Providence, Rhode Island, was once known as the “Beehive of Industry.” By the time I was growing up there in the 1990s, the city had been firmly relegated to “armpit” status.
Along with Brown University, it was by then known mostly for hosting a statue of a giant blue bug alongside Interstate 95 advertising a local pest control company, flagrant political corruption, and the tasty Italian food that all too often comes with it.
Today, Providence has in many respects rebounded. Downtown, once empty save for the drug addicts, now hosts a bevy of hip restaurants. The West End, long neglected, is gentrifying. People hipper than me, when they hear where I grew up, tell me that my hometown is “cool.” And a recent travel piece in that other Washington newspaper judged it “urbane” and “wonderfully weird in a variety of ways.”
Still, as the defunct warehouses and factories that dot the city can attest, industry never really came back to Providence. And, consequently, the city is still less populous and by some measures less prosperous than it was when it was a manufacturing hub in the early part of the 20th century. The city’s population peaked in 1940. The barista economy, it turns out, is no match for the machine tool and jewelry manufacturing economy.
An astonishing chart floating around the internet this week illustrates that Providence’s story is hardly unique. The chart, pulled from the book “Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream” by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson shows the 10 highest-income metropolitan areas in the United States as of 1980 and 2016. In both 1980 and 2016, the richest metro area in the country was Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut. The Washington area also has remained in the top 10. But the rest of the list shows nothing but flux. In the 1980s, the richest metro areas included four in Michigan: Flint, Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Saginaw and Monroe. By 2016, no metropolitan areas in the Wolverine State even made the chart. They had been replaced by the likes of San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California (the area encompassing Silicon Valley); San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California; and Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington.
The chart shows a couple of things, besides the particularly bad fortune that has visited poor, beleaguered Michigan. Most obviously: In a mere generation, America’s economy has changed utterly. Manufacturing was once the economic driver of the country, but today, it is the tech industry that brings riches. (Though the astonishing prosperity of southwestern Connecticut shows that finance was, and still is, big business.) Structural changes to the economy haven’t only shaped industries, they’ve also shaped the landscape of the country. Yes, it is true that the United States still exports about $1.4 trillion worth of goods each year, but that isn’t translating to prosperity for the areas doing the manufacturing.
Second, policy matters. Michigan’s decline is obviously related to the decline of the American auto industry in the 1980s. That steep descent was partially attributable to the fact that Detroit was turning out substandard cars, but also because the U.S. decided to allow untrammeled imports of Japanese cars while Tokyo managed to keep its own car markets largely closed. Policymakers probably couldn’t have saved Detroit’s automakers from its own failures — though a forward-thinking Congress would have banned the Cadillac Cimarron — but the decision to allow unfair competition with the Japanese automakers certainly didn’t help.
And therein lies a warning to the well-heeled denizens of Menlo Park, California, and Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Silicon Valley and Seattle may be flying high now, but with senators as ideologically disparate as Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Josh Hawley increasingly skeptical of the monopolistic power of the likes of Facebook and Amazon, it will be interesting to see which metro areas are richest in 2046.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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