Defining the problem in economic development

30 Jul 2020

Blog, Letter from the CEO, Economic Development

In The Best and the Brightest, his magisterial account of the American run-up to the Vietnam War, journalist David Halberstam cogently assesses the ???????mistaken assumption that led the Kennedy Administration to escalate US involvement in the region: “The problem was political, the response was military.”


Fearing that North and South Vietnam would unite as a communist country, and, in turn, other Southeast Asian nations would raise their own red banners, the so-called Domino Theory, the United States threw support behind the western-leaning government in the south. Someone obviously had to stop the North Vietnamese hordes from streaming south across the border as the North Koreans had done a few years before.


But in aligning with Diem, genuinely brilliant men in the Kennedy Administration chose to ignore or overlook the truth that he was a leader despised by his own people. The threats to Diem’s regime came not just from the north but from the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, or Viet Cong, an insurrectionist movement gaining influence within South Vietnam’s own borders.


Thus, as Halberstam wrote, the problem was political. It could not be overcome with more bombers or more inf.


There is a danger of seeming crass in drawing analogies from a tragedy such as the Vietnam War. An estimated 3 million people, including more than 57,000 members of the US Armed Forces, died in the fighting. Workaday issues must be called trivial in comparison.


And yet, since first reading it a few weeks ago, I have continuously thought about Halberstam’s couplet, “The problem was political, the response was military,” and how it relates to economic development.  Recently I sat down with one of the early leaders of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation. He told me pointedly that the organization has strayed away from its original intent. You come in and tell me about new programs, he said, but you don’t tell me how the old ones did.


It was a strong critique, one that is still rattling around in my head and my heart, not least because I’ve heard similar statements before. Slowly, I am coming to the belief that these concerns are accurate, but only partially.


The Corridor has undergone continuous evolution over its nearly 30 year existence. Founded to align Clay and Dickinson county business leaders behind a single issue, the organization now offers expert services in business attraction, retention, entrepreneurship, workforce development and community betterment. With stakeholders asking our team everyday to take on new challenges for the betterment of the region, mission creep is a risk.


But it is in considering that word, mission, that I feel the criticism falls short. The Corridor’s mission statement, “To foster, encourage, promote, aid, or otherwise assist in the economic growth and development of the four-county region,” is broad—so broad as to encompass nearly any activity we wish to undertake. This is appropriate as our problem, accurately defined, is equally broad: How to stimulate economic vitality and career opportunities for future generations.


If a shortage of skilled workers is inhibiting growth, we need to recruit more workers. If that recruitment is impeded by too few affordable homes for sale, we must address housing construction. And if residential developers are hesitant because construction costs seem too high or rents too low, the only solution is to foster competition on both sides of the market.  In this way, the scope of economic development pushes ever outward.


The Corridor team recognizes the necessity of relentless execution. We strive for excellence. And we certainly intend to do better sharing the results, both positive and negative, of our programs.  


But we also understand the need for agility and the necessity of saying yes to new opportunities. To borrow from Halberstam, the problems are diverse, the response must be diverse as well.