Several weeks ago, ASU President Michael Crow spoke before the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. His comments, as reported by the Arizona Republic, are instructive:
Let me start with something that’s really been on my mind the last few months. People say to me, “What is the economic development challenge of Arizona? It’s really kind of strange. It really isn’t what people think it is. The economic development challenge for Arizona, in my view, is our inability to express the creativity, the adaptability, the successful way of doing business, the free-enterprise spirit and the things that go on here. It’s our inability to project positively.
Crow goes on to list a number of "positives," including that "there are very few communities with the assets Chandler has been able to amass. It is unbelievable! But you would think none of this is true." And, "If you took nothing but the newspaper and the political rhetoric spoken now, you would think the United States is a failure. You would think Arizona is a backwater, cornpone hangout....If we do not work on projecting the image of what this place is, we are fools. Fools!" Crow is no fool, and this could easily be dismissed as just saying something nice for the chamber types, but it was also picked up as a rallying cry in an editorial.
To be fair, the editorial writer also pointed out that the state hurts itself by birtherism and other policy flatulence from the Kookocracy. Even so, "Chandler is going to be the world’s most sophisticated high-tech factory town." Really? Benchmarked against whom? Is this a good thing? Does it solve the gaping holes elsewhere in the metro area?
BusinessWeek just published a ranking of the nation's 50 top cities. Chandler doesn't make the list, but Phoenix clocks in at 44 and Scottsdale (!) at 43 (San Francisco and Seattle ranked No. 1 and No 2 respectively). Fluff, perhaps? The Kauffman Foundation's New Economy Index ranked Arizona 27th in knowledge jobs, 29th in workforce education, 49th in immigration of knowledge workers — were it not for Intel's manufacturing presence, the state would have been in Mississippi territory. In the second quarter, according to Dow Jones VentureSource, $43 million in venture capital was won by four companies. In Washington, a similar-sized state, total VC investments were $327 million in the same quarter.
One can spend some time on the Arizona's Continuing Crisis page of this blog and realize that the state's problem is not a failure to project a positive image. The state's problems are substantive. They continue to fester because for the most part discussing them is bad form, especially if one wants to remain employed or get anywhere. The occasional embarrassing facts that seep into the media are a symptom that they are too bad to ignore, not that a bunch of gloomy gusses are trying to 'Zonies feel bad. This will continue to happen as long as the state is led by Kooks and racists, fails to address its mediocre competitiveness and social and environmental ills, while insisting that all would be solved if we were just more upbeat. That's the mindset of a real-estate hustle, not a place that wants to compete in the world economy. (And even Third World places have their Chandlers and Scottsdales — big deal).
But, as I saw, Crow is no fool. I go back to the reformers who came in during the hopeful years of St. Janet. In addition to Crow, they included, among others, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Republic publisher Sue Clark-Johnson, Don Budinger of the Rodele Charitable Foundation of Arizona, Jeff Trent of T-Gen and Bill Harris of Science Foundation Arizona. These were serious people with fine intentions, but they ran up against the power of the Kookocracy, especially in the Legislature.
One continuing subject of conversation was how to find "the key" to common ground with the Kooks. Much time was spent meeting with the likes of John Huppenthal, mostly in vain. The hard-core right doesn't live in the real world, dismisses inconvenient facts as liberal conspiracies and likes its real-estate hustles. Some gains were made in these years, but then Napolitano moved on, perhaps seeing the direction in which the state was headed and tired of playing defense. Since then, most of these people have continued to do what they can, Crow spectacularly so with ASU. But the hopes of the early 2000s dissolved with the great real-estate crash and SB 1070.
So I suppose "the key" is to speak relentlessly "positive" and try to move ahead quietly. I don't know of another major city that so discourages debate and discussion of pressing problems, or another big state where the only voices allowed to be outraged come out of the likes of the "Goldwater" Institute. Where chamber of commerce bromides are gospel, an unsustainable status quo goes unchallenged and thin skin rules. As bad, it's an M.O. that further encourages parochialism, rather than a serious approach and open mind to a competitive world.