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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Geography of Doom

While we are obviously in the midst of a national economic crisis, it’s equally obvious that some places and some categories of citizens are getting hit harder than others. But how will the geographical impact of the recession play out over time?
Well, the controversial but always stimulating urban theorist Richard Florida has some elaborate thoughts on that subject in a long cover article for The Atlantic. Some of his analysis unsurprisingly relies on his longstanding contention that places with high concentrations of “creative class” types will do well over the long run. But he offers some more specific insights that make a great deal of common sense.
Most notably, he points out that you can’t predict a given metropolitan area’s economic trajectory simply by shoehorning it into or out of a “troubled industry” category. Charlotte, for example, is a major banking center, which ought to spell trouble, but the consolidation of that industry through buyouts of near-bankrupt institutions may actually concentrate banking jobs there and get the city through the worst of the crisis. Similarly, the southern states sporting foreign car plants could obtain some relative benefit if U.S. automakers continue to struggle or go belly-up.
There are some cities, though, that have in the recent past fueled hyper-growth through locally determined economic factors that don’t auger well for the future. Florida mentions Phoenix and Las Vegas, whose growth explosions have been heavily dependent on construction, real estate, and retiree savings (Vegas, of course, also depends enormously on tourism, and thus national income and consumption trends) as places that may never quite be the same. To a large extent, their main growth industry was growth itself.
What the reader takes away from this article is that breezy generalizations about the regional impact of the crisis (which in turn helps determine its political impact) are often imprecise. Sure, the manufacturing centers of the Heartland are in deep, deep trouble, but Chicago, suggests Florida, is enough of a national and international center for professional services (and part of a “mega-region” that includes Toronto) that it could emerge even stronger. The most famous financial center of them all, New York, actually has a far more diversified economy than Des Moines, Iowa.
There’s a lot of other material in the article about things like the “metabolism” of various cities that reflects Florida’s earlier work, and is interesting if not self-evidently convincing. But it’s not too early to think about the reshaping of the country, and of the geographic and demographic trends we all began to take for granted over the last several decades, that will likely follow when the current crisis ends.

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