Srirachagate Gives a Window Into California’s Business Climate Problem

I love Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha sauce as much as the next guy, which is to say a lot. The red hot sauce with the rooster on the bottle has a cult following across the nation. So unsurprisingly it made national news when the city of Irwindale, CA sued to shut down production at the company’s processing plant there. The processing of the hot peppers, done during only a limited time of year because Huy Fong only uses fresh peppers, was alleged to be causing a noxious odor in the town.

This looks like a pretty garden variety dispute between neighbors and an industrial business. Clearly industrial odors can be a problem. I don’t know how long they’ve been in Irwindale, but Sriracha has been around a long time so I’m a bit skeptical something changed just this year. Regardless, I don’t think odor complaints are necessarily evidence of a bad business climate as there could be a legitimate problem.

Then came the state order to stop shipping the product for 30 days. The state of California decided that to reduce the risk of food borne illnesses, the sauce had to sit for 30 days before it can be shipped. Keep in mind, this is for a product that has never had a complaint against it for making someone sick.

How many businesses can afford to halt shipments for a month and survive? Sriracha has a cult following and so they’ll likely overcome it. But many businesses wouldn’t have this luxury. When their customers can’t get product, they lose the business. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if restaurants do turn to alternative suppliers. At a minimum, Huy Fong is going to lose a lot of sales.

Who in their right mind would want to do business in a state like this? And this is far from the worst case. It just so happens that because this is such a popular consumer product, it’s visible. If even these types of companies get shut down, how much more so a firm where this wouldn’t create an avalanche of bad publicity?

Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate, which can sound like such a shady way of saying cut services and taxes. But taxes are often the least part of it. It’s the regulatory apparatus that makes doing business in many places too painful to contemplate. This even affects city-suburb investment patterns. I’ve observed that in many places, the urban core is a flat out terrible place to do business, unless you’re very politically wired up.

This doesn’t usually bother urbanists all that much until a trendy business they like gets affected. For example, an urban farming supply shop in Providence called Cluck got sued when they tried to open. The beautiful and the bearded were outraged and the shop was ultimately approved. But there’s no similar visibility or outrage when a Latino immigrant runs into the red-tape buzzsaw when he tries to open a muffler shop.

If we want to promote investments in our cities and states, we need to be focused on basics like an objective, predictable regulatory framework that operates in the timely fashion and in which arbitrary denials, rule changes, and such are minimized. This is way more important to attracting capital investment than sexier items like streetcar lines.

This piece first appeared at The Urbanophile.

Court Rules Against California High Speed Rail

California Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled against the California High Speed Rail Authority in two decisions announced on November 25. In the first, Judge Kenny ruled that the Business Plan failed to meet the requirements of the voter approved referendum under California Assembly Bill 3034 (2008), in not identifying sufficient capital funding for the first segment. As a result, the Business Plan needs to be redrafted. In the second decision, Judge Kenny declined to issue a conformity ruling that would have paved the way for $8 billion in bonds that had been approved by voters, which were also subject to same Assembly Bill 3034.

Judge Kenny declined to stop construction of the project, which is scheduled to start in the Spring. However, the Authority only has federal funds for that segment, and which would require, in the longer run, matching state funds (which were to have been from the bonds).

According to the San Francisco Chronicle , Kenny's found that the California High Speed Rail Authority "abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of law."

The Undead Suburban Office Market

The restoration of central city living and working environments has been one of the more important developments in the nation’s metropolitan areas over the past two decades. Regrettably, a good story has been exaggerated out of all proportion in the print, electronic and online media.  

Exaggerating Core Population Increases: The rise of population in urban cores has been important, but it has too often been used to suggest the apparent, but fallacious opposite, suburban decline. In fact, the suburbs are hardly in decline, with 93.5 percent of major metropolitan area growth outside a 10 mile radius from city hall between the 2000 and 2010 censuses (See: Flocking Elsewhere: The Downtown Growth Story).

Exaggerating CBD Office Space Gains: Similar misinformation had been circulating about office space outside the nation’s CBDs (central business districts, or “downtowns”). Commercial real estate information company Costar’s Randyl Drummer recently described suburbia’s improving fortunes (See: Once Left for Dead, Suburban Office Making a Comeback).

“Some analysts wrote the obituary of the suburban office campus as downsizing companies shed millions of square feet, in many cases consolidating into buildings closer to public transit in urban centers.” 

It’s just not happening, according to Costar research:

“Overall, the suburbs have garnered more than their usual share of leasing demand over the past two years, according to an analysis by CoStar real estate economists. Since the beginning of 2012, suburban markets have accounted for a whopping 87% of office demand -- which is 13% more than their 'fair share' based on the total market size compared with CBD office markets, according to data presented at CoStar’s recent third-quarter office review and forecast.” 

Indeed, CBD leasing, at 13 percent of the total, is a full 50 percent below their current share of inventory (Figure 1). As of mid-2013, the suburbs accounted for nearly three quarters of the nation’s office inventory (Figure 2).

Costar cites strong suburban development in Raleigh’s Research Triangle, and further notes that:

A diverse set of markets that include Sacramento, San Jose, Austin, Kansas City and Charlotte have posted some of the strongest net office absorption among suburban markets.

This is despite the glowing publicity being given to core area development, especially in places like Charlotte and Austin.

The reality is that the monumental CBD towers dominating metropolitan skylines do not indicate downtown dominance. In fact, throughout the high income world, most metropolitan employment is outside CBDs. In the United States, typically 90 percent of employment is outside the CBDs. The suburban employment (outside the CBD) share is a bit smaller in Western Europe, Canada and Australia, but still averages approximately 80 percent or more.

The good news is that neither suburbia nor downtown is dead.

Can the Rust Belt Learn From Dixie?

Aaron Renn's recent piece on the Rust Belt has some formidable strengths that can be the foundation of its revitalization, but it has a set of structural problems that must be confronted to achieve true revitalization.  Current revitalization strategies, he suggests, are outside of each city's system or fail to bring the appropriate heft to lift all those who need lifting -- largely because they only obliquely address the structural challenges.  The challenges:

  • Racism
  • Corruption
  • Closed societies
  • Two-tiered environment and resulting paralysis

I won't rehash Aaron's assessment, but I do agree with it.

What occurred to me is that, if you think about it, the South's cities were in the same position following the Civil War -- and faced the same obstacles -- until after World War II.  Racism clearly plagued Southern metros and hindered growth during that era; many places were well known for their corruption.  The South certainly had a reputation for being a closed society, unwelcome to outsiders, and its history of reliance on low- and moderately-skilled labor made the South perhaps more skeptical of highly educated labor, just like in the Midwest.

Following World War II, however, Southern metros began to make great strides to catch up with and even surpass Northeastern and Midwestern cities.  I'm no scholar on post-war Southern growth, but it appears Southern metros took on these strategies to move upward and onward:

Tolerate Newcomers.  After World War II Southern cities realized that they could no longer rely on intra-region growth if they were going to prosper, particularly during a period with widespread migration of blacks to Northern cities at the time.  Southern business leaders rightfully recognized opportunities to bring businesses and residents to the South from other parts of the country.

Seeing education as an asset.  It's no coincidence that the Southern metros that have developed the strongest post-war economies -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Raleigh, Nashville -- are home to significant educational institutions.  After the war the colleges and universities of large Southern metros became integral to their growth.

Becoming a low-cost alternative to the rest of the country.  Prior to their turnaround Southern cities probably described themselves in terms of what they lacked in comparison to Northern cities.  They did not have the impressive skylines, the classic neighborhoods, the exceptional park systems or the infrastructure that were the legacy of Northern cities.  However they did have cheap land and cheap labor, and those factors became the driver that facilitated the development of what they lacked.

The above strategies, combined with the widespread use of air conditioning that made the Southern climate more tolerable, allowed for the growth of Southern metros. 

The Rust Belt should take note.  While the South only address race as the federal government made them, perhaps the Rust Belt can become a leader in addressing race matters.  If the South can learn to become more tolerant of outsiders, the Midwest can as well; it does have a legacy of immigration that can serve as a foundation.  Advocates of the Rust Belt Chic movement may turn the low-cost strategy on its head -- the Rust Belt has a unique physical and social legacy that those who've grown up in places with less would welcome.  And the Rust Belt has perhaps the greatest collection of public research universities in the nation (even if most are located in smaller metros and not the big cities), and they could be a huge driver of revitalization.

Clearly, the South did not get everything right.  But when faced with an existential crisis not unlike what the Rust Belt faces today, they adapted.  The Rust Belt must find its strengths and play to them.


Well-Heeled in the Windy City

A couple weeks ago, noting the apparently immunity of global city Chicago to problems elsewhere in the city, I asked the question: What happens when global city Chicago realizes there’s a good chance it can simply let the rest of the city fail and get on with its business?

I’d argue we’re seeing the results right before our eyes.

At the same time murders in significant parts of the city are even higher than during the peak of the crack epidemic, when the city says its too poor to hire more cops, when 54 schools are closed and a 1000 teachers laid off, half the mental health clinics closed, libraries cut back, etc., Chicago has found a nearly limitless stream of money for elite amenities, most recently – and appallingly – $50+ million in TIF subsidies for a new DePaul arena. There’s also been hundreds of millions of dollars more in corporate welfare under Daley and Rahm.

Investing in success is a great idea – if you plan to harvest a return on that investment to fund city services and your safety net. It’s clear there’s no intention of doing this in Chicago. I discuss this in my most recent City Journal piece, “Well-Heeled in the Windy City.” Here’s an excerpt:

Clearly, cities like Chicago must retain a substantial portion of upscale residents and businesses. Detroit and other cities show the results of failure on this front. Yet the moral case for elite amenities has always rested on the assumption of a broader public good: what benefited the wealthy would also make life better for the rest of the city….Under Emanuel’s leadership, though, Chicago has made peace with a two-tier society and broken the social contract. Rather than trying to expand opportunity, Chicago has bet its future on its already successful residents—leading some on the left to call Emanuel Mayor 1 Percent. The Windy City isn’t alone in following this strategy. Detroit has gone bankrupt, but that hasn’t stopped city government from lavishing $450 million in subsidies on a new Red Wings arena.

Since I critique bike infrastructure as part of Chicago’s splurge for the elite, I want to clarify that point here where there are lots of bike advocates. I strongly support bike infrastructure. In fact, I once gave a presentation where I said protected bike lanes and bike share should be Rahm’s top two transport priorities on taking office because they are cost-effective and can leverage outside funds. However, even the most passionate advocates must admit that the optics are bad on making a full court press on bike lanes when cutting core services elsewhere. More importantly, Rahm’s explicit rationale on bike infrastructure has been luring talent for the tech economy, thus it is an elite focused venture. For example, the Sun-Times reported:

Emanuel called protected bike lanes central to the city’s sustainability plan and his efforts to make Chicago the high-tech hub of the Midwest. Chicago “moved up dramatically” in the list of major cities whose employees bike to work, he said.

“It’s part of my effort to recruit entrepreneurs and start-up businesses because a lot of those employees like to bike to work,” he said.

“It is not an accident that, where we put our first protected bike lane is also where we have the most concentration of digital companies and digital employees. Every time you speak to entrepreneurs and people in the start-up economy and high-tech industry, one of the key things they talk about in recruiting workers is, can they have more bike lanes.”

I’m simply taking the mayor at his word. (See also here and here).

This piece originally appeared at The Urbanophile.

Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago More Violent than Al Capone’s Chicago and the Old West

Since Rahm Emanuel entered the political scene years ago, he’s been a master at manipulating the press to his benefit. A pliant media has largely gone along with whatever talking point Emanuel desired. Lately, some of the media has begun to put the spotlight on violent Chicago with its rather high murder rate. Banning or restricting handguns has not been very successful in combatting violence in Chicago.  The website Big Government reports the bloody details:

After Chicago recorded a terrible homicide total of 53 in August, September wasn't much better for Rahm's "world class" city. The city suffered 41 homicides, 30 of which resulted from 184 total shootings

September brings more bad news for Chicago residents. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and the Chicago media have continued to hammer the point that the "crime rate is down," and "murder is down," as of September 22, the homicide total for 2013 now exceeds the rate up to the same date in 2011 by two percent at 350, according to the Chicago Police Crime Data Portal.

How does today’s Chicago hold up at the violent memory of Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s? Not very well.  WLS-TV investigated the data and the evidence is rather stunning report in February:

Let's compare two months: January 1929, leading up to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and last month, January 2013. Forty-two people were killed in Chicago last month, the most in January since 2002, and far worse than the city's most notorious crime era at the end of the Roaring Twenties.

Even though the image of Chicago, perpetuated by Hollywood over the years, was that mobsters routinely mowed down people on the streets, the crime stats tell us that we were safer under Capone than Emmanuel. In January 1929 there were 26 killings. Forty-two people were killed in Chicago last month, the most in January since 2002.

Even though the image of Chicago, perpetuated by Hollywood over the years, was that mobsters routinely mowed down people on the streets, the crime stats tell a different story. The figures from January 2013 are significantly higher than the January of Al Capone's most famous year.

It’s not just the Capone era violence that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Constantly we hear from the media and advocates of gun control that we don’t want things to become “the Wild West”. In the last several years, historians have begun to look at this long time legend that was promoted by Hollywood movies.  As Ryan McMaken explains:

Historian Richard Shenkman largely attributes this to the legacy of those reliably-violent Western films. "Many more people have died in Hollywood Westerns than ever died on the real Frontier…[i]n the real Dodge City, for example, there were just five killings in 1878, the most homicidal year in the little town's Frontier history: scarcely enough to sustain a typical two-hour movie."

The old West with its minimal government and armed populace has never been too popular with progressives. But, the reality is it was never really violent according to Terry Anderson and Peter Hill. So, the murder rate of the Capone era and Dodge city of 1878 would be a major improvement for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Note: This post was originally incorrectly attributed to Wendell Cox.

Congratulations Senator Bob Day

Congratulations to Bob Day, who was elected as a federal Senator from South Australia. Day was one of six Senators elected from the state in the September 7 election. While most of the seats in the lower house of Parliament were quickly decided, the Senate seats too considerably longer under Australia’s preferential voting system. According to the Australian Broadcasting Company, Day’s election and that of the other five Senators was confirmed on October 2.

Day is an ultimate entrepreneur, having founded Home Australia and related companies that has emerged as a leading home builder across the nation. He served a term as President of the Housing Industry Association. Day has also been a author, writing a piece on one of his passions, the importance of restoring housing affordability in Australia (see The Land Premium that’s Punishing Property).


Our Federal Government: "There You Go Again!"

Remember this?

The fact remains that Congress has not passed a real federal budget since 1997 (“the first balanced budget in a generation”.) An “omnibus spending bill” was passed in April of 2009 but that is not technically a budget.

Congressional inaction has left the federal government running on extensions (“Continuing Resolutions”) of a budget that was passed when Bill Gates was still CEO of Microsoft, NASA landed the first spacecraft on Mars, and Google was working out of a garage. The last federal budget is from the time before iPods and iPads, before SPAM e-mail exceeded legitimate email, before Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – and before the global financial crisis that sent the world into recession and US federal spending into the stratosphere.

(“This is Your Government on Crack,” by Susanne Trimbath 02/12/2013).

As one very famous Republican President said (repeatedly in his defeat of Jimmy Carter): “There you go again!”

And, sure, this isn’t the first time the federal government has shut down for lack of spending authorization. I remember when my elderly mother and her sisters – first generation Americans eager to see the place where their parents disembarked after their long ocean voyage from Sicily – were so disappointed to find Ellis Island and the Status of Liberty closed that October of 1996.

The big difference this time is the way government is spending – which I discuss in detail in the article quoted above. USAToday has an article that summarizes just how different the government operates today than it did 17 years ago. There is a big reason Republicans might want to re-think shutting down the government. According to USAToday, gun permits cannot be issued while the federal government is closed.

Let’s hope one thing is the same in 2013 as it was in 1996 – when they re-opened the government Congress passed a real budget.

What Conservatives Can Teach Liberals About Global Warming Policy

Over the last decade, progressives have successfully painted conservative climate skepticism as the major stumbling block to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon and the Koch brothers, the story goes, fund conservative think tanks to sow doubt about climate change and block legislative action. As evidence mounts that anthropogenic global warming is underway, conservatives’ flight from reason is putting us all at risk.

This week's release of a new United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report opens another front in the climate wars. But beneath the bellowing, name-calling, and cherry-picking of data that have become the hallmark of contemporary climate politics lies a paradox: the energy technologies favored by the climate-skeptical Right are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.

How much more? Max Luke of Breakthrough Institute ran the numbers and found that, since 1950, natural gas and nuclear prevented 36 times more carbon emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal. Nuclear avoided the creation of 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide, natural gas 26 billion, and geothermal, wind, and solar just 1.5 billion.

Environmental leaders who blame "global warming deniers" for preventing emissions reductions point to Germany's move away from nuclear and to renewables. "Germany is the one big country that’s taken this crisis seriously," wrote Bill McKibben. Other progressive and green leaders, including Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Bobby Kennedy, Jr., have held up Germany's "energy turn," theEnergiewende, as a model for the world. 

But for the second year in a row, Germany has seen its coal use and carbon emissions rise — a fact that climate skeptical conservatives have been quick to point out, and liberal environmental advocates have attempted to obfuscate. "Last year, Germany’s solar panels produced about 18 terawatt-hours (that’s 18 trillion watt-hours) of electricity," noted Robert Bryce from the conservative Manhattan Institute. "And yet, [utility] RWE’s new coal plant, which has less than a 10th as much capacity as Germany’s solar sector, will, by itself, produce about 16 terawatt-hours of electricity.

Reagan historian Steven Hayward, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, noted in the conservative Weekly Standard earlier this week, "Coal consumption wentup 3.9 percent in Germany last year. Likewise, German greenhouse gas emissions — the chief object of Energiewende — rose in Germany last year, while they fell in the United States."

Emissions fell in the United States thanks largely to a technology loathed by the Left:fracking. From 2007 to 2012, electricity from natural gas increased from 21.6 to 30.4 percent, while electricity from coal declined from 50 to 38 percent — that's light speed in a notoriously slow-changing sector. And yet the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and most other green groups are working to oppose the expansion of natural gas.

Hayward and Bryce are two of the most respected writers on energy and the environment on the Right. Both are highly skeptical that global warming poses a major threat. Both regularly criticize climate scientists and climate models. Both men are regularly attacked by liberal organizations like Media Matters for working for organizations, the American Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute, respectively, that have taken money from both Exxon and the Koch brothers. And yet both men are full-throated advocates for what Bryce calls "N2N" — accelerating the transition from coal to natural gas and then to nuclear.

Arguably, the climate-energy paradox is a bigger problem for the Left than the Right. One cannot logically claim that carbon emissions pose a catastrophic threat to human civilization and then oppose the only two technologies capable of immediately and significantly reducing them. And yet this is precisely the position of Al Gore, Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the bulk of the environmental movement.

By contrast, there are plenty of good reasons for climate skeptics to support N2N. A diverse portfolio of energy sources that are cheap, abundant, reliable, and increasingly clean is good for the economy and strengthens national security - all the more so in a world where energy demand will likely quadruple by the end of the century.

Why then is there so much climate skepticism on the Right? One obvious reason is that climate science has long been deployed by liberals and environmentalists to argue not only for their preferred energy technologies but also for sweeping new regulatory powers for the federal government and the United Nations.

But here as well, the green agenda hasn’t fared well. Those nations that most rapidly reduced the carbon intensity of their economies over the last 40 years did so neither through regulations nor international agreements. Nations like France and Sweden, which President Obama rightly singled out for praise earlier this month, did so by directly deploying nuclear and hydroelectric power. Now the United States is the global climate leader, despite having neither a carbon price nor emissions trading, thanks to 35 years of public-private investment leading to the shale gas revolution. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that caps and carbon taxes have had much impact on emissions anywhere.

In the end, both Left and Right reject a more pragmatic approach to the climate issue out of fear that doing so might conflict with their idealized visions for the future. Conservatives embrace N2N as a laissez-faire outcome of the free market in the face of overwhelming evidence that neither nuclear nor gas would be viable today had it not been for substantial taxpayer support. Progressives seized on global warming as an existential threat to human civilization because they believed it justified a transition to the energy technologies – decentralized renewables – that they have wanted since the sixties.

The Left, in these ways, has been every bit as guilty as the Right of engaging in "post-truth" climate politics. Consider New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza's glowing profile of Tom Steyer, the billionaire bankrolling the anti-Keystone campaign. After Lizza suggested that Steyer and his brother Tom might be the Koch brothers of environmentalism, Steyer objects.  The difference, he insists, is that while the Koch brothers are after profit, he is trying to save the world.

It is telling that neither Lizza nor his editors felt it necessary to point out that Steyer is a major investor in renewables and stands to profit from his political advocacy as well. Clearly, Steyer is also motivated by green ideology. But it is hard to argue that the Koch brothers haven’t been equally motivated by their libertarian ideology. The two have funded libertarian causes since the 1970s and, notably, were among the minority of major energy interests who opposed cap and trade. Fossil energy interests concerned about protecting their profits, including the country's two largest coal utilities, mostly chose to game the proposed emissions trading system rather than oppose it as the Koch brothers did.

As Kathleen Higgins argues in a new essay for Breakthrough Journal, it's high time for progressives to get back in touch with the liberal tradition of tolerance, and pluralism. "Progressives seeking to govern and change society," she writes, should attempt to "see the world from the standpoint of their fiercest opponents. Taking multiple perspectives into account might alert us to more sites of possible intervention and prime us for creative formulations of alternative possibilities for concerted responses to our problems."

As Left and Right spend the next week slugging it out over what the climate science does or does not tell us, we would do well to remember that science cannot tell us what to do. Making decisions in a democracy requires understanding and tolerating, not attacking and demonizing, values and viewpoints different from our own.

Conservatives have important things to say when it comes to energy, whether or not they think of it as climate policy. Liberals would do well to start listening. 

Book Review: "The Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity" by Meredith Whitney

In December 2010, Meredith Whitney, the financial analyst, appeared on 60 Minutes, where she predicted that the United States would see between 50 and 100 defaults of municipal bonds. Since she was one of the earliest analysts to predict the financial meltdown, publishing a research report in October 2007 that said that because of mortgage losses Citigroup might have to cut its dividend, it was not surprising that her statement attracted a great deal of attention, but also significant pushback from industry representatives, who insisted that municipal bonds were safe.  This book, "Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity" is her effort to elaborate on that call.    

Whitney begins her analysis with a review of the housing bubble and banking crisis, which by now is well trod ground, but she does so in a highly informed and balanced way.  Where some commentators want to place most of the blame on government, others on Wall Street, and yet others on the Federal Reserve Bank for keeping interest rates too low for too long, she argues that everyone behaved badly.  The self-destructive behavior that she witnessed on the part of many banks and financial institutions during this period remains an enduring and puzzling part of the story.   

Readers of New Geography will be familiar with two of the themes that she articulates.  One is the rise of a zone of prosperity from the Gulf Coast through the heartland and up to North Dakota that has been built on pro-active energy policy and strong global demand for agricultural commodities.  A second theme she articulates is the striking disparity in the cost of living between states like California and New Jersey compared with far more affordable states like Texas.  Low cost states, she says, will continue to attract new investment and jobs.

In arguably the core section of the book, she explains how the housing bubble interacted with banking and government to create what she calls “The Negative Feedback Loop from Hell.”  By way of background, it should be noted that the underlying economics of banking are unusual.   As economist Joseph Stiglitz demonstrated in the 1980s, the price of money does not necessarily clear markets.  Instead, banks often employ credit rationing in order to control risk.  As she argues, this is exactly what happened in the states where the housing bubble inflated the most. These are the states where the subsequent economic decline was the greatest.    

As Whitney shows, it was also these states, where government officials handed out the most generous pay packages, including large back loaded pensions. On top of that, these states often piled on the most government debt, which nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010.  The result has been significant retrenchment on core government services, from police and fire protection to public education. In her view, this is the negative feedback loop from hell, and the reason that she believes that fiscal stress will continue for a long period of time.

As the fight for limited resources works itself out, she believes that besides government there will be three parties at the negotiating table. Two are straightforward enough: the bondholders, who expect to be paid back the money they lent, and the public sector employees, who expect to receive the pensions they were promised. But she also sees a third party. Writing shortly before the bankruptcy in Detroit, she presciently recognized that citizens will also have a claim on resources, arguing that they need and deserve the services that government is supposed to provide.

Although the sub title of the book mentions geography, Whitney largely dismisses what a contemporary textbook on economics and geography calls the “who, why, and where of the location of economic activity.” This is not surprising. There are probably few people who are aware that this branch of economics even exists.  (Among professional economists, more attention has been paid in recent years with the advent of New Economic Geography as championed by Paul Krugman, although, ironically, empirical research indicates that key elements of  of Krugman’s theoretical work are almost certainly wrong.)

While Whitney rightly focuses on the economic growth that distinguishes many of the states in the central corridor of the country, she cites data that shows that most economic activity continues to occur elsewhere.  She observes, “These so-called flyover states contributed 25 percent of U.S. GDP in 2011, up from 23 percent in 1999.” That is nearly a 10 percent increase, but obviously from a lower base. A current and highly visible example of the importance of geography is the huge growth in the number of warehouses along the New Jersey Turnpike, as engineering projects deepen New York harbor and expand the Panama Canal. Access to water will always be important.    

Additionally, I would argue that the issues that Whitney addresses cannot be fully understood without taking into account the challenges that continue to face older industrial cities. All economies must constantly re-invent themselves. In the case of cities with a large industrial legacy, however, intrinsic market failures caused by asymmetric and imperfect information have made redevelopment significantly more difficult.  Theoretical and empirical work in recent years has also shown that joint and several liability under U.S. environmental law undermines efficient price discovery for properties that once had an industrial use.      

These issues aside, Whitney has written a book that is both provocative and necessary. Clearly, certain states have instituted policies that are far more effective at attracting business and new residents. At the same time, other states appear unable to reform. Perhaps her central insight is that problems associated with debt can take on a life of their own. Therefore, her message is clear. States that properly manage their debt and pension obligations will enjoy a prosperous future. States that do not will encounter severe problems.  Investors and public sector employees take note.

Eamon Moynihan is the Managing Director for Public Policy at EcoMax Holdings, a specialty finance company that focuses on the redevelopment of previously used properties.