The Nerd Mayors
January 26, 2010 5:42 PM
I got back on Sunday afternoon from the Nerd Mayors Conference in Washington, D.C. It' not really called that. It's really called the Mayors Innovation Project. The idea behind MIP is to get mayors together with policy experts to share ideas. The mayors take home ideas and the experts get their ideas tempered and improved by mayors who need to make them work in real political environments. It's policy wonk heaven.
The emphasis of the conference this time was, of course, the recession. It was a good chance for the sixty or so mayors, senior staff and federal officials in the room to remind ourselves that the recovery needs to be transformational. The prosperity that we experienced before the recession was largely a mirage, based on a real estate bubble and prolonged and unsustainable cheap energy prices. We need to rebuild our economy on the basis of real productivity and without the over reliance on fossil fuels that make us vulnerable to price fluctuations and foreign sources of oil. It also means that we need to invest in education and health care because the real product of our economy is the ideas and the energy of our people.
There were many specifics presented over the two days of the conference, but here are just two that I'd like to emphasize.
We need to make a distinction between economic growth and economic development. If you locate a new hardware store in a neighborhood, that's economic development. The store hires some people, and it provides a service to the neighborhood. It's a good thing, but it's not growth. Now, if you built table saws in your city and sold them all over the world, including at the neighborhood hardware store, that would bring new wealth into the community and expand the economic pie, not just slice it differently. I'm starting to think that we should change the name of our Economic Development Division to the Economic Growth Division because that's what we're really after. By the way, the same concept on a national scale means that we should export products abroad. But I learned that only 4% of U.S. companies make any product for export.
The other idea I wanted to share has to do with city budgets and job creation. The National League of Cities reported that 62% of American cities cut back on capital spending last year. But Madison did just the opposite. We passed the largest capital budget in our history, investing in street reconstruction, libraries, parks, energy efficiency retrofits for our buildings and more. It defied the national trends, but it was the right thing to do for three reasons. First and most importantly, people need work now. In some trades one out of three workers is unemployed. Second, right now we can borrow at historically low interest rates. And third, investing now will pay off in the long run. We have to rebuild streets anyway. Moving up the schedules and borrowing now makes sense when the price of money is low. And virtually all of our energy efficiency investments will pay back in much less than a decade. I also learned that for every dollar invested in a public capital project, eighty cents more is invested in the private sector. Capital projects create jobs pure and simple.
You can learn more about the Nerd Mayors at http://www.mayorsinnovation.org/.