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The Unbearable Conventionality of Our Tech Betters

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Fresh of Amazon’s decision to engage in a nationwide scam to set cities against each other and see what goodies it could get and then settling on building in two already extremely expensive cities that don’t need the jobs, we have Apple:

Apple said Thursday that it would build a new $1 billion campus in Austin, Tex., where it could eventually employ 15,000 people, amid a broader expansion that will create thousands of jobs in several American cities.

The company, which has 90,000 workers in the United States, also plans to open 1,000-worker operations in San Diego, Seattle and Culver City, Calif., and add hundreds of employees in offices in New York, Pittsburgh and Boulder, Colo., in the next three years.

Oh, well, just what Austin, Pittsburgh, New York, and Boulder need–making their increasingly unlivable cities even more expensive! What risky picks there! What vision! What leadership! If only our Tech Betters could run our entire society!

These tech companies could go to Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, so many cities where the cost of living is too cheap, where cities are dying, where they could actually use the jobs and the influx of population, cities that also have pretty significant cultural institutions, professional sports teams, underused road systems, and other infrastructure that would work pretty well. They would have no little control over those cities too. But no, that would be impossible. Rather, they always make the most conventional possible choices, building on the work others have done to turn around cities and just making them more expensive. When I moved to Austin in 2007, it was already overrun by tech and had absolutely nothing close to the level of infrastructure to handle all the new arrivals. Now it’s only gotten worse, with out of control traffic, endless sprawl, no meaningful public transportation, and spiraling costs that are forcing the city’s traditional African-American and Mexican communities out of the city. This will only make that worse. Pittsburgh is going through this process right now, with long-standing neighborhoods rapidly transforming. I suppose you could at least argue that regionally, this might help some of the outlying towns that are struggling. Certainly any benefit to McKees Rocks or Homestead or Braddock couldn’t hurt those places. But Boulder? Great, let’s make an already ridiculously expensive place that refuses to build up because it might affect the viewsheds of very rich people even more expensive! As for New York, we hardly need to discuss the problems.

Part of the broader issue is that the nation stopped having an industrial policy by the Carter administration, if not before. The nation used to play a very active role in shaping the economic development of certain regions. That was the point of the Tennessee Valley Authority after all, not to mention the building of large dams in poor areas of the Northwest, using the Columbia’s power to build an industrial base. It’s how the nation made choices on where to locate military bases and defense industry plants during and after World War II. But now, that’s gone. The idea of the federal government actively encouraging tech companies and other large employers to locate in areas that actually need the jobs is completely off the table in the New Gilded Age, an era where business tells government what to do, not the other way around. This is the cost of that abdication of responsibility. It does not have to be this way.

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