Opie with an Apple: Can Tech Save the Heartland?


In a recent Brookings’ essay, Senior Fellow Mark Murro and colleagues brought down a strawman they themselves propped up. The piece was entitled “Remote work won’t save the heartland”. It begins: “Hopes persist that a burst of relocations by tech companies and remote workers will revitalize the American heartland.” The conduit by which this revitalization will occur is via the leakage of a “pool of footloose workers who are rapidly exiting the big coastal tech hubs and heading for the heartland…” where, the thinking goes, they can have their corncake and eat it too.

In other words, big city job, small city living. Or Opie with an Apple.

But Murro and his colleagues weren’t having it. They cite CBRE research over a one- year period that shows there’s not much leakage from the coast to the heartland. While more San Franciscan were leaving, for instance, they aren’t so much going to St. Louis as Sacramento, as well as other intraregional outposts. And while Murro et al admit the data they are pointing to is way too sparse to make sense of the issue either way, it’s how the issue is framed — i.e., can the tech industry save the Heartland? tech telecommuters won’t save the Heartland — that’s the bigger issue here. That’s because the idea that the tech industry can save swaths of the country is a dubious one at best.

There’s a bit of a wonky concept in economic development that is integral yet underused. The concept is termed “economic epoch”, characterized as distinct periods of economic history that are sparked by “epochal innovations”, described as “major breakthroughs in the advance of human knowledge, that constituted dominant sources of sustained growth over long periods and spread to a substantial part of the world…” so notes legendary economist Simon Kuznets. Crucially, the beginnings of an epoch make it so that economic activity is not spread out evenly across space, but rather clusters in areas of the world that hold comparative advantage. Geographic winners and losers are thus created; or those “saving” (like Silicon Valley), and those needing “saved” (like Cleveland).

Of course, Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities were once kingmakers in their own right. This was during the epoch defined by the industrial revolution, one kicked off in part by the steam engine. Pittsburgh, or the “Steel City”, became so due the region’s “bounty of bituminous coal [that] was uniquely able to be used in the blast furnaces that transformed iron ore into pig iron,” notes economist Chris Briem. Briem goes on to quote a decades-old University of Pittsburgh study that looks back on the confluence of geographic advantages that made Pittsburgh a winner of the industrial revolutionary epoch. “Coal and metallurgy came together [in Pittsburgh] “like twin supernovae,” the report states, “impelling into rapid expansion all elements of the economy which were aligned with them…” Moreover, Pittsburgh’s output — coal and steel — became other regions’ input, allowing Detroit, for instance, to be the “Motor City” via agglomeration of auto manufacturing and its requisite supply chains, with Cleveland a crossbreed between each — it had both steel mills and car plants.

But like all things, epochs evolve. They age. And when they do, what was divergent, or “spiky”, becomes convergent, or “leaky”. In the case of the industrial epoch, that meant investment, trade secrets, firms, supply chains, employment, etc. leaving the Industrial Heartland for locales that were more cost effective, be it offshore to China or down South to Alabama. Even when industry remained and firms stayed put, the processes became automated: another hallmark of convergence. Rewards to capital? Sure. More jobs and income? Not so much. The case of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County is illustrative. Over 51% of all earnings in Cuyahoga County came from the Manufacturing sector in 1969. By 2018, that figure was 16%.

Enter the idea of the Rust Belt. It was and remains an idea synonymous with loss, and of being lost. It is an idea tantamount with needing saving. Much of the Heartland is thought about this way. Idle cornfields. Abandoned factories. Population loss. Unhappy people. Hence, the Beltway Brookings’ take.

Read the rest of this piece at RicheyPiiparinen.medium.com.

Richey Piiparinen studies the life of Rust Belt cities at Cleveland State. Co-Founder, Rust Belt Analytica. Director, “Life After Rust”. Husband, father, Clevelander.

Photo: frankieleon via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.