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.


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One Important Thing.

I find it interesting to note that the author neglected to mention the lack of unionization in the South. Secondly, there was a well educated workforce in the specific locations that the manufacturers chose to locate. The German Irish folks living in the foothill communities were, like their compatriots elsewhere, ready to fill in the gaps, the conceited unionized workers in the North were unwilling to at a competitive wage. Check out the location of the Mercedes plant in Alabama, right up the road from the U of A and right next to the hill communities of the lower Appalachians. Did Toyota locate their plant in Cleveland or Detroit? No, they put it in a largely German American farming community outside of Marysville, OH. And so it goes.

Who would put their precious capital to risk in the savage environment of a city dominated by one party Democratic rule controlled by racial minorities looking to loot everything productive in sight.

An employer is looking for folks who are ready, willing and eager to work. It is the culture of production, not the shiftless culture of entitlement and envy, they are looking for. It is my opinion that when the American Empire comes down and with it the regime of federal reserve money printing, the people of this country will have to go to work. It is then and only then that our real recovery can begin.

Land prices also matter.

It is also interesting that the "Right to Work" States also mostly do not have "smart growth" or rural zoning or UGB's that force the cost of urban land and housing up. Also, they have pretty quick processes (or even no blockages at all) for building new factories etc, which is another major reason why Boeing and Airbus both have factories in Southern USA now.

Because housing is so cheap, workforces are left with considerably higher discretionary income than in "liberal" States.

Land Prices and Zoning

Your comment on land prices, zoning and housing costs is correct. My wife comes from Northern Alabama and her ancestors have lived in the hill country since the Revolutionary War. This is a place of strong families, church centered education, and self reliance. They lived in the shadow of the devastation wrought by the failed Southern War of Independence, which they took no active role in. Yet, they prevailed in their poverty, and at the first signs of light during the 1950s and 1960s, their eager shoots of yearning readily bloomed. The death of the strangle hold of the old boy networks the Democratic Party held on their communities was crucial too. My wife's father had only a 5th grade education but she had a Ph.D. by the time she was 24 and a best selling book before she was 30. The South was a people retrained by political oppression and neglect, thankfully ended.

Going back North, how can we shake off the legacy of the White Flight and the grinding corruption of Democratic Party's rule the large cities up there are controlled by. Is it by some form of regional government, as the advocates for Agenda 21 favor? This is the solution desired by the existing political machines, who want to bleed off the remaining capital resources in their vicinities to prop up their failed parasitism just a little bit longer, using the shibboleth of Social Justice as a cover. Or, is it to jettison the obviously failed paradigm of democratic government and free these bankrupt cities from the tyranny of the vote and privatize everything, and I mean everything?

This is the future that I think awaits us. A new "Contract." Not a Social Contract, but a network of individual contracts, freely entered into, limited in scope the parties to them, obligating them and no one else, enforced by the specific parties to them and no one else. It is time to think on the Voluntary Community, free of the corrupting legacies of the past.

Zoning and the culture of "Dominion over nature"

You might be interested to know that Albert Saiz, in his famous paper on geographic constraints on housing supply, discussed at length, the influence of local culture on the presence or absence of regulations against growth. He cited several works that connected evangelical protestantism with the culture of freedom, and even introduced a "control" factor into his calculations to allow for the proportion of evangelicals in the population in each urban area.

The best example of the works he was citing, was “The Ethics of Individualism: an Evangelical Syncretism” by Dennis P. Hollinger

There is also a paper from the IMF, "Irrational Exuberance in the U.S. Housing Market: Were Evangelicals Left Behind?" by Christopher W Crowe, that finds a strong correlation between the proportion of evangelicals in the population of an urban area, and the stability of its housing market.

Crowe had assumed that the causation for absence of house price bubbles in some cities, was evangelicals censure of speculation. Saiz disagreed, correctly in my opinion. The causative mechanism is the relationship between evangelical culture and the culture of political freedom that means opposition to growth containment regulations.

The fourth factor, however...

There's still corruption, which is the most important factor of all, since it governs the responses to all the others. I don't know about the rest of the Midwest, but corruption has gotten to be a pretty flagrant aspect of urban planning decisions in Minneapolis. Like many other cities, it's a one-party town, which doesn't make for accountability.

The big challenges are at the state level

States like WI, IN and Michigan are taking the tax, regulation and labor market steps necessary to bounce back. States like IL and MO aren't. And there isn't much a town can do when the state is saying buzz off.

Doing Fine

The midwest is not the Jim Crow south, nor some backwards outsider hating region that cant move beyond growing corn, no matter how cool it is among academic writers to portray it as such. In fact, the midwest might be the most stable and progressive region of the country. I see plenty more mixing among working class midwesterners than I do when I visit the coasts. In the midwest I don't see the upper middle class hiding behind gated communities like I do in Southern California and the DC suburbs where racial mixing must mean hiring a minority pool boy. I dont see in the midwest the radical income split as amplified along the coastal regions we are supposed to emulate. What I do see in the midwest is people being busy doing business, making things, growing things and processing them for export. Theres technology beyond the limited vision of web 2.0 hype such as material science research being done at the biggest network of land grant universities, engineering sciences and spite of the fact we are all uneducated hillbillies to the coastal elites. Maybe the midwesterners just aren't as gullible to fall for the "next big thing" as other regions? Ask a programmer over 40 in California just a great the new economy job prospects are? Ask investors in just about any tech company how their stock is doing 2 or 3 years out from IPO? When the SHTF on the "new economy" BS the midwest may just be the best place to be after all.

Dixie got it right, others got it wrong, to Dixie's gain

I agree very much with "Dixie" holding the line on relatively small government and free market conditions for urban growth - but that growth has been a lot more spectacular than it otherwise would have been had not other States introduced very bad, anti-growth policy settings. This has of course led to a diversion of foregone growth, to the pro-growth regions.