ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY / November 2001
their own work on U.S. and Canadian cities to the mix, they conclude that the conventional wisdom does not yield satisfactory answers. The so-called true facts are little more than a collection of half- truths and inaccuracies. Reese and Rosenfeld offer an alternative view. In their view, what matters in local economic development is the local civic culture. The unique political and economic history of a place determines local economic development policy making.
The Reese and Rosenfeld (2001) analysis is important and timely. They are correct about the difficulty in identifying unequivocal laws, general truths, or first principles regarding local eco- nomic development. It has never been as simple as Variable 1 + Variable 2 = Economic Develop- ment Policy A. Instead, it has been more along the lines of Variable 1 + Variable 2 (if Variable 3 is present and Variable 4 is partially absent) = Economic Development Policy A sometimes. The same is true when economic development policy is the independent variable. Even within a single jurisdiction, combining Policy A and Policy B may produce the desired outcome in some instances; other times, it does not. The absence of certainty has confounded analysis and prescrip- tion. A favorite phrase of social scientists, “ceteris paribus,” is particularly apt in discussions of local economic development.
In their assessment of the conventional wisdom, Reese and Rosenfeld (2001) are critical not only of the so-called truths but also of the methodologies used to pursue them. However, in their enthusiasm to arrive at their conclusion, they cut a few corners. First, Reese and Rosenfeld over- state the problem. The various items composing the body of “conventional wisdom” have seldom been taken as gospel by practitioners and scholars. Yes, the findings tend to be equivocal and, there- fore, not as useful to local economic development officials as a set of hard and fast rules would be. Still, to researchers, the “it depends” findings have utility as guides for developing better indicators and measures. Admittedly, the work has not achieved the status of best practice or incontrovertible fact, but that does not negate its impact. The research process has been neither precise nor linear, but we have learned at least a few ceteris paribus truths about local economic development along the way (see, e.g., Buss, 2001, for a review of the literature on state tax incentives and economic growth, from which is derived a series of policy prescriptions). Furthermore, the clash of findings is what may, if the stars line up right, produce real theoretical breakthroughs. Building a literature is typically an iterative, incremental (and frustrating) process, punctuated only rarely by a paradig- matic shift.
. . . the notion that local civic culture holds the key to understanding economic development policy is unsettling. . . . It is, at once, everything and nothing.
Second, the idea of methodological pluralism that characterizes the Reese and Rosenfeld (2001) research on U.S. and Canadian cities is not new to the study of economic development. Oth- ers have recognized the value of blending quantitative inquiry and case studies in economic devel- opment research. For example, in Cityscapes and Capital, Pagano and Bowman (1995) analyzed the economic development practices of 10 medium-size U.S. cities. The case study cities were selected from respondents to two national surveys: Pagano’s survey of city fiscal conditions and Bowman’s survey of city economic development activity. Fiscal conditions and economic devel- opment policy activism were used to produce a four-cell typology from which representative cities were selected for field work. In The Work of Cities, Clarke and Gaile (1998) wrapped their argu- ment around data from surveys of 113 cities as well as case study data emerging from extensive field work in 15 cities. In the book, they developed a four-cell typology using a city’s institutional linkages and its decision logics. The blended methods used in these studies go a long way in pro- viding a more comprehensive look at local economic development, both as an independent and dependent variable. As King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) have argued, a research design that com- bines features of quantitative and qualitative methods often yields the most robust findings.
And that brings us to the most fundamental concern: the Reese and Rosenfeld (2001) prescrip- tion. As problematic as extant research might be, the notion that local civic culture holds the key to understanding economic development policy is unsettling. There are several reasons for the discomfort.
Local civic culture is difficult to isolate and measure. It is, at once, everything and nothing. Problems with validity abound for a concept as expansive and amorphous as local civic culture. Furthermore, local civic culture is not static. It evolves in response to external and internal stimuli and, ultimately, confounds measurement. Yet, despite its slippery nature, students of economic development would undoubtedly admit its existence and even its importance. However, few would