Friday, December 26, 2014

The Mythology of Uniqueness

Don't blame individual Rust Belt cities for their economic decline.

Theme: Geographic stereotypes.

Even in 1961, the divergence between the paths of New York and Pittsburgh was clear. Between 1940 and 1960, New York City’s population grew by 4.3 percent. The New York metropolitan area expanded far more robustly. Pittsburgh’s population had shrunk by 11 percent over the same two decades. Mr. Chinitz’s article tried to make sense of the Steel City’s slowdown, even before the full extent of the city’s decline was made manifest.
Mr. Chinitz emphasized the importance of industrial diversity and competition. He noted that “Pittsburgh is much more specialized” than any large metropolitan area except Detroit. Moreover, Pittsburgh’s dominant industry, primary metals, was dominated by a small number of large companies. By contrast, New York was a diverse place whose dominant sector, the garment industry, had long been marked by small, independent operators. As Mr. Chinitz wrote, “The average establishment in the apparel industry, for example, has one-sixth as many employees as the average establishment in primary metals.”

I'm taking an academic approach to this passage. Glaeser, via Benjamin Chinitz, is making a case for regional agency in economic development. If Pittsburgh listened to Chinitz (or Glaeser), then its economy wouldn't suck. Such a perspective denies the influence of structural forces, which would seem to have the upper hand given the ubiquity of Rust Belt malaise. In the social sciences, structure vs. agency is an old debate. I'm a structuralist, contending that global forces matter more than local policies. Glaeser is a fan of agency. The right set of policies would beget a strong Pittsburgh economy, and thus a growing population.

Which is more to blame for dying Rust Belt cities, structure or agency?


Monica Gagnier said...

I wonder what the experts would say about New York's growing dependence on what used to be called the FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) sector? A bear market isn't pretty in Gotham, which I suspect isn't as diversified as it used to be.
A Wiki link to the old FIRE classifications:

Jim Russell said...

New York also has the big firm problem. Regardless, population is a lousy way to measure success. For domestic migration, NYC is annually the biggest loser.

Allen said...

I would be curious to know what constitutes a diverse economy. Also, am I correct in understanding that while Mr. Glaseser [sic] may not claim this that many do claim that diversity _causes_ prosperity?

I ask this since to a lay person like myself, a city like Duluth MN looks ver diverse for employment. Yet many wuldn't say they're doing well. Then again, maybe it's that wrongful idea that population grwoth = econmic properity creeping in.

Jim Russell said...


A diverse regional economy would provide resilience, like diversifying a stock portfolio with some counter-cyclical holdings. A region with major employers in different industry sectors wouldn't necessarily be "prosperous".