasons, as destructive of their way of life, and their lifestyle. In effect, despite an obvious and massive need, the community preferred to continue on in a subsistence-style economy rather than bring in economic growth which would risk changing their way of life. We agree with her that the policy preferences of the overall community “were powerfully shaped by local history, culture, and social structures” (p. 93). Her perspective rests on the sociological “social embeddedness model”1 which incorporates history and past experience into individual-resident behavior, attitudes and future expectations.
Ramsay wants to know how history and culture affect their policy preferences by shaping what it is the residents “value”. These expectations are, in effect, the residents’ goals of what economic development should achieve. The Curmudgeon suggests that, if Ramsay is correct, political culture can, and often will, affect the definition of, and the expectations associated with, economic development programs and initiatives. The community’s political-social values can even set the goals of such programs–departing from more formal goals such as job creation.
The goals and definition of professional economic developers need not correspond to these community-derived goals — and may even conflict with them. Communities may not be willing to do what the economic developer expects of them. Say it another way, just because the economic developer faithfully pursues conventional professional goals and programs, doesn’t mean the culture of a community will support these goals and programs — or may reshape them to fit more neatly with what the community wants and expects of economic development.
In case the reader doesn’t fully appreciate the radical departure of this approach, what we are asserting is that the goals an economic developer pursues on the job in a community may be derived less from professional norms and the professional literature than set — or at least shaped — by the resident’s definition of what it wants to get from economic development. If so, there can be a core conflict between a community’s overall definition of economic development (if, and how it wants to seek economic development) and what the professional norms and practices.
Stories and the Tidewater political culture
We know through Ramsay that culture exists today, has maintained its core elements for centuries despite massive change, and does affect the practice of economic development. Ramsay’s conclusions are so important and fundamental to sub-state economic development that the Curmudgeon would, in the remainder of this article, build upon them to better understand how this political culture “thing” does enter into economic development policy-making and implementation. The first question the Curmudgeon wants to work with is whether there are examples of state and sub-state political cultures which the economic developer might take benefit from? We think there is.
In an earlier issue, we reviewed Colin Woodard’s American Nations. Woodard presented his characterization of contemporary American state and sub-state political cultures. Briefly, he asserts that, based on population flows over the history of the Republic/Colonial America, there are eleven “nations” or distinctive state and sub-state political cultures in existence today. Ramsay vividly demonstrates the contemporary existence of one of these cultures/nations in her case study of southern Maryland: the Tidewater political culture.
The brief description below summarizes some key aspects of Woodard’s Tidewater culture:
Tidewater, the most powerful nation during the colonial period and the Early Republic, has always been a fundamentally conservative region, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics…. founded by the younger sons of southern English gentry, who aimed to reproduce the semi-feudal manorial society of the English countryside, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats….Today it is a nation in decline, rapidly losing its influence, cultural cohesion and territory to its Midland neighbors. (Colin Woodard, American Nations) pp. 7-8)
Woodward argues that our famous Tidewater founding fathers (Washington and Jefferson, for example) live in a political culture which embraced “classical Roman and Greek” republicanism — or a form of republicanism which liberty was a “something that was granted and thus a privilege, not a right….For the Greeks and Romans there was no contradiction between republicanism and slavery, liberty and bondage” (pp. 54-55).
Tidewater’s semi-feudal model required a vast and permanent underclass to play the role of serfs, on whose toil the entire system depended. (Woodard, p. 56)
In other words, compared to other of the American political cultures, the gap between elites and masses. whites and blacks would be far greater and more durable in Tidewater than in other American political cultures. This is exactly what Ramsay uncovered and depicted. Economic development policy-making became subsumed within that elite-mass gap which is a dominant feature of the Tidewater mentality.
The pertinent take away from our linking Ramsay with Woodard is that we have an independent verification of one of Woodard’s “nations”. Further, Ramsay demonstrates how a dominant feature of that seventeenth century political culture is still “out there” in operation, and. moreover, that it does permeate into actual economic development policy-making. If this is correct, then an economic developer might wonder if some or all of the other state and sub-state cultures also exist? Does each state and sub-state economic developer work within one or another of these eleven distinctive cultures?
Communities across the nation may not necessarily want the same economic development goals, strategies and programs. Some communities may not want economic development at all or value it less than other public policies (education, housing, planning, crime, etc.). If so community level economic development is not likely to be a one-size fits all common shared pattern. For instance, a community may care less if economic development creates jobs per se, then if it offers opportunities for private profit or the empowerment of disadvantaged sub-groups in the community. If this is correct, economic developers in each community may well need to adjust their professional norms, goals and expectations to the pattern of cultural beliefs and policy expectations which are dominant in their community.
One more question arising from Ramsay’s Community, Culture and Economic Development
One final question might be considered in this review. How do these citizen-based cultural values enter into economic development policy-making. If we playfully concede these cultures exist and do influence economic development policy, how do they do so? Through elections and elected officials? Certainly, that has to be an obvious vehicle by which these values and expectations get expressed in policy-making. Economic development agency Boards of directors, and committees are another. Something called “stories” are yet another.
What the heck is a “story”. Let the Curmudgeon relate a brief “story” that was important to understanding the political culture of Buffalo and Western New York and how it affected economic development policy-making. In Western New York’s case, the “story” arose from a specific real life event which happened many years ago.
Most readers are aware that Western New York has been in economic decline (jobs and population) since 1960 — Western New York is included in the inventory of “legacy cities” of the Lincoln Institute which was reviewed last month. Western New Yorkers still remember the closing of Bethlehem Steel and the loss of 7300 jobs. In Western New York, Bethlehem Steel was an event that became a “story” of how and why the region’s declined. The most prevalent version of the Bethlehem Steel story blamed outside forces (corporate business elites) who cruelly dumped thousands of loyal workers on the streets for simple profit, leaving in its wake a devastated community, destroyed families, and ruined lives. The story has been often extended to explain the hundreds of firms which have since closed. In the minds of many the explanation for the region’s economic decline has nothing to do with internal decline but with global business elites and profit.
Bethlehem Steel came to symbolize deindustrialization in Western New York. The closing was in 1982 and the event still haunts the making of policy in that area. This is an example of an economic development “story”. The mere mention of it at public hearing, a media article, a grandparent telling his offspring about his old job, or a resident who drives by the site of the old plant sustains it in the community’s culture, perhaps indefinitely. Bethlehem Steel, to this day, sets in motion a context, and a set of fears which affect policy-making and shapes the implementation of many economic development programs.
Often, Bethlehem Steel simply sits unspoken in people’s memories — a mentality an elected official and policy-maker needs to address in some fashion. Stories like this permeate every individual community culture and explain why there is no single way to do economic development or any one goal or even set of goals which are common to every community. Stories are a way in which political culture enters into economic development policy-making. The stories prevalent in Ramsay’s Eastern Shore communities reinforce the beliefs, fears, and negative expectations of community residents — and lead them to oppose the county-level EDC and its planter-growth regime. These communities can differ because often different “stories” come into play and affect the meaning or activate an emotion which can become attached to the program or strategy.
What is this “story” thing? The term or concept called “story” comes from a book first published in 1988 by Deborah Stone, Policy Paradox: the Art of Political Decision Making (Revised Edition) (New York, W.W. Norton, 2002). Stone observes in his book that whatever the formal definition of a word, a concept, a goal–individuals, and we argue communities, attach their own definitions or “shadings of meanings”, preferences and priorities into what appears to be an obviously simple set of straight-forward words in any policy or policy goal. Words don’t mean the same thing to each individual or to each community. Two communities may want economic development to create jobs, but one community wants high wage jobs only, another might be quite satisfied with minimum wage jobs. One community would be willing to grant a tax abatement–another not so.
Let’s delve a little deeper into stories; there are many other types of stories than stories generated by an event. The key idea is that something specific such as an event serves as the theme or context for individuals to write their own novel or fictional book. Stone suggests that individuals take events and the past to write “literary devices”, usually associated with fiction. These fictional stories, rather than the customary rational-logical thought embraced by economists and policy makers, shape the making of public policy. To Stone a story is includes:
…definitions of policy problems (they) usually have a narrative structure… they are stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, involving some change or transformation. They have heroes and villains and innocent victims and they pit the forces of evil against the forces of good. (Stone, p. 138)
There are two broad story lines in Stone’s public policy making: a story of decline and a story of growth. We will focus on the stories associated with decline. Stories of decline usually start with a bunch of statistics which attempt to convince the audience that things have gotten worse and that things were once better. Having proven decline is real, someone or something is blamed. Often a conspiracy is identified (back in the early days of deindustrialization the “runaway plant” was an example). A hero is next identified or a programmatic solution is proposed and the hero or program becomes the way to reverse decline. [the Curmudgeon often refers to these solutions as “magic bullets” in his reviews]. The hero or the magic bullet policy solution offers a way out from decline. Often the solution is given a sexy label (smart growth or sustainable are popular today) with a loosey-goosey rhetorical definition.
There are all kinds of stories. Every community is likely to have several coexisting–even in opposition to each other. In the Bethlehem Steel story sometimes the evil force was New York state taxes, for others it was the high wages the unions exacted; some like the fat cat remote corporate elite that we described. The magic bullet solutions flow from the identification of the victim and the definition of the cause of the event.
Rhetoric. fears, hopes, memories tapped or manufactured (even the “memories” of those who did not live at the time of the event) define how people view economic development proposals and programs. New people who move in become acquainted with the story — adding and subtracting in the process. The Bethlehem Steel story becomes a metaphor and can easily bleed into other stories about other economic development issues, such as the potential loss of the Buffalo Bills football team — and away we go with a new round of statistics, heroes, devils, and magic bullets.
Policy scholars and economists say policy making is entirely rational? That policy can and should be made and evaluated simply by cost-benefit studies? Not so quick! If you believe in stories, and political culture, there is much more to economic development policy making and implementation.
And that is the way we think it was in Somerset County, Maryland.
In the Tidewater culture, a culture distinctively characterized by a massive gap between elites and average Joes, between old white families that traced their heritage to slave holding plantation days and black residents; between watermen and the fisheries that reduced them to serfs on water, economic development policy was only the latest instrument used by Big Daddy to stay on top, keep them down, and make a few bucks along the way. And why the fear of change? The memories of what had happened to those in the past that wanted change and fought for it, and the fear of what would happen to current residents if they dared to try to change? Better to keep what they know, the friends and neighbors they have. If you can’t do that–then leave. If you want to see real stories, read Ramsay and see how the past haunts the present.
Ramsay attaches considers several explanations (policy-making models) to describe and account for what she found. The most obvious comment is the none too subtle gap between the rational economics-based definition of economic development strategies and goals and what actually occurs over time in Somerset County. What the profession or academia defines as conventional economic development simply need not be what the community residents, or even its elites want from economic development (p. 103). Without going any further, if the reader cares to dwell on this finding alone, it is powerful and really ought to shake things up in economic development land.
One final thought from Ramsay that is especially interesting to the Curmudgeon and might be interesting to a fellow economic developer…
Crisfield, a community dominated by the watermen possessed a somewhat different subsistence-regime-culture (highly individualistic, anti-government, a form of pirate libertarianism (their genealogies would include many former 17th century pirates) than the city of Princess Anne which was majority black, farmer-agrarian, informal, people based with a deep legacy of conflict/fear of the old county plantation elite. It appears that subsistence cultures come in several varieties and while they both frustrated the economic development plans of the old county plantation elite, they did so for somewhat different reasons and “styles”. Yet, the were in same county and only a handful of miles apart. If so the Tidewater culture includes several variations–not every Tidewater community will have the same stories, for example.
Wrapping it all up!
Ramsay’s excellent new book opens up some fascinating questions and very importantly does vividly demonstrate that political culture exists, its core values/elements can be sustained for hundreds of years, and can strongly affect economic development in the present day.
To an economic developer pursuing metropolitan level economic development, the potential diversity arising from different cultures (and stories) that may exist at the community ground level–a diversity which can intrude on economic development goals and strategies– is likely to be disturbing. To an economic developer working at the community level, especially for someone that is not from the local culture, this political culture stuff may be an eye-opener.
send. If nothing else, her confirmation of the importance of distinctive community level cultures benefit studies. Economic development is tied to people and to communities in which they reside
Anyway, the Tidewater culture lives on yet another year. Battered, bruised and like the Eveready Bunny “still going and going”.
If Casey Stengel would have read Ramsay, he would have said “Semper Edam all over again”
What’s your community’s story?
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1 She cites in support, Mark Granovetter, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, American Journal of Sociology 91 (1985), pp. 481-510. Ramsay’s task or research purpose is to incorporate this approach “not to determine whether decision-makers in (the towns of) Princess Anne and Crisfield acted to maximize their individual interest, or the interest of the community as a whole, but rather to learn how historical events and the unique way of life in these places might have mediated policy responses to economic pressures by shaping the values of individuals and thus their perceptions of what their interests were”. (p. 3) History and culture shape individual value systems, which affect their policy preferences and therefore set their personal expectations of what the public policy, economic development, should achieve. History and culture fundamental shape what community residents define as economic goals and also shape the “style”, the means by which their goals are achieved.