Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The New Geopolitical Significance of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I'm celebrating an anniversary. Thursday, June 1st, 2006, I wrote my first blog post. What you are reading now is my 3000th pithy effort. But enough about me and onto my muse, Pittsburgh. In 2006, the city and the region were a Rust Belt basket case. In 2016, Pittsburgh is the blueprint for Rust Belt urban revitalization. What happened?

Poetically (not ironically), one of Pittsburgh's failures is its greatest success. In the mid-1980s, the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) was supposed to put Pittsburgh on the new economy map:

"It`s Silicon Valley for chips, it`s Boston for electronics and it`s going to be Pittsburgh for software", predicted Dr. Angel Jordan, provost of Carnegie-Mellon, the intellectual pivot of this turnaround.

That's a great article written by one of the greatest journalists ever to cover economic development and globalization, Richard C. Longworth. He captures Pittsburgh's Andrew Carnegie-like ambitions at a nadir of the steel collapse. Pittsburgh was in a tailspin that continues to haunt the region's demography to this day (read Null Space by Chris Briem, who had his own decade anniversary a few weeks ago). Fair to say, the SEI didn't pan out for Pittsburgh. Or, did it?

I've talked to a few people who know better than I do that SEI didn't save, as the fish the did, Pittsburgh. In the late 1990s, the policy powers that be accepted that fate. I accept that fate then and now. Software landed in Seattle.









The SEI couldn't fly. This turkey would prove to be a feast. What the SEI looked like last summer:

Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute will continue research and development work for the Department of Defense thanks to the extension of a contract that could reach $1.73 billion.

The contract ensures that SEI, the only federally funded research and development center dedicated to cybersecurity and software engineering, will continue work under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics for at least the next five years, with an option to extend an additional five years.

Burgh Diaspora drops the mic.

Monday, May 30, 2016

1960, Peak Cohabitation for Young Adults in the United States

If the 1950s were peak city (in terms of population) in the United States, the decade also represented peak cohabitation for young adults (18-34 year-olds). "For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds":

Dating back to 1880, the most common living arrangement among young adults has been living with a romantic partner, whether a spouse or a significant other. This type of arrangement peaked around 1960, when 62% of the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds were living with a spouse or partner in their own household, and only one-in-five were living with their parents.

Back in the 1880s, an agricultural economy tipped industrial. In the 1950s, a blue collar economy tipped white collar. In the 2010s, a white collar economy is tipping white coat. These economic shifts are reflected in the household composition changes for young adults.

For women, the trend since 1960 is one of increasing labor market share. For men, it is a steady fall from a zenith of economic power. One important result is a dearth of two young adults sharing a one bedroom apartment in a city.

Those couples sharing a bed are likely college-educated and well remunerated, thus punishing young adults requiring solitude for slumber in the urban rental market. Bottom line, the same number of people in 1960 would require more city rooms in 2014. The sun will shine on two couples, all four working, sharing a two bedroom flat. They will have the pick of the real estate litter.

The social arrangements during peak city (1950s) define today's housing cost challenges. Why pack into tenements when inner ring suburbs drown in affordable single family housing? Immigrants have figured this out. The native born would rather pay the cool city price or move back in with mom and dad.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Middle Class in the United States Is Dying

A successful real estate developer demanded we get to the bottom of a Rust Belt paradox. Why is there no land for housing when the population is so much smaller than it was during the 1950s? As decades go, the 1950s remain a zenith for many US cities. That trend provides a clue for those who see the world through demographic goggles. A typical household might have six residents with five dependents (four children and a stay-at-home mom). In 2010, that same typical household will have one resident, who is a dependent. Welcome to grandma's house. She isn't leaving her urban digs until the paramedics take her out on a gurney. For the time being, her home isn't vacant. But the population under the roof is 5/6 smaller than it was in 1950.

In the hands of a dilettante, albeit an expert real estate developer, population change obfuscates more than it illuminates. If he has seen one population boom, he hasn't seen them all. Rural-to-urban migration brings with it a birth rate dividend. Those who would have been field hands crowd tenement buildings. Whereas the boom of suburban brats in urban chic may never yield children within city limits. Without immigration, the 1950s won't happen anywhere in the United States. The birth rates are too low.

When in doubt, dig into the data. Interrogating the struggling middle class in the Federal Reserve Bank's Ninth District:

Here’s a simplistic example to illustrate the effect of household composition changes. Suppose there are 10 people (five men and five women) each making $34,000 per year, and together they make up six households: four married couples with household incomes of $68,000, one male- and one female-headed household, both with income of $34,000. The middle income observation for these six households is $68,000, the income of a typical married couple.

The next year, one of the married couples is divorced. That leaves three married households and four single-headed households—two headed by men and two headed by women. Now let’s say every person gets a 10 percent pay raise. Is everyone better off? You certainly could argue that. But because of the compositional shift, the median for these seven households plummets to $37,400 because the middle-ranked observation (with the raise) is now a single-headed household.

This example exaggerates the actual decline in married couples, but it demonstrates why the overall household median can be misleading. In the district, every state saw a decline in married households roughly in line with the national trend.

The "compositional shift" is just one example of how the median income metric (like population change) can distort our understanding of how the middle class is doing. Everyone gets a raise. The median income goes down. I see this mistake all the time in arguments about how to address affordable housing. Experts and dilettantes alike abuse the data to score ideological points. Misleading traps abound.

Remember rule 1: When in doubt, dig into the data. Rule number 2 concerns disaggregation. The Fed's Ninth District shows how:

Chart: Percent Change in Median Income By Household Subgroup, 1979-2006, 2006 Dollars

Simply put, the Fed controls for the household compositional shift problem. What is good for median income is good for population, particularly in Rust Belt cities. Over long time periods, a household is anything but a constant. Don't be fooled.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Flat World of Finance

Whether global (more recently) or national, the location of certain professional services have defined the urban hierarchy. At the top are cities with F.I.RE. (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries. Finance in particular has come to define the latest era of globalization, with a few large cities dominating the sector. No more, FIRE is dying:

Forget the bright lights and fast pace of living in two of the world’s greatest metropolises, city living for a new generation of financial workers is now more Jacksonville in Florida and Warsaw in Poland than New York and London.

Instead of serving to attract top talent, New York and London price out financial firms in search of fatter bottom lines. High-end banking is no longer tethered to the strictures of the urban hierarchy. The world is, effectively, flat. Convergence defines the economic geography.

If FIRE is dying, then what kind of proximity logic is taking its place? What kind of industries are economically divergent? ICE:

New York is reinventing itself once again, drawing on a different source of advantage, the unique assets that, regardless of the FIRE sector's future, will sustain it as a world city. Our intellectual, cultural and educational (ICE) strengths—already among the world's greatest—are becoming the essence of New York's global identity. The creative economy of New York is once again a gateway economy, as ICE assets originate here to influence and shape our world.

The hub of ICE ("intellectual, cultural, and educational") is the urban research university. White coats replace white collars. Private industry will flock to be near knowledge production, like a moth to a flame.

New York City does not dominate this world as Boston does. Cambridge's Kendall Square makes Manhattan look bush league by comparison:

Speaking in one of his shiny new labs on the banks of Manhattan’s East River, André Choulika, chief executive of Cellectis, says he is a “big Boston fan”, but that the cut-throat competition for talent there would make it tough for a small company like his.

“In New York, you don’t have your employees hired when they go to buy their sandwich from the food truck, like in Boston,” he says.

For biotech, New York is to Boston as Jacksonville is to New York for finance. The city has enough assets to be a player. But it isn't the top dog in this ICE industry. It's the Small Apple.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Is the World Still Spiky?

Richard Florida insists the world is spiky. Geography still matters. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Touting that geography still matters is a straw man. Geography matters whether or not the world is spiky. Spiky is one pattern (economic divergence). The flat world pattern (economic convergence) is another. Urbanists fawn over Richard Florida's normative spiky geography. Denser cities are the best way to organize space. Sprawl (flat world) is bad. If the world is more spiky (spikier?), urbanism is winning. Suburbanism is losing. Urbanism is dying:

It’s been dubbed the e-change movement, where people move from the city to the country, using the internet to make a living. Garlick is not alone in making the move. The recent Super Connected Lifestyle Locations (SCLL) report identified more than 600 “lifestyle towns”, from Kiama in NSW to Ballarat in Victoria. With the rise of silicon suburbs in regional areas outside our capital cities, demographer Bernard Salt says, “We are witnessing a quiet lifestyle revolution in suburban Australia.”

Since I own the nauseating X place is dying meme, I get to explain. There is no zero-sum game between urban and rural. There is no zero-sum game between urban and suburban. Spiky and sprawl are not mutually exclusive geographic patterns. Sometimes, the world is flatter because it is so spiky. London is flatter because it is so spiky:

I’d expect future London émigrés to consider the European sunbelt, which stretches from Lisbon to the delightful Albanian coast. The Mediterranean is the perfect place to live as long as you aren’t part of the local economy. London is the opposite: the ideal is to be part of the economy without living there. The logical thing to do (presuming Brexit doesn’t happen) is to arbitrage the two: live on the Med and work for a London company. This will be an obvious decision for the next generation of knowledge workers, for whom the concept of a daily commute to an office will probably seem baffling.

For the next generation of knowledge workers, it will be dubbed the e-change movement. Work in London, live in Lisbon. Technology will make today's daily commute seem baffling. The world is flat for workers who have a remuneration connection to spiky London.

One can't arbitrage London unless one lives and toils there. The world is spiky. To live and toil in London is to desire escape. The world is flat.

The Rust Belt is spiky. The Sun Belt is flat. The spiky Rust Belt made the flat Sun Belt possible. For African-Americans, Atlanta is Chicago sprawl.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Sun Belt's Broken Promise

Ah, the allure of the Sun Belt. Air conditioning conquered the climate. The federal government papered over racism. State governors shifted oppressive tactics from African-Americans to unions. Most significantly, the warmth of other suns offered the anarchy of sprawl. Legacy costs were a Yankee problem.

Rust Belt shamers such as economist Edward Glaeser and journalist Richard Longworth seized on this new narrative. Whatever the wealthy manufacturing states did wrong, the greenfield South did right. Population change told the tale of the tape. Ohio is dying. North Carolina is thriving. A contemporary mesofacts migration:


For decades, Raleigh and other cities in the US Sun Belt have lured workers from fading industrial centres in the north and midwest, promising jobs and a lower cost of living. But as Mr Perry’s experience shows, even success stories like Raleigh are showing signs of economic malaise.

How now brown town? Eventually, every region will have Rust Belt problems. China has Rust Belt problems. Don't get me started on Japan and the 1980s movie, "Gung Ho." This kid born in Erie, Pennsylvania has seen a litany of would-be economic champions come and go. The Sun Belt has joined the long line of suitors for Penelope.

Most industrial centres, such as Pittsburgh, are done fading. Relative to Pittsburgh, how does Raleigh look now? Like a failure.

US Middle Class

Concerning population, Glaeser's preferred metric of success, Raleigh towers over Pittsburgh. Concerning income growth, Pittsburgh towers over Raleigh. You can have your population victory lap, Sun Belt.

Like China, the Sun Belt basked in cheap and easy growth. Now the game gets harder. Sun Belt boom towns are too busy touting corporate headquarter poaching victories to care.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Naturally, Collision Density Explains the Start-Up-Ness of a City

I believe people develop, not places. I think people develop, not places. Which sentence comes across as more convincing? The first sentence is wishy-washy. The second sentence executes a binding contract with the reader. If I think something is true, then I'll have to prove it to you. I can believe in whatever I like and I don't expect anyone to care. From the density cult:

So, I believe that startup cities are those that amass a significant amount of potential to facilitate collision density between different kinds of thinkers. Collision density is naturally much higher in cities than in suburbs and suburban tech parks because cities house a much higher rate of diverse actors in smaller, more compact spaces. As the tools of innovation are becoming more democratized, and cities are increasingly home to dozens, if not hundreds, of accelerators, coworking spaces, fab labs, and the like, combined with proximity to artists, designers, schools, and users, entrepreneurs are able to regularly mingle with and create mashups of ideas, some of which may turn into commercializable innovations.

Emphasis added. The words "believe" and "naturally" act in tandem in this non-argument. Naturally, everyone believes collision density is higher in cities than in suburbs because Jane Jacobs didn't like sprawl. That's how the paragraph reads to me.

For geographers, the use of the term "natural" or "naturally" will set off the alarm of environmental determinism. Many geographers believe that environmental determinism is bad. The perspective is an academic taboo, like geopolitics. Naturally, Nazi Germany should do something about that Czechoslovakian knife sticking in the side of the Vaterland and keep going until lebensraum is restored.

Because of greater collision density, the increasing democratization of the tools of innovation will increase the commercializable innovations in cities. What does that even mean? Put a bird on it and present the model at the next International Economic Development Council conference.

The United States has a long, recent history of successful innovation and commercialization in the very places where, naturally, collision density is lacking. Believing in Jane Jacobs density won't change that fact. But democratization will? Excuse me while I pursue my manifest destiny.