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BBA Economic Digest

Whoever Saw a ...

It was a common refrain during the Civil War among the infantry of both sides: "Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?"

The meaning -- We (the foot soldiers) do the hard fighting and they (those fellows on horseback) don't.

A few years back, I attended a conference in which the attending economic developers were polled as to their biggest beef with site consultants. The answer: Arrogance. Which leads to the question, "Whoever saw a humble consultant?"

No doubt, over the years, I've probably put on airs at times and have "been above my raisin'," as my grandfather used to say. It's not becoming.

But the older I get, the more I'm no longer afraid to say, "I don't know," when a question is posed to me that I really don't know the answer to. And I say this as a consultant.

I recently read a New York Times story about humility, a trait “characterized by an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities, and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.”

A humble disposition helps a person sustain a committed relationship, shake off grudges and suffer fools patiently. Humble people are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups.

Frankly, I see humility, along with humor, as a very useful business tool in providing value to a client. Of course, I'm still learning along the way.

Learn and Prosper

Economic developers wear many different hats -- sales person, teacher, cheerleader, advocate, coach. There are more, no doubt.

But there is one hat I would encourage them to wear every day is that of student. Specifically, economic developers should be students of business. I think it is a prerequisite for success.

And yet, I have met some economic developers who display little knowledge or interest in business, which amazes me.

The truth is that economic development is buttressed by developing a general knowledge about business, how it works and its trends. I've always believed that economic developers should become semi-experts in their identified target industries.

If you do that, then you'll be able to hold meaningful conversations with corporate decision makers about the wants and needs of their companies. Having a lack of knowledge about business, not only won't win you brownie points, but it will prevent you from helping companies grow in your community.

It starts with reading business news stories every day (WSJ, NYT, Bloomberg, etc.) and then subscribing to industry trade press that is pertinent to your community. If you become business literate, then you have the foundation to make things happen.

My advice: Put on your learning hat and read business news every day.

Salesmanship Matters

Whether they care to admit it or not, much of what economic developers do boils down to selling.

Economic developers will find themselves selling the merits of their communities to an outside prospect. Or they may be trying to convince internal stakeholders to support expanding capacity with human resources (training) and/or infrastructure.

The point is that much of their job is to persuade, convince, and ultimately make things happen. To do that, an economic developer must know his or her community inside and out.

It means knowing why your place makes for a better fit for a company, whether it's an outside prospect looking in or an existing industry considering an expansion.

Many communities can offer the real estate component, but developing the human resources of a place through vocational education/training can and will be the big differentiator. You're providing true value to potential investors when you do that.

Bottom line: You respect yourself (your community) by investing in yourself. If you don't do that, then why should someone else? Lead the way.

Finally, the best way to get better at selling is to keep at it. You live and learn. Continuous improvement, a message we preach at BBA, is a prerequisite to finding success in local economic development.

In Praise of English Majors (And Stories)

As a former journalist, I've always believed in the power of story telling. It should be an integral part of economic development marketing, because every place has a story.

Ask any college student or professor why there has been a big shift from studying Chaucer to studying coding, and they will probably tell you it’s about jobs. Students and their parents want a degree that leads to a steady paycheck after graduation.

That said, some prominent economists are now saying that it still makes a lot of sense to major (or at least take classes) in humanities alongside more technical fields.

Bottom line: Stories matter. (Economic developers take note!) What people tell each other can have profound implications on markets and the overall economy. Examples include the “get rich quick” stories about bitcoin or the “anyone can be a homeowner” stories that helped drive the housing bubble.

“It’s important we don’t just talk about numbers, coefficients and rules, but stories that people can understand,” Philip Lowe, head of Australia’s central bank told the Washington Post. “Stories about how policies are contributing to economic welfare and the things that really matter to people.”

Stefan Ingves, governor of Sweden’s central bank, said the same: "I am expected to be, and I am, a storyteller. I tell stories about the future. We human beings simply love stories about the future. That’s part of my job.”

Pie charts and bar graphs are one thing. Telling a compelling narrative is quite another.

In AI We Trust

Computers can learn on their own if given a few simple instructions. Algorithms are those mathematical instructions, and while they are not yet ruling the world, they do play an increasing important role in our lives about employment, health care, legal proceedings and more.

It is precisely why I intend to regularly write about artificial intelligence, of which algorithms are the backbone.

While apocalyptic portrayals of AI may seem far-fetched, some (Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking among them) warn that the seeds of a reality in which we lose control of the machines are being sown today. I refer you to a phenomenon called automation bias.

It occurs when we place an over reliance on potentially faulty AI, and it can do real harm. Early studies focused on autopilot for airplanes, but as automation technology becomes more complex, the problem could get much worse with more dangerous consequences.

AI carries an aura of accuracy, but if you give it incorrect inputs, it will return wrong answers. And if it learns patterns that don't reflect reality, its output will be equally flawed. Automation bias has already been blamed for real-world disasters.

"When people have to make decisions in relatively short time frames, with little information — this is when people will tend to just trust whatever the algorithm gives them," Ryan Kennedy, a University of Houston professor who researches trust and automation, told Axios.

"The worst-case scenario is somebody taking these algorithmic recommendations, not understanding them, and putting us in a life or death situation."

One way that might lead to fewer mistakes is to get an algorithm's confidence level and being given a recommendation and an accuracy estimate. In the end, it is people, not the machines, who must retain control.

You're Stuck With Me

I'm a Baby Boomer, a generation that has largely called the shots civically, politically, and economically in the U.S. for three decades now.

One notable labor trend that probably irks some younger workers is that my generation is hanging around for longer. Employment among 55-64 year olds increased from just over 21 million at the outset of the Great Recession to nearly 28 million today, reports Yahoo Finance.

Millennials are also seeing job gains, as more than 37 million people between the ages of 25 and 34 are now employed — up from around 34 million just five years ago. Meanwhile, in the middle, employment for 35-54 year olds is down overall since the Great Recession.

As executives get older, the only people ready to fill their roles are 20 or 30 years younger than them. But it may be a decade before millennials move into the highest ranks of Corporate America en masse.

It is noteworthy that the current president is 73, and the three leading Democratic candidates for president are all 70 or older.

Clearly, the Boomers are not yet ready to go quietly into the night. I'm sorry, but you've got me a while longer whether you like it or not.

Hmmm, I Think Not

The LinkedIn message was suspicious. It came to me via an aerospace connection, whom I'm fairly certain that I have never met or spoken with.

The message: "I trust you are doing great. We have a confidential project for a client which I am presently taking on, it is still in it's initial stages of follow up. We believe your collaboration could be useful at this stage, kindly access this proposal via the extension below."

My response: "Hi Bob, (Not his real name.) I hope you understand that I am hesitant and cautious about opening up unsolicited links where there has been no prior discussion. I trust you have not been hacked, but I cannot be sure. Can you tell me what this is about?"

Response: No response.

I had hoped that this would be a real project where I could lend my services, but my gut told me otherwise.

Moral of the story: Be careful out there.

What We're Reading

How Trick-or-Treating Become a Halloween Tradition

What the Coming AI Revolution Means for the Workplace The Atlantic

Certain American Men Are Dying "Deaths of Despair." Yahoo Finance

Two Families -- One Black, One White -- Shared a Harrowing History. Then They Met. The Washington Post

The Map That Unlocked the Mysteries of Pittsburgh CityLab

The Age of Flames is Consuming California Wired

The Mysterious Life and Death of Robert Johnson

Overlooked is a New York Times series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported. Robert Johnson, who died at the age of 27, is one of those featured people.

The 29 songs that Johnson recorded over two sessions in Texas during 1936-37 stand as a Rosetta Stone for the blues, and yet so very little is known about him.

"What is known can be summarized on a postcard," writes Reggie Ugwu. "He is thought to have been born out of wedlock in May 1911 in Mississippi and raised there. School and census records indicated he lived for stretches in Tennessee and Arkansas. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, eventually glimpsing the bustle of New York City. But he died in Mississippi, with just over two dozen little-noticed recorded songs to his name."

Today Johnson stands as a legend. His songs have become rock standards, covered by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others. Bob Dylan said that Johnson was a huge influence on his song writing. Eric Clapton wrote that upon listening to recordings of Johnson, “I realized that, on some level, I had found the master.”

Central to Johnson’s enduring appeal is his air of mystery. He is most often associated with the classic blues myth about selling his soul to the devil in a midnight pact at a Delta crossroads. Two of his songs associated with the story, “Cross Road Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail,” make no mention of an unholy encounter.

Johnson lived in the shadow of Jim Crow and wandered most of his adult life, performing in juke joints and often traveling with his fellow blues artist Johnny Shines. (Note: I met Johnny Shines in the mid 1980s, and was partially responsible for getting him booked at Grundy's, a long-gone nightclub in Birmingham, Ala.)

Like much of his life, Johnson's death on Aug. 16, 1938 also poses a riddle. One story is that he was poisoned by a jealous husband of one of his sexual conquests.

And it would almost seem appropriate that the location of Johnson’s grave has never been confirmed. Headstones at three different churches in the Greenwood area claim to mark his resting place.

As Johnson's life story seems more elusive, his place in American music history seems ever more secure.

"Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson," a book by Bruce M. Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow has recently been published and is getting favorable reviews.

Three Chords and the Truth (Click and Ye Shall Find.)