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The Blue-State Meltdown and the Collapse of the Chicago Model

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This should be the moment the Blue Man basks in glory. An urbane president sits in the White House and a San Francisco liberal runs the House. But blue states are undergoing a meltdown.

On the surface this should be the moment the Blue Man basks in glory. The most urbane president since John Kennedy sits in the White House. A San Francisco liberal runs the House of Representatives while the key committees are controlled by representatives of Boston, Manhattan, Beverly Hills, and the Bay Area—bastions of the gentry.

Despite his famous no-blue-states-no-red-states-just-the-United-States statement, more than 90 percent of the top 300 administration officials come from states carried last year by President Obama. The inner cabinet—the key officials—hail almost entirely from a handful of cities, starting with Chicago but also including New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco area.

This administration shares all the basic prejudices of the Blue Man including his instinctive distaste for “sprawl,” cars, and factories. In contrast, policy is tilting to favor all the basic blue-state economic food groups—public employees, university researchers, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street, and the major urban land interests.  

The administration’s skewed allocation of resources reflects its roots in contemporary Chicago. It derives from a pattern of rewarding core constituencies as opposed to lifting up the whole economy.

Yet despite all this, the blue states appear to be continuing their decades-long meltdown. “Hope” may still sell among media pundits and café society, but the bad economy, increasingly now Obama’s, is causing serious pain to millions of ordinary people who happen to live in the left-leaning part of America.

For example, while state and local budget crises have extended to some red states, the most severe fiscal and economic basket cases largely are concentrated in places such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, and, perhaps most vividly of all, California. The last three have among the highest unemployment rates in the country; all the aforementioned are deeply in debt and have been forced to impose employee cutbacks and higher taxes almost certain to blunt a strong recovery.

The East Coastdominated media, of course, wants to claim that we have reached “the twilight” of Sunbelt growth. This observation seems a bit premature. Instead, traditional red-state strongholds such as the Dakotas, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and North Carolina, dominated the list of fastest-growing regions recently compiled for Forbes by my colleagues at www.newgeography.com.

When the recovery comes, job growth also is most likely to resurge first in the red states, while the blue states continue to lag behind. For reasons as diverse as regulatory policy, aging infrastructure, and high levels of taxation, blue states continue to be more susceptible to recessions than their red counterparts.

This assumption is borne out by an analysis of economic cycles by the website JobBait.com, which has found that since 1990 the states most vulnerable to economic downturns include the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and New York as well as Connecticut and California. Those most resistant have been generally red bastions such as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Texas, and resource-rich states such as Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

This suggests that even the hardest-hit red states, notably Florida and Arizona, are likely better positioned in the long term for a recovery. A generation of out-migration may be slowing down temporarily due to the recession, but many people moved to places such as Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Georgia over the first seven years of the decade; in contrast, the high-tax blue states, including New York, New Jersey, and California, lost 1,100 people every day between 1998 and 2007. Most of them headed to the red states.

“When the economy comes back,” notes veteran California-based economist and forecaster Bill Watkins, “there will be a pent-up demand. People will compare and move to the places that are affordable and don’t have the fundamental tough tax and regulatory structures.”

Devolution in Blue

These demographic and economic trends will have a long-term political impact. The net in-migration states—almost all of them red—will gain new representatives in Congress after the next census while New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and perhaps even California could see their delegations shrink.

In fact, amidst the Blue Man’s current political ascendency, the devolutionary process is likely to continue. Its roots are very deep, and will prove more difficult to reverse than media and policy claques suggest. In historic terms, blue states’ relative decline represents one of the greatest shifts of political and economic power since the Civil War.

In the modern period that starts with the end of the Second World War, the states that are now blue were also, to a large extent, the best. They included the undisputed centers of finance, industry, culture, and education. Blue-state politicians also dominated both parties, either directly or behind the scenes.

In contrast, the Red Man was disdained. As late as 1940s, Los Angeles—still then very much in its red period—as well as Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Phoenix, were all not listed on the Social Register, the ultimate list of the socialite elite. You might visit Texas or invest in its oil, buy Los Angeles real estate, or winter in Scottsdale, but these were not places of consequence. These cities were not for civilized, serious people.

Yet demographic forces changed this balance of power forever. In sharp contrast to Europe, often the preferred model for the Blue Man, the United States’ population exploded in the postwar era. This expansion could not be comfortably accommodated in the old cities.

For reasons as diverse as regulatory policy, aging infrastructure, and high levels of taxation, blue states continue to be more susceptible to recessions than their red counterparts.

New demographics and timing shaped America’s urban patterns in largely unforeseen ways. Urban theorist Ali Modarres notes that America’s population over the second half of the 20th century grew by 130 million, essentially doubling, while the populations of France, Germany, and Britain together increased by 40 million, or 25 percent.

In Europe slower population growth meant that planners could accommodate expansion through gradual expansion of existing cities. In contrast, America’s huge growth could only be accommodated by creating new places and vastly expanding others. This led to the growth of suburbs everywhere, but the bulk of expansion took place in vast emerging metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, and later Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and Las Vegas.

This trend held up through much of the past decade. Nevada’s s population grew at four times the national increase of 8 percent while Arizona expanded three times as much and Florida twice the average. In contrast, growth in the blue states of the Northeast and Midwest generally stood well behind the national average.

More important still, the new regions experienced a broad entrepreneurial explosion that reshaped the whole economy. In many cases, this growth came directly at the expense of the blue states. When major companies relocated they tended to leave places like New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago for the burgeoning red cities.

In 1950 Atlanta did not rank among America's most important economic centers; 50 years later it stood among the most popular cities for large corporations and their subsidiaries. The same could be said for places like Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte. It was the quintessential American story, evidence, as Marxist scholar William Domhoff observed, that America’s “open class system is almost the opposite of a caste system.”

Blue Man Economics

Today two principles now drive the political economy of the blue states—and so shape the Obama administration today. The first one is the relentless expansion of public sector employment and political power. Although traditional progressives such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Fiorello La Guardia, and Pat Brown built up government employment, they never contemplated the growth of public employee unions that have emerged so powerfully since the 1960s.

Public sector employees initially played a positive role, assuring that the basic infrastructure—schools, roads, subways, sewers, water, and other basic sinews of society and the economy—functioned properly. But as much of the private economy moved out of places such as New York, Illinois, and, more recently, California, public sector employment began to grow as an end to itself.

Some blue-state theorists, columnist Harold Meyerson among them, have identified this new, highly unionized public sector workforce not so much an adjunct to the middle class but its essence. This has become very much the reality in many core blue regions—particularly big cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit—as the private-sector middle class has drifted to the suburbs or out to the red states.

Even before the recession these public-sector unions and their lavish benefits had become a major burden for blue states and cities. In California alone state pensions are now $200 billion underfunded. San Francisco has more than 700 retirees or their survivors earning pensions in excess of $100,000 per year. In New York, despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s occasional utterances about the city’s expanding pension system being “out of control,” city contributions to the pension system have grown fivefold under his watch. They now consume roughly one in ten dollars in the city budget.

‘When the economy comes back,’ notes veteran California-based economist and forecaster Bill Watkins, ‘there will be a pent-up demand. People will compare and move to the places that are affordable and don’t have the fundamental tough tax and regulatory stuctures.’

The only way to pay for these expenditures rests on the second key blue economic principle—the notion of an ever expanding high-end “creative economy.” This conceit is based on the notion that tangible things matter little and that, as former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly put it, “communication is the economy.”

New York pioneered the idea that the economy could depend totally on the efforts of the talented few, mostly those on Wall Street but also those in the media and other “creative” industries. This formula has been widely accepted since New York Mayors John Lindsay and Ed Koch allowed New York City’s public sector to expand, often with borrowed money.

Sadly this focus has tended to leave little room for a diverse economy that might employ an expanding, upwardly mobile middle class. Instead, companies and employees in these high-value industries tend to dominate almost all the attention of blue-state policy makers.

Since this class had less need than traditional industries for basic infrastructure, a confluence of interest has emerged between the post-industrial elites and the public employees. Money raised from the monied post-industrial elite would essentially buy social peace by funneling largesse not into improving the roads, subways, or ports but into the pockets of the public employees.

The Great Delusion and Its Blue-State Victims

This elite strategy has served to bifurcate most blue states into an affluent core and a rapidly declining periphery. For example, California, a state whose shift from red to blue has given some heft to “progressives” everywhere, has experienced an increasing gap between a small sliver of wealthy metropolitan residents along the coast and an increasingly marginalized interior populated largely by middle- and working-class Hispanics.

And then there is the imposition of increasingly stringent environmental regulation. This has hit hardest the essential sectors of the non-“creative class” economy such as manufacturing, warehousing, and agriculture. Basic industries depend more than finance or “creative” ones on reasonably priced energy and land, access to raw materials, and a sane regulatory regime. “In California,” notes economist Watkins, “everything has priority over the economy.”

You can see the effects clearly in California. Climate change regulations work to constrain new construction of homes, particularly suburban single-family homes. Manufacturing industries, even relatively “clean” ones, make easy targets for carbon-hunting regulators. A recent Milken Institute report found that between 2000 and 2007 California lost nearly 400,000 manufacturing jobs, all this while industrial employment was growing in major competitive rivals such as Texas and Arizona.

Trucking firms, saddled with harsh new deadlines to shift to cleaner vehicles, also are going out of business. Like manufacturers, many of these have historically been sources of upward mobility for largely Latino entrepreneurs and workers.

Despite his famous no-blue-states-no-red-states-just-the-United-States statement, more than 90 percent of the top 300 administration officials come from states carried last year by President Obama.

Perhaps the most searing disaster is unfolding in the rich Central Valley. Large areas are about to be returned to desert—due less to a mild drought than to regulations designed to save obscure fish species in the state’s delta. Over 450,000 acres have been allowed to go fallow. Nearly 30,000 agriculture jobs—mostly held by Latinos—were lost just in May. Unemployment, 17 percent across the Central Valley, reaches to more than 40 percent in some towns such as Mendota.

"We are getting the sense some people want us to die," notes native son Tim Stearns, a professor of entrepreneurship at California State University at Fresno. "It's kind of like they like the status quo and what happens in the Central Valley doesn't matter. These are just a bunch of crummy towns to them."

A similar process of secular decline can also be seen in the peripheries of other blue states such as upstate New York, which has ranked near the bottom of job growth nationwide over the past 40 years. But nowhere has this occurred more completely than in Michigan.

Under the leadership of Governor Jennifer Granholm, Michigan has sought to reinvent itself from an industrial powerhouse to a center of the “creative economy.” For much of her first term, Granholm focused on such inanities as promoting a “cool cities” program, following the notion that creating places for the terminally hip would help turn around her state’s economy.

Yet in the end, Michigan stands at the worst end of almost every calculator, with the highest unemployment and rates of out-migration, and the worst cities for business. Its per capita income, which was 16th in the nation shortly before Granholm ascended as governor, has now dropped to 33rd, the lowest since the federal government has been keeping records.

Detroit now suffers a 22 percent unemployment rate, the highest of any major city. Nearly one in three residents is on food stamps. But the pain goes well beyond Motor City. Altogether Michigan communities account for a remarkable six of the nation’s ten worst job markets, according to the most recent ForbesNew Geography survey.

Waiting for Obama

Many in the true blue states greeted Barack Obama’s election like the coming of a Messiah who would redress these serious problems. After all, it is widely believed in blue states that the red-state barbarians had looted the Treasury for their clients in the energy, industrial, home-building, pharmaceutical, and defense industries. Now the blue states, and their industries, would get payback. A vast expansion of public infrastructure, more emphasis on basic industry, and incentives for new entrepreneurial ventures could now help rapidly declining areas in the blue states.

Yet hopes that Obama would emphasize such basic infrastructure now have been dashed. Instead, the stimulus has been largely steered to social service providers, “green” industries, and academic research. One reason, as we now know, is that feminists saw such an approach as too favorable to “burly men” who might not have been among the president’s core fan base.

Sadly, many of those “burly men,” particularly the unemployed, still reside in the blue states. They might not be in the places inhabited by the post-industrial elites but they do live in the hardscrabble neighborhoods, industrial suburbs, and small towns from Michigan and upstate New York to California’s vast interior.

‘Hope’ may still sell among media pundits and café society, but the bad economy, increasingly now Obama’s, is causing serious pain to millions of ordinary people who happen to live in the left-leaning part of America.

Another group that may be unexpectedly hurt by the Obama policies will be the middle and upper middle classes in blue states. Already burdened by high rates of taxation locally and higher costs for everything from housing to education, these hardy souls—making more than $125,000 to $250,000 a year—now are about to find themselves heaped in with the “rich.” Higher federal tax rates, as proposed by the administration, could prove disastrous for many blue-state middle-income families.

The Chicago Model: Obama’s ‘Closed Circle’

This skewed allocation of resources reflects the administration’s roots in contemporary Chicago. It derives from a pattern of rewarding core constituencies as opposed to lifting up the whole economy.

The financial bailout reflects one part of this. Money lavished on bankers and lawyers, most of them in New York and Chicago, represents relief to what is now a core Obama constituency. Indeed the whole Troubled Asset Relief Program mechanism is being run by what Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has described as a “wonderfully closed circle.”

This approach, notes University of Illinois political scientist Dick Simpson, comes naturally for an administration dominated by veterans of the Chicago machine. Politicians in the Windy City do not worry much about opposition—49 out of 50 aldermen are Democrats—and follow policies adopted by the small central cadre.

Once the message is set upon, notes Simpson, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley operatives such as David Axelrod set about spinning things. This system is ideal for cultivating both media skill and political discipline during election season—something so evident in Obama’s brilliant campaigns against first Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, Simpson observes.

But machine politics do not necessarily work out so well for the rest of population. “The principle problem is that the machine is not subject to democracy,” notes Simpson, who remains hopeful for the Obama presidency. “There’s massive patronage, a high level of corruption . . . There’s a significant downside to authoritarian rule. The city could do much better.”

To be sure, there has been considerable gentrification in Chicago, as in many cities. Chicago’s “revival” also has been a classic case of blue-state economics, driven largely by a now fading real estate boom, the financial industry, a growing college and university population, and tourism. But overall, from the point of view of most middle and working class residents, Chicago’s political system has proved inefficient and costly. This can be seen in demographic trends that show Chicago as the only one of few large U.S. cities to lose population. At the same time, the middle class, particularly those with children, continue to flee to the suburbs. Roughly half of all white families (as of 2005) leave when their children reach school age.

Is There Hope for Blue America?

Ultimately, waiting for Obama will not revive the blue states. Instead the best prospect lies in blue states healing themselves. Fortunately, there are some tentative signs of unrest. The same regime failure that stuck to Republicans in the wake of the Bush presidency soon may be felt by Democrats burdened with the failed legacy of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, or New York Governor David Paterson. Even Illinois, the president’s home state, could go Republican, suggests political scientist Simpson, if the Republicans put up a viable, middle-of-the-road candidate.

Powerful signs of mounting resistance have emerged in the most important state of all, California. The massive rejection of the budget agreement last spring was a blow to not only its architects, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats in the legislature, but the general conventional wisdom that holds increased taxes as the key to addressing the state’s budget problem.

Even in deep blue Los Angeles, the public sector machine built around onetime union organizer and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has lost some recent battles, including an attempt to create a public sector union monopoly over the city’s solar industry. There is now greater appreciation of soaring public sector pension obligations as groups like the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility expose lists of public employees enjoying mega-pensions.

Even Illinois, the president’s home state, could go Republican, suggests political scientist Simpson, if the Republicans put up a viable, middle-of-the-road candidate.

Similar efforts have started in other states, and with private-sector pensions being cut around the country, anger over the emerging privileged class of public workers may well gain traction. Ultimately, more people in blue states will begin to realize that their states need to learn again how to compete against both their red counterparts and the rest of the world.

There is no intrinsic reason blue states should continue to decline. They have created much of the industrial enterprise, technological innovation, and cultural vitality that made the United States the world’s preeminent country. The prospects for these places can certainly be brighter than they are today.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and executive director of www.newgeography.com. His next book, The Next Hundred Million, deals with the American future and is scheduled to be published in February.

FURTHER READING: Kotkin recently wrote "Sundown for California" on how that state appears headed for an unanticipated, maddening, and largely unnecessary mediocrity, and “The Luxury City vs. the Middle Class” on how the sustainable city of the future will rest on the revival of traditional institutions that have faded in many of today’s cities.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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