[ This post inaugurates a three part series on “megaregions” and the applicability of this concept to the Midwest. It is a repeat of something I wrote on the subject a bit over a year ago. That should lay the ground work. Part two of the series will be a review of the book “Megaregions”, edited by Catherine L. Ross. The third part will be some thinking on ways the Midwest might be able to apply megaregional thinking to its problems. As you will see, I come to this subject as a skeptic.
This post originally ran on July 11, 2008]
There seems to be a lot of talk lately about an expanded concept of regionalism. Perhaps the best known exponent of this view is creative class guru Richard Florida, who published his thesis in a paper called “The Rise of the Mega-Region“. In Florida’s view, the mega-region is the logical unit of economic activity, superseding nation-states, US states, or metro areas. He defines mega-regions as basically a conglomeration of metros and their surroundings with more or less continuous development as indicated by light emitted and tracked from space. In this logic, much of the Midwest is in what he dubs the “Chi-Pitts” mega region, a collection of 46 million people creating $1.6 trillion in economic output (GDP equivalent) per year. This rates that mega-region third in world based on economic output. His map incapsulates the northern arc of the Midwest around the Great Lakes, extending from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh. Florida believes that thinking mega-regional is one way for struggling cities to boost their fortunes.
Author Richard Longworth has a similar view. He sees Midwest state boundaries as historical anachronisms unsuited to the modern economy. His travels while researching his book brought to light that few people in Midwest even know what’s going on in the next state, much less around the world. In his view the Midwest has great assets, but significant challenges, and the best way to deal with the latter is through a self-consciously Midwestern strategy developed through new regional institutions.
Academic institutions appear to be getting in on the game as well. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), an organization of Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago, recently held a summit on the regional future of the Midwest in Minneapolis, co-sponsored by the Federal Reserve.
It is easy to see the surface logic and appeal of this. The Midwest is collectively struggling, so it makes intuitive sense to pool resources and tackle the problems together. Who could be against regional cooperation?
What I can’t help noticing, however, is how few concrete proposals are out there that would appear to show any material uptick from regional cooperation. Other than holding conferences, what is it that cites and states in the Midwest are actually supposed to do to implement this strategy? What does a mega-regional solution allow a city to do that it couldn’t do on its own?
I have struggled to think of operationalizable actions, but can’t come up with many. In fact, most of benefits of thinking bigger appear to be elusive. Let’s think about why size and scale works in a business environment. There are a few reasons.
One is economies of scale. Typical scale economics comes from capital efficiency. That is, a large producer can substitute fixed costs for variable costs, and with large volumes produce a unit cost that can’t be beat by smaller producers that can’t absorb the fixed costs.
Two is purchasing power. This exploits economic inefficiency from being a dominant purchaser of inputs or producer of outputs such that a company can trade on favorable terms. We see just such a battle playing out for iron ore, featuring a large customer (China) haggling back and forth between a handful of large producers (Vale, Rio Tinto, etc).
Three is additional specialization and the division of labor. With more people, you can have greater specialization. This enables ever more division of labor which creates a more efficient production environment a la Adam Smith’s pin factory.
Four is diversification. This is the logic of the conglomerate like General Electric. Being in diverse businesses, it is better able to weather the storms that hit any particular one of its units. It should be noted that conglomerate thinking is definitely out of favor.
Do any of these apply in the case of the Midwest? It is hard for me to identify specific scenarios. To give a real example, I think of the triangle of cities formed by Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Louisville. These are all smallish major metros separated by about 100 miles. While none would be mistaken for Sunbelt boomtowns, none of them are Cleveland or Detroit either. They are also a good example since they are in different states. How might these cities cooperate to take advantage of mega-regional thinking?
I can already name some small scale things that have been done. One is mutual aid. The electric utilities in the three cities have long sent crews to help out the others after major storm related outages. And the cities formalized a disaster assistance pact. This is sort of the diversification argument and seems to create something tangible.
Beyond this, are the cities able to take advantage of scale economics? I don’t see how. I could see some level of capital efficiency that could be achieved if, for example, the three cities shared an airport located somewhere between them. But they seem far enough apart not to be able to do that for anything I could think of.
Is specialization an option. In theory, yes. In practice, I’m dubious. Thinking about how this might work, I use the example that Cincinnati could be the headquarters city, Indianapolis the life sciences city, and Louisville the tourism city. Each city would specialize and the others would agree not to compete but support the chosen city for each individual segment. This would eliminate costly duplication of effort and allow more muscle to be put behind each individual item. But would this happen? Highly unlikely. None of these cities is giving up an inch in fighting for all three items. That’s just not gonna happen.
Now, we do see around the country some degrees of specialization in cities that are nearby such that one could argue they form an extended region. NYC specializes in finance, DC in government, for example, and there is a lot of travel back and forth. In Texas, Dallas, Houston, and Austin seem to have specialized in complementary niches. But I don’t see a great opportunity for this in the Midwest, at least not in a pratical sense.
Ironically, the one area I do it happening in is within those much maligned state boundaries. For example, Indiana University and Purdue University have a great degree of specialization. Purdue has engineering, pharmacy, and agriculture as specialities. Indiana University has law, medicine, etc. They complement each other so well, in fact, that they are able to share major regional campuses in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne.
What about purchasing power? This is something I do see some logic in. Namely, if the Midwest congressional caucuses pooled their power, they could accomplish something. Again, how likely is this in practice? Most congressman and senators seem primarily concerned with their district, and not that likely to expend clout elsewhere. But if a Midwest caucus were formed in the House and Senate, there could emerge something. Perhaps the forthcoming battle over the Great Lakes Compact would be a good place to start.
There are certainly benefits to an expanded view of the market for state and local level procurement. For example, “home cooking” in terms of favoring in town or in state suppliers probably raises the cost of road construction, etc. Throwing this wide open to Midwestern competition, with common standards would be a financial benefit. But of course, so would opening it up to global competition. And that’s just unlikely to happen due to politics. Not in the Midwest, not anywhere.
Looking again at our three cities, I don’t see them able to reap much advantage from pricing power effects of cooperation. And even if they did, would this really materially change their economic fortunes? Unlikely.
So where are the benefits of mega-regionalism to be found? Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora views it as less about scale than about critical mass, particularly critical mass of talent. This is a powerful metaphor because it makes us think that once a certain talent level is reached, a chain reaction will set off a powerful economic explosion.
I prefer to think of this as a concept I call “minimum efficient scale”. That is, there is a certain minimum size it takes in order to support certain things or to do them in house. For example, a city needs to be a certain size to support commercial air service, a pro sports team, or a Neiman Marcus. Would cooperation between our three cities enable anything they can’t support today because of inefficient scale?
There is some intriguing evidence here. Cincinnati seems to have benefited from this. They have a Delta air hub, a major league baseball team, a major amusement park, and an IKEA store. I would argue that most of these only make sense for Cincinnati in the context of exploiting the expanded regional population. However, Cincinnati has favorable geography (being also close to Dayton and Columbus and thus serving as a natural focal point) and was traditionally the more prominent and large city of the three. The benefits to Cincinnati are clear, but are there benefits to anyone else? Not anything significant. What’s more, none of these items required any mega-regional cooperation at all. They happened naturally because of the marketplace. What would the cities specifically cooperate on that would give them something they don’t have today?
When it comes to talent, there are certainly benefits to having more of it. But I don’t see any particular benefits to mega-regionalism here. What would they be? Idea exchange? Possibly, but there is no particular geographic advantage to that. I can exchange ideas with anyone. If I were a struggling Midwestern city, I’d probably be more concerned about building connections to successful places and to the overall global economy than I would be to my failing neighbor next door. Believe me, if a good idea comes up, people will find out about it. The Youngstown shrinkage experiment is a good example of that.
Could there be an expanded labor market? I’m having trouble seeing it. In our example, consider a life sciences company in Indianapolis. Would they be more easily be able to tap into labor in Louisville and Cincinnati if there were some cooperation in place? Perhaps if the respective life sciences communities were intertwined, there would be more awareness of job opportunities, but my experience is that people are either going to stay where they are, or follow the money. In the latter, they probably aren’t moving 100 miles for what are probably similar wages. They are going to go to San Diego and make some real bucks. What’s more, the regional cities I know seem to harbor a special contempt for each other, which would seem to make it doubly unlikely someone would move if they bought into that rhetoric.
I also do not buy into the “chain reaction” analogy. I’ve yet to see a successful example of this that spans metro areas.
Geographic proximity alone can offer some benefits. Philadelphia is certainly benefitting from proximity to New York as NYC prices turn it into the sixth borough. Pittsburgh can’t tap into that. But I view this as less of a mega-region, than just the colossus that is New York City expanding its sphere of influence as it becomes an ever more important world city. There is a similar effect going on with Chicago and Milwaukee, but is that replicable elsewhere?
I think again about this, what would proximity alone bring to our three cities? Well, for some it could mean easier access to professional sports. But other than Reds baseball, which has a very broad fan base for historical reasons, I don’t see it. A local Louisville blog recently noted the lack of inroads the Colts have had in building a fan base in that city, for example. And looking to the bigger city example, what benefit could Indianapolis reap from closer engagement with Chicago that say Kansas City, which is outside the Floridian mega-region, could not?
Florida himself probably offers the best potential explanation. He argues that mega-regional integration will lead to emergent properties that can’t be predicted based on the inputs. This is plausible, but not where I’d be hanging my hat if I were trying to figure out where to invest my time. And emergent properties could be good or bad and Florida doesn’t predict what they might be.
Longworth is also big on mega-regional thinking. He does a great job of diagnosing and describing the Midwest’s problems. But I do not see how the specifics of his proposed solutions will dramatically change the Midwest’s course. And he himself recognizes the political difficulty of making them happen. Among his proposals, he wants to see a Midwest regional think tank and newspaper. He’d like to see reciprocal in-state tuition. He’d like to see a higher degree of academic specialization among Big Ten schools with less competition. And he’d like to see states call a cease-fire in the economic incentives game versus each other. All good ideas, and potentially beneficial. But I don’t believe they are game changers, apart potentially from the academic specialization, which seems to be a daunting proposition.
I’m willing to be convinced. I clearly see the benefits of regional cooperation on a metro or economic area basis. Even there, however, we’ve seen significant challenges operationalizing even that idea. To really justify significant time and effort being spent on mega-regionalism beyond the quick and easy idea exchange variety, I think a specific program of recommended actions and the type of results we should expect to see from them needs to be put forward. Otherwise I’m inclined to view mega-regionalism in the Midwest as dinosaurs mating. Rolling up a bunch of weak players won’t make a strong one.
I welcome any thoughts on this subject, of course.
[Update 7/12: For a 1990’s take on the concept of a super-region from the perspective of Cincinnati, refer to the Gallis Report (9MB PDF)]