It’s no secret the economy has been in a terrible state. How and when will it turn around? What will the future look like? When considering these questions, and looking at today’s economic trials and how to get beyond them, it’s worth a look back at how we got here. It was a three decade journey representing three major transformational waves that have profoundly transformed our economy at the macro and local level. The 80’s were the culmination of the Rust Belt Era. The 90’s were the Digital and Nationalization Age. The 00’s were the Globalization Age.
1980’s – The Rust Belt Era
The 1980’s in a sense represented the end of the post-war story arc. It opened with Volker’s sky high interest rates that broke the back of inflation and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
The 80’s started with an extremely deep, manufacturing-centric recession. While the metals industries and some others had struggled in the 70’s, along with pretty much the rest of the US economy, the rest of the manufacturing sector, ranging from autos to electronics underwent its most wrenching period of transformation. This saw the first major offshoring waves, as a large number of plants were moved to Mexico (or the Sun Belt). This legacy sill permeates the consciousness of the Rust Belt today, and if you talk to a blue collar worker in those towns, you’ll likely hear NAFTA (a 90’s construct, but clearly the continuation of the 80’s Mexican manufacturing migration) blamed for America’s industrial woes. Also, the US saw the first tough foreign competition in these industries in the form of Japanese auto and consumer electronic imports.
The cushy labor-management excess that characterized major American industry simply couldn’t hold up. I believe the early 80’s recession is what kicked off the large scale transformation of traditional American industry that is entering its final throes with the auto industry restructuring that is currently underway. When complete, the era of highly compensated industrial employment for low skill labor in the US will have largely come to an end.
The 80’s also saw the incubation stages of trends that would shape future development, such as the introduction of the personal computer and deregulation, notably the AT&T breakup in 1984.
The big trend kicked off by this was the increasing returns to college education. It was very clear even in the 80’s that if you wanted to attain a good standard of living and upward mobility, you should get yourself a college degree. It was a no-brainer. People with a high school diploma or less increasingly found themselves in a world of employment uncertainty, a financial freeze, and grim future prospects. This was stage one of the income gap problem.
1990’s, Part One – The Digital Age
The technology revolution was in many ways the signature development of the 1990’s. I’m very familiar with this because I lived it. At the dawn of the 1990’s, corporate computing was dominated by traditional mainframes. While PC’s were in use in business, it was not unusual for white collar employees not to have a computer at their desk. Laptops did not exist, nor did cell phones to any practical extent. The internet was a very limited government and academic tool. By 2000’s, new technology had not just transformed corporate IT, it had transformed business. Cell phones, laptops, and internet access were ubiquitous in business.
Consider the following technical cycles that hit during the 1990’s:
- The client/server revolution
- The Internet revolution
- The introduction of ERP (integrated Enterprise Resource Planning software such as SAP or Oracle)
- The Y2K retrofit
- The commercialization and widespread adoption of the internet
- The rise of competitive telecommunications and plunging network costs
- The large scale adoption of cell phones
- The introduction of consumer broadband technologies
- The ubiquity of computers in business and the large scale adoption of laptops
It is not surprising that this rapid change drove many economic changes. Firstly, the increasing centrality of technology to business led to an explosion in demand for technically competent people. This was the golden age for people working the technology and consulting industries. I’d suspect the technology consulting industry increased its employment at least five fold – all of it onshore. While traditional telecoms carriers shed thousands from their bloated workforces, startup telecoms hired in droves. This digitization wave reached its culmination of course in the dot com boom.
It was a good time to be a tech guy, I can tell you. People would routinely get raises of 50-100% when changing jobs. Even people who didn’t leave saw huge market adjustments in their pay. Stock options made many people millionaires. But it wasn’t just techies. Adapting this technology to business required a huge amount of business skill and savvy as well. There’s enormous change required in business processes, people skills, and organizations. As an aside I would estimate that a typical business change project underpinned by technology only involves about 20-25% of the effort spent on the tech itself.
All of this again produced enormous gains to people with college degrees. Companies such as my employer at the time were worried that the supply of college grads would simply be insufficient to keep up with projected growth. This reinforced the gap between college and high school educational attainment.
This technology and other change (regulatory, demographic, etc) also unleashed the fragmentation of the great American common culture, and ultimately perhaps the American commonwealth itself. In the 1980’s we all watched three networks on broadcast TV. In the 1990’s it was “57 channels and nothing on.” We see this today in the ever increasing array of specialty and niche products.
Terry Teachout is the best writer I know in discussing this fragmentation, and especially how it signaled the end of “middlebrow” in America, where the average middle class family consumed some culture that was, if not New York elite, at least intended to be edifying and enlightening.
I grew up in the Age of the Middlebrow, that earnest, self-improving fellow who watched prime-time documentaries and read the Book of the Month…When I was a boy, most Americans who didn’t care for high art still held it in a kind of puzzled respect. I doubt that Ed Sullivan cared much for Maria Callas or Edward Villella, but that didn’t stop him from putting them on his show, along with Louis Armstrong and the original cast of West Side Story…Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows…What’s really sad is that most people under the age of 35 or so don’t remember and can’t imagine a time when there were magazines that “everybody” read and TV shows that “everybody” watched, much less that those magazines and shows went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art of various kinds.
Prior to the 90’s, when there were only three networks, where there were limited choices in arenas of all types, they had to appeal to a broad America. This a) forced people to consume them because they had no other choice and b) made those who produced them feel at least semi-compelled to produce at least some socially edifying and enlightening content. It goes beyond Teachout’s exposure to some high art. Think, for example, of the impact on racial views in America of the Cosby Show.
Today there is none of that. Marketplace fragmentation eliminated both the rationale and frankly the viability of this point. You can’t force people to eat their spinach when they other choices. This has led to what we’ve seen over and over in field after field – the hourglassing of America. You’ve got Wal-Mart at the bottom, Neimans at the top, with everyone in the middle getting crushed. This again reinforced the degree gap, as not only was the economic experience of those with and without bifurcated, there were also increasingly fewer common cultural touchstones. They increasingly inhabited different worlds.
I list this under the Digital Age, because clearly technology enabled this to happen. You need the technical capability to bring segmented offerings to bear on the market, and that’s what the Digital Age did.
1990’s, Part Two – The Nationalization Age
Everyone knows about the tech revolution, but there was a concurrent development that was in many ways equally important. This was the nationalization of business.
Think again back to the 1980’s in a mid-sized or small city. Your hometown probably had three or so major locally based, publicly traded banks. Your state probably severely limited their ability to open branches, so the market was highly fragmented. Your town probably had a couple department stores that were either part of local or regional chains. This might have been true of discounters or even fast food restaurants. The local gas and electric companies were locally based. Only Ma Bell pre-1984 was a national utility, and a heavily regulated one. In short, while may industrial businesses were national in scope, there were still a huge number of industries that were incredibly fragmented into local or regional markets.
The deregulation of the 80’s and 90’s ended that. The end of restrictive banking laws put us where we are today, with a handful of major nationwide banks like JP Morgan Chase, along with a few odd surviving “super-regionals”. Utilities have been sold off. Department stores merged out of existence, perhaps most poignantly illustrated by the rebranding of Marshall Field’s flagship store in Chicago as Macy’s. Macy’s is truly America’s department store now. Wal-Mart and Target, once regional chains, are now ubiquitous. So too Walgreens, CVS, Home Depot, etc.
In short, the business landscape of your city likely changed radically during the 1990’s, as large numbers of locally based businesses, businesses whose executives formed the leadership class of the community, were bought out. (I wrote about one implication of this in my piece “The Decline of Civic Leadership Culture.”)
This also, incidentally, transformed the professional services industry. In 1990 virtually all of these industries were city office based. To be the office managing partner of the biggest office or headquarters city was a huge deal. But in the 90’s, as business changed, and as the level business domain expertise required to integrate technology into business strategies, processes, and organizations became much, much higher, all of these industries restructured into national practices based around industries, with P&L responsibility resting with the industry sector leads. That’s one reason I spent so much time on airplanes in my career.
Of course, this disproportionately benefited large cities in the middle of the country with big airports, where you could base lots of people and fly them conveniently around. Two big winners: Chicago and Dallas.
With so many businesses now large scale, deregulation continuing in vogue, and a post-Cold War end of history euphoria in the air, the stage was set for future liberalization of international trade regimes. Your local bank or store probably didn’t care much about international markets, but Citigroup and Wal-Mart sure did.
Thus the 1990’s saw not just the oft-despised NAFTA, but the far more important Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that created the open global marketplace as we know it today. The WTO was a creation of this treaty.
2000’s: The Globalization Age
The digital revolution, nationalization of business, the end of the Cold War, and the resulting trade agreements, set the stage for the Globalization Area.
What’s different about globalization? What are some of its hallmarks and attributes? Here are a few:
- Connectivity. Virtually everyplace is now linked by extensive and reasonably priced communications and transport networks.
- Increasing international standardization. This includes the global internet, global financial standards and trade rules, the use of English as a global business language, the ubiquity of containerization, etc.
- Integration of previously closed economies into the global economy. The end of the Cold War meant the end of isolation of the eastern block, as well as the battles over the alignment of other nations. Also, the West made a fateful decision that, unlike during the Cold War, it would extend virtually all international privileges to any nation regardless of whether or not it was a democracy or conformed to basic western notions of the rule of law or human rights. Previously the US may have supported many undemocratic regimes, but it didn’t trade much with them and it didn’t invite them to participate in major international summits like the G-20.
- The virtualization of business. It’s not just about Japan exporting finished products to the US. It’s not just about moving manufacturing to Mexico. It’s about moving any function anywhere. Get your raw materials from Brazil, put your plant in China, your IT in the Philippines, your IT and HR operations functions in India, your R&D in Switzerland, and your finance in New York.
- Foreign champion firms. Where once it was only Japan or Europe with major champion industries that could take on American giants, today it is anyone, from South Korea to China to Mexico. One thing that characterizes these firms in many cases is their tight links with their home state government, which actively promotes them and protects them and does everything in its power to advance their interests. It’s not just China, it’s everywhere, though weaker in the Anglosphere. And I think if you look at virtually anyone who has an “oligarch” profile (i.e., a guy who nobody heard of a decade ago who became a billionaire through canny acquisitions), I think you’ll find few of them have records that would stand up to scrutiny.
What does this end up doing? I have written before on the forces of globalization. But the underlying consistent themes are mobility and speed. Mobility of production, mobility of service provision, mobility of information, mobility of money, mobility of labor. All of these are mobile, and they move at speeds that would have been considered unthinkable just a short time ago.
Implication: The New Bifurcation
What does this mean? Well, it means a lot of things. Importantly, as everyone knows, it has meant that previously non-tradeable items are now fully traded in global markets. This has particularly affected white collar work that was previously immune to offshoring, everything from IT to invoice processing to architectural drafting to call centers to HR operations.
This has upended the old college degree/high school diploma split. Now, just having a college degree doesn’t save you. You need to have skills and work in a field that is not subject to international labor arbitrage. One could argue that there’s a new economic bifurcation, this one not based on educational attainment, but the tradeability of skills. However, this really hasn’t changed the old split as much as adjusted its proportions. Few of the types of people who lost out in the 80’s and 90’s are faring much better today, but they are now joined in their misery by a new chunk of folks with degrees. In effect, globalization drove a wedge and split the educated into two groups, and threw a good chunk of them into the losers pile.
Implication: The Narrowing of the Economic Base
This split within the college degreed between those who benefit from globalization and those who are victimized by it has narrowed the US economic base considerably, and dangerously in my view. I’ll reprise my four facts about Silicon Valley that sum it up: Between 2001 and 2008, the San Jose MSA’s: a) real GDP per capita increased by 20.8% b) total real GDP increased by 25.9%, c) real GDP per job increased by 39.6%, BUT d) total employment declined by 9.4%. That’s America’s problem in a nutshell. Growth without job growth. Growth in economic output without growth in employment.
This economy simply doesn’t generate enough jobs to keep Americans employed. Perhaps in the 90’s, we could pretend that by simply getting more people through college, we’d be able to make the transition to a broad based Information Age. But not today. That’s why we had a “lost decade” in the 2000’s, and are facing a gigantic employment problem right now.
Even those who are currently prospering in the globalization age would do well to look over their shoulders. In the 90’s, people with college degrees could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that blue collar work was a far away industry of which they knew little. Today we know it’s a case of, they came for the factory worker…..
Implication: A Metropolitan Future
Back to the notion of tradeability in jobs, what jobs are these that aren’t tradeable? There are basically two kinds of these: occupations requiring face to face interaction or in person service, and those involving specialized skills that can’t be obtained elsewhere.
Occupations requiring face to face interaction can include things like school teacher or plumber or primary care physician. But some have argued that the nature of the global economy has created almost by definition a scarcity of face of face communications. To the extent that you can obtain a proprietary advantage through face to face contact, that by itself is worth something. Obtaining this generally depends on the number of people, their particular skills, the ease of interaction, and dense and open social networks. Specialized skills are often niches that are subject to agglomeration economics that are the basis of cluster theory.
It’s obvious that both of these work to the advantage of cities. They have more people, more skills, more opportunity for face to face contact, more openness to change and innovation as a general rule, and usually more open social networks. They are usually the places specialized skill clusters are found because you need a certain sized economy to support an ecosystem. (There are important exceptions to this, such as the Warsaw, Indiana orthopedics cluster). That’s one factor driving increasing urbanization on a global scale, and leading to disproportionate economic output in cities to an extent we’ve not seen previously.
This suggests that there is some critical mass of size above which you are more likely to be competitively advantaged and below which you are more likely to be in a rough spot. That doesn’t mean every place that’s big has it made, but size certainly matters. There’s great debate on where the line is. I think it is fair to say civic leaders in almost any place would argue they make the cut. I tend to draw the line lower than some, and I believe there are going to be any number of smaller places like Warsaw that do ok by finding a niche, but on the whole, cities of a certain size are where it is going to be.
Implication: A New Typology of Cities for the Global Age
Another thing this notion of specialization suggests is a typology of cities. If we think about specialization, we can think about it along a couple of dimensions. We can think about it in terms of economies that are diversified in many industries vs. those that are concentrated. And we think of an economy has having tradeable industries vs. non-tradeable ones.
I, of course, can’t resist turning this into a 2×2 matrix:*
Regional business centers are diverse, but often predominantly feature tradeable industries. Atlanta is a good example here. These may be thriving places to do business in many respects – and there are many of them in America. But in some ways it seems their ability to generate economic value and wealth is eroding. Between 2001 and 2008 (the maximum range available), Atlanta’s GDP per capita actually declined by 6%. Its per capita personal income over that period declined from 109% of the US average to 95%, a stunning 14 percentage point drop that was the worst in the country among metros greater than one million in population. This is just more confirmation of what I said before, that Atlanta is a troubled region.
But beyond Atlanta, it calls into question the entire Regional Business Center model. Over that 2001-2008 period, 12 or 13 of the top 15 declining large metros on a PCI vs. US average method are ones I’d classify as Regional Business Center. Most of them have added jobs. Some of them even added a lot of jobs, like #2 Raleigh-Cary. But it seems they have increasingly lower end economies from a wage perspective and potentially a value one.
This should be setting off 911 alarm bells. This is where the preponderance of thriving American cities lie. These are America’s bread and butter cities, highly overlapping with what Brookings called “New Heartland” metros. If this model peters out as a success strategy, the results for the US could be catastrophic.
A Brookings writer sort of recognized this trend, noting that Atlanta had an income decline for “for reasons I don’t understand.” Well, people should start trying to understand it. Possibly one explanation is that the jobs they are creating, which are most of the new jobs in the country incidentally, are low wage due to their tradeability and thus are pulling down the average. If true, this means their core higher earning functions might be intact, but that America is drifting in a decidedly low wage direction. Whatever the case, we should figure out what’s really going on pronto.
Rust Belt cities are those that are concentrated in an industry that proved tradeable, like manufacturing. No surprise, places like Cleveland are hurting big time. Many of these places may no longer be technically concentrated in a legacy industry, but they still act like it. Their institutions, political systems, social structures, business practices and more are still often oriented around a legacy industry. Thus they behave as if they are concentrated even if they aren’t today.
Industry cluster cities are concentrated, but in an area that is not tradeable. Silicon Valley is the paradigmatic example here. But places like the aforementioned Warsaw, Indiana also count. It is obvious that if anything happens to the core industry of these cities, either it becomes tradeable or somehow obsolete or out of favor, these towns could be tomorrow’s Rust Belt burg.
A Better Tomorrow
Where does this take us? If we look at these trends, the future could seem rather bleak. But I prefer to be optimistic even I can’t predict how it will all work out. The endless debates over immigration reform show that America remains the place millions of people want to be. Clearly, people are voting with their feet in favor of the US, and that’s the ultimate endorsement. And if the last three decades have shown us something, it is that change happens fast. Globalization as it is currently practiced might end up proving to be just another decade long wave. In the 1980’s, many predicted Japan would displace the US as the world’s dominant economic power. It never happened. People have been betting on the decline of the US as long as I’ve been alive. But to date betting against the ultimate resiliency of the American republic has proven to be sucker’s bet.
Still, one lesson I take is that the forces unleashed in these waves have effects that are long term, and often not obvious. The early 80’s recession wasn’t just a cyclical downturn. It was a signal that manufacturing as we knew it was over. The forces of change unleashed then continue. They’ve finally taken down the auto industry, and perhaps in a short period of time the industrial restructuring will be complete.
Similarly, I’ve long drawn a parallel with between the 2000-2002 Rust Belt recession and the 2000-2002 dot com recession. There was a recovery from that, but I believe the signal is clear: technology as a macroindustry may be on the way out. It may take 20-30 years to get there, but I believe traditional tech employment is in long term secular decline. Those flush 90’s IT consultancies employ a lot fewer people than they used to (onshore at least), and probably will only employ fewer in the future. Dittos for corporate IT. While companies like Apple or nimble web startups might continue to thrive, mass IT employment for people without top tier tech or organizational leadership skill is going to suffer. I’m far from the first to suggest this. See also the famous piece, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” I could not in good conscience recommend that anyone in the US coming out of college go into IT today. (In India and elsewhere, it’s a different story). Similarly, there’s no such thing as the “green economy.” Within a decade, there will only be the economy. It will all be green and we’ll be right back to square one.
So while I certainly think these sectors are worthy of attention, we ought to be careful about them. Any “next big thing” gets absorbed into the system as it were, and becomes less of an industry in its own right. This means we should be careful about overly betting on specific sectors, particularly when those sectors have increasingly narrow employment bases.
We need to be aware of the forces and implications of the global age, recognizing that things will continue to evolve rapidly, but that nevertheless macro forces can transform us over a period of time in ways we don’t pick up from the cyclical ups and downs.
The first implication to address is the narrowing of the economic base. The signature problem of our time is to find a sustainable new model of both job growth and growth in jobs that provide a middle class standard of living with a realistic prospect of upward mobility. Without that, without a base belief by the broad public that there is economic security, progress and policy consensus on any other issue will prove illusive. The Great Recession will eventually end. But I’m not sure the secular forces that produced a lost decade will. We can’t let even a recovery lull us to sleep.
Going back to the 90’s, we’ve obsessed over how to generate more high skill jobs. Every city has programs around biotech, high tech, etc. I’ve written a lot about this myself. Clearly it is needed. Also, there’s been a lot of fascination with the urban transformation of places like New York or the ultra high value generated by clusters like Silicon Valley. Obviously places look at this and think they’d like to have some of that wealth generation for themselves.
The question is, how many cities will succeed at this, and to what degree? Also, how many jobs will this create? Probably not that many. Probably not enough to turn around even an entire metro area, much less the United States. Chicago has had one of America’s great urban core booms, but has hemorrhaged jobs.
Right now everyone is focused on foie gras, when what we really need is more meat and potatoes. I think that’s one mindset change that needs to happen. Joel Kotkin believes that the future is “vanilla.” I think there’s something to that. Yes, we need to continue focusing on wealth generating industries and high skill/high paying ones, particularly in places like the Midwest that don’t have many of them. That’s part of how you pay the freight for everything else. But we’ve also got to look at the everyday. Maybe, for example, we should put less focus on splashy downtown showcases and more on basic neighborhood services. Maybe less effort into biotech and more into creating a generally positive business climate for investment. We need better balance in our thinking.
We also need to recognize that our economic future is metropolitan, including cities and suburbs. This isn’t just an American thing, it’s a global trend. The notion of the yeoman farmer and the virtues of rural and small town life run deep in America. I grew up in a rural area and very much appreciate its values. I still hold them in many ways. We should respect them to be sure. But they aren’t our economic future. The future is in city regions with the minimum scale to compete. Our policies need to recognize that. You can be sure that other nations are very clear on this point.
As part of this we need to think about the new urban typology and how to make it work. I put one here, but there are many other ways to look at it, such as Brookings’ new take. Clearly, in a diverse America with diverse cities, one clear imperative is a diversity of strategies and policies to match. We need to think a lot less like a platoon of foot soldiers marching in unison and a lot more like a sports team where everyone has their own role to play.
I think the most important thing is to figure out how to make the Regional Business Center model work, and migrate more cities from the Rust Belt category into it. This won’t be easy. They’ve got the tough challenge of boosting incomes and maintaining job growth. Their low costs are an advantage, but a race to the bottom is a suckers bet. Much of the thinking about cities has been about America’s traditional urban centers. These places are simply too unique and impossible to replicate to serve as models. The “superstar cities” of America have an important role to play in our national economy as high value production centers. They really are foie gras, but they’ll never be the main course. We need to cultivate quality, prosperous workaday cities for the bulk of Americans to live and work. This means accepting that they are a very different animal from the tier ones.
Lastly, we need to forge a new framework for an American commonwealth. The great mass market is gone. Almost everything is fragmented today. The era where a one size fits all policy like the interstate highway system creates consensus is fading. Our nation is simply more diverse than ever on almost any metric. There are more versions of the American Dream than ever. We’ve got to find a way to make that work for us so that we can move forward. Lucky our federal system and tradition of local control give us the tools to do this. But it won’t be easy. Part of it I think will have to involve a more live and let live approach where we accept that other people simply have different values and preferences from us, that our desires and beliefs, no matter how deeply held, are largely not moral universals.
I can’t predict exactly where we’ll land. But America has long proven highly resilient and able to continually reinvent itself. It’s our great strength. I can’t say for sure how we’ll do it this time. But I believe it’s more likely than not that we will. We’ll know we’ve done it when we have an economic system that provides reasonable economic security and upward mobility prospects for the middle class, and in which a rising tide starts lifting most boats again.
* I didn’t do a quantitative analysis to map these cities, but it would be interesting to do one and see if the conceptual model holds up. And yes, I prefer to spell “tradeability” this way.