It matters a lot. A hell of a lot. Your future may depend on it.
In October, less than a month after the financial markets began to melt down, Moody’s Investor Services published an assessment of recent economic activity within 381 U.S. metropolitan areas. Three hundred and two were already in deep recession, and 64 more were at risk. Only 15 areas were still expanding. Notable among them were the oil- and natural-resource-rich regions of Texas and Oklahoma, buoyed by energy prices that have since fallen; and the Greater Washington, D.C., region, where government bailouts, the nationalization of financial companies, and fiscal expansion are creating work for lawyers, lobbyists, political scientists, and government contractors.Back in September, in the early days of the of the financial crisis, I thought about it a lot as I would look out into the Catoctins from the little park in our subdivision while my kids played (oblivous to what was on the radio) and I started to feel the first hint of Fall, that reminded me of 1987, my first Fall back in the states after living in Malaysia for 2 years.
Thirty years ago, educational attainment was spread relatively uniformly throughout the country, but that’s no longer the case. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh, and Boston now have two or three times the concentration of college graduates of Akron or Buffalo. Among people with postgraduate degrees, the disparities are wider still. The geographic sorting of people by ability and educational attainment, on this scale, is unprecedented.
The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent-clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can. There is no evidence that globalization or the Internet has changed that. Indeed, as globalization has increased the financial return on innovation by widening the consumer market, the pull of innovative places, already dense with highly talented workers, has only grown stronger, creating a snowball effect. Talent-rich ecosystems are not easy to replicate, and to realize their full economic value, talented and ambitious people increasingly need to live within them
Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy. Our economy is in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation—similar to that of the late 19th century, when people streamed off farms and into new and rising industrial cities. In this case, the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.
To a surprising degree, the causes of this crash are geographic in nature, and they point out a whole system of economic organization and growth that has reached its limit. Positioning the economy to grow strongly in the coming decades will require not just fiscal stimulus or industrial reform; it will require a new kind of geography as well, a new spatial fix for the next chapter of American economic history.
Suburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age—the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy. Henry Ford’s automobiles had been rolling off assembly lines since 1913, but “Fordism,” the combination of mass production and mass consumption to create national prosperity, didn’t emerge as a full-blown economic and social model until the 1930s and the advent of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
On one level, the crisis has demonstrated what everyone has known for a long time: Americans have been living beyond their means, using illusory housing wealth and huge slugs of foreign capital to consume far more than we’ve produced. The crash surely signals the end to that; the adjustment, while painful, is necessary.
But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.
Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.
But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required