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Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Starter Ideas For Improving Rhode Island’s Economic Competitiveness

This is the third and last part in my series on Rhode Island. You can go back and read part one and part two if you missed them.

Justin Katz, writing at a web site called the Ocean State Current that appears to be published by a libertarian think tank in the state, is unhappy with my proposals. In fact, he’s giving a point by point rebuttal to my six part toolkit, which you can read here, here, here, here, here and here. I think it’s fair to say he thinks Rhode Island needs much more radical change than I prescribe, and can’t rely on a gradual approach among many other complaints.

Right or wrong, here is my thesis. A free market agenda along the lines of a Tennessee or Texas is dead on a arrival in Rhode Island. It’s simply not possible to pass. Among other reasons, this is because the people of Rhode Island by and large have some degree of progressive orientation. That’s very different from say Indiana, where every other person you meet on the street has Tea Party sympathies, and it takes a lot of police possibilities off the table. I also believe that most progressives in Rhode Island genuinely want to see a better economy in the state. Hence my pitch is aimed at providing analysis and policy recommendations that might have a chance at appealing to the Rhode Island electorate, and thus have some hope of getting implemented or affecting how people think about the issues. If Katz & Co. prefer a different approach, I’m all in favor of the marketplace of ideas.

By the way, even if you go on Atkins or some other rapid change program of weight loss and are successful, the weight seldom stays off as we know. Slow and steady changes in lifestyle are the best way for sustainable change.

Today I want to give a starter set of policy ideas for changing the trajectory in Rhode Island. I won’t claim these are a panacea or represent a comprehensive to do list, but you have to start somewhere. This is an expanded list from my City Journal piece.

Taxes and Fees

1. Seek a “grand bargain” on revenue neutral tax reform. Here the idea is not necessarily to reduce tax revenue overall, but to adjust the levers to make the system less onerous on entrepreneurship and small business. One conceptual idea – and I stress this is a hypothetical – might be to raise the income tax on top earners making over say $500K/yr (a shibboleth of the left) to eliminate the 7% sales tax businesses pay on utility bills. I’ll be returning to the matter of utilities again as it’s an important issue.

2. Repeal the $500 minimum corporation tax. Rhode Island shouldn’t add insult to injury by making a business that loses money pay a tax on top of it just for the privilege of existing. I know at least one person who killed off a side business just for this reason. To be sure it was a hobby, but hobbies sometimes germinate into actual full time businesses.

3. Waive permit and other fees for the first year for new businesses. So many startup businesses don’t even last a year. Why not wait until we see until there’s at least baseline viability before socking them with a bunch of fees? You could easily implement this by charging in arrears. Obviously you’d have to be careful to avoid burdening the system with people getting “just in case” permits such as creating tons of shell companies, but I think this can be managed.

4. Reform unemployment insurance. Benefits are too high and ideally Rhode Island should be closer to the national median. But this would be hard to achieve and a start at reform can be achieved without it. The focus here would be eliminating market-distorting cross-subsidies that favor frequent users of the system, and revisiting business successor rules that punish people for buying and saving failing or bankrupt businesses.

Regulations and Mandates

5. Reform temporary disability insurance (TDI). This is one that wasn’t on my radar until I heard Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block call for reform. But when I looked into it this appears to be an even bigger problem than he suggests. Rhode Island is one of only five states with mandatory TDI. The others are California, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii, all states with fortress industries and such that make them most definitely not Rhode Island’s peer group. It has the second highest benefit levels. It has a state run monopoly system. It allows employees to double dip. And I believe Rhode Island’s program is one of only two along with California that has a temporary caregiver leave component. I’d completely repeal mandatory TDI. But again, reform of some sort should be possible without triggering political nuclear war. Eliminate the state run system and tell businesses to buy coverage from the marketplace. Eliminate double-dipping. Make temporary caregiver leave a one time only or one per decade type benefit instead of annual recurring one. Put a lifetime cap on weeks of benefits and beyond that claimants should utilize long term disability coverage. Again, whatever we think about the idea of this system, Rhode Island is a huge outlier here and has little leverage to lead the way on this.

6. Perform a post-Obamamcare health insurance mandate review. Rhode Island has more items of mandated insurance coverage than any other state. Coming from Illinois – a blue state mind you – I was stunned at how much individual health insurance costs in Rhode Island. Obamacare seems to have largely standardized coverage and I would suggest defaulting to its coverage guidelines. If Rhode Island has items that go beyond this, it should eliminate any where at least ten other states (including at least MA and CT) don’t already mandate it.

7. Pass a clean semi-monthly payroll act. Until last year, Rhode Island was the only state in America that required companies to pay their employees weekly. That was changed to enable bi-weekly/semi-monthly payroll, but only for businesses whose average pay is twice the minimum wage and can post a surety bond, get the written permission of any unions affected, and recertify with the state every four years. You know what I call that? Progress. That’s good news. But in keeping with the continuous improvement theme, the legislature should follow-up with a clean semi-monthly payroll bill.

8. Create a “most favored nation” regulatory policy with regards to Massachusetts and Connecticut. It’s hard to argue that neighboring states have different core values. So their regulatory systems should be considered prima facie adequate for Rhode Island. Unlike California, a big and rich state, businesses are not going to jump through hoops for the privilege of serving small and economically challenged Rhode Island. So to make it easy, I suggest harmonizing regulations with Massachusetts (and if possible Connecticut) to create a mini type of EU style common market effect. This could be implemented via a most favored nation policy saying that “If it’s legal in MA or CT, it’s legal in Rhode Island. If you’re licensed to do it in MA or CT, you’re licensed to do it in Rhode Island.” Rhode Island is really subscale to be running its own regulatory system anyway, so outsource it.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s needed on the regulatory front. Many of you probably saw the recent Thumbtack survey that ranked Rhode Island the worst state in the country for its small business climate, as rated by small businesses themselves. Metro Providence was ranked the second worst metro. Fixing this is actually much more critical than taxes in my view, but also harder as many of the worst regulations around land use and such are at the local level. So this is where local reformers should focus.

Utilities

When I spoke to the Rhode Island House of Representative earlier this year, the other speaker was a representative from CVS sharing his perspectives on what that company looks for in places to invest. One item he mentioned as important is utility costs. Hence my thought about utility taxes above. But beyond that, Rhode Island’s electric bills are among the highest in the country and gas prices are high too. There needs to be a focus on bringing those down. Lowering electric rates doesn’t deprive the treasury of much and actually saves money on government electricity purchases. Unfortunately, as someone pointed out to me, in Rhode Island it works just the opposite; because it doesn’t appear to be a tax, the legislature feels free to pass laws that send rates through the roof.

9. Kill Deepwater Wind by any means necessary. Deepwater Wind is a crony capitalism fiasco of epic proportions involving an offshore wind farm. Billed by some as the “next 38 Studios”, it’s actually even worse as the price tag will be hundreds of millions of dollars. IIRC, the increased cost to governments alone from purchasing inflated electricity will be $1.5 million a year. The environmentalists I know don’t even like the project. The only plus side to anybody other than cronies appears to be reduced electric rates on Block Island. Well, I may have cheaper electricity, but I don’t get to live on an amazing island. Nevertheless, if it’s important to bring those rates down, then direct subsidies would be cheaper.

10. Partner with other New England states on increasing gas pipeline capacity into New England. A while back City Lab ran a story talking about a new gas pipeline under the Hudson River into New York City. As you probably know, gas is dirt cheap right now because of plentiful supplies from fracking in places like Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t help if the gas can’t get there. The Northeast has been under-pipelined. But as you can see, New York City is seeing the infrastructure investment to bring this online. New England isn’t. Here’s the money chart showing the price spikes this produces:

I’m not sure why no new pipelines have come into New England, but I’d certainly make it my business to find out. By the way, some residents do heat their homes with natural gas. I did when I lived in the state. So beyond industrial customers, think about what that chart means to struggling Rhode Islanders’ winter heating bills.

Sadly, the state seems to be moving in the opposite direction as the legislature passed more laws this year that will at first glance raise rates still higher.

Infrastructure

11. Cut to Invest With a Major Infrastructure Bond. Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a principle called “cut to invest.” That means making cuts in current spending in order to invest in critical items like infrastructure. Rhode Island’s infrastructure is in rough shape so that approach is needed here. Interest rates are rock bottom right now so there’s no better time to borrow. As the Fed dials back on quantitative easing, the window may start closing on this. Rhode Island needs to identify cuts in ongoing spending sufficient to finance payment on a major infrastructure bond targeting roads, bridges, and schools. I’m not talking about adding any new road capacity here, just doing things like rehabbing or replacing the existing crumbling bridges and obsolete school buildings.

As the Sakonnet River Bridge debacle shows, this money is going to be spent one way or another. Better to do it now on the state’s terms instead of later when it will cost a whole lot more to, for example, fully replace decayed structures that could have been saved if they’d only been properly maintained.

Under no circumstances should Rhode Island issue a bond without the full necessary funding stream for repayment allocated up front.

12. Investigate shared startup/co-working facilities. Instead of paying companies to set up shop in Rhode Island, invest the sales effort into luring operators like TechShop to create locations in Rhode Island. These types of co-working facilities can reduce the cost of capital and risk of entrepreneurship. I’m not a big fan of government building these directly, but they are a key part of the startup infrastructure of a community these days.

Miscellaneous

13. Build more Quonsets. NYU economist Paul Romer has advocated for a “charter city” concept in developing countries along the lines of a charter school as a way to bypass dysfunction. Rhode Island already basically applied that concept at the former Quonset naval base. Quonset is everything Rhode Island is not. They’ve invested in first class infrastructure. They have a single zoning classification, business friendly performance-based development standards, pre-permitted sites, a single point of contact for approvals, and a 90 days to groundbreaking pledge. Port users even have a tax advantage in that they are exempt from the Army Corps of Engineers import duty because the state instead of the feds paid for the port improvements. The result: 9,000 jobs, including 3,500 created in just the last few years.

Why not replace this model elsewhere by partnering with towns to create more Quonsets? When I pitched this idea at a RIPEC event, an economist with Beacon Hill Institute in Boston wasn’t a big fan. He critiqued it on two basic points. One is that the businesses who located there probably would have been elsewhere in Rhode Island. The other was that the $10,000 a job in infrastructure investment was too high.

I think the first criticism is fair and must be true to some extent. Additionally, some of the jobs are directly port related and there isn’t another deepwater port handy that I’m aware of. However, there’s no hard data on this and my assumption would be that at least some of the non-port jobs must represent a net gain to the state. In any case, Quonset is the best thing going in the state right now, so why not give the model another chance? Also, keep in mind that a state like Tennessee paid $250,000+ per job for a VW plant. $10K/job – not in subsidies, but infrastructure – is small potatoes as these things go, particularly in state where the infrastructure is decrepit. I’m pretty sure if I told the legislature they could create middle class jobs at $10K a pop in infrastructure, they’d sign checks all day long.

At Quonset, the state is the developer. For new sites, I’d look to partner with a private developer, with a state authority as infrastructure partner and approval provider a la Quonset.

I won’t suggest this list is anywhere near where the state needs to be. It doesn’t address key issues as the local level like regulations that hobble building, or the corruption/cronyism issues. But hopefully this provides at least some tangible first steps that could get the state pointing in the direction it needs to go.

As with my guiding principles list, some of these items were originally suggested by other people.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Alternative Energy For Liberia by Andrew Falk

[ I had lunch a few weeks back with Donald Cassell, who works on the Africa program at the Sagamore Institute. He's Liberian and his focus is Liberia. He sent me some very interesting material on the country, including this piece on an alternative energy project there written by his colleague Andrew Falk. Please look at the original version for footnotes - Aaron. ]

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently wrote an article in Foreign Policy in which she lamented that Liberia’s twenty-three year civil war left the country’s energy infrastructure “in shambles.” She observed that of Liberia’s 4.1 million citizens, only about one percent of urbanites – and almost no one living in rural settings has access to electricity.

President Sirleaf is not making up excuses when she cites the impact of the country’s civil war: in 1980, when the war began, Liberia was producing 852 million kilowatts of electricity, and using 792 million kilowatts. By 1991, production and consumption had fallen by about sixty-eight percent to 273 million kilowatts and 253 million kilowatts, respectively. By 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, production and consumption had only risen to 335 million kilowatts and 311 million kilowatts, respectively.

A startling analogy employed by President Sirleaf in the same article puts Liberia’s electrical woes into perspective: AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, uses more electricity than the total installed capacity of Liberia. While this analogy could be misleading as the Wall Street Journal noted, AT&T Stadium only consumes that amount of power for several hours a day on eight regular-season NFL games it is staggering to consider that AT&T Stadium’s ten megawatt electrical usage is more than three times the amount that Liberia can put into its national grid.

President Barack Obama visited Africa during the summer of 2013 and announced a new initiative, Power Africa, which is designed to work with six African countries, including Liberia, to increase electrical production and provide electrical access to twenty million new households and businesses.

In contrast to the large-scale programs proposed by President Obama and being planned by multinational corporations, several individuals and small organizations are already on the ground making a difference in Liberia. One such organization is the Liberian Energy Network (LEN), a nonprofit organization started by Richard Fahey, a retired environmental attorney from the United States. LEN imported two hundred solar lights in May 2013, and two more shipments are anticipated before the end of the year. LEN sells the lights through retail shops in Monrovia and through partner organizations such as Ganta Methodist Mission Hospital, Advanced Youth Project, and the Christ Network for Good. It charges only enough to cover its costs of manufacturing, shipment, and operating expenses. Several types of lights are available, from a small reading light to a much larger unit capable of lighting a hospital ward. A third model also has the ability to charge a cell phone.

Meanwhile, a Liberian construction company is seeking to address the country’s electrical shortage by building sustainable, off-the-grid homes. MenKaR Construction Company is in discussions with John Waters and Donald Cassell, Sagamore Institute Senior Fellows, to design and build housing units powered by lithium batteries that are recharged by solar power. The proposed units will be close to the University of Liberia in one of Monrovia’s suburbs.

Waters is an expert in alternative energy with a long history in battery design and development. He was one of the General Motors engineers who helped develop the EV1, one of the earliest successful electric vehicles. Since then, Waters has worked on battery research for Delphi, Segway, and Bright Automotive.

Waters has developed a battery that he calls a Universal Battery Module (UBM). The UBM has a ten-year life in the worst-case scenario where it would be completely drained of power every day, 300 days a year, and completely recharged. The battery is designed to provide 3,000 one hundred percent discharge cycles. If, for example, the battery were only drained halfway every day, its life could extend to twenty years.

The UBM can be used to power lights and cooking appliances in the home; to run water pumps for drinking, bathing, and washing; and to recharge cell phones. The UBMs are also designed to be compact and light enough that they may be removed from the home to power electric scooters, motorcycles, four-wheel devices, and small tractors. For example, one application in the active planning stages is powering motorized water carts in Nigeria, where Waters is working with an international company to provide battery-powered carts to replace those presently pushed by eighteen to twenty-two year old young men.

Waters has also integrated his UBMs into a design for off-the grid homes. In designing a concept called Light Village, Waters envisions an off-grid family using ten compact florescent lights (CFLs) in their house (to replace kerosene or candles). Each CFL requires ten watts for ten hours, which is one kilowatt hour (kWh) for 10 lights used on a daily basis, and throughout the week. The family may use five hundred watts for cooking for three hours a day (for three meals) for a cumulative total of 1.5 kWh. The same family could use five hundred watts for an hour to pump water (0.5 kWh). And they move one battery to their scooter, which they ride for at least twenty-five miles for transportation to work or the market, which would use another 2 kWh. All together, the family has used 5 kWh.

To meet this need, the family mounts a 1 kW solar panel on the roof of their home. With six hours of sun, they generate 6 kWh, which they can store in three 2kW batteries. The 6 kWh is more than the 5 kWh the family needs daily, but it could be either shared, saved, or used for other electrical needs. The solar energy used to meet the family’s needs is abundant, “free,” quiet, and produces no emissions.

One of the unique aspects of Waters’ model is the mobility of the battery. The battery’s mobility makes it possible to also have a battery station in the village where a station owner invests in solar panels. The residents of the village could come in every two days and swap batteries for a fee. This option would relieve most people from having to invest in and install solar panels for their homes. Expanding the model further, Waters is in discussions with large capital companies that would purchase the UBMs and lease electrons back to customers at lower cost than they spend daily on firewood, charcoal, kerosene, and candles.

In addition to the solar power and battery packs, Waters has worked with Architects and Sagamore Institute Senior Fellows, Scott Truex and Donald Cassell, to design the Light Village homes to collect rainwater on the roof, which is then used in the kitchen and in the toilet. The resulting brown water could be then flushed outside the house where it is filtered and could even provide natural fertilizer for the family’s micro garden. Waters hopes the western idea of complex, expensive, and centralized energy and sewage infrastructures will be a thing of the past.

While it will probably be many years before Liberia begins to generate and consume electricity at rates similar to cities in the West, thanks to organizations such as LEN and projects such as Waters’ Light Village, many Liberians could be enjoying the benefits of sustainable electricity much sooner.

Andrew Falk is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute. His research focuses primarily on environmental and energy issues.

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Disrupting the Disruptors

Jill Lepore’s attack on “disruption” and on Clayton Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma” model of industry dynamics in the New Yorker kicked up quite a stir. Called “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong,” Lehore lays out a multifaceted skeptical case against the notion of disruption. Her piece combines several different arguments together without clearly distinguishing them, but I identify four basic questions she attempts to answer:

1. Does disruptive innovation exist, at least as a model for understanding industries?
2. Can incumbents successfully respond to a disruptive innovation?
3. Can disruptive innovations be identified prospectively or only retrospectively?
4. Are disruptive innovations net beneficial to society?

I’ll start by observing that she twice references traditional print journalism incumbents as examples. One is the New York Times innovation strategy, which makes explicit reference to Christensen’s theory. The second is when she talks about the public interest rationale for the separation of business and editorial in the traditional news business, making reference to both the NYT and the New Yorker.

This explicit link to journalism, along with the general tone of offense that pervade the article, betrays something more than a professional interest in the topic. Indeed, she’s hardly a neutral observer as her paycheck in part comes from an industry that’s being disrupted (she’s also a Harvard professor). The impression I get once again is of someone in deep love with the culture and traditions of her trade, something I’ve noticed over and over again in the incredible resistance and even hostility newsrooms have shown over the last decade or so to change and innovation. There’s a reason that people who experience an involuntary rupture can often never get over it. There’s a reason, after all, the Israelites who saw the miracles in Egypt never got to enter the Promised Land.

This points to a legitimate add on to Christensen’s theory. He views the innovator’s dilemma as purely about logical business decisions. But he overlooks the cultural aspects. The culture of firms emerging from traditional business practices are resistant to change because legacy practices are part of the core value set, maybe only implicitly. I lived it. I started out after school doing IT consulting where we operated in an onsite, onshore model in a traditional “mountain moving” operating style. The switch to global delivery in response to upstarts from places like India disrupted that way of doing business. And while I enjoy aspects of global and remote site delivery and successful ran projects using the model, I never had the love for it that I did for the first one. I still have a nostalgia for the “good old days.” So I can relate myself.

In this sense I think we should see the piece as written by someone who is party to the phenomenon in question, and perhaps as an expression of some of her own personal angst on the topic.

With that let me attempt to address her questions.

1. Does disruptive innovation exist, at least as a model for understanding industries? Lepore says No, and that Christensen’s model is based on flawed case studies. I personally have some sympathy for this argument. She correctly notes that “disruptive innovation” is a sort of modern gloss on Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” Certainly in the real world theoretical abstractions like this are seldom seen in a clean or pure form.

But there’s a long way between critiquing Christensen’s theory as a model of understanding firms and industries, and critiquing the idea of a disruptive innovation itself. All of us can take a look around and see the digital technology has radically disrupted the newspapers, the music industry, fixed line telephony, etc. It’s obvious. Disruptive innovation is trivial to see all around us.

2. Can incumbents successfully respond to disruptive innovations? Lepore says Yes and I agree. Clearly disruptive innovation is not a death sentence for a company. But what we see is that disruption often triggers an industry shakeout, and while often the top players survive and come through stronger, weaker players fail or consolidated away.

Consider the mainframe industry back in the day, with “IBM and the Seven Dwarves.” Minicomputers and PCs disrupted that old business. IBM is still alive and kicking – and even still making money off mainframes. Basically everybody else is out of the business or selling IBM clone stuff. Sperry and Burroughs, for example, merged to form Unisys. Unisys is still around as a company, but they are no longer a mainframe firm. They are now basically an IT services company. That’s a success story as far as it goes. Many of the other players are dead or completely flushed out of the industry.

We’re seeing the same thing in newspapers. The Wall Street Journal seems to be adapting. The New York Times is holding its own as well. It may well be that ten years from now the NYT and Journal are stronger than ever. We already see that the NYT is a national paper in the way that it never used to be, for example. But your local newspaper, now likely owned by a chain like Gannett, is already a zombie that’s probably not even worth reading today.

So just because some firms survive and even become more dominant, doesn’t mean a disruptive innovation doesn’t have profound industry effects.

3. Can disruptive innovations be identified prospectively or only retrospectively? Lepore cities Christensen’s investment fund failure here, and I’d have to agree that predicting the future is hard. Even the best venture capitalists are looking for the minority of grand slam investments and know most of their bets won’t really pan out. Just having a theory doesn’t necessarily mean you can profit from it as we know.

4. Are disruptive innovations net beneficial to society? Here’s where Lepore makes her most explicit defense of the present model of journalism, saying:

It’s readily apparent that, in a democracy, the important business interests of institutions like the press might at times conflict with what became known as the “public interest.” That’s why, a very long time ago, newspapers like the Times and magazines like this one established a wall of separation between the editorial side of affairs and the business side. (The metaphor is to the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.) “The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades,” according to the Times’ Innovation Report, “allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers,” as if this had been, all along, simply a matter of office efficiency. But the notion of a wall should be abandoned, according to the report, because it has “hidden costs” that thwart innovation. Earlier this year, the Times tried to recruit, as its new head of audience development, Michael Wertheim, the former head of promotion at the disruptive media outfit Upworthy. Wertheim turned the Times job down, citing its wall as too big an obstacle to disruptive innovation.

Here I think Lepore mixed disruptive innovation as a theory of industrial change and disruptive innovation as a theory of value. The championing of “disruption” by the tech crowd obviously grates, as well it should. She sees that the thesis of investment for many tech firms is about mutilating existing industries and capturing all the value, heedless of what non-monetary values (or human costs) might result.

I think there’s something to this. I tend to take a Burkean view of institutions in which we have values that are invisibly embedded in them that are in a sense critical to the healthy functioning of our society, and we tamper with them at our peril. When we impose radical change rather than relying on organic evolution, the law of unintended consequences is sure to kick in at some point. Today’s Randian entrepreneurs are hardly the only ones who want radical change, however. Radical social reformers of various stripes have tried to radically remake societies (say Karl Marx or the French Revolutionaries) with similar disregard or even contempt for what would be lost.

Lepore actually makes this point implicitly when she links contemporary business school thinking to the decline of faith, saying, “Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.”

She in a sense argues that we shouldn’t just equate change with progress. In that regard, I think of disruptive innovation as similar to the “paradigm shift” model from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm shift is a move from something like Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. As a practitioner of the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn critiqued the notion that these paradigms shifts represented progress towards knowledge of the ultimate truths. In fact, a paradigm shift could easily result in a decline of explanatory power in some cases, a phenomenon known as “Kuhnian loss.” For Kuhn, scientific change wasn’t necessarily progress towards truth as such.

I think it is similar to evolution, an analog Lepore rejects because she believes disruptive innovation theory engages in circular logic. But evolution proceeds on a similar logic. I think her real critique is that she sees evolution as producing genuine progress while disruptive innovation is fake progress. But evolution, like disruptive innovation or paradigms, has no inherent concept of progress. Mankind is not a the apex of evolution compared to an amoeba simply because we came along later and are more complex. There’s no guarantee we will we not find homo sapiens “disrupted” at some point in favor of the proverbial cockroach or something.

So I agree there can be genuine loss, and self-interested tech advocates aside, I don’t even see disruptive innovation as promising progress on every dimension. It’s a theory of business.

The problem is that not only is there a sort of Kuhnian loss from innovation, as with paradigm shifts you can’t escape it by refusing to participate. A scientists who sticks with the old paradigm when the new is accepted ends up no longer in a sense a scientist, as normal science takes place within a paradigm, or shared set of assumptions and models about how the world works.

Similarly, I may like physical newspapers, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to keep reading one forever. The disruption that’s hitting that industry will likely make it impossible some day. The joy I get from print will be lost, even though I may get many benefits from digital, not least of which the potential to have a platform like this one. My firm couldn’t just keep doing IT systems they development the way it used to; it would have gone out of business. We are deprived of the choice to stay the same.

Prior to the 1970s, we used regulation to try to manage the process of destruction by innovation by in a sense outlawing it. Telephony has probably changed more from a consumer perspective since the 1984 AT&T breakup than it did in the entire period previous to that back to Alexander Graham Bell, for example. Are we better off or worse off? As a society, we’ve clearly embedded a deregulating principle into our approach. This prioritizes dynamism and change, and treats the losses as acceptable. One can debate whether this is the right principle or not. But let us not pretend that we don’t have trade-offs to make.

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

What Entrepreneurs Want

A new study from Endeavor Insight called “What Do the Best Entrepreneurs Want In a City?” has been making the rounds. They interviewed 150 founders of fast growing companies in America to determine what those founders valued in a place to start a company.

Their conclusions are probably not news to most. Most people started companies where they already live (i.e., they didn’t move somewhere to start one), the most important thing they wanted in the city was access to talent, and the second thing was access to customers and suppliers. The report highlights that taxes and regulations were not major considerations. Quality of life items were mentioned by many. The “vast majority” of founders were in metro areas of over one million people and they were described as “highly mobile as young adults.” Their very direct conclusion stated up front is: “We believe that the magic formula for attracting and retaining the best entrepreneurs is this: a great place to live plus a talented pool of potential employees, and excellent access to customers and suppliers.”

This got a lot of press because it supports the standard urbanist narrative. And while I think there’s significant value and truth here, it’s important to drill down to understand the limits. Since many others have already touted the headline findings, I’ll take care of the caveats.

First, the reason people gave for picking a city to live was most frequently having “personal connections” or “specific quality of life factors.” The report doesn’t break down who said what, so we don’t know the ratio of these or their overlap. It shouldn’t be any surprise that personal connections such as being born in a place, family, etc. play a dominant role in people’s decisions on where to live. As for quality of life, I’ve yet to visit a place where people don’t boast of it. Think about it, how many people live in a place they think sucks, even if they do have a connection there? Some, surely (say a child moving to a place he doesn’t want to live to care for an aging parent), but I suspect not many. I think it’s natural for people to brag about the quality of life in places where they live, so I wouldn’t read too much into this. Based on what the report actually says, personal history or connections could overwhelmingly account for location decisions, with quality of life mostly an overlapping secondary indicator.

The companies whose founders were interviewed weren’t specified. It was only said that they were on the Inc. 500, had an average of 100 employees and $20 million in revenue, and had revenue growth of 600%. In other words, these are predominantly early to mezzanine stage companies. Unsurprisingly, a big concern of new and smaller companies is finding customers and suppliers, as well as employees. Often these firms are not even profitable, so things like taxes are irrelevant. But no customer means no company. And small, rapidly growing firms can’t afford to carry a lot of deadweight employees. Traditional business climate items generally loom larger as companies mature and already have an established customer, supplier, and employee base.

It may be that these companies tended to stay located where they were founded when they reach maturity, but that doesn’t mean they grew their operations in that place. That’s why Silicon Valley has fewer jobs than it did back in 2000 even though its companies have thrived. Many of them have grown their jobs base in places like Salt Lake City and Austin.

Additionally, the survey says the companies represent dozens of sectors, but doesn’t give a lot of detail. However, “media” and “software” were mentioned. Also, the among those founders citing talent as a key location factor, “technical” talent was the most commonly mentioned.

This implies to me that tech/media startups loom large in this survey. If true, this would also explain the lack of concern around business climate items. These industries are among the most lightly regulated out there. There have even been specific legislative exemptions to keep the internet space clear of regulation and taxes (such as on internet retail). Most communities think tech startups are key to their future, so bend over backwards to cater to them. You don’t need complex permits to start a tech company.

This means the business climate for technology firms and startups can be very different from what is experienced by other businesses. For example, a recent Rhode Island PBS roundtable featured executives from Hasbro and Banneker industries lamenting the state’s attitude towards business while Allan Tear of tech accelerator Betaspring took a much more positive view. They are all probably right. Life’s probably great if you’re Betaspring, but not quite so good if your company’s name includes “Industries” in it. In short, the experience of tech/media startups is relevant mostly only to other such startups.

Blogger Alon Levy once made a provocative observation that one reason India specialized in software and BPO industries was because those were the only ones that are viable in a country without much infrastructure. The China manufacturing strategy would be a non-starter there. You actually don’t need to invest much in real quality of life items like even universal sanitation or paved roads to have a tech cluster, as many cities in India prove. As long as you have an internet connection to other places you can sell your services to, you’re in business. (Did I mention that Indian outsourcing firms had a massive tax holiday on export revenues for an extended period of time?)

So media/tech are the companies naturally less likely to talk about old school type business climate items, especially when younger. But it’s worth pointing out what mature hypergrowth tech companies have tended to do at some point, namely put their European headquarters on the Emerald Isle where they can take advantage of the “Double Irish” and similar such techniques to all but zero out their tax bill.

I mention this because that the end of the report the authors cite a couple case studies to try to demonstrate the irrelevancy of taxes. Yet this study was in part funded by the Omidyar Network, the philanthropy of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Where is eBay’s European Headquarters? Dublin, Ireland. Think that’s because the CEO likes to drink Guinness?

I don’t want to suggest that talent is irrelevant or that taxes mean everything. I’ve clearly pounded the table on the opposite. But just because this survey flatters our conceits in such matters doesn’t mean we should take it to the bank. I see it useful information, but limited in scope to only a narrow segment of firms. I just don’t think this study justified the forcefully stated conclusion

Also, regarding the mobility of youth, this was defined from a Kauffman Foundation study that noted 75% of entrepreneurs started their company in a different city from where they received their final university degree. This is unsurprising and irrelevant. Colleges can be understood as “education factories” whose nature is to produce graduates. Much as actual factories export their widgets, colleges export graduates. This is especially true since many great schools are in proverbial “college towns.” I went to school at Indiana University which is in Bloomington. Bloomington is an awesome town, but how many of the 30,000+ students at IU can a town that’s otherwise only about 50,000 people absorb? This is a not very useful statistic of mobility in my view.

Lastly, the notion that regions of one million people or more are economically advantaged seems very right to me. In this regard, their survey foots to everything I’ve seen and written about. These cities have thicker labor markets, more talent, unique infrastructure (e.g., major airports), bigger local markets, more specialized suppliers, and more entrepreneurial ferment. I’ve long said that there’s a “minimum viable scale” of around 1-1.5 million people in a region you need to have to really succeed in the modern economy. Smaller places generally only have thrived to the extent that they’ve got a unique amenity like Bloomington’s Big Ten university. Since I took a critical eye towards this survey’s actual support for its findings, I thought I’d end on one where I think they hit it.

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Why State Economic Development Strategies Should Be Metro-Centric

Globalization, technology, productivity improvements, and the resulting restructuring of the world economy have led to fundamental changes that have destroyed the old paradigms of doing business. Whether these changes are on the whole good or bad, or who or what is responsible for bringing them into being, they simply are. Most cities, regions, and US states have extremely limited leverage in this marketplace and thus to a great extent are market takers more than market makers. They have to adapt to new realities, but a lack of willingness to face up to the truth, combined with geo-political conditions, mean this has seldom been done.

Three of those new realities are:

1. The primacy of metropolitan regions as economic units, and the associated requirement of minimum competitive scale. It is mostly major metropolitan areas, those with 1-1.5 million or more people, that have best adapted to the new economy. Outside of the sparsely populated Great Plains, smaller areas have tended to struggle unless they have a unique asset such as a major state university. Even the worst performing large metros like Detroit and Cleveland have a lot of economic strength and assets behind them (e.g., the Cleveland Clinic) while smaller places like Youngstown and Flint have also gotten pounded yet have far fewer reasons for optimism. Many new economy industries require more skills than the old. People with these skills are most attracted to bigger cities where there are dense labor markets and enough scale to support items ranging from a major airport to amenities that are needed to compete.

2. States are not singular economic units. This follows straightforwardly from the first point. As a mix of various sized urban and rural areas, regions of states have widely varying degrees of economic success and potential for the future. Their policy needs are radically different so the one size fit all nature of government rules make state policy a difficult instrument to get right. Additionally, many major metropolitan areas that are economic units cross state borders.

3. Many communities may never come back, and many laid-off workers may never be employed again. Realistically, many smaller post-industrial cities are unlikely to ever again by economically dynamic no matter what we do. And lost in the debate over the n-th extension of emergency unemployment benefits is the painful reality that for some workers, especially older workers laid off from manufacturing jobs, there’s no realistic prospect of employment at more than near minimum wage if that. As Richard Longworth put it in Caught in the Middle, “The dirty little secret of Midwest manufacturing is that many workers are high school dropouts, uneducated, some virtually illiterate. They could build refrigerators, sure. But they are totally unqualified for any job other than the ones they just lost.” This doesn’t even get to the big drug problems in many of these places. This isn’t everybody, but there are too many people who fall into that bucket.

I want to explore these truths and potential state policy responses using the case study of Indiana. An article in last week’s Indianapolis Business Journal sets the stage. Called “State lags city with science, tech jobs” it notes how metropolitan Indianapolis has been booming when it comes to so-called STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Its growth rate ranked 9th in the country in study of large metro areas. However, the rest of Indiana has lagged badly:

Indiana for more than a decade has blown away the national average when it comes to adding high-tech jobs. But outside the Indianapolis metro area, there isn’t much cause for celebration.

Careers in science, technology, engineering and math—typically referred to as STEM fields—have surged in growth compared to other careers in Marion and Hamilton counties. It’s a boon for economic development, considering the workers earn average wages almost twice as high as all others, and employers sorely need the skills. Dozens of initiatives focus on building STEM jobs in the state.

A recent report ranked the Indianapolis-Carmel metro area ninth in the country in STEM jobs growth since the tech bubble burst in 2001. But while the metro area has grown, the rest of Indiana has barely budged from the early 2000s, an IBJ analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found.

Indianapolis grew its STEM job base by 39% since 2001 while the rest of the state grew by only 10% (only 6% if you exclude healthcare jobs). Much of the state actually lost STEM jobs.

This divergence between metropolitan Indianapolis (along with those smaller regions blessed with a unique asset like Bloomington (Indiana University), Lafayette (Purdue University) and Columbus (Cummins Engine)) and the rest of the state is a well-worn story by now. Here are a few baseline statistics that tell the tale.


Item Metro Indianapolis Rest of Indiana
Population Growth (2000-2012) 15.9% 4.1%
Job Growth (2000-2012) 5.9% -7.2%
GDP Per Capita (2012) $50,981 $34,076
College Degree Attainment (2012) 32.1% 20.1%

Additionally, there does appear to be something of a brain drain phenomenon, only it’s not brains leaving the state, it’s people with degrees moving from outstate Indiana to Indianapolis. From 2000-2010 a net of about 51,000 moved from elsewhere in Indiana to metro Indianapolis. As Mark Schill put it in the IBJ:

“Indianapolis is somewhat of a sponge city for the whole region,” said Mark Schill, vice president of research at Praxis Strategy Group, an economic development consultant in North Dakota.

The situation in Indiana, Schill said, is common throughout the United States: States with one large city typically see their engineers, scientists and other high-tech workers flock to the urban areas from smaller towns.

Even I find it very surprising that of my high school classmates with college degrees, half of them live in Indianapolis – this from a tiny rural school along the Ohio River in far Southern Indiana near Louisville, KY.

What has Indiana’s policy response been to this to date? I would suggest that the response has been to a) adjust statewide policy levers to do everything possible to reflate the economy of the “rest of Indiana” while b) making subtle tweaks attempt to rebalance economic growth away from Indianapolis.

On the statewide policy levers, the state government has moved to imposed a one size fits all, least common denominator approach to services. The state centralized many functions in a recent tax reform. It also has aggressively downsized government, which now has the fewest employees since the 1970s. Tax caps, a comparative lack of home rule powers, and an aggressive state Department of Local Government Finance have combined to severely curtail local spending as well. Gov. Pence took office seeking to cut the state’s income tax rate by 10% (he got 5%), and now wants to eliminate the personal property tax on business. Indiana also passed right to work legislation.

I call this “the best house on a bad block strategy.” I think Mitch Daniels looked around at Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan and said, “I know how to beat these guys.” Indiana is not as business friendly as places like Texas or Tennessee, but the idea was to position itself to capture a disproportionate share of inbound Midwest investment by being the cheapest. (I’ll get to Pence later).

The subtle tweaks have been income redistribution from metro Indianapolis (documented by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute) and using the above techniques and others to apply the brakes to efforts by metro Indy to further improve its quality of life advantage over many other parts of the state (see my column in Governing magazine for more). One obvious example is a recent move by the Indiana University School of Medicine to build full four year regional medical school campuses and residency programs around the state with the explicit aim of keeping students local instead of having them come to Indianapolis for medical training.

What there’s been next to nothing of is any sense of metropolitan level or even regional thinking. The state does administer programs on a regional level, but the strategy is not regionally oriented and the administrative borders don’t even line up. Here are the boundaries of the various workforce development boards:

There’s a semi-metropolitan overlay, but as I’ve long noted places like Region 6 are economic decline regions, not economic growth regions. Here’s how the Indiana Economic Development Corp. sees the world:

These are not just agglomerations of the workforce districts, there are numerous differences between them. The point is that clearly the organization is driven by administrative convenience and the political need for field offices, not a metro-centric view of the world or strategy.

Add it all up and it appears that Indiana has decided to fight against all three new realities above rather than adapting to them. It rejects metro-centricity, imposes a uniform policy set, and is oriented towards trying to reflate the most struggling communities. I don’t think this was necessarily a conscious decision, but ultimately that’s what it amounts to.

When you fight the tape, you shouldn’t expect great results and clearly they haven’t been stellar. Since 2000, Indiana comfortably outperformed perennial losers Michigan and Ohio on job growth (well, less job declines), but trailed Kentucky, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. But notably, Indiana only outpaced Illinois by a couple percentage points. That’s a state with higher income taxes (and that actually raised them) that’s nearly bankrupt and where the previous two governors ended up in prison. Yet Indiana’s job performance is very similar. What’s more, Hoosier per capita incomes have been in free fall versus the national average, likely because it has only become more attractive to low wage employers.

Fiscal discipline, low taxes, and business friendly regulations are important. But they aren’t the only pages in the book. Workforce quality counts for a lot, and this has been Indiana’s Achilles heel. (My dad, who used to run an Indiana stone quarry, had trouble finding workers with a high school diploma who could pass a drug test and would show up on time every day – hardly tough requirements one would think). Also aligning with, not against market forces is key.

I will sketch out a somewhat different approach. Firstly, regarding the chronically unemployed, clearly they cannot be written off or ignored. However, I see this as largely a federal issue. We need to come to terms with the reality that America now has a population of some million who will have extreme difficulty finding employment in the new economy (see: latest jobs report). We’ve shifted about two million into disability rolls, but clearly we’ve to date mostly been pretending that things are going to re-normalize.

For Indiana, the temptation can be to reorient the entire economy to attract ultra low-wage employers, then cut benefits so that people are forced to take the jobs. I’ve personally heard Indiana businessmen bemoaning the state’s unemployment benefits that mean workers won’t take the jobs their company has open – jobs paying $9/hr. Possibly the 250,000 or so chronically unemployed Hoosiers may be technically put back to work through such a scheme – eventually. But it would come at the cost of impoverishing the entire state. Creating a state of $9/hr jobs is not making a home for human flourishing, it’s building a plantation.

Instead of creating a subsistence economy, the focus should instead be on creating the best wage economy possible, one that offers upward mobility, for the most people possible, and using redistribution for the chronically unemployed. You may say this is welfare – and you’re right. But I would submit to you that the state is already in effect a gigantic welfare engine. In addition to direct benefits, the taxation and education systems are redistributionist, and the state’s entire economic policy, transport policy, etc. are targeted at left-behind areas (i.e., welfare). Even corrections is in a sense warehousing the mostly poor at ruinous expense. So Indiana is already a massive welfare state; we are just arguing about what the best form is. I think sending checks is much better than distorting the entire economy in order to employ a small minority at $9/hr jobs – but that’s just me. Again, we are in uncharted territory as a country and this is ultimately going to require a national response, even if it’s just swelling the disability rolls even more. I do believe people deserve the dignity of a job, but we have to deal with the unfortunate realities of our new world order.

With that in mind, the right strategy would be metro-centric, focusing on building on the competitively advantaged areas of the state – what Drew Klacik has called place-based cluster – and competitively advantaged middle class or better paying industries.

Contrary to some of the stats above, this is not purely an Indianapolis story. Indiana has a number of areas that are well-positioned to compete. Here’s a map with key metro regions highlighted:

This may look superficially like the maps above, but it is explicitly oriented around metro-centric thinking. Metro Indy has been doing reasonably well as noted. But Bloomington, Lafayette, and Columbus (sort of small satellite metros to Indy) have also done very well. In fact, all three actually outperformed Indy on STEM job growth.

Additionally, three other large, competitively advantaged metro areas take in Indiana territory: Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville. These are all, like Indy, places with the scale and talent concentrations to win. True, none of the Indiana counties that are part of those metros is in the favored quarter. But they still have plenty of opportunities. I’ve written about Northwest Indiana before, for example, which should do well if it gets its act together.

This covers a broad swath of the state from the Northwest to the Southeast. It comes as no surprise to me that Honda chose to locate its plant half way between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, for example.

The state should align its resources, policies, and investments to enable these metro regions to thrive. This doesn’t mean jacking up tax rates. Indiana should retain its competitively advantaged tax structure. But it should mean no further erosion in Indiana’s already parsimonious services. The state is already well-positioned fiscally, and in a situation with diminishing marginal returns to further contraction.

Next, empower localities and regions to better themselves in accordance with their own strategies. This means an end to one size fits all, least common denominator thinking. These regions need to be let out from under the thumb of the General Assembly. That means more, not less flexibility for localities. Places like Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Lafayette would dearly love to undertake further self-improvement initiatives, but the state thinks that’s a bad idea. (I believe this is part of the subtle re-balancing attempt I mentioned).

It also means using the state’s power to encourage metro and extended region thinking. For example, last year within a few months of each other the mayors of Indianapolis, Anderson, and Muncie all made overseas trade trips – separately and to different places. That’s nuts. The state should be encouraging them to do more joint development.

This also means recognizing the symbiotic relationship that exists between the core and periphery in the extended Central Indiana region, clearly the state’s most important. The outlying smaller cities, towns, and rural areas watch Indianapolis TV stations, largely cheer for its sports teams, get taken to its hospitals for trauma or specialist care, fly out of its airport, etc. Metro Indianapolis and its leadership have also basically created and funded much of the state’s economic development efforts (e.g., Biocrossroads) and many community development initiatives (the Lilly Endowment). Many statewide organizations are in effect Indianapolis ones that do double duty in serving the state. For example, the Indiana Historical Society. (There is no Indianapolis Historical Society).

On the other side of the equation, Indianapolis would not have the Colts and a lot of other things without the heft added from the outer rings out counties that are customers for these amenities. It benefits massively from that, particularly since it’s a marginal scale city. One of the biggest differences between Indy and Louisville is that Indy was fortunate enough to have a highly populated ring of counties within an hour’s drive.

So in addition to aligning economic development strategies around metros, and freeing localities to pursue differentiated strategies, the state should encourage the next ring or two of counties that are in the sphere of influence of major metros to align with their nearest larger neighbor.

Contrary to popular belief, this is a win-win. When I was in Warsaw, Indiana, people were concerned that many highly paid employees of the local orthopedics companies lived in Ft. Wayne. From a local perspective, that’s understandable and obviously they want to be competitive for that talent and should be all means go for it. On the other hand, what if Ft. Wayne wasn’t there for those people to live in? Would those orthopedics companies be able to recruit the talent they need to stay located in small town Indiana?

It’s similar for other places. Michael Hicks, and economist at Ball State in Muncie, said, “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIFs and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle-class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.” Maybe Muncie isn’t completely happy about this, understandably. But would they have been able to recruit those plants at all (and the associated taxes they pay and the jobs for anybody who does stay local) if higher paid workers didn’t have the option to live in suburban Noblesville? Would the labor force be there?

I saw a similar dynamic in Columbus. Younger workers recruited by Cummins Engine chose to live in Greenwood (near south suburban Indy). Columbus wants to keep upgrading itself to be more attractive – a good idea. But the ability to reverse commute from Indy is an advantage for them.

Louisville, Kentucky has one of the highest rates of exurban commuting the country because so many Hoosiers in rural communities drive in for good paying work.

This is the sort of thinking and planning that needs to be going on. Realistically, most of these small industrial cities and rural areas are not positioned to go it alone and they shouldn’t be supported by the state in attempting to do so. They need to a align with a winning team.

There are two groups of places that require special attention. One is the mid-sized metro regions of Ft. Wayne, Evansville, and South Bend-Elkhart. These places are too far from larger metros and aren’t large enough themselves to have fully competitive economies. No surprise two of the three lost STEM jobs. Evansville has done better recently on the backs of Toyota, but has a vast rural hinterland it cannot carry with its small size. The region has done ok of late, but it has also received gigantic subsidies in the form of multiple massive highway investments, and now a massive coal gasification plant subsidy. I don’t believe this is sustainable. These places need special assistance from the state to devise and implement strategies.

The other grouping consists of rural and small industrial areas that are too far outside the orbit of a major metro to effectively align with it. This would includes places like Richmond or Blackford County. They might get lucky and land a major plant, but realistically they are going to require state aid for some time to maintain critical services.

For the last two groups especially, there also needs to be a commitment by the state’s top brain hubs – Indy and the two university towns – to applying their intellectual and other resources to the difficult problem at hand. Part of that involves helping them be the best place of their genre that they can. While cities are competitively advantaged today, not everybody wants to live in one. So there is still an addressable market, if not as large, for other places.

Put it together and here’s the map that needs to be changed. It’s percentage change in jobs, 2000-2012:

Pretty depressing. Urban core counties had some losses, but suburban Indy, Chicago, and Cincy did decently (Louisville’s less well), plus Bloomington area, Lafayette, and Columbus. You see also the strong performance of Southwest Indiana which is fantastic, but the sustainability of which I think is in question. Wages are higher in metro areas too, by the way. Here’s the average weekly wage in 2012, which shows most of the state’s metros doing comparatively well:

In short, I suggest:

- Retain lean fiscal structure but limit further contractions
- Goal is to build middle class or better economy, not bottom feeding
- Align economic development efforts to metro areas, particularly larger, competitively advantages locations. Align capital investment in this direction as well.
- Greater local autonomy to pursue differentiated strategies for the variegated areas of the state
- Special attention/help to strategically disadvantaged communities, but not entire state policy directed to servicing their needs.
- Utilization of transfers for the chronically unemployed pending a federal answer, but again, not redirection of state policy to attract $9/hr jobs.

This requires a lot of fleshing out to be sure, but I think is broadly the direction.

Back to Gov. Mike Pence, would he be on board with this? He’s Tea Party friendly to be sure and interested in fiscal contraction. But he’s not a one-trick pony. He’s actually taken some interesting steps in this regard. He is subsidizing non-stop flights from Indianapolis to San Francisco for the benefit of the local tech community. He also wants to establish another life sciences research institute in Indy. And he’s talked about more regionally focused economic development efforts. It’s a welcome start. I think he groks the situation more than people might credit him for. Keep in mind that he did not establish the state’s current approach, which arguably even pre-dated Mitch Daniels, and he has to deal with political realities. And if as they say only Nixon could go to China, then although a reorienting of strategy is not about writing big checks, still perhaps only someone with conservative bona fides like Pence can push the state towards a metro-centric rethink.

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Southern California’s Road Back by Joel Kotkin

[ Believe it or not, metro LA has fewer jobs today than it did in 1990, making it the only metro in America's top ten that can make that "boast." Today Joel Kotkin shares some of his thoughts on rebuilding - Aaron. ]

If the prospects for the United States remain relatively bright – despite two failed administrations – how about Southern California? Once a region that epitomized our country’s promise, the area still maintains enormous competitive advantages, if it ever gathers the wits to take advantage of them.

We are going to have to play catch-up. I have been doing regional rankings on such things as jobs, opportunities and family-friendliness for publications such as Forbes and the Daily Beast. In most of the surveys, Los Angeles-Orange County does very poorly, often even worse than much-maligned Riverside and San Bernardino. For example, in a list looking at “aspirational cities” – that is places to move to for better opportunities – L.A.-Orange County ranked dead last, scoring well below average in everything from unemployment to job creation, congestion and housing costs relative to incomes.

Yet, Southern California possesses unique advantages that include, but don’t end at, our still-formidable climatic and scenic advantages. The region is home to the country’s strongest ethnic economy, a still-potent industrial-technological complex and the largest culture industry in North America, if not the world.

In identifying these assets, we have to understand what we are not: Silicon Valley-San Francisco, or New York, where a relative cadre of the ultrarich, fueled by tech IPOs or Wall Street can sustain the local economy. Unlike the Bay Area, in particular, our economy must accommodate a much larger proportion of poorly educated people – almost a quarter of our adult population lacks a high school degree. This means our economy has to provide opportunities for a broader range of skills.

Nor are we a corporate center such as New York, Houston, Dallas or Chicago. We remain fundamentally a hub for small and ethnic businesses, home to a vast cadre of independent craftspeople and skilled workers, many of whom work for themselves. In fact, our region – L.A.-Orange and Riverside-San Bernardino – boasts the highest percentage of self-employed people of any major metropolitan area in the country, well ahead of the Bay Area, New York and Chicago.

Policy from Washington has not been favorable to this grass-roots economy. The “free money for the rich” policy of the Bernanke Federal Reserve has proven a huge boom to stock-jobbers and venture firms but has not done much to increase capital for small-scale firms. Yet it is to these small firms – dispersed, highly diverse and stubbornly individualistic – that remain our key long-term asset, and they need to become the primary focus on regional policy-makers.

Ethnic Networks

Immigration has slowed in recent years but the decades-long surge of migration, largely from Asia and Mexico, has transformed the area into one of the most diverse in the world. More to the point, Southern California has what one can call diversity in depth, that is, huge concentrations of key immigrant populations – Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Filipino, Israeli, Russian – that are as large or larger than anywhere outside the respective homelands. Foreigners also account for many of our richest people, with five of 11 of L.A.’s wealthiest being born abroad.

These networks are critical in a place lacking a strong corporate presence. Our international connections come largely as the result of both the ethnic communities as well as our status as the largest port center in North America, which creates a market for everything from assembly of foreign-made parts to trade finance and real estate investment. Southern California may be a bit of a desert when it comes to big money-center banks, but it’s home to scores of ethnic banks, mainly Korean and Chinese, but also those serving Israeli, Armenian and other groups.

For the immigrants, what appeals about Southern California is that we offer a diverse, and dispersed, array of single-family neighborhoods. Both national and local data finds immigrants increasingly flocking to suburbs. Places like the San Gabriel Valley’s 626 area, Cerritos, Westminster, Garden Grove, Fullerton and, more recently, Irvine, have expanded the region’s geography of ethnic enclaves.

These enclaves drive whole economies, such as Mexicans in the wholesale produce industry or the development of electronics assembly and other trade-related industry by migrants largely from Taiwan. Global ties are critical here. Korean-Americans started largely in ethnic middleman businesses, but have been moving upscale, as their children acquire education. They, in turn, have helped attract investment from South Korea’s rising global corporations, including a new $200 million headquarters for Hyundai in Fountain Valley, as well as a $1 billion, 73-story new tower being built by Korean Air in downtown Los Angeles.

Tech Industrial Base

During the Cold War, Southern California sported one of the largest concentrations of scientists and engineers in the world. The end of the Cold War, at the beginning of the 1990s, severely reduced the region’s technical workforce, a process further accelerated by the movement out of the region of such large aerospace firms as Lockheed and Northrop. The region has roughly 300,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it had a decade ago, largely due to losses in aerospace as well as in the garment industry.

Yet, despite the decades-long erosion, Southern California still enjoys the largest engineering workforce – some 70,000 people – in the country. It also graduates the most new engineers, although the vast majority of them appear to leave for greener pastures. One looming problem: a paucity of venture capital, where the region lags behind not just the Bay Area, but also San Diego and New York. This can be seen in the relative dearth of high-profile start-ups, particularly in fields like social media, now dominated by the Bay Area.

But the process of recovery in Southern California does not require imitating Silicon Valley. Instead we need to leverage our existing talent base – and recent graduates – and focus on the region’s traditional strength in the application of technology. A recent analysis of manufacturing by the economic modeling firm EMSI found strong growth in some very promising sectors, including the manufacturing of surgical and medical equipment, space vehicles and a wide array of food processing, an industry tied closely to the immigrant networks.

Cultural Complex

For most Americans, and even more so among foreigners, the image of Southern California is shaped by its cultural exports, not only in film and television but in fashion and design. This third sector epitomizes the uniqueness of the region, and provides an economic allure that can withstand both the generally poor business climate and the incentives offered by other regions.

After a period of some stagnation, Hollywood again is increasing employment. Roughly 130,000 people work in film-related industries in Los Angeles, which is now headed back to levels last seen a decade earlier but still well below the 146,000 jobs that existed in 1999.

At the same time, the sportswear and jeans business in Los Angeles, and the surfwear industry in Orange County, remain national leaders. Overall, the area’s fashion industry has retained a skilled production base – over twice that of rival New York’s – and has been aided, in part, by access to Hollywood, lower rents and labor costs than in New York.

Taken together, these sectors – ethnic business, sophisticated manufacturing and culture – could provide the basis for a renaissance in the local economy. The smaller firms in these fields, in particular, need a friendlier business climate, a more evolved skills-training program from local schools and a better-maintained infrastructure. More than anything, though, they require an understanding on the part of both government and business that their success remains the best means to reverse decades of relative decline.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Industrial Policy Reconsidered

[ I've always been a skeptic of industrial policy, and the travails of the various federal green programs and such make me feel justified my thinking in that regard. Yet, for struggling communities, clearly something needs to be done, even if not trying to pick specific winners and losers. In 1983 Rhode Island had an opportunity to have implemented an economic turnaround plan dismissed by critics as industrial policy, but voted it down. I recently took a look back and that, and the results of that decision that I think are relevant to other places trying to figure out what to do or not do. ]

I’m a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, but you don’t to be here long to hear about the infamous “Greenhouse Compact,” a state economic development strategy developed at the end of the Volcker recession in 1983 and voted down by the public in 1984.  It is certainly one of the most remarkable economic development analyses ever performed. I have not seen a full copy, but the internet tells me it exists in at least two volumes with a length of at least 976 pages.  There was a 47-page executive summary – not much shorter than many full reports these days – that I did manage to get ahold of and read, however. If the full report is as robust as that suggests, then I’ve never seen anything that appears to be so thorough and in-depth.

The Greenhouse Compact vs. Laissez-Faire

The Greenhouse Compact was the brainchild of Ira Magaziner, who went on to design Hillarycare, apparently not learning his lessons as that plan was developed and failed in a similar fashion. Though perhaps not the reason the Greenhouse Compact was voted down, it was roundly criticized by economists like Brown’s Allan Feldman, who strongly attacked it as industrial policy.

Magaziner and Feldman lay out starkly contrasting views of the matter. The Greenhouse Compact says:

Today, Rhode Island is in an economic crisis….When an economy has a vibrant private sector which can clearly provide the growth opportunities in investment that the economy needs to employ its people fully and raise its living standards then one can speak of a laissez-faire attitude as being appropriate. Rhode Island is currently far from that. It has many industries which are becoming subject to low wage competition; it has many others which are mature low wage rate industries with very little growth prospect but a need to modernize and develop new products; it has very few companies that have the prospect for significant growth and these are often being wooed by other states with particularly attractive incentive packages; and it has only a smattering of activities in new technology areas. Under these circumstances, a concerted economic development effort is the only way to create the momentum to build economic prosperity.

In the run-up to the vote, Feldman told the New York Times:

“I think this is not an appropriate thing for government to do, but that’s not my basis for opposition,” said Allan Feldman, an economics professor at Brown who is co-chairman of a group, Common Sense, formed to oppose the Greenhouse Compact. ”Beyond the ideological question, I think the economic analysis is terrible and the plan won’t work. It favors bankers, venture capitalists and high technology, and while it might be great for Terry Murray’s bank, it won’t help the average Rhode Islander.”

After it was voted down, he said in the Christian Science Monitor, “It was not economically sound, and would ‘offer very little to taxpayers.’”  He also wrote an article in which he gloated that “industrial policy is dead.”

A bit later, as Rhode Island’s economy was looking up, Feldman appeared vindicated, telling the Washington Post in an article titled “Rhode Island: Rags to Riches”, “Governors delude themselves. They like to think they’re responsible for everything.” In the same piece Magaziner stuck to his guns, saying, “We should be fixing the roof when the sun is shining. We really should have invested more than we have.”

The Greenhouse Compact Vindicated

Fast forward 30 years and what has history shown? The predictions of the Greenhouse Compact have been entirely vindicated and the approach of Feldman and company has perpetuated the economic ruination of the state. Rhode Island’s post-recession bump wasn’t a real recovery; it was a dead cat bounce.

The Greenhouse Compact had said, “Overall, prospects are bleak. Industries which are likely to lose employment or at best stay stable far outweigh those with growth prospects. Those companies with growth prospects often plan to expand out of state….Given the current structure of Rhode Island’s economy, these jobs are unlikely to emerge.” This report included a sector by sector analysis in which it concluded that with the exception of eds and meds, the future didn’t look bright. And while it may have been off in some details, clearly history has borne out the Compact’s central claims.

It certainly possible that the Greenhouse Compact’s recommendations would have failed to stem the tide. But it’s hard to see how they could have made things much worse, thus pursuing the strategy likely made sense on option value alone.

What Feldman and the ultra-purists on the right fail to fully recognize is that creative destruction is real. Just as in the commercial marketplace where almost all firms ultimately fail, the vast majority of places will end up failing as well. Once they reach the top of their maturity curve, they’re done, and unless they reinvent themselves and begin a new growth curve again, they sicken and enjoy a long stagnating decline. Rhode Island reinvented itself three times from agriculture to seaborne merchant trading to industry, but failed to pull-off a fourth reinvention. Any CEO of a company facing a similar need to reinvent itself certainly would not take the attitude that he should let the market sort it out and do nothing but manage costs. But that’s the prescription too many give to public sector leaders.

From ‘Industrial Policy’ to ‘Conventional Wisdom’

Not all of the Greenhouse Compact’s recommendations make sense. The $138 million (a lot more than that now when you factor in inflation) in incentives to existing industries seems more like a fillip to interest groups to secure their buy in than a real strategy, for example. But a lot of it, including the eponymous “greenhouse” component, were ahead of their time and indeed have become almost conventional wisdom.

The Greenhouse idea was to basically have some public sector support to nurture emerging industries that were research and technology related in areas where Rhode Island was perceived to have some potential to play. These would include a marketing and civic booster program, as well as a venture capital fund, including some unique components such as allowing the state’s pension fund to invest in startups.

Pretty much every state has adopted a similar model in the last decade. Even Tea Party friendly politicians like Indiana Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence invested heavily in Biocrossroads, which is the umbrella organization for that state’s “greenhouse” in life sciences, for example. They may be fiscal conservatives, but they’re not dumb. Pretty much every single city and state has variations on these. Another example: one of the plan’s suggestions was to create a Rhode Island Academy of Science and Engineering to boost the supply of talent into those industries. This idea was recently implemented – by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is opening a new technical and engineering college on Roosevelt Island in conjunction with Cornell and Israel’s Technion backed up by significant public investment. Look at any city or state, and you’ll see them trying some variation on the greenhouse theme, though with different terminology. Many of these programs are ‘me too’ initiatives that aren’t likely to be effective. But where the approach is applied to areas where a state or metro area has a potential advantage, it makes a lot of sense.

It’s interesting that the Greenhouse Compact even specifically warned against 38 Studios style cross-border raiding, saying, “To some states, economic development has meant trying to convince industries in other states to close down and move. This will not be Rhode Island’s approach. We are not interested in ‘stealing’ another state’s companies.”

Now plans aren’t implementation, and obviously the reality would have involved a lot of politicization. I’m not so naïve to believe that poaching attempts would have been eliminated just because this report said so. But the bottom line is that Rhode Island had an opportunity to be 20 years ahead of its time, and took a pass.  Free market types might argue that their preferred policies were never implemented either, but that’s the right-wing equivalent of “true communism’s never been tried.”  The results are in and the Rhode Island experience makes it very clear that while some of these approaches that might have had aspects of industrial policy (though certainly nothing like the botched federal green subsidies and such that rightly give industrial policy a black eye) may not have been the right idea, doing nothing certainly didn’t work.

In a lesson to Tea Partiers everywhere, the Greenhouse Report summed it up, “If Rhode Island is to undergo an economic renaissance, investors must have significant positive reasons for investing in this state rather than any other. The absence of negatives will not be enough.”  A Tea Party style focus on nothing other than taxes and costs – removing the negatives – is insufficient and history has borne that out (just as is now being repeated in many Midwestern states that are becoming Rhode Islands despite their nominally attractive business climates).  Want to oppose plans like the Greenhouse Compact? Fine, but show us your plan and give us a reason to actually believe it will work.

Based on what I read in the executive summary, though there area a number of anachronisms and areas I didn’t agree with, the Greenhouse Compact actually stands up quite well today. If it were simply implemented as is, it would still probably be an improvement over the status quo, but now that everybody and their brother has piled on, the big returns have, sadly, already been harvested elsewhere.

This article originally appeared in GoLocalProv on September 23, 2013.

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Is Detroit the Next Berlin? by Justin Fox

[ Given the emergence of an artist movement in Detroit, the comparisons to Berlin are obvious. However, in this piece that ran over in Techonomy last year, Justin Fox argues the comparison is invalid. I'm glad to be able to repost it. And I'd also suggest that you might want to check out more of the material from Techonomy Detroit - Aaron. ]

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.

This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.

Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?

Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):

1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.

2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.

3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.

4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.

5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.

There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”

In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.

Justin Fox appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled ”Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

This post originally appeared in Techonomy on September 11, 2012.

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Strangling Innovation: Tesla vs. Rent Seekers

[ If you're at all involved with tech, then you probably know Steve Blank, who pioneered the customer development concept, is a must read on lean startups, and much more. I'd encourage you to check out his blog. If you're thinking about starting a tech company, his book "The Four Steps to the Epiphany" is a must read - though I should warn you there's a heckuva lot more than four steps in there! Steve recently weighed in on rent seeking after reports that car dealers are ganging up on Tesla to try to make direct Tesla sales illegal (which is probably already the case in most states). Urbanists frequently see the absurdity of rent seeking regulations when it comes to cool stuff we like like Teslas, Uber, or AirBnB. The challenge is to maintain that same anti-rent seeking ardor in more prosaic examples. Thanks to Steve for letting me repost this - Aaron. ]

The greatest number of jobs is created when startups create a new market – one where the product or service never existed before or is radically more convenient. Yet this is where startups will run into anti-innovation opponents they may not expect. These opponents have their own name – “rent seekers” – the landlords of the status-quo.

Smart startups prepare to face off against rent seekers and map out creative strategies for doing so…. First, however, they need to understand what a rent seeker is and how they operate…

———-

Recently, the New York and North Carolina legislatures considered a new law written by Auto Dealer lobbyists that would make it illegal for Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers. This got me thinking about the legal obstacles that face innovators with new business models.

Examples of startups challenging the status quo include: Lyft, Square, Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Zillow, Bitcoin, LegalZoom, food trucks, charter schools, and massively open online courses. Past examples of startups that succeeded in redefining current industries include Craigslist, Netflix, Amazon, Ebay and Paypal.

While Tesla, Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, et al are in very different industries, they have two things in common: 1) they’re disruptive business models creating new markets and upsetting the status quo and 2) the legal obstacles confronting them weren’t from direct competitors, but from groups commonly referred to as “rent seekers.”

Rent Seekers

Rent seekers are individuals or organizations that have succeeded with existing business models and look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against innovative competition. They use government regulation and lawsuits to keep out new entrants with more innovative business models. They use every argument from public safety to lack of quality or loss of jobs to lobby against the new entrants. Rent seekers spend money to increase their share of an existing market instead of creating new products or markets. The key idea is that rent seeking behavior creates nothing of value.

These barriers to new innovative entrants are called economic rent. Examples of economic rent include state automobile franchise laws, taxi medallion laws, limits on charter schools, auto, steel or sugar tariffs, patent trolls, bribery of government officials, corruption and regulatory capture. They’re all part of the same pattern – they add no value to the economy and prevent innovation from reaching the consumer.

No Regulation?

Not all government regulation is rent or rent seeking. Not all economic rents are bad. Patents for example, provide protection for a limited time only, to allow businesses to recoup R&D expenses as well as make a profit that would often not be possible if completely free competition were allowed immediately upon a products’ release. But patent trolls emerged as rent seekers by using patents as legalized extortion of companies.

How Do Rent Seekers Win?

Instead of offering better products or better service at lower prices, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians and regulators to pass laws, write regulations and collect taxes that block competition. The process of getting the government to give out these favors is rent-seeking.

Rent seeking lobbyists go directly to legislative bodies (Congress, State Legislatures, City Councils) to persuade government officials to enact laws and regulations in exchange for campaign contributions, appeasing influential voting blocks or future jobs in the regulated industry. They also use the courts to tie up and exhaust a startup’s limited financial resources.

Lobbyists also work through regulatory bodies like FCC, SEC, FTC, Public Utility, Taxi, or Insurance Commissions, School Boards, etc. Although most regulatory bodies are initially set up to protect the public’s health and safety, or to provide an equal playing field, over time the very people they’re supposed to regulate capture the regulatory agencies. Rent Seekers take advantage of regulatory capture to protect their interests against the new innovators.

PayPal – Dodging Bullets

PayPal consistently walked a fine line with regulators. Early on the company shutdown their commercial banking operation to avoid being labeled as a commercial bank and burdened by banks’ federal regulations. PayPal worried that complying with state-by-state laws for money transmission would also be too burdensome for a startup so they first tried to be classified as a chartered trust company to provide a benign regulatory cover, but failed. As the company grew larger, incumbent banks forced PayPal to register in each state. The banks lobbied regulators in Louisiana, New York, California, and Idaho and soon they were issuing injunctions forcing PayPal to delay their IPO. Ironically, once PayPal complied with state regulations by registering as a “money transmitter” on a state-by-state basis, it created a barrier to entry for future new entrants.

U.S. Auto Makers – Death by Rent Seeking

The U.S. auto industry is a textbook case of rent seeking behavior. In 1981 unable to compete with the quality and price of Japanese cars, the domestic car companies convinced the U.S. government to restrict the import of “foreign” cars. The result? Americans paid an extra $5 billion for cars. Japan overcame these barriers by using their import quotas to ship high-end, high-margin luxury cars, establishing manufacturing plants in the U.S. for high-volume lower cost cars and by continuing to innovate. In contrast, U.S. car manufacturers raised prices, pocketed the profits, bought off the unions with unsustainable contracts, ran inefficient factories and stopped innovating. The bill came due two decades later as the American auto industry spiraled into bankruptcy and its market share plummeted from 75% in 1981 to 45% in 2012.

unplug tesla

Innovation in the Auto Industry

According to the Gallup Poll American consumers view car salesmen as dead last in honesty and ethics. Yet when Tesla provided consumers with a direct sales alternative, the rent seekers – the National Auto Dealers Association turned its lobbyists loose on State Legislatures robbing consumers in North Carolina, New York and Texas of choice in the marketplace.

In these states it appears innovation be damned if it gets in the way of a rent seeker with a good lobbyist.

Much like Paypal, it’s likely that after forcing Tesla to win these state-by-state battles, the auto dealers will have found that they dealt themselves the losing hand.

Rent seeking is bad for the economy

Rent seeking strangles innovation in its crib. When companies are protected from competition, they have little incentive to cut costs or to pay attention to changing customer needs. The resources invested in rent seeking are a form of economic waste and reduce the wealth of the overall economy.

Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction – that entry by entrepreneurs was the disruptive force that sustained economic growth even as it destroyed the value of established companies – didn’t take into account that countries with lots of rent-seeking activity (pick your favorite nation where bribes and corruption are the cost of doing business) or dominated by organized interest groups tend to be the economic losers. As rent-seeking becomes more attractive than innovation, the economy falls into decline.

Startups, investors and the public have done a poor job of calling out the politicians and regulators who use the words “innovation means jobs” while supporting rent seekers.

What Does This Mean For Startups?

In an existing market it’s clear who your competitors are. You compete for customers on performance, ease of use, or price. However, for startups creating a new market – one where either the product or service never existed before or the new option is radically more convenient for customers – the idea that rent seekers even exist may come as a shock. “Why would anyone not want a better x, y or z?” The answer is that if your startup threatens their jobs or profits, it doesn’t matter how much better life will be for consumers, students, etc. Well organized incumbents will fight if they perceive a threat to the status quo.

As a result disrupting the status quo in regulated market can be costly. On the other hand, being a private and small startup means you have less to lose when you challenge the incumbents.

impossibleIf you’re a startup with a disruptive business model here’s what you need to do:

Map the order of battle

  • Laughing at the dinosaurs and saying, “They don’t get it” may put you out of business. Expect that existing organizations will defend their turf ferociously i.e. movie studios, telecom providers, teachers unions, etc.
  • Understand who has political and regulator influence and where they operate
  • Figure out an “under the radar” strategy which doesn’t attract incumbents lawsuits, regulations or laws when you have limited resources to fight back

Pick early markets where the rent seekers are weakest and scale

  • For example, pick target markets with no national or state lobbying influence. i.e. Craigslist versus newspapers, Netflix versus video rental chains, Amazon versus bookstores, etc.
  • Go after rapid scale of passionate consumers who value the disruption i.e. Uber and Airbnb, Tesla
  • Ally with some larger partners who see you as a way to break the incumbents lock on the market. i.e. Palantir and the intelligence agencies versus the Army and IBM’s i2, / Textron Systems Overwatch

For example, Airbnb, thrives even though almost all of its “hosts” are not paying local motel/hotel taxes nor paying tax on their income, and many hosts are violating local zoning laws. Some investors and competitors may be concerned about regulatory risk and liability. AirBNB’s attitude seems to be “build the business until someone stops me, and change or comply with regulations later.” This is the same approach that allowed Amazon to ignore local sales taxes for the last two decades.

When you get customer scale and raise a large financing round, take the battle to the incumbents. Strategies at this stage include:

  • Hire your own lobbyists
  • Begin to build your own influence and political action groups
  • Publicly shame the incumbents as rent seekers
  • Use competition among governments to your advantage, eg, if New York or North Carolina doesn’t want Tesla, put the store in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, increasing New Jersey’s tax revenue
  • Cut deals with the rent seekers. i.e. revenue/profit sharing, two-tier hiring, etc.
  • Buy them out i.e. guaranteed lifetime employment

Lessons Learned

  • Rent seekers are organizations that have lost the ability to innovate
  • They look to the government to provide their defense against innovation
  • Map the order of battle
  • Pick early markets and scale
  • With cash, take the battle to the incumbent

This post originally appeared in Steve Blank’s blog on June 24, 2013.

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Viva Las Vegas! Part 2 – Will the Downtown Project Succeed?

This is the second installment in my look at the Las Vegas Downtown Project. In part one I gave an overview of the project and some of the positives and success indicators. On Thursday I looked at some of the commonalities between Vegas and other small cities as a bridge to this installment. And finally today I want to look at some of the challenges I see with the Downtown Project and ask, will it succeed?

As for the answer to that question, some of it is a matter of how you define success. At a base level, there’s already been success. Downtown Las Vegas is now on the mental map and the discussion agenda for urbanists around the country. The product offering is already better. Also, the original concept of building an extended urban campus for Zappos seems likely to succeed. Downtown will certainly be light-years ahead of where it started as a live/work/play environment.

Other goals are more speculative. Can Zappos avoid the sub-linear scaling curse? We shall see, but given that the same leadership is running both the company and the Downtown Project, this is a good laboratory and case study for business schools to look at.

The big, aspirational goals around making Vegas the most community focused city in the world, and the co-working and co-learning capital of the world seem much more challenging. My previous post around common traits of small cities shows why there’s lot of competition in the community department. Also, with NYC having an estimated 50 co-working facilities already, it seems unlikely Vegas is ever going to win in co-working on volume of activity.

Still, better to aim high than low I always say. But looking forward to how Downtown Project plays out, I see three major areas of concern: the conventionality of the program, the fact that it goes against the DNA of Las Vegas, and challenge of curating a city versus running a company.

The Conventionality of Downtown Project

One thing that struck me when I saw Tony’s original talk at BIF-8 is the conventionality of much of what is being done. The project has a reputation for being very innovative, but most of the components of it are conventional wisdom. Or “best practices” if you will.

Car share, collisions, fashion, tech startups, co-working, art, music, coffeeshops, restaurants, etc. Everything is exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.

I described the project as Ed Glaeser meets Richard Florida which highlights how this happened. They consulted with all the gurus, from Elon Musk to Burning Man. And all the leading edge thinking was incorporated into the program.

But think about Zappos for a minute. If you ever take the tour, it’s obvious that this is a very unique and different company. Here’s a snap:


The scene at Zappos

The Zappos culture and service mentality did not come from taking the best of Seth Godin, Jim Collns, etc. and creating a company culture from them. I’m sure that their HR policies, finance, tech, etc use many methods and tools common to all companies. But the company is not an amalgamation of best practices. Nor is the unique company culture and zaniness just frosting applied to a cake that’s similar to any other. It cuts through everything they do.

By contrast, I just don’t get the same sense of uniqueness in downtown Vegas. What makes downtown Vegas unique is unrelated to Downtown Project (e.g., casinos). There are definitely things I think they’ve innovated on. The Telsa car share and modal integration take that to a new level. The crash pads and sales mentality create a “WOW” experience that’s clearly unique – and probably explain why the project has gotten so much positive press. But those things don’t change the fact that they are basically trying to do what Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida told every city to do.

This I think limits what can be accomplished. Every city has coffee shops, a budding startup community, bars and restaurants, etc. They are all adding livable streets infrastructure and such. They’ve all got a lot of exciting stuff happening. The challenge is how to create the Zappos of cities. That is, a place when you go there you’re blown away by how unique it is and how cool is. And which has a certain polarizing effect, much like Zappos itself, which is not for everybody. Definitely the “WOW” thing they’ve got going with rolling out the red carpet is a great start. A willingness to stay a bit niche and not actually scale so they can preserve the uniqueness might be part of it too (more on this later).

To be fair, given how bleak downtown Vegas is, they pretty much have no choice but to build the basics, which every city needs. Almost by definition, the basics are conventional. So I should probably give them more time to see how this evolves.

Challenging the Vegas DNA

Another challenge is that they are directly going against the brand and cultural DNA of Las Vegas. Vegas is about gambling, etc. While there are definitely regular things in Vegas, including nice boring suburbs, the core of it seems to be in everything centered around casinos.

Downtown Project not only isn’t trying to roll with this but is actively cutting against the grain. The tech fund isn’t investing in gaming technology companies, for example, which is the obvious logical niche. Rather than trying to do cool-urban casinos or some such, they actually bought a casino (the Gold Spike) and ripped out the gambling.

I understand this perfectly because it is exactly what most smaller, unhip cities try to do. You want to join the club, so you think you have to fit in. I have noted how the one thing everyone in the world thinks of when they think of Indianapolis, the 500-Mile Race, is something that’s never talked about by the local urban crowd. To them auto racing is declasse and an emblem of the past city they’d like to think they’ve transcended. Indy is way more than auto-racing today, goes the logic. Almost every city goes through this phase.

One of the things I’ve been most passionate about and that I feel most strongly about generally is the idea that cities need to be themselves. They need to understand who they are and build the future around that, not around junking the past. Yes, change to be sure. But remember who you are. My post “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis” gives the overview of my thinking on that. Cities simply cannot sever their roots and expect to thrive in most cases.

Going against the DNA of your city mean’s you are swimming upstream. As Paul Graham noted in “Cities and Ambition“:

How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
….

A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

It’s very tough to overcome the message that a city repeats in your ear over and over again. And for Vegas trying to reinvent itself around creative collisions, it’s doubly hard as Richard Florida put it in last place for creative class share among large cities. Trying to go from worst to first is a tough challenge indeed.

I come from a consulting background and so am obsessed with strategery. So my own biases are showing. But what do companies obsess about? Their unique customer segments and their value propositions to it, along with the financial model for realizing value. In short, it’s about the brand DNA. It amazes me to no end that while most companies try to convince you how unique and different they are from every other company in their market (Zappos being a great example), virtually every city is trying to convince you that they’re just like every other cool city (tech hub, creative, etc).

What’s the first thing a new creative director does when trying to revive a fashion house that’s fallen on hard times? Pay a visit to the archives. What is this company all about? It’s the same with cities. What is this city all about? And with most cities that question was asked and answered a long before we got there or were even born. The founding ethos of a city is almost impossible to displace. (The best documentation of this is E. Digby Baltzell’s “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia” which showed how the founding ethos of the Puritans and the Quakers permeated every aspect of those cities’ cultures up until the present day). So to understand this you have to dig below the surface (which in the case of Vegas would be gambling I guess) and become a sort of anthropologist. I’m sure my surface analysis of Vegas as about casinos is off and that deeper digging needs to be done. But it doesn’t appear to be a creative capital type of place, etc.

So in thinking about how to transcend conventionality, I think aligning with not against the civic DNA is important. In fact, the Downtown Project already has one area where they have done this and it is by far the most compelling thing I’ve seen them do. This is a hybrid of what they call “Subscribe to Las Vegas” and “Las Vegas Makes You Smarter.”

The idea behind subscribing to Las Vegas is that not everyone can or wants to move there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of the community. Some people are choosing to live or work there part time – say one week a month. The notion is that one purposeful visitor or part timer who is fully engaged in the community and “collisionable” is as good or better than a full time resident that is sitting home watching TV or at work in the burbs.

“Las Vegas makes you smarter” I believe came out of all the people Tony was bringing in to check out Downtown Project. He started asking them to give a presentation while they were in town. Most people said Yes. Hence the downtown speaker series and the notion of Vegas as a place you can get exposed to great minds and knowledge.

These are very in line with the Vegas DNA. First, most people don’t want to move to Vegas. But almost everyone would love to visit. So the idea of becoming a regular visitor to the city is an easy sell to a lot of people. It’s directly in line with the tourism focus of the city. Plus the air connections are superb to it’s easy to get into and out of. The speaker series also goes along with this. On any given day there are already tons of A-list people in Vegas. All you’ve got to do is convince a handful of them to make a community contribution.

So I think finding things like these are critical to building the “Only in Las Vegas” downtown experience that would be best. That’s not to say even this is without challenge. Downtown Vegas does not appear to be an intellectual center. While technology has certainly made it harder to tell, I didn’t see a single person reading a newspaper or book while I was there. There aren’t even that many boxes selling the local newspaper downtown, or a bookstore that I found. The book selection at the Beat Coffeehouse didn’t wow me either. However, I’m told the Inspire Theater that’s being built to house the speakers series will also have Vegas’ largest newsstand and that a bookstore is being looked at.

Can You Curate a Community and a City?

Zappos is known as a company that is very intentional about its culture. The know what they are trying to build, the invest in it, and they take great pains to protect it. But can you apply the same sort of intentionality to the city?

Real cities aren’t just about collisions, they are about conflict. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” says the proverb. This is different from “Hey, you’re cool. I’m cool. Let’s be cool together and collaborate.” It’s about people with very different agendas and ideas competing for the same space (in every sense of the word “space”). As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.”

This is where the blank slate of downtown Vegas is a weakness. Because there’s nothing around but casinos and government, there’s really no vision I see apart from Downtown Project. And Downtown Project is investing in people and projects that are compatible with their vision. In effect, they are self-selecting for a monoculture, or for diversity within a particular worldview or paradigm. People who move to downtown Vegas personally or move their business there are likely going to do it because they are bought into the Downtown Project vision. It’s not exactly central economic planning, but there may actually be too much shared vision. I didn’t run into anybody who didn’t think the current approach was right on.

What’s more, because Downtown Project has been so successful in garnering mindshare and national press, it may have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Unless a local casino billionaire or something gets attracted, anyone who wants to play in downtown Vegas is probably going to find it hard to gain mindshare unless they sign onto the Tony Show as it were. Another city with more of a plurality of players might actually be a better platform for getting noticed if you want to do your own thing.

This is where I think a city functions differently than a company. Downtown Las Vegas is not Zappos at a larger scale. It’s a fundamentally different kind of organism.

I’m not convinced it’s even possible to curate a community at more than a small scale anyway. Once more and more people come, you won’t have the same level of community because it will just plain be bigger and more anonymous. And what happens when people start showing up who don’t share the ethos, but are just there to consume? The magic starts to fade. This is exactly what Tony himself went through with the post-peak decline of rave culture and the erosion of PLUR.

Perhaps that magic fading ought to be the big goal after all, to create something that Downtown Project ultimately loses control of because it is so successful that others come in and build something on top of their platform that they never imagined. Maybe it won’t be the co-working capital of the world. But maybe it will be just as cool – or even cooler. Many of the best things turn out to be something their founders never could have imagined. It may be that the best tribute possible to Tony would be if his project became something radically different than what he ever thought it could be.

Concluding Thoughts

Though I obviously have my differences with some of the Downtown Project vision, you have to admire the chutzpah it takes to bring that much ambition to such as bleak place. What they’ve accomplished in such a short time with so little money and with so meager a starting platform in the city is very impressive, especially in contrast to the taxpayer money pits that exist in all too many places. And a number of the things they’ve done are particularly great, especially the subscriber model and their focus on selling downtown Las Vegas (which is truly the best I’ve every seen anywhere – definitely “WOW”). Clearly it’s a place everyone ought to visit to see for themselves – and to find out if Tony can talk you into moving there and starting your own business…

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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