There has been an upsurge in interest in regional economic development – and rightly so. The litany of ills in the structure of the U.S. economy – rising income inequality, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, and three decades of wage stagnation – belies another important trend that has been largely overlooked. There is an increasing divide in the economic fortunes among different regions of the United States.
While the gap between the wealthiest and poorest members of society seems to make the news on a weekly basis, few seem to be talking about the disparity between urban centers on the coasts and flyover country. The 1% narrative – brought to the fore by Occupy Wall Street activists – overshadows the regional divergence between “elite” seaboard cities and the heartland.
America’s great divergence represents the reversal of a history of convergence across regions following the Civil War and lasting until the 1980’s. Writing in the Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman argues that the convergence resulted from a century of pulling policy levers ranging from anti-trust laws, to regulation of railroads, airlines, and trucking, as part of a concerted effort of the Federal government to achieve regional parity.
Globalization: more was lost than jobs
America’s great divergence in regional prosperity coincides with shifting gears toward public policies that privileged globalization over autonomy, resulting in the loss of manufacturing jobs. The standard narrative links this loss of manufacturing jobs to the rising income disparity between the coasts and flyover America. However, bringing manufacturing jobs back through renegotiation of trade agreements and enforcing international fair currency and exchange practices isn’t enough to restore robustness to the heartland. It is insufficient because jobs were not all that was lost.
America’s innovation capacity took a hit with manufacturing flight. The divergence in incomes across regions is a symptom, not the underlying cause of the problem.
The issue is not only distributive inequality; it is also about contributive inequities. A regional divergence in incomes represents an uneven distribution of the fruits of labor. But the underlying problem is the capacity of people to solve their own problems through their own inventiveness wanes when there are fewer work opportunities: this is what is meant by the term contributive inequity.
What is needed other than protectionism, is harnessing the power of American ingenuity at the grassroots – at the place of doing and making. Innovation isn’t the exclusive domain of elite research laboratories and universities. Americans from all walks of life have been tinkerers and problem-solvers. Robbing the heartland of its foundation in making undermines both the citizens’ capacity to contribute meaningfully, and, thereby, the security, national competitiveness, and cultural integrity of the United States.
Competitiveness and Security
Technology and innovation have been an integral part of the American narrative of advancement since at least the post-War period. That narrative – famously forged by Vannevar Bush, the head of wartime US government R&D (including the Manhattan Project) – links the imperative of American scientific and economic competitiveness with national security and independence:
A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill. (Bush, 1945)
Bush was writing at a time when the United States was the planet’s manufacturing powerhouse with most of Europe and Japan devastated by the war. He argues for maintaining and further bolstering the nascent research and development capacity developed under the government’s patronage. Bush likens the rejection of government responsibilities for R&D to living off of the fat. Like ‘resting on one’s laurels’, living off the fat entails sloth and consumption instead of responsible investment, frugality, and industriousness.
Science and technology needed to be bolstered in support of these burgeoning productive infrastructures. Since the War, the economy and security of the United States has been well served by its continual investment in cutting-edge research. Now, the situation is reversed.
Industrial know-how has been lost, in addition to lapses in productive capacities, and productive infrastructures need to be built back up in order to realize new (and renewed) knowledge.
Today, “living off of the fat”, means continuing to neglect the productive, physical infrastructure, while doing nothing to reign in the intellectual capital flight of scientific knowledge being put to use beyond our borders, benefiting foreign firms and workers.
The marriage of knowledge produced in research environments with the experimental platforms of American agricultural, extraction and manufacturing industries is critical to national competitiveness and self-sufficiency. Energy security is national security. Food security is national security. Industrial competitiveness – economic self-sufficiency and manufacturing know-how – is a matter of national security. And national identity.
America: A Culture of independence and interdependence
Lately, discussions of inequality most often arise in the context of social justice; however, the motivation for undertaking regional economic development is not social justice. Rather, it is derived from American identity. Beyond national security, the drive for self-sufficiency is a hallmark of national identity: American culture.
American culture is fiercely independent because of the strength of its domestic interdependence. The ideal of the yeoman farmer epitomizes the American virtues of hard work and self-reliance that today characterize the entrepreneurs and small business people that drive this country.
Factory, mine, oil field, construction and maintenance workers have historically formed the backbone of American competitiveness. Identification with this cultural identity weaves a fabric of American interdependence as a component of national identity.
By “living off the fat” in recent years, while industrial infrastructures and productive capacities were compromised, America lost the driving force of innovation in America.
It is in this way that America’s “great divergence” represents a compromise of American cultural integrity.
In Hillbilly Elegy, the New York Times bestseller, J.D. Vance illustrates the links between Appalachian culture and socioeconomic crisis. Although the prevailing narrative focused on economic distress, Vance rightly notes the isolation of people and their alienation from their culture and environment. Solutions to the problem of the great American divergence derive from people connected and emplaced.
Our next post does a deeper dive into the concepts of connectivity and emplacement, discussing how both robust communication and situated innovativeness are the foundations of health ecosystems. We show how ecosystem takes on the meaning of a situated network that helps innovators plant their ideas so that they take root, grow and bear fruit in combination with others.
Bush, Vannevar. Science, The Endless Frontier. Report to the President, Office of Scientific Research and Development, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: National Academies Press, 1945.
Longman, Phillip. “Bloom and Bust.” Washington Monthly, November/December 2015.
Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy. New York: Harper, 2016.