Monday, March 01, 2010

Mesofacts Don't Speak For Themselves

Yesterday, I dipped my blogger big toe into the world of mesofacts. If the pace of change is slow enough, then most people miss the transformation. Perceptions become outdated, but still rule our behavior. How can we become more aware of such phenomena? Better yet, how can we make people appreciate an improved place shrouded in a fog of despair?

A good sounding board for exploring the above questions is a graphic published in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Concerning educational attainment, Pittsburgh is struggling. The hope is for a big jump showing up in the next US Census. That's unlikely. Pittsburgh's improving human capital is of the mesofact variety. A glance at the numbers results in the overlooking of the region's impressive talent dividend.

Pittsburgh's improving educational attainment has taken so long as to evade detection. Most people only see the dramatic population decline. They wouldn't think to look for evidence of brain gain. More notable are the boomtowns that are benefiting from strong in-migration. That change happens over a shorter timespan and jumps onto the radar.

This has serious policy implications. Political cycles turnover too quickly for the consideration of mesofacts. In this regard, the Talent Dividend initiative is seriously flawed. The return on investment will take time. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, already have the improvement in the pipeline. The talent dividend will appear whether or not you follow Joe Cortright's prescription. But if your region hasn't been on the talent dividend bandwagon for a few decades, then your city is probably screwed. (Short of an in-migration miracle)


Carol Ott said...

Don't feel bad -- my city is so bad I guess they didn't want to include it on the list.

Jim Russell said...


The list of cities is the small group used to benchmark the Pittsburgh region. See the PittsburghToday project:

illyrias said...

Interestingly enough (from the same data source), Pittsburgh leads the rankings in Associate degrees and is at the bottom of the pack when it comes to "some college."
Seems like our students like to finish school with something - better to have an associates degree than "some college."

Also, I'm going to be optimistic in assuming that a lot of these folks are getting associates degrees in the process of getting a bachelor degree which could lead to that "jump" in bachelor's that we want.

Jim Russell said...

The key to understanding educational attainment in shrinking cities is to disaggregate by age cohorts. Pittsburgh's numbers are skewed towards the eldest cohort, who are more likely to not have a college degree. That's true just about everywhere.

Most people are familiar with Pittsburgh's unusual demography, but few take that into consideration when taking stock of the available talent. I'm beginning to appreciate that this dynamic exists elsewhere, such as in rural communities.

Pittsburgh is talent rich without the benefit of substantial in-migration. I'd like to know about other regions that could make the same claim.