More Machinists, Fewer Poets?

Politicians from both parties, while on the campaign trail, often argue that they will work to make a college education accessible and affordable to all Americans. Very rarely will one hear calls for "better quality" of education at our colleges and universities, with such debates seemingly being restricted to our K-12 educational system. An opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education claims, however, that many of our institutes of higher learning are failing to meet the challenge of providing a good return on investment for those attending their institutions.

In his piece, education consultant Marty Nemko argues that "college is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it," and that colleges and universities need to be held accountable for their "defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent."

Nemko points out that over 40 percent of students who enter four-year institutions do not graduate in six years, and cites the "killer statistic," that,

"Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later."

Nemko also takes issue with the quality of education received by those who do graduate, stating that "50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test," requiring them to perform basic tasks, and that "the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade."

Many young people, Nemko argues, should look to other routes of career development and education, such as apprenticeships and other vocational training.

Other options do exist, even in the face of a difficult economy. Around the nation, there are communities reporting a need for more skilled workers, requiring training not necessarily linked to gaining a bachelors degree. Manufacturers in northeast Wisconsin face a shortage of new workers, with one company president noting that the local technical school, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College,

"had 40 job openings posted for CNC technicians. They graduated seven people. In mechanical design, they had 85 job postings and graduated nine people. In electro-mechanical technology they had 75 job openings and graduated four people."

Austin, MN, faces a shortage of maintenance mechanics. According to one local technical instructor,

"If we can’t get more [people] interested in two-year college educations and jobs that require a specialized skill like industrial maintenance mechanics or carpentry and electricians, we’re going be in a deep world of hurt in about five years when all these people retire and we can’t produce goods we need to produce."

Communities around the nation will need to find ways to meet such shortages, and build their productive economies. Failure to do so may lead to a loss of potential economic growth. According to the technical instructor, in the face of shortages of skilled workers, "companies may back off on the expansion or growth. Or they may end up relocating to a place where they can find these employees." Convincing young people that there are other good career options outside the four year degree path will be among the many challenges faced in building our nation's economic future.


Income Inequality on the Rise

A new report released today by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that income inequality between the rich and poor has grown in three quarters of OECD nations over the past twenty years. The report, "Growing Unequal?", states that the gap between the rich and middle class in the United States has also grown.

According to the OECD report,

"The United States is the country with the highest inequality level and poverty rate across the OECD, Mexico and Turkey excepted. Since 2000, income inequality has increased rapidly, continuing a long-term trend that goes back to the 1970s."

As this inequality has risen, rich households "have been leaving both middle and poorer income groups behind." According to the 30 nation report, "this has happened in many countries, but nowhere has this trend been so stark as in the United States."

Commenting on the report, Business Week notes that such increases may pose a threat to "the 'American Dream' of social mobility," with the OECD report noting that social mobility "is lowest in countries with high inequality such as the United States".

Facing a potentially deep economic downturn, the middle and lower classes may be in for rough times. Economist Anthony Atkinson, interviewed by Business Week noted that while much of the growth in inequality has taken place during a time of economic expansion, "If a rising tide didn't lift all boats, how will they be affected by an ebbing tide?" As Executive Editor Joel Kotkin noted earlier today, the survival of the "American aspirational model" may be on the line.

Human Migration Through History

Check out this video short produced by Imaginary Forces for the Lexus L Studio. The short features New Geography Executive Editor Joel Kotkin discussing the impact of human migration throughout history and how migration is changing for the future.


New York's Decentralized Economy?

Even before the Wall Street meltdown, the New York area was going through its own de-clustering. No it hasn't - and probably never will - become a multi polar area in the style of Los Angeles, Houston or Phoenix, but the trend to deconcentrate jobs has been inexorable over the last thirty years, according to a new report by our friends at the Center for an Urban Future.

The report states:

"In 1975, New York City accounted for 53.1 percent of all private sector jobs in the 17-county metro region. But by 2005, the five boroughs’ share was just 47.2. Most of the ci ty’s losses occurred in Manhattan, which had 33.9 percent of the region’s private sector jobs in 1975 but only 28.8 percent in 2005."

None of this is particularly worrisome in that the shrinkage of the city's jobs slowed considerably in the past decade up to 2005. The whole region showed some growth. But what happens now with an estimated 150,000 or more jobs expected to be wiped out due to the financial crisis? This may prove the biggest crisis faced by the city since the "Ford to City: Drop Dead" days of the 1970s.

Both the Giuliani and the Bloomberg legacies surely will now be tested.


In the Doldrums: Another Economic Indicator Heads South

Lost amidst headlines of bank nationalization, credit market woes, and a worldwide equities rout, was news that the Baltic Dry Index, an index seen as a measure of world trade flows and future economic activity, has been in freefall this week. A drop of 8% on Tuesday was bookended by drops of around 11% on both Monday and Wednesday.

According to the Guardian, the index is

"seen as a good leading indicator of future economic production levels because it charts the cost of freight movements in 26 of the world's biggest shipping lanes of "dry" materials, such as coal, iron ore and grain which feed into the production of finished goods some weeks or months ahead."

Since reaching a peak in July, the BDI has plummeted over 80%, leading to fears that demand for commodities, particularly in China, may be on the wane. This could, reports the Guardian, mean that the "great Asian miracle economy might now be coming apart at the seams, in spite of the official figures suggesting everything is still fine."

Agricultural areas throughout the United States, buoyed by recent high prices for commodities, have thus far shown economic strength in the face of increasingly difficult conditions nationwide. The good times may be, if not coming towards an end, facing some sort of moderation.

Effects of the credit crunch have already begun to show some impact on international commodities trade. Last week, Canada's Financial Post reported that grain shipments had begun to pile up in ports as international buyers found themselves unable to obtain letters of credit. In the words of one marketing expert, the situation is a "nightmare." According to experts interviewed by Bloomberg, "letters of credit and the credit lines for trade currently are frozen," and as a result, "nothing is moving". Such credit issues, in connection with weakened demand for commodities in a potential worldwide recession and a downturn in international trade, may mean that communities around the nation will soon face a more difficult economic picture.


Telecommuting will be a big part of our future

There's yet another study, this one from Hewitt Associates, that confirms our notion that telecommuting will be an ever bigger part of our future. A Washington Post piece picked up by blogger Steve Bartin also quotes consultant James Ware about the environmental and economic forces pushing firms and individuals towards full or part-time telecommuting, "The combination of gas prices and climate-change issues is going to push a lot of people in that direction."

You don't have to be an Al Gore apostle or a new urbanist to see that telecommuting could be part of the solution for reducing commutes and energy use while also creating the basis for viable communities. What continues to mystify: only a few environmentalists and neo-traditionalist developers embrace this trend. Perhaps it has something to do with individual choice, and the fact that it does allow people to live in the kind of dispersed and low-density environments that so many of these kind of people tend to despise.

Yet there is nothing anti-urban in embracing telecommuting. Many cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, are hotbeds for entrepreneurs working from home. In fact, as the economy continues to decluster, this may be one way traditional cities can reinvent themselves: through the work of a new generation of high-tech artisans. It also offers opportunities for suburbs to reinvent themselves as something other than bedroom communities filled with miserable commuters. For rural towns, it provides a chance to plug into the broader global economy. All geographies benefit when people can choose the kind of community they both desire and can afford.


Here They Go Again

Recent soundings from Washington suggest that neither party has a solid idea of what to do about the deepening economic crisis. It makes me cringe to hear Barney Frank, Chairman of House Financial Services Committee, talking about a big stimulus to “prop up consumption”.

Under the Democratic-controlled Congress, this would likely include the usual tax relief to middle and working class Americans, as well as big new payments to hard-pressed cities and states. To be sure, the interests of wage-earning Americans should be paramount, but this is reminiscent of the “stimulus” plan earlier this year that did little more than “prop up” spending on consumer goods for a couple months.

Since many of these products are made in China or somewhere overseas, who are we helping most here? In addition, of course, the bail out of local governments benefits a prime Democratic constituency --- public employee union. If we are going to cough up more to pay their salaries, why not ask them first to accept less largesse? Maybe they can agree not to retire until they are in their sixties, like the rest of us chumps, I mean, taxpayers. Then we can talk bailout.

However, let’s not pick on Democrats alone. The Republicans seem to like consumer “stimulus” but only when spiked with more tax cuts for their dwindling, but still significant cadre of wealthy Americans. Maybe this will help consumption a bit more at Bloomingdales than Wal-mart, but in the end, who cares?

My thought is that we should focus instead on the core issues of stimulating the “real economy” through incentives for high value manufacturing, domestic energy producers of all kinds (including nuclear power) and investment in basic infrastructure, including new transmission lines, research in clean and alternative fuels. All of these things would reduce our increasingly debilitating dependence on other countries to fund our deficits and consumption habits.

To lift spirits of Americans the most we need a program that aims to make the country less dependent on both Middle East energy producers and Chinese manufacturers. As we did starting in the 1930s, let us create a climate for real upward mobility based on expanding the productive economy. It’s time to stop relying on quick sugar highs to spur more consumption of items we do not produce or can’t afford and time to start getting back to basics.

Nevada's Decline

A recent article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal lamented the economic decline in the state according to a report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in NY. The Rockefeller report cited a growth index released by the Philadelphia Fed, but reset the index to a baseline of January 2007, singling out Nevada as the worst performing state in the nation over that period.

Interested in the bigger picture, I looked up the original index from the Philadelphia Fed and charted it back to its original baseline of July 1992. The results show a much more interesting picture for the state of Nevada.

We see a meteoric rise in economic activity in Nevada, far surpassing any state since 1992. Then as late as November 2007, the bottom began to fall out. The recent decline in Nevada is certainly serious, but we can always benefit by putting as much data into the picture as possible. What if the Rockefeller report had chosen January 2005 as a baseline? It would have shown Nevada as about flat, but obscured the detail of its true growth trajectory.


What a Difference 1500 Miles Makes

After several days in New York, I encountered serious climate change — in terms of atmosphere — at a USA-Canada Summit in Grand Forks, ND. Sure people were concerned about the market meltdown, but the talk was all of new plans for expanding the economy across both sides of the border. The distressed martinis of Manhattan nights were gone in a place where drinks also came with good cheer.

Perhaps most inspiring was an appearance by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) who spoke of the economic crisis but in terms far less hyperbolic than those used by many members of Congress and most of the media. He compared to the current crisis to a low tide that has exposed some weak points in the economy but has not fundamentally altered the underlying strength of what he called “the real economy”.

This includes the manufacturing, farm, energy and business services firms that are flourishing across large parts of the country, particularly in the Heartland. Firms representing these industries at the conference were not whining about competition or the credit crunch, but talking about cooperation across the border and the prospect of a better future.

How refreshing it would be if either of the two major candidates, particularly Senator Obama, the likely winner, spoke with such confidence about the intrinsic strengths of the country and this continent in general. I would not deny the real significance of the stock market crash and the real estate mess, but, as Senator Dorgan suggested, “optimism” about the future has been a primary driver of American progress since the founding.

Let’s hope Senator Obama, or Senator McCain, lose some of their negative rhetoric when they take office. It may be good politics now to be a nay-sayer, but as President, these fellows will need to comprehend the country’s fundamental strengths and how to utilize them to make a strong recovery.

Nothing's the Matter With Kansas

Local and Regional banks in the Great Plains are doing just fine, thanks, according to Bill Wycoff, a bank president in southeast Kansas. Bill wrote in the WSJ Saturday that

"Here in the heart of Kansas, the sky isn't falling and Chicken Little isn't running around without a head. Community banks like mine are still making loans and serving the needs of customers. ... My father always told me that character repaid many more debts than collateral ever would. Community banks form long-term relationships with customers."

He's had to go out of his way to combat recent media coverage and hysteria about the financial industry:

"All of the media pressure about this terrible crisis has really worried people. We community bankers must spend time reassuring folks that everything will be fine. The best way I have found to do that is to make more loans this September than we made a year ago, offer new products, and serve a fantastic group of customers with home loans at our bank where all is well and none are facing foreclosure."

Here in the prairie, we see many small town banks opening branches in adjacent metropolitan areas to tap some of the solid economic growth. Growth here may not be explosive, but it is built upon the productive economy and professional and business services. The Great Plains has consistently bested the national rate of job growth since 1990, and many local banks have launched advertising campaigns in the past weeks to say "everything is all right."