On Regional Cooperation and Regional Competitiveness: (A Cautionary Tale)

By James F. Babcock

These days in Hampton Roads I sometimes am put in mind of a story I heard some years ago while taking a barge trip down the Danube River.

At a point where the river narrowed, our barge slid under a bridge that connected two villages. Signs on the opposite river banks identified the towns as 'PUTTSBERG' and 'SZAPSDORF'. The houses showed indications of decay and the cobbled streets were overgrown with grass.

“Quaint,” I observed to the elderly Austrian gentleman next to me.

He smiled sadly. “Yah, but two hundred years ago they were well known, and prosperous. But they fell on hard times and all because they didn't ask themselves the right question.”

“What do you mean?”

“It's an interesting story,” he replied, obviously eager to tell it to me. “You see, both towns had fine makers and repairers of musical instruments. Puttsbergers made violins and cellos, and they had a fine strolling string ensemble that played serenades. Szapsdorfers made winds and brass and had a marching band.

“Both groups performed nice concerts, and the two towns competed fiercely for the barge tourists. But among themselves they squabbled a lot. The oldest and richest neighbors in Puttsberg were proud to say they were first violins, while those who played second fiddle claimed they were more important simply because there were more of them. And over in Szapsdorf the clarinetists disputed with the trumpeters about playing solos.”

“How silly.”

“Yah, but very human. Anyway, the merchants saw that villages elsewhere had begun to combine the two groups of winds and strings into what was called a symphony orchestra. The new combination was said to make a wonderful new sound, including both symphonic serenades and symphonic marches. So the merchants in both towns urged that an advisor be hired to show them how to do the same for Puttsberg and Szapsdorf.

“’What?’ one popular Puttsberg leader objected, ‘We should spend good money on an advisor?’ Supporters clapped. ‘Spoken like a true Putts!’ But many others secretly thought it might have been a modest investment in their future.

“A leader from the other side of the river also objected, ‘If we gave combined concerts, how would we divide the proceeds?’ Admirers cried, ‘Now there's a real Szap!’ Yet many others thought it simple mathematics to divide results proportional to contributions, as other villages were doing. Well, lots of other prudent questions were asked in a tone that suggested the project would be impossible. And so, even though other villages apparently had already found the answers, the Puttsbergers and Szapdorfers just went on arguing.”

I gazed back at the decadent villages. “I take it they didn't join together to make a symphony.”

The old man shook his head. “Nein. Eventually, as business moved to the towns that did work together, the instrument makers had to lay off workers. And there were no new jobs, so the young people just moved away to the nearest growing town to work and listen to symphonies.”

“How sad. But you said the Putts and Szaps didn't ask themselves the right question. What was that?”

“Oh, very simple. They didn't ask, ‘Who are we really competing against?’”

I would have asked him to explain, but unfortunately at that moment our conversation ended, for the barge rounded a bend and our attention was diverted to a large sign:

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