Finding the Good in This Bad Time


This year's best places rankings held few great surprises. In a nation that shed nearly 6.7 million jobs since 2007, the winners were places that maintained or had limited employment declines. These places typically had high levels of government spending (including major military installation or large blocs of federal jobs) or major educational institutions. Nor was the continued importance of the energy economy surprising in a nation where a gallon of gas is still about $3 a gallon.

Even including part of 2010, only 13 cities (out of 397) showed growth, reflecting the breadth and depth of the downturn. In an economy where the most promising statistic is a “limited” decline in the number of new job losses from month to month, where is the proverbial silver lining?

It is found in two places: (1) areas that show some resilience in this dour economy; and (2) a newly retooled American economy positioned to compete more strongly in the future.

Regions of Current Hope
With disaster as a backdrop, the early signs of buoyancy in the economies of the Intermountain West, the Great Plains, and even parts of the Midwest are quite impressive. Many predicted these areas would mirror the collapse of their larger, high-growth counterparts in California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada. To the contrary, these relatively rural locations are emerging as beacons of hope.

In the big cities, there have been across-the-board declines in most sectors led by the collapse of construction and financial services. Thousands of small businesses have disappeared in addition to huge layoffs by large employers. You see many “For lease” signs now at what were once your favorite shops and watering holes.

In a business climate like this, a lot can be said for slow and steady. Comparatively, slower-growing cities across the middle parts of the country are recovering more easily and more quickly.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that the economies of the future are not all about the "knowledge class" and that “too-good-to-be-true” high wage jobs may be just that. As seen in the dot-com bubble and in this real estate bubble, those fancy, high-wage finance and tech jobs are highly vulnerable to swings in the economy and high-paying construction jobs are only as good as the housing market.

This is simply because markets eventually adjust. In the case of overheated stock and real estate markets, the losses are felt by the knowledge class, financiers and construction workers. In the case of manufacturing, as the price is bid up through labor costs, other places become more competitive.

During volatile times, places with the broad-based growth strategies -- like Texas and Utah -- do best. Cities that are heavily dependent on a narrow set of industries leave themselves vulnerable, paying back the gains of good years in poor years.

Part of the success of Texas is not just energy (as the modest performance of Midland and Odessa shows), but rather to the state’s adjustments to a past crisis, the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. The state instituted new laws that imposed a range of disciplines on financial markets -- such as limiting home equity lines -- thereby minimizing the damage to the state’s economy as those markets went topsy-turvy.

Regions of Future Hope
There remains hope for the future in the story of this recession. One of the defining aspects of this recession was not just that certain sectors were hit hard, but that it was also broadly distributed across the economy. This pervasiveness extended deeply enough to cause every enterprise in America to seriously reconsider their business model and re-engineer how they served their customers.

Consequently, the American economy is leaner and cleaner than it was three years ago. Businesses are more in touch with what makes them successful. While growth will be slower, it will be focused on areas that will bring about quick increases in productivity across the economy and bring new, real wealth to the local economies.

Where will this happen most quickly? In those places where businesses survived best. Expect the Intermountain West and smaller manufacturing hubs across the United States to lead the charge (because of their lower costs), but large metros like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, and Dallas, with their deep inventories of manufacturers and large labor pools, should see these returns before too long.

Similar stories can be told for nearly every sector although the beneficiaries will be different. Much of the growth in information sector, for example, will continue to take place outside Silicon Valley. Business services will grow most rapidly where there is growth in business overall, initially outside the core hubs. Midsized and small communities will lead this recovery, and the big cities will eventually follow.

Economies open to a wide array of occupations will do better than those that are less diversified. Places like Portland and Atlanta, so deeply focused on attracting high-wage, knowledge-based jobs are likely to miss out on the “basic” job growth that will fuel the first stage of the American recovery. Venture capital is still tight across the nation and capital markets are uncertain, especially with new government regulations up in the air. Consequently, high-end, white collar, and high tech jobs, with their insatiable need for investment capital, will develop more slowly. Even among the high-tech superstars, high profits will not lead to huge surges in hiring.

Why Government Holds the Key
Government’s actions over the next six to 12 months will define potential and the pace of this recovery. With an election looming, all sides will be jockeying for electoral advantages in November. They will cater legislation to many competing constituencies, fostering tremendous uncertainty in the private sector.

One thing is certain, however. The current pace of government spending is unsustainable. Not even the US economy can support ongoing deficits in excess of $1.5 trillion per year. Either government spending must slow or someone must pay a lot more. The only alternative -- high inflation -- will have its own negative effect. One way or another some combination of the three MUST happen.

Additionally, current regulatory initiatives will change the dynamics and employment patterns within some important sectors. Whether it is the complete restructuring of the health care industry (part of one of the only bright spots in the current economy), or the prospective new regulation in the financial services sector, potentially destabilizing change is coming.

And the feds are not the only destabilizing government actors. California’s aggressive climate legislation, for example, and the mixed signals it is sending businesses across the state’s 28 MSAs will certainly shape their near and midterm economic futures.

So what should the federal and state governments be doing at this time? Most importantly, they need to ensure stability: stable capital and lending markets, a consistent and stable tax code, focusing interventions on broad-based, low-shock actions, and developing a plan for moderating and containing the national deficits and mounting national debt. The key to continued prosperity in these times is a growing private job base, not a growing government sector.

Moreover, government needs to learn the lessons of the private sector. Even as private firms retrench, governments at all levels need to reduce their cost structures. This is happening in many localities, at least on a temporary basis, as even unionized local employees are accepting wage and benefit reductions to retain jobs. Localities and states must recognize the true cost of the services they provide. They must either find consistent ways of providing funding for them, or eliminate them to preserve more critical services.

Finally, public and private sectors alike must learn that this has been a transformational recession. Unlike downturns in the past, business and government cannot expect things will return to the way they were. Markets and banks will not be printing imaginary value increases in real property for consumers to spend any time soon and capital markets are cautious about financial good news,,preferring the old tried and true winners to novelties.

Government and government employees are behind the curve understanding this transformation. Wage and benefit concessions given up during this recession are not likely to reappear. The concepts of furlough and unpaid time off are here to stay. Even as the private sector has been forced to reconsider its baseline practices, so, too, the political pressure now will be on government to retain savings obtained during the recession.

Michael Shires, Ph.D. is a professor at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.