On Topic: Adam Smith offers an invisible hand

John Benefield, cook at Cobble Hill, works on cleaning the kitchen at Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
John Benefield, cook at Cobble Hill, works on cleaning the kitchen at Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Everything is about the flood.

This is what I tell newcomers to the newspaper. Everything in Cedar Rapids is about the flood.

The rest, I guess, depends on what we make of it.

Until Sept. 22 of this year, I meant the flood of 2008. I wasn’t in town then, but I’ve seen the photos, read the stories, heard the tales. How some things were saved and some were not.

And I recall what downtown Cedar Rapids looked like when I came in for my job interview at The Gazette, in January 2011, two and a half years after that devastating flood. When I walked over from the Crowne Plaza on First Avenue NE to the newspaper that frigid morning, I didn’t see a single passing car or come across another soul, save for a pair of office workers huddled in an alley to smoke cigarettes.

This “Andromeda strain” effect, I was informed, was because of the flood.

But as I write this column, on Saturday, Oct. 1, the first day we were given the all-clear to drive through neighborhoods previously in an evacuation zone and over bridges to downtown, I’ve seen people out and about.

They’ve heeded the call of Mayor Ron Corbett and others to go downtown, NewBo and Czech Village to spend money.

“Cedar Rapids is open for business, Cedar Rapids is back in business,” he proclaimed during the Sept. 29 morning news conference at the Ice Arena.

He noted businesses affected by flooding, as well as those that weren’t but still were within the evac zone, lost a still-to-be-determined amount of money. Through missed business as well as lost product — restaurants needing to restock food, for example − and not to mention the cost of possible remediation and repair for some.

Smaller businesses, especially, have slim margins.

His pitch to everyone listening was simple − come downtown and spend money. He exhorted people to pledge “over the next month” to visit one business and money 10 times. He encouraged his fellow cyclists to up their game to 15 times.


To big companies considering setting up shop in Cedar Rapids, and to those thinking about expanding here, Corbett pleaded, “Please don’t lose faith in us.”

He pointed to city’s residents and businesses rallying to hold back the river as sign of why companies should come.

Casey Prince, Theatre Cedar Rapids executive director, had posted a similar call for local help on Facebook the day before.

“We had to close our doors through a half a dozen scheduled performances,” he wrote, “and the economic impacts could have long-term consequences for our theater if we are not able to regain lost ground very soon.”

Prince was very specific as to how readers of his post could help — if you’re planning to see a TCR show, “please consider making one of those times in the next 90 days.”

The urgings of Prince and Corbett reminded me of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s speech after 9/11, correlating patriotism with attending a Broadway performance. (Before he apparently forgot what actually happened in New York City on that day in 2001.)

And he was right about that. You want to show your support for Cedar Rapids, your city, after a setback? You still can, though the floodwaters have receded.

Adam Smith in his famous 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations” coined the phrase “the Invisible Hand.” Smith wrote, essentially, that people will act in their own self-interests and, even if that’s not their intention, that in turn is good for society.


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Patronizing businesses downtown, in NewBo and Czech Village and on the west side of the river — doing your bit to boost the city’s core — is in all our best interests.

And it’s not really all that invisible.

l Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor at The Gazette; michaelcheyv.castranova@thegazette.com



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