Investing Wisely

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2010. “UI’s urban planners make conscious investments.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (June 9): 10A.

For the past 23 years I have been teaching in the Univ. of Iowa’s Urban and Regional Planning Program. Now only three weeks away from retirement, I find myself reflecting on how people invest their time, energy, and financial resources. Doing so makes me want to praise a few people.

Praise goes first to my colleague Peter Fisher, who joined the Program in 1977 and will also be retiring in a few weeks. Peter is a very self-effacing individual, the kind who glides along in the background without ever advertising himself. And yet he has worked tirelessly to improve the ability of our graduates to create better places. He has done so primarily through his teaching and scholarly work concerning public finance, especially with regard to economic development incentives. Largely as a result of his efforts, ours has become one of the best Masters-only programs in the nation.

Peter has also invested in the people of Iowa by co-founding the Iowa Policy Project, a non-profit think tank that thoughtfully examines the state’s economy and tax policy. (Take a look at his May 17 guest opinion in this newspaper, “Real reform of the corporate income tax in Iowa.”) More locally, he’s invested in the Iowa City community by serving on the New Pioneer Co-op’s governing board, especially when New Pi was undergoing a major transition back in the late 1990s.

(A brief digression: it is my understanding that all five people who founded New Pi back in 1971 were affiliated with the Planning Program: Joel Biggs, Roger Boldt, Don Mazziotti, Jenny Jensen, and Dave Ranney. If you possess photos of these people back at that founding moment, please let me know.)

Praise goes next to the hundreds of Masters students I’ve had a chance to teach over the years. While I can take very little credit, most of them have become very successful practitioners who are improving the places in which they live and work. Over 75 of them are investing in Iowa, including Sarah Walz, Jen Jordan and several others in the Iowa City area. Even before they graduate, our students make important contributions. This year’s class has, for example, done some pretty extraordinary work for the towns of Anamosa, Decorah, Wellman and Columbus Junction.

That this year’s class has aided four of Iowa’s smaller cities is largely the result of the vision and skill brought to the Program by its new director, Charles Connerly. Chuck seems to be everywhere at once. Already he is legendary among our faculty for his tireless efforts to recruit great students, strengthen the Program’s connections throughout the University, and put students to work for the people of eastern Iowa by carrying out the new “Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities.”

Praising these people leads me to consider how we (individually and collectively) should invest our time, energy, and financial resources. In one way or another we are always being advised to maximize financial return. Following this advice we would look for short term gains in the stock market, encourage expansion of the Gross Domestic Product, and advocate actions that increase the state and local tax base.

This advice to maximize short term financial gain is woefully misguided.

Consider the consequences of the Gulf oil tragedy for British Petroleum’s (BP’s) shareholders. Six weeks after the drilling rig exploded, their company had lost a third of its market value, or about $75 billion. Their company has already spent almost $1 billion on cleanup efforts, with no end in sight. How much it will end up paying to settle claims of lost fishing and tourism revenues is unknown, but could total at least $14 billion.

And none of this counts what really matters: the death of life in the Gulf and the marshes of the Gulf Coast.

To invest wisely, one should first ask: what do we want to see born tomorrow? We should ensure that prices consumers pay for petroleum and other products include the social and environmental costs of their production. And we should put our money and efforts into sustaining life and improving the quality of the places in which we live. Like Peter Fisher, Chuck Connerly, and graduates of the University’s Urban Planning Program do.

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