The “recent unpleasantness” of the housing bubble and collapse has disguised a larger and more long-term movement. As economists never tire of pointing out, education is linked to prosperity—for both the individual and the community. In 1970, 11 percent of the population aged over twenty-five years had at least a BA. These people were spread around the country fairly evenly: half of America’s cities had concentrations of BA-holders running between 9 and 13 percent.
By 2004, things were very different in two respects. First, 27 percent of the population aged over twenty-five years had at least a BA. So, Americans appeared to be much better educated. Second, educated Americans now clustered together in a few cities. The densest concentrations are around Seattle, San Francisco, up toward Lake Tahoe on California’s border with Nevada, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Austin, the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston, and in college towns scattered across the map.
Why this sorting?
Part of the explanation is a reciprocal relationship between educated people and prosperity. Businesses in science, health, engineering, computers, and education need to be where there are a lot of educated people; people who want to work in these industries need to be where they can get rewarding jobs. Part of the explanation is that some cities tolerate, or even foster, a high degree of diversity. All sorts of people who move toward these cities find a ready welcome and at least some other people like themselves. It’s easy to fit in. It’s easy to find people with whom to share ideas and projects. Seen from these two vantage points, another part of the explanation is that some cities got there first. Like early-birds at a yard-sale, they snapped up all the best things. Seattle, for example, had Boeing (lots of engineers), a big and more-or-less respectable university, a lot of racial diversity (and not just the White-Black kind that most Easterners mean), and a spectacular physical location. It’s easy to see why Microsoft stayed where it started. Others flocked there for the same reasons.
What are the effects?
The more that talent concentrates, the greater are the synergies that spin-off innovations—and economic growth. The more that prosperous people concentrate, the greater are the demand for all sorts of other services and amenities.
The production train used to run from innovation to design to manufacturing to distribution to sales to service. In this system, virtually all the different stages and skill-levels would be located in the same area. Detroit and cars or Pittsburgh and steel offer good examples. Today, much of the lesser-skilled work can be either automated or out-sourced to low-wage foreign suppliers. So, great prosperity can co-exist with economic decline.
But not for long. High income earners bid up the price of housing. It is common to find people without BAs being forced to re-locate away from the areas of tech prosperity. A long commute is one of the badges of un-success in contemporary America.
Steel and cars are waning as major American industries. The “knowledge economy” is central to future American prosperity. The transition has costs and problems that we don’t yet know how to resolve.
Richard Florida, “The Nation in Numbers: Where the Brains Are,” Atlantic, October 2006, pp. 34-35.