Monday, November 21, 2011

Take Two: Rust Belt Equals Brain Drain

Whatever you want to call the current economic and financial mess we are in, the dramatic reshuffling has favored the Rust Belt. Such faint praise reads like a backhanded compliment. Making the rounds last week:

Reversing the Brain Drain
During the high-flying years of the 1990s and early-2000s, the highly educated were pouring into tech hubs (San Jose and Boston), quality-of-life capitals (Portland and Austin), and centers of rapid growth (Las Vegas and Phoenix). Rust Belt cities were bleeding brainpower.

Then the housing bubble burst. Suddenly, those with newly minted diplomas weren't so eager to fly the coop. A report released this year by William Frey of the Brookings Institution documents the change – Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Baltimore all saw gains in migration of college-educated adults between 2007 and 2009, while Buffalo and Cleveland stemmed the outward migration. The shift, Richard Florida observed in The Atlantic, “put older Rust Belt metros back on the talent map.”

Rust Belt cities weren't really bleeding brain power. For Pittsburgh, the shock came in the early 1980s. Long after the exodus ended, the demographic hole continued to echo. Population loss equals brain drain.

The recession comes around and talent is reluctant to leave. If there is no boom, there is no bust. The Rust Belt is saved by greater misery everywhere else. Eventually, order will be restored and the flight of the Creative Class will pick up where it left off. Let's sweep the following under the rug:

The country's metropolitan economies overall saw GDP growth of 2.5 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Economic Statistics. But Pittsburgh's GDP grew 4.1 percent, Buffalo's 3 percent, Baltimore's 3.3 percent, and Indianapolis' 3.6 percent. And while job growth has been dismal nationwide, it is better than average in many of the Rust Belt cities.

The sweeping geographic generalization is troubling. The relatively strong economic growth coupled with lower unemployment than the national average isn't ubiquitous throughout the Rust Belt. There are a few very bright spots. Rust Belt stereotypes give birth to poorly done stories.

Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and my current hometown of Pittsburgh were at the forefront of the organizational age. The cultural and attitudinal norms of that age became so powerfully ingrained in these places that they did not allow the new norms and attitudes associated with the creative age to grow up, diffuse and become generally accepted. This process, in turn, stamped out much of the creative impulse, causing talented and creative people to seek out new places where they could more readily plug in and make a go of it.

Go right ahead and lump all of them into together. Rust Belt cities are pushing out talent, "bleeding brainpower". It was nonsense then and even less true now.

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