Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Something to offer besides waiting to die' or 'why do I live in Bloomington?'

Yesterday on Twitter, @drewmckinney, aka the guy who wrote that cool DrivingBuddy iPhone app, wrote:
He linked to, a handy site where you can find out for example if you are making $50,000 a year in Bloomington IN, how much would you need to make in San Francisco to get by at the same level in terms of housing and so forth? The answer to this question is: $117,735.

These numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt, and ex-NYC resident @lmcalpin called bullshit on them:
my apt in bklyn wasn't much more $$ than apts downtown here
anyway i've heard people say before that cost of living makes working here attractive compared to either coast
and i think its a bullshit argument and wishful thinking
Fair enough. At this point we turn to blog posts and articles on whether the fact that it's cheap to live in the Midwest is a draw for businesses and talent. The first one was brought to our attention via @benfulton, and was written by Morton Marcus, a retired economics professor whose column appears in Bloomington's Herald-Times sometimes. I like Marcus' work as he seems to me to be non-partisan, in sharp contrast to the regurgitated Cato Institute dreck people from the Indiana Policy Institute serve up in the H-T Op-Ed.

Marcus' article in the Indiana Economic Digest, 'If the brain drain remains open, what's left?' has this to say about the 'It's cheaper to live in the midwest, come work here!' argument:
Housing is cheaper in Indiana because fewer people want to live here and the value of the goods and services we make is lower than in the Golden State. Lower valued outputs lead to lower wages which lead to lower housing prices.
It’s easy to say the problem is a failure of business investment. We could not admit that the failure is a stodgy environment, communities with hardened intellectual arteries, and businesses that feel at home in such places.

Yes, the issue could be the brain morbidity of business and civic management rather than a need for more business tax incentives.
This discussion reminded me of a blog post by Max Beatty summing up September's 'The Combine' Conference in Bloomington. This was a conference in the tradition of SXSW and other tech gatherings organized by tech professionals in Bloomington, including the people from Humanetrix and SproutBox. Max's post is mostly positive, but this excerpt stung, I have to admit:
Then came the first discussion panel titled “More Than Corn.” The panel of Midwest executives did not deliver. I thought they would be up there boasting about how great it is to be part of tech companies in the Midwest and the opportunities that lie ahead. Instead, they never offered any valid arguments beyond the cost of living being lower and being a great place to raise a family. Working for less and settling down is something very few of my friends under 30 are interested in. By the end of it, I was reaffirmed with my decision to leave Indiana. Indiana’s brain drain won’t stop until there’s something to stick around for besides growing old.
I first read this a few months ago, shortly after the conference, and my initial reaction was to be like Ice-T in the middle of a Twitter beef and invite the author to eat a hot bowl of something. I showed restraint, which is good.

After thinking about this again as a result of the Twitter exchange, I believe there were probably two problems there. First, perhaps having the panel was ineffective for this guy because the panel was showing and not telling, in the parlance of writing classes and lyrics by Canadian Rock Gods Rush. The fact that people in Bloomington put together The Combine, SproutBox, Ignite! Bloomington, and (here comes the plug) Bloominglabs shows cool tech things can and do happen in Bloomington. Having a panel where people talk about things like houses being cheaper is more talk, less rock.

I have been thinking about it some more, and the reasons I like and live in Bloomington have very little to do with the cost of living. We had a house on a lake in Martinsville, IN that cost less than our current place, but I was happy to trade that for living in Bloomington. As I think about it some more, I love Bloomington because it's different from the surrounding area. A lot of people refer to it as an 'oasis', and though I don't use that cliche a lot, I have to admit my reasons for sticking around and loving the place have a lot more to do with Bloomington than the Midwest. Morton Marcus nailed it when he referred to 'communities with hardened intellectual arteries'.

So in the end, I think @lmcalpin and the man Morton Marcus are right. The cost-of-living difference, while really nice, is not enough in itself to draw people here. Further, I don't feel compelled to defend 'the Midwest', and I think cities are more important than states (and definitely regions) when one's deciding where to live.

'Cities' by The Talking Heads


Lars said...

I stood up during the Q&A session after that panel and pointed out a job description that paid six digits in NYC and would go for quite a bit less here. I asked how a small town company in Indiana could compete. That's when they said "well it's cheaper here and you can buy a house." That's lazy.

There are ways a small town can compete, but it's not going to be economic and it's not going to be because we can buy a house. But it might require thinking outside the box a little. I'll probably post a reply on my blog.

SDC said...

Thanks for dropping by. I agree some creative thinking is required here, and I don't know to what degree Bloomington could serve as a model for another town, much as I like it. What do you tell a town? 'First, build a really big University here?'

benjamin said...
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Umesh Bawa said...
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Christian Briggs said...

I just came across this post today, so i thought i'd add my 2 cents. My wife and i are Boston area natives who relocated to Bloomington for my schooling. We are now working our tails off to make it possible to stay (part of the reason i'm starting is so that i can have a job in Bloomington). We love Bloomington for a combination of reasons, one of which is the lower cost of living which is very real (the average cost of living for a family of 4 in Mass. was recently figured at around 60k/yr if that provides some perspective), but that wouldn't be enough to keep us here. Boston is a great place, and we were both pretty successful there. Instead, it is mostly the people and the pace. The people seem to have adjusted their pace to allow time for each other. This may sound like a small thing, but it's not. It's palpable to us, and refreshing.