One thing both Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is that public policy is of critical importance to creating economic and demographic success in various geographies. Of course, they disagree on what the right policy is, but they both seem to believe implementing some set of policies is important. But is that really the case? Let’s take a look.
Firstly, at the national level, we know that there is huge variability demographic and economic performance between states, regions, and cities. So while perhaps national policy can act as sort of general boon or a bane for localities, it can’t be deterministic.
This is also true at the state level. Let’s examine one place that many suggest is doing everything right – Texas. Texas has really been the huge winner in terms of population and job growth in America in the last decade. But a look in more detail shows that this success is hardly uniform. Here’s a map of Texas counties for population change in the last decade.
Change in population, 7/1/2000-7/1/2009. Source: Census Bureau Population Estimates Program. Positive growth in green, negative growth in red (Hey, it’s Christmas)
Here’s a similar map of job growth:
Change in jobs, 2000-2009. Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Positive growth in green, negative growth in red.
All that supposedly wonderful Texas state policy didn’t do a lot for much of the state. My own personal view is that state policy needs to follow the dictum “First, do no harm.” I’m not convinced there’s a lot states can do to make localities prosperous. However, there’s a lot they can do to make things worse.
So what about localities? Now it gets interesting. Let’s consider the Midwest/Rust Belt region. I wrote a piece last year called “The Successful, the Stable, and the Struggling” that categorized Midwest cities into those buckets based on population growth. Other than Chicago (a unique beast), this sorting seemed to foot well to conventional views of overall urban success, economic growth, etc.
The successful cities were Des Moines, Indianapolis, Columbus, Madison, Kansas City, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. I noticed that all of these except Kansas City were state capitals with a metro region of 500,000 people or more. (Note that neither Indianapolis nor Des Moines contains their state’s major university.) I called this rule for predicting success my “Urbanophile Conjecture.”
That would imply that policy didn’t matter, but size and being a state capital did. It doesn’t necessarily explain why Springfield and Lansing never made it, but one could easily argue that Chicago and Detroit became colossi that simply sucked up everything that otherwise would have gone to the state capital. Similarly for Harrisburg, and possibly Jefferson City and Frankfort.
One might then proceed to ask why Madison and Columbus didn’t share this fate. Possibly it was the fact that Milwaukee wasn’t a mega-city or that in Ohio there were always many urban centers. But possibly it was also because they did have the state’s major university, which gave them the oomph to push them over the top where they otherwise wouldn’t have made it. (Lansing has a quality Big Ten school, but it is clearly second fiddle to U of M and Detroit is also a colossus).
But there are other ways to look at this successful group that distinguishes them. Though exhibiting a favored quarter development pattern, they all have fairly balanced metro area growth in 360 degrees. Other, more struggling areas are unbalanced in their regional growth. Is this a key?
This immediately leads to the observation that none of these places is on a major geographic barrier such as a lake or huge river that would have caused unbalanced development. Both the Twin Cities and KC were far enough upstream to make their rivers much less of an obstacle. Indeed, in places like Cincinnati and Louisville, river bridges remain huge topics of civic debate. Is it really a matter of geography, not being a state capital?
Or perhaps another matter entirely. The state capitals were chosen to be geographically near the center of the state, whereas the major cities were on the fringes. Why was that? Originally, you needed to be on a major navigable waterway for growth and connectivity. Most of the original cities bloomed early because of this. Beyond that, these water transport routes enabled the development of vast complexes of heavy industry. Those major waterways were not near the center of states, but were instead state boundaries.
I was struck by this map from a recent Brookings Institution study on the Great Lakes. It shows metro areas that were above and below the US average for manufacturing concentration in 1970:
Chicago Fed economist Bill Testa put together a remarkable chart illustrating that this week. In a blog post titled, “Can the Great Lakes Region Break Free of its Long-term Slide?,” he includes this chart of employment growth vs. 1969 manufacturing job share:
All of this suggests a narrative like this. “When creating states, we put state capitals in the geographic center of the state where they were usually on minor waterways. This is because we used the major waters as state boundaries. This left the state’s major cities to develop as non-capitals on the edges, where they grew into major industrial powers. Over time, state capitals that somehow didn’t have to compete with an established major urban center, or which had the state’s principal university, grew into major metropolises in their own right, and also in a geographically balanced fashion. Because they missed the heavy industrialization, they also had a greenfield situation that enabled them to be successful while their industrialized brethren wandered in the wilderness.”
In other words, the good demographic and economic performance of these cities is a result of common outside factors, not policy. Conversely, despite a variety of state and local policies, all of the heavy manufacturing centers have struggled. Only Chicago has partially recovered, based on its global city core that is really a city within a city.
Indianapolis was a manufacturing dependent city, but was never a truly huge industrial power, and otherwise met the criteria for success. Jim Russell notes that on Testa’s map, Indy and St. Louis started off with similar manufacturing job share, but had highly divergent fortunes. He suggests a comparative case study of the two. The only place I might look for policy influencing outcomes is Indianapolis, one reason being that I can point to fairly unique policy turning points like Unigov, the 1970 city-county merger. I get incessantly accused of being an Indianapolis homer, so I guess that’s a risk here too. (I certainly don’t believe Indianapolis overall has superior public policy to other cities today – arguably the opposite).
Looking at things like manufacturing concentration as a predictor of success is a variant of “single variable determinism.” That’s something that has always made me skeptical. As humans we have this overwhelming desire I think to reduce the world to simple cause and effect relationships, when the reality is a vast, complex, dynamic system. Nevertheless, this is interesting.
There’s an entirely different version of single variable determinism at work in the worldview of Harvard’s Ed Glaeser. In an episode of Carol Coletta’s wonderful Smart City Radio syndicated program, Glaeser lays out the case for educational attainment being the overwhelming determinant factor in urban success in cold weather cities.
The variable that predicts success among older, colder cities is overwhelming the percentage of the population with college degrees in 1960 or 1940 – places that had a longstanding connection to high human capital industries.
I’ve made liberal use of this quote myself. Glaeser outlines a similar view of water creating industrial powerhouses. Perhaps the state capital angle is what boosted the educational fortunes of those cities. I don’t know. But this is an alternative view. Still, it doesn’t really posit success as being about any particular public policy.
Yet another version of single or limited variable determinism appears in this week’s New York Times Magazine in an article titled, “A Physicist Solves the City.” This guy seems to be enamored of city size.
For those of us who love to talk about policy – left or right – this is a bit humbling. It implies that all we want to do or not do is simply irrelevant. We shouldn’t shy away from that line of thinking. I’ve long said that one thing urban planning needs to have is a healthy dose of humility and awareness of our own limitations. Too often we fall prey to the belief that we can simply reshape our cities to be the way we would like them too be. The real world isn’t always like that. The failures of urban renewal and the unintended, unforeseen consequences of programs like urban freeways should remind us of that.
The alternative, though, is fatalism. I don’t think we as human beings are programmed to simply do nothing and accept our fate. None of us, even I dare say our physicist friend above, behaves as if we really believe we live in a deterministic universe. If I’m going to go down, I want to go down swinging. While perhaps public policy of all varieties is of far less importance than we might believe, I believe we must continue to strive to improve our civic situations. We just need to do it with the proper perspective, taking due care not to fall prey to the lure of overreach and ultimately do more harm than good.