As Goes North Dakota...

North Dakota is not a state known for supporting Democratic candidates in Presidential elections. In the the past 80 years, it has only backed the Democrat three times- Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Notably, these three elections mark the three largest popular vote landslides by Democrats during that period of time. In 1932, FDR won nationally by a margin of 18%, in 1936 he won by 24%, and in 1964, LBJ defeated Barry Goldwater nationally by 22%. No other Democratic presidential candidate has run up a double digit margin during that period, with FDR coming closest in 1940, winning by 9.9%. (And, it should be noted, losing North Dakota.)

This year, however, North Dakota may be in play. While President Bush won the state in 2004, 63% to 35% over John Kerry, the most recent polls of the state, by Research 2000 and the Fargo Forum, place the 2008 race in a dead heat.

This may be a reflection of a wider trend in rural areas. A survey of rural voters in 13 battleground states released in late October by the Center for Rural Strategies, showed Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain tied among rural voters. In September, similar polling by the center had shown McCain with a 10 point lead among rural voters. According to Reuters, in 2004, President Bush "won rural districts nationwide by 19 points."

If the recent 2008 polling proves accurate, Tuesday night may be an unhappy evening for McCain supporters, with Sen. Obama facing the possibility of winning by a healthy margin, potentially bringing rural states such as North Dakota along for the ride.

A Fistful of (Out of State) Dollars

A new study from, a "nonpartisan, nonprofit research group illuminating the connection between money and politics," reports that "U.S. House members raised $700 million in campaign funds," during the 2005-2007 time period, with 79%, or $551 million of that amount coming from outside the district of the House member running for office.

According to Maplight, around 21% of campaign contributions to U.S. House members originated in Washington, D.C., with Virginia, California, New York, and Texas rounding out the top five source locations for contributions. The reports states that the majority of campaign funds not only came from out of district, but out of state sources as well:

About two-thirds of House members, 274 out of 421 (65%), raised half or more of their funds from out-of-state. Ninety-two House members (22%) raised 70% or more of their funds from out-of-state. Eight House members raised 90% or more of their funds from out-of-state. The average percentage of funds each Representative raised from out-of-state is 56.7%, and the median percentage is 56.1%.

It should be noted that the Maplight report only looks at donations of over $200, the point above which the donor must be identified to the Federal Elections Committee. Much has been made of the move, particularly by the Obama campaign, towards utilizing a base of small donations, under this $200 dollar threshold. Estimates place somewhere between one quarter and one half of Sen. Obama's $600 million of campaign contributions in this class.

This potential move towards smaller donations does not appear to have had as much of an impact on Congressional races. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, registered candidates for the U.S. House raised $447 million in the first four months of 2008, with "less than 10% of this total [arriving] in amounts of $200 or less." This, states the CFI, marks little or no change from prior years.


Global Warming Cooling?

Back when the media was more obsessed with the state of global warming than the state of global lending, the environmental movement appeared completely ascendant. But with economic concerns in both Europe and North America on rise, their premier issue of global warming seems to be losing some of its political cache.

A good account of what’s happening both in Canada and Europe can be found in the green blog, Breakthrough. There’s even some advanced thinking here about the need to make something like a “carbon tax” a spur to economic growth. On target for the most part, Greens seem to have a problem thinking about the economy. Like John McCain, it’s not their strong point.

These shifts in popular concerns, as well as the real estate downturn, create an odd atmosphere for the kind of restrictive legislation discussed in Wendell Cox’s timely article. Still there remains a great temptation – justified or not by the facts – to use global warming as a means of imposing the perennial anti-suburban agenda of some planners, large urban developers, smart growth advocates and urbanists.

Perhaps it is a good strategy for density advocates to push their case now when it all seems so theoretical and builders are still walking around in shock. It may take years to absorb vacant condo towers as well as newly foreclosed single family houses. Only when the economy turns around will the conflict over what actually is greenest – as well as most market friendly – intensify again.

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.