America, Barack Obama, Capitalism, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Donald Trump, Economic Growth, Jane Jacobs, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Richard Florida, Rust Belt, US Election 2016, US Politics, Who's Your City
Ever since I watched the footage of President Trump’s inauguration last week, some words have been playing distantly in my mind, like the tune of a half-remembered pop song from several summers ago. They are from a book called Who’s Your City? (2008), which I reviewed on Tychy in 2014, and their author is the urbanist self-help guru Richard Florida. Finally, I would not be satisfied until I had chased up the niggling passage and so here it is:
In today’s spiky world, social cohesion is eroding within countries and across them. Little wonder we find ourselves living in an increasingly fractured global society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote – or tear – down what they perceive to be the economic elite of the world… Managing the disparities between peaks and valleys worldwide – raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks – is surely the greatest political challenge of our time.
This is now also Donald Trump’s challenge. He may be immediately disqualified from meeting any serious political challenge simply by virtue of being Donald Trump. Yet there is an unlikely bipartisanship, even a frame of mind resembling schizophrenia, to his political makeup which appears to keenly encompass the “greatest political challenge of our time.” Let us firstly look at Florida’s analysis and then consider how aspects of it have been manifested in Trump.
I remember having very positive feelings towards Who’s Your City? When I peruse my review, however, I see that it is freely scattered with moans and quibbles – my enthusiasm is always mislaid somewhere once I robe myself in the sternness of the critic. Perhaps you are required to be patient with Who’s Your City? before you can appreciate its novelty. Florida believes that cities each have their own distinct personalities and that we need his manual because “so few of us have the understanding or mental framework necessary to make informed choices about our location.” Even so, if Who’s Your City? was wholly the self-help book that it aspires to be, then it would be derisory. The mould can be scraped off the bread and there is nutritional value beneath: namely, Florida’s radical overturning of conventional assumptions about the economy and the nation-state.
A considerable share of Florida’s economics is geography. He borrows from Alfred Marshall’s influential model of “agglomeration economies” to assert that:
the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people. New ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to one another in cities and regions.
the huge collections of little firms, the symbiosis, the ease of breakaways, the flexibility, the economies, efficiencies and adaptiveness – are precisely the realities that, among other things, have always made successful and significant import-replacing a process realizable only in cities and their nearby hinterlands.
If I had started out by wondering whether Florida might have predicted Trump’s victory, I later found an article on his own blog for The Atlantic’s CityLab which is entitled “Did Jane Jacobs Predict the Rise of Trump?” Cities and the Wealth of Nations is a big enough book to justify the chutzpah of presenting itself as mixture of heir and usurper to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Jacobs argues that the standard nation is “composed of collections or grab bags of very different economies.” The most valuable of these are the cities that alone have the systems to keep producing wealth, but national “grab bags” equally contain industrial or agricultural “supply regions.” These are “inherently over-specialised and wildly unbalanced economies, hence unresiliant and fragile, helpless when they lose their fragments of distant markets.” A nation’s distress at witnessing the inevitable failures of its supply regions will lead it to roll out tariffs and expensive development initiatives, thereby “draining” the “import-replacing” cities which are responsible for the nation’s wealth in the first place. This distress has indeed just elected Donald Trump.
Florida updates Jacobs’ theory by introducing the concept of the “mega-region.” He observes that escalating clustering has produced “a new, natural economic unit that results from city-regions growing upward, becoming denser, and growing outward and into one another.” This new unit combines a productivity which Jacobs had insisted was exceptional to the city, with a scale and power which she had warned was fatal to its success. Today the mega-region can be tentatively identified as a kind of streamlined, junior nation. One of the most striking global examples of this is London, a city which is now practically howling to be liberated from the UK’s one-size-fits-all interest rates and immigration policy (or else, to take them as its alone). The vast urban regions on America’s alternate seaboards are demonstrably different to its inland and more pastoral economies. They too might eventually develop their own political autonomy.
The fact that none of America’s most dynamic economic regions voted for Trump is an ominous, or possibly promising, development. Florida crunches the election data on his blog to find that:
Clinton captured the largest metros [metropolitan areas]. She bested Trump with 55 percent compared to 40 percent of the vote in metros with more than one million people, and won eight of the ten largest metros. These metros accounted for more than half the vote and generate two-thirds of America’s economic output.
Trump took the rest. He won metros with between 500,000 and a million people by 48 percent, compared to 46 percent for Clinton; those with 250,000 to 500,000 people by 52 percent, versus 43 percent for Clinton; and those with under 250,000 people by 57 percent, versus 38 percent for Clinton.
Those who voted for Clinton had “higher income and wages”; they “came from metros with higher shares of college grads… where knowledge, professional and creative class workers make up a larger share of the workforce.” Florida espies a worsening trend:
Clinton support was also much greater in metros with larger concentrations of startups, venture capital investment, and high-tech industry, while Trump votes were negatively correlated with each. These correlations are all stronger for 2016 than they were in 2012.
But, to refer back to the quote at the head of this article, Trump is ostensibly committed to “raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks.” What is commonly regarded as Trump’s unfitness to represent the Rust Belt – his glitzy extravagance and “germophobic” New York neuroticism – has at least allowed him to strangely span America’s peaks and valleys. As Politico reported in November, “Trump’s Cabinet and administration could be worth as much as $35 billion, a staggering agglomeration of wealth unprecedented in American history.” And yet many blue-collar workers have still chosen this exotic billionaire to be their class representative.
Trump is certainly inexplicable without the precedent set by Barack Obama. For eight years, there was this aloof, gentle headmaster in the White House. When he was frustrated by Congress, he was oh so disappointed and this absence of urgency must have struck many in the Rust Belt as being bitterly offensive. Workers were then asked to vote for a woman who had been the next-best after Obama in the 2008 primaries. They have instead recruited somebody who, whenever he encounters political opposition, is prone to respond with threats, tantrums, abuse, and three-in-the-morning tweets. Trump surely just looks as crazy as many people feel. He was also the only fiery politician who was remotely available. It would have been wonderful to have a trade unionist stand there at the inauguration and read out the line, “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” Wonderful, but entirely fantastical within current American politics.
For Jacobs, national democracy is naturally inimical to guaranteeing undisturbed economic growth. So long as the majority of people, or at least a majority of voters, live outside of the most dynamic regions of the economy, her anti-redistributive solutions are never likely to be election winners. She thought that cities were fatally handicapped without their own currencies. She viewed militarism, social welfare, and international aid as throwing good money after bad. If it is unexpected to find some of these views in a left-wing community activist, how weirder is her assumption that inequality is inalienable because the different regions of a nation are fundamentally unequal in their productive capacities. Sometimes it seems from her analysis that the only answer to the USA’s problems would be for everybody to live and work in a handful of zones on the East and West coast.
Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” has been generally interpreted as a call to make the Rust Belt shine again, by using infrastructure investment, tariffs, and immigration controls to “deliver” or “bring back” jobs. Yet he does not plan to redistribute wealth to the Rust Belt from urban centres of innovation or even from the rich as a targeted social class. Trump has threatened to go after tech firms that move jobs overseas and his hostility to immigration will worry sectors which depend upon skilled migrant labour. Tax on the peaks will nonetheless plummet. The policy analyst Professor Lily Batchelder has calculated of Trump’s tax plans that, “as a share of your income, the tax cut for millionaires is about 18 times larger.” Silicon Valley is said to be rejoicing over Trump’s scheme to allow them to “repatriate” billions of dollars earned abroad tax-free. Instead, taxes have been so far hiked for middle-class homeowners and single-parent families.
So it appears increasingly that the Rust Belt will be paying for its own rejuvenation, both directly through taxation and then later through the price rises which will result from Trump’s protectionism. Jacobs’ position might demand a mass disillusionment, the national acceptance that rust cannot be turned back into iron, along with a political dedication to the difficult, piecemeal growth of genuine import-replacing networks. The precision surrounding this investment is the very opposite of Trump’s blasé plan to slap infrastructure everywhere and hunt migrants to extinction.
Marxists classically anticipate a class crisis and Trump’s presidency could well write it in regions. Wealth-creating urban centres could see themselves as being stunted by Trump’s rambling economics; the intended beneficiaries of his policies will continue to despise metropolitan America if their standards of living do not improve. The self-driving cars and data-sifting algorithms which are at the forefront of urban innovation will leave much more rust across the American landscape. Maybe progress will come only with the realisation that the USA cannot ever be fixed by the federal government. These days, no swanky financier can be a President For All Americans.