Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jobs not fluff.

Back in April, I wrote a piece ripping the new urbanist "cool cities" style of BS that bureaucrats and ivory towers think is the key for Michigan comeback. I stand by what I wrote in both the article and comments section and revisit it in the light of recent articles in New Geography.

In today's recession, and specifically to Michigan, there's a lot of talk about keeping younger workers here, and so called "diversifying the economy," which too often means abandoning manufacturing in favor of so called "cool-cities." To the Granholmites, it's "coolness" and "hipness" and not actual jobs that attract young workers. My post in April was Michigan specific on this matter. New Geography gave its own model city. It's not New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, or San Francisco. Houston. I can't speak for recent history with Houston as it has been over 20 years since I've been there. Joel Kotkin, who I believe is actually a democrat (more of an old school one who doesn't support cap and trade or Richard Florida style of urbanism), makes an interesting case for Houston, if one can handle the weather.

So what does Houston have that these other cities lack? Opportunity. Between 2000 and 2009 Houston's employment grew by 260,000. Greater New York City--with nearly three times the population of Houston--has added only 96,000 jobs. The Chicago area has lost 258,000 jobs, San Francisco 217,000, Los Angeles 168,000 and Boston 100,004.

Politicians in big cities talk about jobs, but by keeping taxes, fees and regulatory barriers high they discourage the creation of jobs, at least in the private sector. A business in San Francisco or Los Angeles never knows what bizarre new cost will be imposed by city hall. In New York or Boston you can thrive as a nonprofit executive, high-end consultant or financier, but if you are the owner of a business that wants to grow you're out of luck.

Houston, however, has kept the cost of government low while investing in ports, airports, roads, transit and schools. A person or business moving there gets an immediate raise through lower taxes and cheaper real estate. Houston just works better at nurturing jobs.

It starts with jobs, regulations, and costs, with the rest going to meat and potatoes issues of competence. Jobs and growing economies also attract college educated, much more than BS fluff that dominate the news these days.

Some traditional urbanists will concede these facts but then try to shift the focus to "qualitative" factors: the best-educated residents, the highest salaries, the most expensive real estate. Although it also attracts a large number of low-skill migrants, Houston has considerably expanded its white-collar workforce. According to the Praxis Strategy Group, Houston's ranks of college-educated residents grew 13% between 2005 and 2008. That's about on par with "creative class" capital Portland, Ore. and well more than twice the rate for New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Back to Livingston County, I'll say the same thing about Houston as I said about the "cool cities". We're Livingston County. We aren't Chicago. We aren't Royal Oak. We aren't Ann Arbor. We won't copy them, and should not even try to do so. We don't need to be any of those. Livingston County's strength is rural character, small towns, lakes, and being driving distance from cities, but further away from its influence.

However, we need to study what makes Houston work in this economy compared to what isn't working in Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and Boston, and adapt it to fit in Michigan, and Livingston County.

Jobs will fix this economy, not "cool cities".

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