Too Many Rust Belt Leaders Have Stockholm Syndrome


One of the criticisms leveled at Richard Florida is that many of the Rust Belt cities that tried to cater to the creative class ended up wasting their money on worthless programs.

What this illustrates instead is that leaders in the Rust Belt have taken the contours of the current economy as a given, and attempted to find a way to adapt their community to that.

This is actually a smart way to approach it. The fact is, local leaders are market takers not market makers in most places. They don’t have much leverage. With a global economy and dominance by knowledge industries, trying to create a more favorable environment to tap into those is a rational decision. If that hasn’t turned around those places yet, then nothing else has either.

However, what I’ve noticed is that civic leaders in these places have gone beyond trying to adapt to the global economy, and have become cheerleaders for the status quo – the same status quo that has wrecked in their community.

To be sure, much of deindustrialization resulted from simple productivity and technology improvements. But globalization played a role, both in tearing these cities down and in building up the coastal capitals.

In the second edition of her book The Global City, Saskia Sassen wrote:

What comes out of this book is that the globalization of manufacturing activity and of key service industries has been a crucial factor in the growth of the new industrial complex dominated by finance and producer services. Yes, manufacturing matters, but from the perspective of finance and producer services, it does not have to be national. This is precisely, as this book sought to show, one of the discontinuities (between major cities and nations) in the operation of the economy today compared with two decades ago, the period when mass production of consumer goods was the leading growth engine. One of the key points in this book is that much of the new growth rests on the decline of what were once significant sectors of the national economy, notably key branches of manufacturing, that were the leading force in the national economy and promoted the formation and expansion of strong middle class [emphasis added]

In other words, deindustrialization and the rebirth of cities like New York are linked via globalization.

Given this, you might think urban leaders in post-industrial cities would be advocates for some type of macroeconomic policy changes. That doesn’t really seem to be the case though. Certainly they do not want to see any form of rollback or material alteration in the current globalization schema, apart from perhaps arguing for more of the same.

I noticed this after the election last year when I observed leaders from some of America’s most economically bleak locales bemoaning Trump’s win. That in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem. But it was also clear that they loved the status quo and wanted to preserve and extend it. It is there any reason whatsoever to think that Hillary Clinton would have done anything for Youngstown? I don’t think so. Yet they were enthusiastic about her entire agenda, a more or less stay the course approach that would continue to pile more and more success into existing superstar cities.

I wouldn’t expect them to embrace Trumpism. But one would think that flyover America’s leadership class would be promoting a reform agenda of its own, one which would benefit their cities and regions. But they don’t seem to have one. All of their ideas are more or less adaptions of things people in coastal cities came up with. And they don’t have a national policy change agenda to speak of other than “give cities more money.”

For the younger, educated Millennial types, this is somewhat understandable. Many of them hope aspire to actually be in a coastal city. But much of the leadership class of these places is older and deeply rooted in their community.

As along as these folks remain enthusiasts and staunchly committed to the global status quo that helped ruinate their city, economic policy will continue to be made in ways that disproportionately benefits the coastal, global city elite at their expense.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Just because you never heard it...

Many people assume that because they never heard Hillary's plan to bring jobs to the rust belt, she must not have had one. In fact, the first three days after receiving the nomination, Clinton detailed her infrastructure and manufacturing agenda in a trip through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Instead of covering her plan, though, the media spent countless hours covering Trump's war with Khizr Khan, and his renewed attacks on Khan's wife. This played nicely into Trump's hands, who announced in a speech on August 8 that "Hillary doesn't have a plan" to revive manufacturing.

This must have been particularly frustrating to the Clinton campaign, which had just finished trying to sell its manufacturing plan in at least 11 separate events.

Trump's manufacturing proposal, by contrast, involved a protracted war against immigrants, a cynical explanation for manufacturing his own products in China, and a murky description of America coming out ahead in a proposed trade war.

When you contrast how positive the Clinton message was with the dark and frightening vision that Trump was selling, it is hard to believe anyone who voted for Trump even bothered to listen to the alternative.

Even now, you article casts Trump opponents as "cheerleaders for the status quo", which is unfair to local leaders, who have been the only bright spots in innovation.

Are we really expecting local leaders to cheer for lower minimum wages? Union-busting? Revoking health care? Cancelling Medicare and Medicaid to fund tax cuts for billionaires? If this is the price of fighting globalization, then the cure is worse than the disease.

Instead, we have a vague attack that local leaders "don't seem to have" a plan. That is not true either. "Insourcing" may not be all the rage at East Coast cocktail parties, but that doesn't mean it isn't a plan.

Manufacturing employment has been declining in the rust belt since 1960, and there is no magic that is going to turn it around. But more than just a handful of companies have moved manufacturing back to the United States, usually using small factories, collaborative robots, and advanced production methods.

These companies are not ever going to employ the number of people that worked at the massive factories of the 1960's, but the jobs that do come back are highly paid (and require high-end skills.) So yes, career transition and education are a plan for revitalizing industries and regions.

The "Rust belt" still has much of the infrastructure to be globally competitive. They have good ports, good rail connections, and unfortunately inexpensive land. If they throw away these three assets in order to chase the anti-globalization trend, then they might end up even worse off then they are now.