Columns » John Brummett

Between luck and learning

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Attorney General Mike Beebe told an audience the other day that if educational investment was the extent of your economic development strategy, then you’d merely turn out smart kids who’d go elsewhere for jobs.

He was not meaning to devalue education, of course. Nor am I when, having pondered the statement, I carry it much further.

At the high risk of sacrilege, allow me to postulate that we do not usually build economies through investment in good elementary and secondary schools.

Instead, good public schools inevitably become the top priority, thus a natural byproduct, of economic boons arising from other factors.

Here are those factors, in descending order of relevance: pure blind luck, personal ingenuity and initiative, politics and higher education.

Devalue education? I fail to see how. I plainly said that the first thing anyone does after a economic boon is invest in better public schools. Wanting the best for your kids is universal. I’m saying you’re better able to provide the best after you’ve become rich by some nonschool development.

Let us consider the four factors:

1. “It’s a lottery out there,” U.S. Rep. Marion Berry told me the other day. He was referring to one of several long-overdue encouraging economic signs for East Arkansas. There’s natural gas in the ground east of Little Rock, south of Newport and north of Brinkley, give or take. Well-educated people elsewhere have figured out how to drill for it, and they are taking all the risks. The vast, flat farmland is becoming dotted with wells. Some of our people stand to get very rich.

It’s good luck that the Japanese automakers have has run out of other places to build trucks and will almost assuredly next choose some of our land nestled against the Mississippi River. That’s because the land happens to sit in mid-America in the shadow of the Memphis population center and at the intersection of cross-country interstate highways.

2. Northwest Arkansas did not become one of the nation’s economic edens because its schools were spectacular. It happened because of the individual ingenuity and initiative of Sam Walton, J.B. Hunt and the Tysons.

Blind luck is a factor as well. Sam Walton could as easily have come from Magnolia or Paragould.

Northwest Arkansas now has some of the best schools in the state. That’s thanks to the boon resulting from individual ingenuity and initiative, and from luck.

3. Personal ingenuity and initiative contributed, as well, to the River Market boon in downtown Little Rock. But it never could have happened without politics and government, and, as always, luck.

Bill Clinton getting elected president helped. He could as easily have moved to Louisiana when his mom went off to learn how to become a nurse anesthetist. That would have put his presidential library in, oh, Baton Rouge.

What proved essential was politics and government: Little Rock’s city fathers, standing up to sweet offers to Clinton from Georgetown and elsewhere, weathered the storm of criticism and played a shell game to provide the land to put the presidential library at the end of the River Market.

Meantime, another exciting East Arkansas development is the biosciences research facility at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. That got funded by pure luck — manna from a nationwide tobacco lawsuit settlement that others took the trouble to litigate.

But it also got funded by politics. The state legislature was run at that time by the aforementioned Mike Beebe, then a state senator. He had attended ASU and served on the board. The success of any plan to distribute the money depended on Beebe’s being obliged by cutting in ASU.

4. The best quality of life tends to exist in towns with four-year colleges, for perhaps self-evident reasons. Batesville has Lyon College and is doing better than Newport. Conway and Russellville, with four-year colleges, are doing better than Morrilton about halfway between.

Am I saying it’s better to be lucky than educated? Not at all. I’m saying luck usually comes first.

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