The Downside of Pragmatism

It served our ‘maker’ cities well for a long time. Now it holds them back.
May 2017
One commentator said of Joe Louis' fist in Detroit: "Here is a city ruled by brawn." It's that manual worker mentality that's limiting much of the Rust Belt. (Shutterstock)
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

‘Pragmatism killed Michigan.”

When my consultant friend Dwight Gibson said this about his home state, I was taken aback. I always thought pragmatism was a good thing, and I think of myself as a pragmatic person in many ways. My first response to hearing somebody present an intriguing but nebulous policy idea is usually to say, “Yes, but what exactly am I supposed to do to make this happen?”

Pragmatism, which we like to identify as a quintessentially American trait, indeed is often a good thing. But as with many other good things, it comes with a dark side.

In what Gibson, who heads the Exploration Group, calls the “maker” cities and states of the Midwest and Northeast, people historically worked primarily with their hands. They were factory workers, carpenters, plumbers, engineers. They could interact with the physical world to make it do what they wanted.

That was powerful, but it brought negative baggage, such as the devaluing of other ways of interacting with the world. Political commentator David Frum once said of Detroit that a key reason it failed was a “defiant rejection of education and the arts.” To Frum, the statue of Joe Louis’ fist downtown is a powerful statement: “Here is a city ruled by brawn.” Manual workers often don’t really respect mental work (and vice versa). Hence the old refrain, “He might have book learning, but he doesn’t have any common sense.”

But there’s more to it than that. We all see problems though the lens of our own occupational backgrounds and skill sets. I often see the world as a consultant would, for example. Rust Belt places, steeped in a culture of working with their hands, view the world in that pragmatic way. The manual worker or tinkering engineer says, “What can I do with the things that are in my hands?” They are often quite ingenious and creative in making use of these, but they tend to think only in those practical terms. The key question is, “Does it work?” From there it is, “Does it work efficiently?” These are the values of industrial management articulated by Frederick Taylor a century ago.

The problem with this is that there’s no room for anything outside of the immediate and practical. In a pragmatic mindset, how do you make progress when you don’t see a practical path from point A to point B? You can’t, which is one reason why so many of these old industrial communities are stuck, even when you adjust for their legitimate structural challenges. Their world is limited to the possibilities that they hold, in a sense, in their hands. The people are gifted with their hands, but then end up being limited by them. The thinking goes something like, “If I can’t do it, it can’t be done.”

By contrast, the coasts and creative centers have very different ways of seeing and interacting with the world. Creative people from the Rust Belt who move to Silicon Valley or Austin or New York often describe a sense of relief or even exhilaration. This isn’t because of the physical environment, but because of a culture that sees and values possibilities rather than only practicalities.

We see this in the mantra of Steve Jobs, who thought that products needed to be “insanely great” and who built a company whose advertising slogan was “Think Different.” In Silicon Valley, people dream the impossible dream, one that is decidedly impractical, then sail off into the unknown to try to make it happen. This is very risky. It often flops badly. But the successes are what create the world we live in.

On the other coast, it wasn’t a pragmatic decision for Donald Trump to ride down that escalator and announce that he was running for president. He already had a great business. He had a lot to lose by getting involved with politics. As commentators routinely asserted, he didn’t have “a path to victory.” And yet he won anyway.

Trump is a lifelong New Yorker. His willingness to sail off on a difficult, audaciously ambitious journey without knowing if he could make it to the other side is a powerful, tangible example to the world of why New York has remained America’s and the world’s premier city for so long, even decades after its physical advantages, such as its port, have declined in value.

Sailing off into the dangerous unknown is what the explorers of old did. Gibson named his firm the Exploration Group to make the point that it is still possible for organizations and places to get to destinations when they aren’t sure how to get there or what they’ll find when they do. This is ultimately what the people in creative capitals do. They explore unknown territories without a map, even if they don’t think about it that way.

Rust Belt regions shouldn’t try to jettison their history and culture. That’s neither realistic nor desirable. Pragmatism itself is a powerful and necessary tool. It just can’t be the only one in the tool chest. If these communities want to bend the growth curve, they need to expand their repertoire of capabilities to include what appears to be the impractical and the decidedly non-pragmatic. That would do much more for their entrepreneurial ecosystems than any amount of gigabit fiber or venture capital funding ever will.

*For more on this topic from Aaron M. Renn, listen to this episode of his podcast.