The Chicago Tribune has been running a series on the challenges facing the next mayor. One entry was about the Chicago economy. It described the sad reality of how Chicago’s economy is in the tank, and has been underperforming the nation for the last few years. I’ll highlight the part about challenges building an innovation and tech economy in Chicago:
The region also has lagged in innovation, firm creation and growth in productivity and gross metropolitan product over the past decade, according to economic development consultant Robert Weissbourd, president of RW Ventures LLC. Daley’s two long-held dreams of Chicago emerging as a high-tech center and a global business center remain just out of reach… “We haven’t made the real global jump yet, and we have not made the tech jump either, but we are finally poised,” said Paul O’Connor, who for many years ran World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development affiliate. “We are still a major contender, but, yeah, we can blow it.” Or, as [Chicago Fed Economist William] Testa put it, “Given the poor performance of this decade, we need to rethink the challenges for Chicago.”
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would get government to start thinking differently about … what are the levers that we need to push, away from the traditional (tax increment finance district) thinking and away from the traditional thinking of, ‘Let’s just get a big company to move here,’ and toward thinking about how to foster innovation and creativity,” Christie Hefner, former chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises Inc., said at a recent economic forum.
It has been extremely rare to see people with establishment positions ever say a discouraging word about the city. Most honest observers would have to rate Daley highly has a leader, but certainly not perfect. Yet any criticism at all of him (directly or implicitly by that of the city he runs) has been studiously avoided by most. They are terrified of being excommunicated or broken on the wheel if they deviate from the script. To have corporate executives asking tough questions is unusual, and hopefully an example of a forthcoming “Great Thaw” we need to have here in the wake of Daley’s retirement.
Chicago’s inability to build an innovation/tech economy is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Here’s third largest city in the country, one with enormous human capital, tremendous wealth, incredible academic institutions, and above all an ability to execute that far outclasses virtually any city I know. How is it then that Chicago has been unable to execute on this?
Believe it or not, a lot of it goes back to that bane of Chicago politics: Clout. People in Chicago tend to write off clout and political corruption in Chicago with a shrug, as a unique or even amusing local affectation, or just part of the character of purely political life of the city, but one that doesn’t fundamentally change its status as the “City That Works.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago’s culture of clout is a key, perhaps the key, factor holding the city back economically.
Chicago’s Ambition: Clout
In Paul Graham’s essay Cities and Ambition, he writes about the subtle messages cities send about what you should try to achieve, and how that shapes their fortunes:
“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder. The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to. When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
Chicago’s ambition, the message it sends is: “You should have more clout.” Does that matter? You bet it does.
What Is Clout?
Clout is a term of art in Chicago that normally refers to the ability to use connections to obtain jobs, contracts, subsidies or other favors from government. But more broadly, we can think of clout as the ability to influence organizational action within the context of a particular power structure.
But if that’s the definition, isn’t saying you should have clout the same thing as saying you should have power like Graham said of Silicon Valley? No. Having power, like that held by Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, is about being autocephalous. It’s about have an independent base of authority or ability to act others are forced to respect. Clout, by contrast is all about petty privileges. Clout can be given, but it can also be taken away. That’s what makes it so corrupting. Tellingly, no one ever talks about Mayor Daley as having clout. That’s because he has real power instead. Having power is like being a king or a duke or a baron. Clout is all about being a courtier.
To see this in action, just contrast Jesse Jackson with Al Sharpton. Both are prominent national civil rights leaders and black ministers. But Jackson rarely goes hard after anyone in Chicago, at least not anymore. Jackson has clout. One son is a congressman. Another somehow managed to acquire ownership of a lucrative beer distributorship. Jackson bought into the system in Chicago.
By contrast, Sharpton wants to be a power player in New York, to be someone to whom even a would-be mayor has to come visit and, as they say, kiss the ring. He’s not interested in being bought off. Sure, he’ll make alliances. But he’ll never give up his independent base of power that makes him someone to be reckoned with. That’s the difference between power and clout.
The Chicago Nexus
John Kass likes to talk about clout in terms of the “the Combine,” or the bi-partisan system in Illinois in which the Democrats and Republicans have often proven less rivals than partners in crime, sometimes literally. But I prefer to think of “the Nexus” – a unitary social structure that pretty much everyone who’s anyone in Chicago is part of, one that goes far beyond the world of politics.
Ramsin Canon had a good illustration of the Nexus in a piece he wrote over at Gapers Block:
With big city economies cratering all around him, the Mayor was able to raise in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars to fund the Olympic Bid. At the same time he was able to get everybody that mattered–everybody–on board behind the push for the Olympics. Nobody, from the largest, most conservative institutions to the most active progressive advocacy group, was willing to step out against him on that issue.
The list of big donors to the Chicago 2016 bid committee is a comprehensive list of powerful Chicago institutions. I mean, it’s exhaustive. Economy be damned, when the Mayor called, they listened. Why? What did those conversations sound like? And do we believe that the Mayor is so powerful–or that their relationship with him is so close–that they must obey him? Or–more likely–is it a mutual back-scratching club with an incentive to protect the status quo? Chicago’s political infrastructure isn’t about the Democratic Party or “the Machine” or special interest groups or labor unions. Those are elements of varying importance. It’s real power lives in the networks that tie that list together.
Replace the man on the Fifth Floor–Bureaucracy Man, the superhero who keeps our alleys clear–and will these networks evaporate? Will they just disappear? How long would it take them to reorganize around the new personalities that moved in there?
All cities have elite networks, but I have never seen a city that has a unitary power nexus to the extent Chicago does. I believe the Nexus resulted from the culture of clout combined with the fact that, with the exception of the interregnum between Daley pere and fils, power has been centralized on the 5th floor of city hall for decades. The Nexus may have come into being around the mayor, but now it has become a feature of civic life, one that practically longs for what Greg Hinz has labeled a “Big Daddy” style leader to sustain the system.
Clout’s Effect on the Culture of Chicago
The emergence of the Nexus is one of the key cultural impacts of clout in Chicago. If clout is only effective within a given power structure, then clearly the clouted want to see their power structure expand. The ultimate dream of the clout seeker is a centralized unitary state like Louis XIV’s France. In Chicago, we’ve come amazingly close to achieving it. It’s not that there’s no conflict, but it is all of the palace intrigue variety, not true conflicts between rival power centers. Without centralized political power and a tradition of clout, the Nexus would never have come into being.
There are many other cultural impacts as well. As Douglas and Wildavsky note in Risk and Culture, “An individual who passes his life exclusively in one or another such social environment internalizes its values and bears its marks on his personality.”
People are bought into and defend the system. They mapped these social environments along the axes of “grid” and “group” – the degree of hierarchy in the system and the degree of group cohesion. The Chicago Nexus is a high-grid, high-group structure, or collective hierarchy, with centralized decision making and a high cost of defection. Even groups that in other cities tend to be more oppositional to government will say something like, “Decisions get made in the mayor’s office here, so we have to play that game” and buy into the system. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard, “That’s just how it works here.” Of course, this means the basis of their own ability to make things happen then becomes influence – clout – within the Nexus. Thus they defend the system, because if it went away, so would their ability to make things happen because they’ve cultivated no alternative vectors for action. Also, the Council Wars period of the 1980’s still looms large in many leaders’ minds. Chicago remains heavily segregated and racially balkanized, as the recent quest for a single black mayoral candidate illustrates. There’s a lot of worry about what might happen if the current system breaks down.
Conservatism and favoring of the establishment. Following on from that, the system fosters a sort of generalized conservatism, one dominated by a desire for institutional stability. It takes a heavy hitter to get the mayor’s attention or even access to the mayor, which reinforces establishment control, an inherently conservative model. This conservatism is even visible the realm of public design, as I’ve noted in discussion the retro-nostalgia design of the city’s streetlights and other streetscape elements. The evidence of clout-fed conservatism is literally graven in into the very streets of the city.
Parochialism. Though fancying itself a cosmopolitan burg, I don’t see that Chicago is that much less parochial than most other Midwest cities. You see this in a thousand little ways. For example, in the way beloved long time personalities dominate the local airwaves. As the New York Times noted about turmoil at long time ratings leader WGN-AM, “Chicago tends to be unforgiving to newcomers. And with WGN pulling in the second- most radio revenue in the market behind WBBM, its moves are fraught with risk. ‘It was always difficult to bring someone in from out of town,’ said Bob Sirott, a longtime Chicago broadcaster.” (Longevity seems particularly prized here generally, as unless you are fortunately enough to be born to the right family or in the right parish, it takes time to accumulate clout). Or in the focus on local and hyper-local news in the local internet journalism community.
Fear. As a high-group social structure, people are terrified of being kicked out of the club. Hence the unwillingness to cross the party line on almost any issue. As Tocqueville put it: “That which most vividly stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of something precious, but rather the imperfectly satisfied desire to have it and the continual fear of losing it again.” People are even afraid of collateral damage if others near them cross the line. As Mike Doyle said, “In systems like Chicago’s, people don’t just refrain from rocking the boat, they do their best to keep anyone else from rocking it either.”
Total Rejection of the Other. Anyone who exists outside the structure is a potential threat. Hence they are either co-opted or marginalized. The best illustration of this is the very title of that wonderful book on Chicago politics, We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent. Or as Steve Rhodes said to me:
One of the bartenders at the Beachwood says it took her awhile to figure this city out. In other cities you apply for a job with a resume, talk about your experience, etc. Here they just want to know who you know, who sent you – even at the bartender level….I’m not naive enough to believe this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but nowhere near as it does here, where it’s in the DNA. …Here, merit counts for next to nothing…In New York, everyone wants to know: “What do you do?” In Chicago, everyone wants to know: “Who do you know?”
Why Clout Is Toxic to the Innovation Economy
When you think about these cultural impacts of clout on Chicago, it becomes obvious why the city has failed to build an innovation economy. Innovation is fundamentally about new ideas, new ways of doing things, new players in the game, those from the outside, about merit, about dynamism. Clout is about what happened yesterday, the fruits of long years of efforts, and the same old – sometimes really old – players, about insiders, about connections, about stasis. As Jane Jacobs noted, “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” Innovation driven economic development is fundamentally about disrupting the status quo. Clout is all about preserving it. Innovation welcomes the outsider, the clout-fueled Nexus abhors the Other. Innovation and clout are enemies.
Think about the innovation hubs in America. They are all places that welcome the new. Not that it’s easy to make it in them. In fact, these place are often brutally competitive. And of course they have elite networks where the scions of the rich and powerful have a leg up and such. But the new is an important part of what makes them tick. In Silicon Valley, they are always looking for the tomorrow’s HP, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, or Twitter, not just celebrating the past. They know that success today is ephemeral and, as Andy Grove put it, “only the paranoid survive.” DC loves its establishment, but the very nature of the place assures there will always be new players in the game. President Obama comes out of nowhere to gain the White House. But two years later it is the upstart Tea Party’s turn. Possibly because of their entertainment industry clusters, NYC and LA are always on the lookout for the fresh face and the next big thing.
But Chicago? What do you think is going to happen when an ambitious 20-something with a great idea for a new business but no clout shows up in Chicago trying to make it happen and knocks on the door?
I may not be 20 anymore, but at the risk of making this post sound like merely a bit of personal pique, I’ll share a true personal story to illustrate one example of how this plays out in real life in Chicago. In 2009 I received an award from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce for innovative thinking on public transit, winning first prize in a global competition they ran to solicit ideas for boosting public transit ridership in Chicago.
I was thinking at the time that I might want to do something more entrepreneurial. I knew that the Chamber ran a sister organization called the Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Center chartered with boosting startups in Chicago. In the wake of my award I decided to check them out and see how they might be able to help me.
There was just one problem: they wouldn’t return my phone calls. I made many attempts to get in touch with them by phone and email, and couldn’t even get them to give me a “No Thanks” or pawn me off on a peon. Now I’m a guy who a) had significant business experience, who b) built up one of America’s top urbanist sites from scratch, an inherently entrepreneurial act, and a successful one, if you think about it, and c) just got an award for innovation from the Chamber itself. Yet they wouldn’t even give me the time of day.
What’s more, the Chamber mothership never showed any interest in engaging with me post-competition either. It was clearly just a PR exercise for them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to report it was a very successful one. I got my picture on the front page of the Chicago Tribune above the fold. It exceeded my wildest expectations. I think the folks at the Chamber are nice people and I was extremely pleased with how it went. But clearly from their perspective, that’s where it ended. Actually uncovering innovators or something was not part of the agenda.
From standpoint of the the Chicago system, this experience actually makes perfect sense, as I don’t have clout, nor can I bestow it on anyone. So why burn cycles on me?
If you think about my profile and the treatment I got, can you imagine what a 23 year old armed with nothing but a crazy idea would get? A lot of ink has been dedicated to talking about how far Chicago and Illinois have come since they days when Mark Andreesen was actively harassed while trying to commercialize his web browser, then run out of town on a rail. But there is no doubt in my mind that if the next the next Andreesen showed up today, he’d get the exact same treatment. (I’m not familiar enough with Andrew Mason’s history to know how he was treated pre-Groupon, and pre-his association with the likes of big money Eric Lefkofsky. It would make an interesting case study to look at the history there – though he is a possible exception. I don’t know. In any case, his major local profile came after Groupon was already a huge success).
This is what clout in Chicago hath wrought. The culture of the establishment Chicago is simply incompatible with an innovation economy. It’s not just about money or resources. It’s about respect. It’s about what this town respects, and more importantly what it doesn’t. It’s about what Chicago whispers to you about what you should aspire to achieve, what success means in this city, and the subtle – and not so subtle – messages about how you get ahead here.
Until you’ve already made your millions or somehow wormed your way into connections or up through the hierarchy, establishment Chicago has no use for you in its economic plans, no matter what talent, ideas, or ambitions you might harbor. (Ironically, the biggest exception is Daley himself, who was famous for seeking out and rapidly promoting young talent like Ron Huberman and Richard Rodriguez. That’s another example of how he is head and shoulders above your average leader).
By contrast, the local entrepreneurial tech community gets it, is energized, knows where the city is and where it needs to be, and is working hard to make progress with a sense of legitimate optimism backed up by recent good news. Grass roots and “by tech for tech” institutions ranging from Technori, to the Chicago Lean Startup Circle, to the folks at Groupon – which is a huge, inspirational success story, with people who get it and are committed to trying to build up Chicago’s tech scene – are hugely supportive of anyone trying to make a go at it no matter what stage they are in, and providing legitimately useful info and help along the way. Every single person in this group I’ve talked to has been more that willing to do anything to try to help me out, sometimes even more than I’d hoped or asked for – 100% of them. (Yes, this does mean I am starting an internet business myself – watch this space).
I’ve long said Chicago isn’t going to be the next Silicon Valley and should seek only to get its “fair share” of tech. Having said that, as the third largest city in America, a fair share is still pretty big. If Chicago’s going to make it, this collaborative effort by the local tech community is what is going to get it there – not the Nexus.
The Way Forward
Pretty much every report out of officialdom – from Gov. Quinn’s Illinois Economic Recovery Commission Report to CMAP’s Go To 2040 Plan – suggests the public and quasi-public sectors need to do more to boost innovation. But what’s really needed is cultural change in the establishment. Until that happens, I’d suggest that what’s really needed is to take a page from the Getting Real playbook and for them to do less.
Think about it. If Joe Investor shoots you down, you know the odds were probably long in the first place. While you might not come away feeling good about him, you probably don’t feel any worse about Chicago. But if you approach an official or quasi-official organization chartered with promoting “innovation”, “entrepreneurship”, “clusters”, “technology” or whatever in Chicago and they shoot you down, it’s not just them but your city you feel has rejected you. It’s one thing to generate a negative interaction with a private entity, but with an official entities that hurts the very thing they’re trying to promote. If an official or quasi-official organization can’t say Yes, or at least make sure that well over 50% of the people it says No to feel good about the experience, it should be shut down, because it’s doing more harm than good.
What’s more, these organizations and leaders glom on to these hot phrases du jour and, as someone put it, “suck the oxygen out of the room.” They hog the microphone and the real stories and the real discussion that need to happen out there don’t get told in the press because big names are the default easy answer for reporters. Just look at the number of big titled civic folks and such quoted in the Tribune piece, for example. Startup blog Technori has already told me more in two months about things that matter in tech than the Tribune and the Sun-Times combined did all last year. As Mike Madison said of Pittsburgh:
Tech-based economic development is not something that can be conjured in meetings of mayors and CEOs. That’s top-down, old-school, clear-the-skies, ACCD thinking. In fact, I would guess that the more that the Downtown Duquesne Club crew gets in the middle of this process, the more the real entrepreneurs and innovators and risk-capital investors get turned off.
Or as Paul O’Connor put it in that Tribune piece I led off with:
“What we have now, to some extent, is a stodgy Midwest establishment, and underneath them are the kids who moved here, some of them in their 30s now,” he said. “They get it; they know how to do it. … We either give them permission and invite them to the table, which the next mayor should do and which Mayor Daley has begun to do a little bit lately, or we let them do it themselves.”
Blowing Up the Culture of Clout
Clout is so persistent in Chicago not just because of the people who personally benefit from it, but because there’s little perception of the ways the culture of clout affects Chicago outside the political realm. Indeed, to the extent people regard the Chicago Way at all, it’s often positively, because it enabled the city to “get things done.” It’s the same thing that causes Thomas Friedman to have his schoolgirl crush on China.
But unfortunately for Chicago (and likely China too down the road) it doesn’t just matter if you can get things done, it matters what it is you do. And it also matters how you do it and who is involved. Until people understand the linkage between clout and other parts of the city like its economic under-performance, and care enough to change it, the non-political members of the Chicago Nexus are not going to feel the need to change the way things are done here. It’s not that these folks are corrupt by any means. Far from it. I believe they are completely sincere in their desire to better the city. But they don’t perceive the issue at the level that will collectively move them to action, or else feel the status quo is better for their institutional interests.
Changing the culture is mission critical to Chicago realizing its ambitions as a global city and a center of the innovation economy, and a lot of other things too. The notion that you can have a centralized, top-down, clout driven Nexus infusing your civic culture but that somehow you’ll have an innovation driven economic culture – that’s just impossible. The attempt to fix and transform Chicago’s economy with a bunch of behind the scenes maneuvering and initiatives by a few heavy hitters has failed. We need to try a different way. That doesn’t mean Chicago has to become paralyzed with dysfunction of in-fighting or civic anarchy. But there need to be multiple power centers and a receptivity to everything innovation is all about. And it will be a bit messier. I think that’s a good thing. There’s no doubt Chicago is a great city with incredible assets and capabilities. There’s no reason it can’t join the ranks of the innovation elite – if it’s willing to start jettisoning the culture of clout the so hobbles its ambitions and embracing a more dynamic future for the city. What will it be, Chicago?
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.
Photo by Bryce Edwards