As the recovery begins, albeit fitfully, where can we expect growth in jobs, incomes and, most importantly, middle class opportunities? In the US there are two emerging “new” economies, one largely promoted by the Administration and the other more grounded in longer-term market and demographic forces.
The November election and its subsequent massive expansion of federal power may have determined which regions win the post-bust economy, but the stakes in November are particularly acute for some prime beneficiaries of what could be called the Obama economy: the education lobby, Silicon Valley venture firms, Wall Street, urban land interests and the public sector. All backers of his 2008 campaign, these groups have either reaped significant benefits from the stimulus or have used it to bolster themselves from the worst impact of the recession.
In a sense the Obama policies are designed to overturn the pattern of economic dispersion –towards the exurbs, the south, the intermountain West, and more recently the Plains – that has defined the last half century. The biggest winner, in regional terms, is the Washington area. Even as local governments cut back, the federal establishment continues to swell. Federal employment, excluding the postal service, remains roughly 200,000 larger than in 2008.
It is not surprising then that the capital district enjoys the highest job growth since December 2009 of any region. Indeed, the Great Recession barely even hit the imperial center. Given its current trajectory, it’s likely to remain the primary boom town along the east coast.
There are other less obvious regional winners from Obamanomics. Wall Street, despite its recent wailing, has fattened itself on the Fed’s cheap money. It may benefit further from highly complex new financial regulations that will drive smaller, regional competitors either out of business or into mergers with the megabanks.
Manhattan – a liberal bastion dependent on arguably the greediest, most venal purveyors of capitalism – enjoyed a revived high end consumer economy of high fashion, fancy restaurants and art galleries. Silicon Valley’s financial community also is seeing a surfeit of grants and subsidies for the latest venture schemes, keeping Palo Alto and its environs relatively prosperous. Perhaps this is the positive “change” that Time recently credited in its paen to the stimulus.
Other regional winners from the Obama economy generally can be found in state capitals and University towns, particularly those with the Ivy or elite college pedigrees that resonate with this most academic Administration. One illustration can be seen in the relatively strong recovery of Massachusetts – home to many prestigious Universities and hospitals – which has seen jobs grow by 2.2 percent since the Obama ascension.
Similar, albeit less dramatic recoveries can be found in Columbus, Madison and Minneapolis-St.Paul, with their large university communities and regional federal employment centers. Yet the political benefits of this growth may be limited. Many other parts of these same states, including the outer boroughs of New York are not doing well; aside from Columbus, Ohio has continued to skid as its industrial and corporate base dwindles, often moving to more business friendly states.
At the same time, the strongest growth clusters in those regions that stick to the basics: relatively low taxes, pro-business regulations and continued infrastructure investment. Some regions – particularly in Texas, Alaska, Wyoming and the Great Plains – also have benefited from the growth in such basic industries as agriculture, oil and mining.
Like resource-producing Canada and Australia, which barely felt the great recession, these economies have been boosted by continued growth in demand from countries like India and China. The current rise in food commodity prices, in part due to poor conditions in Russia and other former Soviet Republics, may further intensify this trend. Beyond the current food crisis, changing consumer tastes in boom markets like China seem certain to boost demand for such products as corn, used to help meet that country’s soaring demand for pork and other meat products.
But perhaps even more important, once the economy recovers these areas – with their business friendly regimes and lower costs – may continue to siphon much of the next wave of industrial and even tech growth from the more expensive, largely Obama-friendly regions. Caterpillar, for example, one of the likely beneficiaries of expanded exports, recently announced plans to open a new assembly plant not in its Midwestern base but in Victoria, outside Houston.
This trend has been building for at least a generation and seems likely to intensify under today’s highly competitive global business environment. If we start seeing a recovery in such things as auto sales, one can expect much of the new demand to be meant in efficient, largely foreign owned factories that have been gearing up across the Southeast. Unless powerful federal intervention forces Americans to buy General Motors products like the Volt, consumer preference is likely to be strongest for smart, fuel efficient brands built largely in towns from southern Ohio down to Texas.
Perhaps even more significantly, these areas are also challenging the Obama regions in such fields as high-technology. Tech hiring has picked up in places like Silicon Valley, New York and DC, but consistently the fastest growth in science, engineering and technical jobs has been in low-cost states such as North Dakota, Virginia, New Mexico, Utah and Texas. Just recently, several major Silicon Valley powerhouses – Adobe, Twitter, Electronic Arts and eBay – announced major new expansions in Utah, a state that is among a brood seeking to move prized businesses, including even entertainment, from the Golden State.
To a distressingly large extent, the fate of these two distinct economies may hinge on the outcome in November. If the Republicans gain an effective blocking majority – perhaps with a handful of centrist Democrats from growth-oriented states – many favored programs of the Obama economy may be cut or eliminated entirely. These include high-speed rail, increased subsidies for new light rail lines, massive investments in University research and investment breaks for renewable fuels.
On the other hand, if the Democratic majority persists the tilt towards the Obama economy may even become stronger, as the Democrats will be the ones primarily losing their seats in many growth states. Many policies inimical to the growth states – support for government satrapies like General Motors, tougher restrictions on domestic fossil fuel development and policies designed to curb suburban single family housing – might even intensify.
In this sense, we need to see November as much as a conflict between growth economies as an ideological contest. The results could determine what regions are next to boom, and whose economy will slow or even decline. What might be best – a compromise recognizing the need to boost growth in all regions – may be a too far a stretch of logic in this political climate.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.