Maybe the LAIC wouldn't catch such heck if it operated more transparently. A big step toward such transparency would be clearer communication from its executive director, Mr. Chapel.
As an example, consider the essay currently under scrutiny. The text Chapel wrote for the Nov/Dec Chamber newsletter reads to an outsider like a cut-and-paste job with no clear unifying thesis. We get definitions, a Wikipedia-quality explanation of the CRA, a couple euphemisms (banks "are afforded the ability to reinvest" by the CRA? har har), and a couple statistics about Lake County. So what's wrong with that essay?
- The author draws no clear connection between any of that information and current events in the county.
- The CRA appears not to apply to Lake County, which doesn't appear on the FFIEC list of "distressed or underserved" tracts.
- The income information is given no context: whatever Lake County's median family income may be, how does that compare to housing prices?
- The essay sounds like the author forgot that his readers don't have all the information he does. Maybe someone who has read the housing study would understand the point... but how many of you have sprung $250 for a copy?
The only logical meaning suggested by my readers is that the CRA essay was Mr. Chapel's attempt to encourage local banks to adopt a more liberal lending policy toward affordable housing projects, specifically Randy Schaefer's TIF district. It is a reasonable thesis: economy's tight, credit is freezing up, nobody wants to take risks. Where President Bush thought $700 billion dollars might prime the pump, fellow Republican Chapel perhaps thought he'd try some gentle words as a local stimulus package.
But the current economy is no place for gentle words. If I were the local official in charge of economic development, and I wanted to send the message my readers have divined from Chapel's words, here's the essay I would have composed:
There's no doubt about it: the economy's tight. Debt has finally caught up with individuals and businesses, and everyone wants to scale back and save.
Now as consumer and taxpayer, I think saving money is a great idea. However, as a public servant charged with serving Madison and Lake County by promoting economic development, I recognize that everybody tightening their belts could actually do more harm than good.
Specifically, let's look at housing and construction. Imagine what would happen if Craig Williams and Nick Opdahl and all the other builders in town said, "We'd better cut back. No more houses until the recession is done. We're going fishing." Folks would lose jobs, houses wouldn't get built, and the local economy would lose out. We need our construction industry to keep chugging along.
But it can't do that if our local banks hang the "Gone Fishing" sign on the door. Ed, Tim, the rest of you, we need your help. Sure, housing looks like a risky investment right now. But we're not talking about facilitating the house-flipping and other real estate speculation that got the country into its current mess. We're talking about building houses for local folks, for your neighbors, the folks who've helped you build the successful banks you have. We're talking about sustaining jobs and cash flow in our community. That's not a risk; that's an investment.
Funding Randy Schaefer's housing project and other building right now may not look good on your actuarial tables. But consider: every house Randy builds is another several truckloads of materials Pro-Build sells (and it it helps, I'll get Randy to buy everything locally). It's another several weeks of work for a construction crew and all those subcontractors. And it's a new home for a new family who, once they get their boxes unpacked, will come around wanting loans for a new car or maybe even a new business.
Madison and Lake County need your help. The housing study proves we need more affordable housing. Don't believe me? Read it for yourself, for free: I'm having Kari run a copy over to the public library, and I'm sending an electronic copy to Cory to post on his blog.
Tightening our belts is a perfectly reasonable response to short-term economic concerns. But to make Madison grow, we always need to think long-term. Banks, investing in your neighbors has always paid off, and it always will. Let's see some loans! Forward Madison!
Are local banks getting too tight with their money? Should they pour funds into the TIF district and other projects right now? Does Madison need more housing? Beats me. But if those statements are true, we don't have to reach for a vague and irrelevant appeal to the Community Reinvestment Act and contextless statistics to make that point.
Maybe even my glittering prose wouldn't move banks staring down the barrel a deep recession. But the local economy and life in general would be so much better if all of us, including quasi-public officials like Dwaine Chapel, would just say what we mean.