Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
The New, New, New Economy: Putting Together the Puzzle, Not Turning Back the Clock
Several people have told me in recent weeks that I just shouldn't read "Postmarks," because it would, you know, upset me to see how I am perceived by our active readers. Actually, I feel sorry for people who get worked into such a fine shrieking froth over what they, incorrectly, think I think. For example: I think people without four-year degrees have gotten screwed by the trends that have defined the New Economy, even more in Austin than elsewhere -- globalization, the assault on free quality public education (especially for adults), and the effacement of the American labor movement.
My initial beef here was with the daily, which wrote thousands of words about the loss of high-wage manufacturing jobs in Central Texas without once mentioning the slightly obvious reasons why this is so. To pretend the local jobless recovery is somehow God's will is slothful. (Perhaps Bill Bishop, the Statesman's go-to guy for economic chin-pulling, can address this question in his hard-hitting blog.) To add an editorial-board lagniappe that City Hall is part of that problem is, to quote my friend Mike Levy, just nuts. ("Nuts!") But I bring it up again, not to mix it up with the readers, but as an entrée into discussion of Topic A. Do we really want a "recovery" that turns the clock back to the peak of the boom?
Actually, Topic A is the city's collapsing budget, but that's really the same topic -- and City Manager Toby Futrell, unlike many in the booster elite, seems to realize that Austin tomorrow will look a lot different from Austin yesterday. She is not panicked. I've written before about the boosters' "unreasonable" panic, which I'm sure sounds insensitive to people who have been laid off. But Austin's economy has not really been devastated and certainly hasn't been crippled. (We're talking about regional economic competitiveness here, not the individual fortunes of people and firms who got caught in the popping of the Internet bubble. If dot-communism represented an Austin-specific long-term economic strategy, God help us all.) Most of what we brought to the table for the big boom dance is still here. The forces that hollowed out the economies of Rust Belt cities in the 1970s and 1980s simply do not exist here.
Doing What Works
Austin will, however, be permanently hobbled in the great race toward prosperity if we don't get cracking on fixing a now-familiar list of civic problems -- issues that are hardly under the radar of the general public, but ones that the booster elite seem to only dimly perceive. The progressive nonprofit Liveable City is putting its finishing touches on a study (of which you'll hear more in this space next week) of what Austinites really think about their New, New Economy. One finding that jumped out at me immediately: When asked what local government's priorities should be for economic recovery, your friends and neighbors identified as their Top 5 (in rank order): incentives for local businesses, support for local educational institutions, expanded job training, roads (I don't know if this means more, better, or different roads, but there it is), and ensuring the affordability of housing.
I couldn't have said it better myself, although I would add a more explicit equity angle -- City Hall and other leaders need to especially focus on making these priorities and investments real for those people and in those neighborhoods and communities that have the fewest options. (Like, for example, those unemployed high-wage manufacturing workers without college degrees.) In order to survive and thrive in the New, New, New Economy, Austin does not need to be cool and creative and Keep It Weird. It needs to be a decent, attractive, and functional place to live, not just to survive. Austin will not be cool and creative and Weird if the institutions that support creativity -- the schools, the libraries, the arts -- are constantly in triage mode; if people can't afford to live where they want and can't choose to shop for what they want from whom they want to buy it; and if they're funneled from middle-class ghettos to big-box abattoirs on roads or buses or shiny trains that don't work because they've been perverted by ideology, from either the left or right.
Which means the community -- not just City Hall -- needs now to put together the puzzle, not turn back the clock. I think we can safely say that, except for No. 2 about education (and even there the record is hit-or-miss), most of Austin's big-biz and booster elite have done squat to help the community address the Liveable City priorities. I'm not suggesting that Dell and IBM and CSC and (urgh!) Intel and (sigh ...) Motorola -- and, yes, even Whole Foods Market -- need to get their own hands and money dirty (though I wouldn't stop them either). But the big boys have been conspicuous for years by their absence from those venues where these discussions actually happen. When the above-the-line booster elite in Austin flocked to Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken as their candidates, what did they expect them to do? And when they broke into smiles over the Domain deal, what did they think they had accomplished?
Growth Is as Growth Does
You may have noticed that all the Liveable City survey's "priorities" deal with facets of public life that were unequivocally made worse, not better, by the Austin boom. That's not the same as saying that growth is bad -- if these had actually been the priorities of the people who run this town, many of whom are far from City Hall, growth could and should have made Austin more, not less, able to deliver affordable housing, functional transportation, quality learning options for all, and a diverse locally based economy and culture. But from my vantage point, the New Economy, Austin-style, was a bust, and to try to bring it back is a folly. Others may disagree. But that's the question we need to answer, before we get too much farther on our journey through Will's World.