In May, I listened to JD Vance — the media-anointed white-people whisperer from southeast Ohio — open a City Club event at Cleveland’s Global Center for Health Innovation. The Global Center is an outsized, glassy gamble by Cuyahoga County: a conference and meeting facility intended to attract health and biotech companies to showcase their products, which, theoretically, will bolster Cleveland’s economy. It has stood grotesquely empty since its completion.
It was an appropriate forum for this $35-per-ticket event, which, in addition to Vance, featured the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind. Lind is the co-author, with Joel Kotkin, of a report called “The New American Heartland: Renewing the Middle Class by Revitalizing Middle America.” The report, which expands the Rust Belt’s geography to encompass the also-economically-flagging Deep South and lent its name to the panel I attended, was released by Kotkin’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a right-leaning, Houston-based think tank that fetishizes business-friendly policies, deregulation, and decentralization as the keys to helping American cities compete on a global scale.
The postulating on how to revive post-industrial cities, what that revival should look like, and who it should benefit is a tangled web of ideologies that’s been spun time and again since the collapse of heavy manufacturing in the 1970s. Kotkin’s ideas have long been popular among right- and libertarian-leaning urbanists, and people who wouldn’t dare to call themselves urbanists at all, because they’re essentially odes to the free market. Now, five months after the City Club panel, he — alongside Richard Florida, whose Teflonesque creative-class theory persists even despite Florida’s attempts to dismantle it — is on retainer with Kansas City as part of that town’s bid to attract every American metropolis’ white whale of the moment, the second Amazon headquarters. (Vance, too, is back in the news, for an odious association with Steve Bannon.)
At the City Club event, Kotkin moderated an overstuffed discussion between Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans; India Pierce Lee, a senior vice president at the Cleveland Foundation and chair of the visiting committee at Cleveland State University Levin College of Urban Affairs; Rick Platt, the president and CEO of the Heath-Newark-Licking Port Authority in central Ohio; Manhattan Institute senior fellow Aaron M. Renn; Pete Saunders, a Chicago-based Forbes urban affairs contributor and longitme blogger at The Corner Side Yard; and Mark Schill, vice-president for research at the Praxis Strategy Group, which has offices in North Dakota and California (Schill also edits NewGeography.com, a joint venture between Praxis and Kotkin).
It was a convenient assembly of several perpetrators of the corporate-urbanism strain of thought; from my view in the audience, the only possible conclusion of a panel as sprawled-out as the built environment of northeast Ohio was no conclusion at all. Following Vance’s opener, the panelists volleyed back and forth in a technocratic patter, but gave no insight on useful economic development strategies. Platt claimed that putting the label “Rust Belt” to rest would save the region; Hecht called pre-Katrina New Orleans a “crappy company” and the hurricane the “investment strategy” that propelled its latest iteration. Only Saunders and Lee, the panel’s sole person of color and woman, respectively, deigned to speak about the growing equity gaps — in health, job access, housing, and generational wealth — in the states in question.
That mind-meld of Vance, Kotkin, Hecht, Platt, Renn, and Schill at the Global Center is still resonant: The stampede of cities, small and large, to hire consultants, identify sites, and assemble proposals all in the name of Amazon is yet another entry into the same ideological cannon to which “The New American Heartland” belongs. Politicians and CEOs like this framing of economic development — one based nearly entirely on attracting businesses and certain types of residents — because it doesn’t require raising taxes to pay for services. Instead, it suggests tax cuts will save places like Cleveland, Lima, and Dayton by making them more attractive to, if not Amazon, then perhaps the creative class, or something like it. Plus, the assumption that development will trickle down eliminates the need to talk about unpleasant categorical racial and class inequities.
So as populations continue to bleed out, and as the dynamics of global trade and automation become even more confusing, why not double-down on cutting red tape to encourage homegrown innovation and investment? Why not encourage public-private partnerships, given declining tax revenue? Why not try to attract corporations as anchor institutions (never mind that Amazon has effectively refereed a nationwide race to the bottom)? Why not reject the faceless administrators in Washington who tell us how to run our communities, and focus instead on local economic development?
Alternatively, why not let the vacant Global Center for Health Innovation show you how those sorts of strategies are working out?
The greatest trick “The New American Heartland” report, and its disciples, attempts to pull is convincing its intended audience that cities haven’t been embracing deregulation and corporate-friendly tax incentives for decades. Declining Rust Belt towns have continually plowed their faith, funds, and political willpower into downtown developments and amenity attraction, with the hope that doing so will somehow drive enough investment to boost neighborhoods distressed by decades of racist land-use planning. But tax breaks for individuals or corporations don’t work, and Cleveland’s recent history is littered with moonshot megaprojects that have failed to staunch the population exodus. Any Amazon proposal in any Cleveland-esque city, no matter how propped up by big-name consultants, will only encourage more of the same.
The “New American Heartland” report does acknowledge this — indirectly. After pages of text prescribing deregulation and decentralization to jumpstart industrial job creation, it abruptly tacks to infrastructure, claiming that seaports and inland waterways will be the “key link between the New American Heartland and foreign markets”:
From a broad historical perspective, neither industry-chasing at the municipal level nor top-down government industrial or procurement policies have played the major role in U.S. industrial development. The most important part has been played by infrastructure investment, which precedes and enables new development in the productive economy. This is best driven by the region’s local economies, and by ad hoc arrangements to meet specific goals.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Steve Litt summarized the report like this:
[The New American Heartland] argues that the heartland could unleash a blue-collar jobs boom through lighter regulation on fossil fuel production and consumption, and through ‘bottom-up’ economic development guided at the state and local level rather than from Washington…[that] the region “may be helped by the presence of a new administration whose rhetoric has focused on a broad-based industrial revival and, perhaps equally important, owes its existence largely to the voters of this region.”
It’s zeitgeisty, still, nearly a year after Donald Trump’s ascension, to talk about poor, mostly rural white people as if they hold the key to the political hellscape in which we’ve found ourselves. JD Vance’s memoir has become a policy prescription for pundits all over the political spectrum who find a narrative of personal fortitude, particularly as executed by upwardly mobile whites, more compelling than peer-reviewed research. But this argument ignores the evidence that wealthier Americans elected Donald Trump, as well as that we’re losing jobs to automation and shifting industries rather than globalization. Ultimately, it obscures that the heartland is responsible to its cities, too, even if they are denser, browner, and blacker than the common conception of the Midwest.
Those cities have been cannibalized by America’s grand suburban experiment, which has invisibly subsidized unchecked outward growth. Cities are natural sites for clustered innovation, and even as they’ve been eaten away by exurbs, they still retain much of their firepower, despite Kotkin’s conviction that the suburbs need defending. That’s why Amazon is prioritizing proximity to an actual population center. Vance, for his part, at least implicitly understands the usefulness of urban cores. Much has been made of his decision to “move home,” but he’s not moving back to southeast Ohio — he’s moving to the 15th largest metro in America, the state’s capital, and one of the few cities in the state experiencing population gains. Perhaps living there, and working in venture capital, will compel him to bridge the gap between Ohio’s rural and urban interests, which have more in common than metanarratives would have us believe.
The opioid crisis — Vance’s chosen policy issue — is not exclusive to the hollers, and never has been. Cuyahoga County is predicting 775 opioid-related deaths this year, but state Republicans proposed to cut $35 million from a city-specific funding stream to redirect that money to a statewide drug-fighting initiative. Cities are not inherently more deserving of this money than rural and suburban communities in a state that’s leading the nation in opioid deaths, but this instance of robbing Peter to pay Paul favors rural areas over urban. More people are affected by opioids in urban areas; despite an outsized political fixation with the state’s rural expanses, more people live in Ohio’s cities than anywhere else. No amount of deregulation and innovation can “fix” them when their citizens are starved of resources that could keep them alive.
The cities of “the New American Heartland” do not deserve to be a testing ground for this super-strain of technocratic economic and urban policy. Frankly, they may not survive it. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s preferred growth strategy — cutting income taxes and public services while raising sales taxes — favors the finances of the wealthy exurban voters that delivered Ohio to Donald Trump, and disproportionately harms the middle class and racial minorities. We do not have the luxury of slashing regulations and waiting for private capital to save us; a Vance-esque method of bootstrapping is nearly impossible to achieve at scale when escaping poverty requires 20 years of luck.
The 2016 election pitted a myth of “real America” against the perceived elitism of effete-liberal coastal cities. It told the story of an economically anxious white working class that figured larger in our imaginations than it does in reality. In its aftermath, urban municipalities, already starved by decades of Nixonian New Federalism, will have to go it alone in unprecedented ways. Lukewarm policy proposals like “The New American Heartland,” and clamoring to attract a one-time golden goose like Amazon by severing as many financial and regulatory strings as possible, will not help this new American reality. Yet, unsurprisingly, the Kotkins, Vances, Platts, and Hechts — who are more likely than the average citizen to benefit personally from corporate-friendly urbanism and deregulated industries — are continuing to tell us otherwise.
A more sobering analysis of what our future might look like is Robert Gordon’s heavyweight, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which stands resolutely against “techno-optimism.” In it, Gordon argues we are not simply one wave of innovation away from another transformation of American life and wealth. Rather, “headwinds” — rising inequality, flatlining education levels, an aging populace, and no right to health care as American citizens — will slow the progress we’ve come to associate with our country.
Gordon is likely chastising his fellow ivory-tower economists when he deconstructs that techno-optimist assumption that continued growth, invention, and innovation are smoothly running devices that will continue to improve American life. But I like to imagine that he’s also speaking to slick idea-peddlers like Kotkin, who have made careers out of claiming that deeply entrenched, hopelessly complex structural issues can be mitigated by deregulation, tax cuts, infrastructure, and a greater instillation of personal responsibility in American citizens. The opioid crisis and all it represents — a grossly widening gap in equality and access to resources, abetted by government policies that favor corporations over individuals — will not be helped by rebranding swaths of the country so that it looks better on a pitch deck.
Accepting that Gordon’s headwinds are real and true is not something that any city wants to face, certainly not within the week that proposals to Amazon are due. And it’s not in the self-interest of the majority of the City Club’s heartland-busting panelists to consider them, either. After all, as investors and consultants, they’ve benefited greatly from the flow of capital from municipalities to public-private partnerships.
Taking Gordon’s argument seriously—and moving forward with specific policies that could help heal what we have already—would first necessitate an admittance that deregulation; its assumed cousin, innovation; and their most current physical embodiment, Amazon, may not save us. And what declining city wants to reckon with what it will see in the mirror?