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Commentary By Aaron M. Renn

Too Many Rust Belt Leaders Have Stockholm Syndrome

Cities, Economics Regulatory Policy, Employment

One of the criticisms leveled at Richard Florida is that many of the Rust Belt cities that tried to cater to the creative class ended up wasting their money on worthless programs.

What this illustrates instead is that leaders in the Rust Belt have taken the contours of the current economy as a given, and attempted to find a way to adapt their community to that.

This is actually a smart way to approach it. The fact is, local leaders are market takers not market makers in most places. They don’t have much leverage. With a global economy and dominance by knowledge industries, trying to create a more favorable environment to tap into those is a rational decision. If that hasn’t turned around those places yet, then nothing else has either.

However, what I’ve noticed is that civic leaders in these places have gone beyond trying to adapt to the global economy, and have become cheerleaders for the status quo – the same status quo that has wrecked in their community.

To be sure, much of deindustrialization resulted from simple productivity and technology improvements. But globalization played a role, both in tearing these cities down and in building up the coastal capitals.

In the second edition of her book The Global City, Saskia Sassen wrote:

What comes out of this book is that the globalization of manufacturing activity and of key service industries has been a crucial factor in the growth of the new industrial complex dominated by finance and producer services. Yes, manufacturing matters, but from the perspective of finance and producer services, it does not have to be national. This is precisely, as this book sought to show, one of the discontinuities (between major cities and nations) in the operation of the economy today compared with two decades ago, the period when mass production of consumer goods was the leading growth engine. One of the key points in this book is that much of the new growth rests on the decline of what were once significant sectors of the national economy, notably key branches of manufacturing, that were the leading force in the national economy and promoted the formation and expansion of strong middle class [emphasis added]

In other words, deindustrialization and the rebirth of cities like New York are linked via globalization.

Given this, you might think urban leaders in post-industrial cities would be advocates for some type of macroeconomic policy changes. That doesn’t really seem to be the case though. Certainly they do not want to see any form of rollback or material alteration in the current globalization schema, apart from perhaps arguing for more of the same.

I noticed this after the election last year when I observed leaders from some of America’s most economically bleak locales bemoaning Trump’s win. That in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem. But it was also clear that they loved the status quo and wanted to preserve and extend it. It is there any reason whatsoever to think that Hillary Clinton would have done anything for Youngstown? I don’t think so. Yet they were enthusiastic about her entire agenda, a more or less stay the course approach that would continue to pile more and more success into existing superstar cities.

I wouldn’t expect them to embrace Trumpism. But one would think that flyover America’s leadership class would be promoting a reform agenda of its own, one which would benefit their cities and regions. But they don’t seem to have one. All of their ideas are more or less adaptions of things people in coastal cities came up with. And they don’t have a national policy change agenda to speak of other than “give cities more money.”

For the younger, educated Millennial types, this is somewhat understandable. Many of them hope aspire to actually be in a coastal city. But much of the leadership class of these places is older and deeply rooted in their community.

As along as these folks remain enthusiasts and staunchly committed to the global status quo that helped ruinate their city, economic policy will continue to be made in ways that disproportionately benefits the coastal, global city elite at their expense.

This piece appeared at NewGeography (originally on Urbanophile)


Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in NewGeography