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UCDA speaker’s words are right on the money

New Albany MS UCDA Banquet speaker Bill Crawford UCDA Banquet speaker, Bill Crawford, shows how Winnie the Pooh put his paw head while thinking.
Meridian writer Bill Crawford was recruited by UCDA Executive Director Phil Nanney to be the speaker for this year’s UCDA Banquet.
We’ve known Crawford slightly for 23 years and thought him an excellent choice. He did not disappoint. His remarks about what is good — and what is disturbing — about Union County and Mississippi, we thought were right on the money.
With his permission, we publish the entire text of his Monday night speech below:
NEW ALBANY SPEECH

Thank you Phil.

Y’all should know Phil took a big risk inviting me to be your guest speaker.

You see, I’m a facts and data oriented column writer, not a humorous or motivational event speaker. That means more dull than exciting. Indeed, when Mississippi State let me have a Masters Degree they told me “Crawford you think and write pretty good, but when you make a public presentation you need help. At least do these four things: 1) lower your audience’s expectations, 2) use quotations, 3) bring visual aids, and 4) get the audience involved.

For Phil’s sake I will, and, uh, just accomplished the first one.

Let me be begin by quoting that famous English philosopher and strategist Winnie the Pooh.

Y’all remember Winnie the Pooh, right? Hold up your hand if you do? (Audience participation may not be too helpful Phil.)

When faced with a daunting dilemma, Winnie the Pooh would often put paw to head and say, “think, think.”

If a bear of very little brain like Winnie the Pooh values thinking, perhaps human beings should too.

Thinking about daunting dilemmas, though, requires homework. And who has time for that these days? Especially when we have so many talking heads, think tanks, and Facebookers eager to do our thinking for us.

Alas, at its core, most such thinking is agenda-motivated propaganda intended to influence our decisions, not better inform us. Such propaganda seldom solves dilemmas, and often does the opposite.

Herein lies the motivation behind my approach to column writing. I use facts and data to challenge propaganda and progagandists and incite people to think for themselves.

Not just willy nilly thinking, but rigorous thinking. Educators today call it critical thinking.

Let’s do some of that now.

(Hold up glass and pour in liquid)

This visual aid is the proverbial half empty/half full glass, the great psychological measure of human proclivities.

What is your proclivity?  Do you tend to see the glass half full or half empty?

Those of you who tend to see the glass half full please raise your hands. Thank you.

Those of you who tend to see it as half empty raise your hands.

Thank you. (Still worried about that audience participation Phil)

I have spent half my professional career trying to persuade people that the glass is half full. I have spent the other half pointing out the glass is half empty and trying to do something about it.

There’s a lesson here that I will get back to in a minute.

Now, put your thinking cap on and consider this to be Union County’s glass. Is it half full or half empty?

Raise your hands if you see Union County’s glass as half full. Raise your hands if you see it as half empty.

You are right to be optimistic.

Here’s me using dull facts and data to incite you to think about Union County.

  • Population growth and academic achievement are two key indicators of prosperity. Union County has done well on both. Since 2010, your population grew 5% and your population achieving college degrees increased from 18% to 24%.
  • You are also one of a handful of non-urban counties in Mississippi where both your working age and your age 18 to 24 populations increased.
  • Your two school districts are strong and scored well on the recent 3rd grade reading tests.
  • More Union County residents have jobs, up 7.2%, your unemployment rate is a low 3.6%, and people from wherever working at Union County establishments has surged,15.9%

All good and no doubt why the Appalachian Regional Commission moved your economic rating from At Risk to Transitional this year.

Congratulations.

Now, back to that lesson I mentioned.

What I learned was this — if you focus only on the half full part of the glass and ignore the half empty part, you put all your successes at risk.

50 years ago several communities in this state had stellar economies, outstanding schools, and high expectations for the future, like you do now. Today those communities are in serious decline.

Perhaps there was nothing they could have done, but more likely they ignored glass-half-empty trends they should have seen or anticipated.

They cannot turn back the clock, but you can look ahead.

Here’s me using dull data and facts to incite you to think ahead about Union County:

  • One out of four of children here is growing up in poverty and your retirement age population is surging. Sustained growth in these two sectors will stress your economy in years to come.
  • Despite your good economy, your per capita income of $19,500 is $3,000 below the state average, which is the lowest in the nation. And nearly 30% of your households earn less than $25,000 a year – that’s households, not individuals.
  • National trends will impact you too. Such as these:
    • automation (one study says 30% of jobs in Union County may be automated by 2050),
    • decreasing numbers of people affiliated with religion – predicted to fall to 1 in 4 by 2040, and
    • addictions – opioid abuse, illegal drugs, pornography, etc.

While you think about and celebrate your progress, best you think about factors and trends like these too. Your long-term future may depend on it.

Now, put your thinking caps back on and consider this to be Mississippi’s glass. Is it half full or half empty?

Raise your hands if you see Mississippi’s glass as half full.

Raise your hands if you see it as empty.

Hmmm. Recent polls show about 37% of Mississippians think the glass is half full and about the same number think it’s half empty.  The rest have no idea.

Here’s me using dull data points and counterpoints to incite you to think about this confusion.

  • Mississippi has more people working than ever before and our unemployment rate is the lowest ever.
  • Yet, we have the lowest average weekly wages in the nation and our 18 to 24 population is shrinking while our elderly population is surging.
  • Mississippi over the past seven years created 35,000 new jobs and attracted more than $7 billion of private investment.
  • Yet many hospitals, key economic engines, are at risk of closing and economic risks are on the rise in over three-fourths of our counties.
  • National publications rate Mississippi high as a business friendly state.
  • But national rankings consistently rate us at or near the bottom in health status, educational achievement, and per capita income.
  • High school graduation rates and some NAEP scores are up.
  • But, teacher shortages have reached crisis stage.
  • State revenues are up and the rainy day fund is full.
  • Yet many programs are underfunded and total indebtedness, which includes the PERS unfunded liability, is at a record high and growing.

Mississippi’s glass sure looks a lot less full than Union County’s.

Why might that be? Think about this.

Your web site says this,“UCDA is business and professional people working together to make the community a better place for everyone to live and work.”

All those positive things I mentioned about Union County, that is evidence this approach works.

How is that approach doing at the state level?

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) is the statewide version of UCDA. In 2014 an MEC task force rigorously studied a growing Mississippi crisis. In 2015 the task force issued a comprehensive report detailing a $6 billion dollar shortfall in funding for road and bridge repairs.

The MEC called for a gas tax increase. The Mississippi Department of Transportation supported this recommendation. The conservative Tax Foundation, brought in by legislative leaders to make recommendations on our tax structure, said gas taxes are the way to pay for road and bridge maintenance.

Yet state leaders did nothing in 2016, 2017, and 2018. This year, an election year, they finally approved some limited one-time funding plus money supposed to come from the new state lottery. About $1 billion over 10 years to fix a $6 billion problem. And no gas tax increase.

Why did our government leaders not work together with our business and professional leaders on this important issue?

Could it be they were they scared off when a big money, out of state, special interest group jumped in and used propaganda to rile up its grassroots anti-tax network?

In 1987, when I was one of the few Republicans in the Legislature, business leaders proposed the AHEAD program to build 4-lane highways across the state. As you know, your own John David Pennebaker was the legislative champion for this cause. We Republicans didn’t like taxes back then either, but we understood the need for a highway program and the need to pay for it, so voted to raise gas taxes.

Like Union County, Mississippi can make progress, but such progress is much more difficult, if not impossible, when business and professional leadership can be trounced by propaganda from outside special interests.

What’s the solution?  Rigorous thinking and working together are part of it, but there’s more.

(Hold up stool) Yes, this is a three-legged stool. Yes, you can sit on it and think. But this is not just a stool.

Thanks to MDC in Chapel Hill for the concept. This stool highlights the rigorous process it takes to function as a highly successful team. Let’s start with the pieces that hold the legs together:

  • Rigor – rigorous thinking, yes, but also rigorous work.
  • Relevance – staying focused on what matters most.
  • Mutual benefit – the Golden Rule.
  • Relationships –the together part.

Here are the legs:

  • Homework – research, planning, and strategy development.
  • Resources – physical, human, and financial.
  • Leadership – shared and committed.

I got half a decade of experience using this process. That’s when the Pentagon tried to close our Naval Air Station in Meridian. Three times, in 1991, 1993, and 1995, our team, working together day and night, built strong cases, forged critical relationships, and convinced the BRAC Commission to keep our base open. Every element on this stool was a key factor in our team’s success.

Yes, working together matters, but so does process. We had lots of good-sounding notions thrown at us on what to do and how to do it. It took this rigorous process to sort the wheat from the chaff and plow our way to victory.

My perspective is that Toyota Mississippi practices a process like this. I also see similar practices at the CREATE Foundation and Three Rivers PDD. I suspect y’all practice a version of this at UCDA.

This is the way to fill Mississippi’s half-empty glass – more business and professional leaders plus government officials, rigorously doing their homework and working together to develop mutually beneficial, resource-friendly solutions to our most important challenges.

It is to Union County’s benefit to help make this happen at the state level.

(Hold up stool)  Let me wrap up by emphasizing the importance of mutual benefit.

What would this world be like, your life, your children’s, if people only did things for themselves and never for others?

Our founding fathers understood that concentrated power is the enemy of mutual benefit, so established our constitutional democracy to distribute power and serve the will of the people.

If you want Mississippi to “be a good place for everyone to live and work,” beware of leaders, and candidates,who crave power for its own sake. Lift up, instead, men and women of good will.

Good will, you see, is the heart and soul of mutual benefit, just as working together for common purpose is its manifestation.

(Hand to head) Think, think.

I leave you with six thoughts: 1) think for yourself; 2) think rigorously, 3) think ahead, 4) work together, 5) follow a rigorous team process, and 6) as the Bible says in Romans 14:19, “be about peace and mutual up building.”

(Hold up glass) A toast. May your glass be ever more full and less empty. Thank you.

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