Growing small gracefully

The discussion of rebuilding New Orleans, either where it is or in some better location, may be a special case of a problem that deserves more study. It happens occasionally that a largish region loses its economic raison d’être, something that can happen because of technological change, depletion of an extractive resource, or the rise of a more efficient competitor.

Atlantic Canada used to live on fishing, lumbering, and coal; all these are failing industries. The northern Great Plains used to be agricultural; it still is, but technology has made it possible to grow enormous quantities of grains and soybeans with hardly any labor, so Nebraska is full of dying and ghost towns. Small towns across the South used to live by making textiles; now we get that from China and the towns are dying.

If we accept that hurricanes are a regular thing, the coasts of Louisiana, Mississipi, and Alabama south of Mobile may simply not be sound business propositions for settlement, certainly not at the densities that just got scraped away by Katrina…and lots of other coastal regions maybe should be unsettled by man before nature takes a hand.

What, if anything, should be done about this? On an individual basis, I suppose bus tickets make sense—some sort of relocation subsidy. But most people (and the locals) point out that a region is not just a bunch of families, but a culture that almost certainly can’t be maintained anywhere else. It also has a patrimony of physical infrastructure with cultural value. Furthermore, the bus tickets tend to be used selectively by the young on the way to college or a big city, fracturing the families and leaving behind an aging population and a sad ambience.

The usual policy response is some combination of direct welfare from the national government, attempts to develop tourism based on the traditional culture and natural endowments if any, and industrial development subsidies that have a very poor record. Tourism creates a lot of jobs making beds and serving food, but not much real prosperity. Obviously a population can be sustained anywhere by permanent welfare, but this doesn’t seem to be treating the locals like grownups, more like hired museum exhibits, and it’s probably bad for character to know that one is consuming value without creating any in return.

Is there a way for a national government to help a region to shrink in population gracefully? Do four or fourteen generations in the same mill town give the current one some sort of claim to be enabled to remain when the mill dies? Is a local and irreplaceable accumulation of culture and tradition a resource the larger society should have an interest in preserving, and if so, how?

A village of fishermen not fishing and instead cashing welfare checks doesn’t seem to achieve this, though, and a villlage of descendants of fishermen working in a computer factory, while it might be a good outcome on other grounds, doesn’t seem to either.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.