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Cities of the Plains


I’m not sure I’m convinced by this argument:

Economic geography tells us that market potential is important. If you want to be a rich place, it helps to be close to other rich places. This is one of the problems with the Rust Belt. Individually, Rust Belt cities are weaker than cities on the east coast — they have smaller economies and less human capital. This is complicated by the fact that they’re fairly isolated. The rich cities of the northeast corridor are squeezed together, while Rust Belt cities are far apart — from each other and from the rich cities of the east coast. This means that they have less to work with, and they’re less able to leverage that strength in a regional economy. For this reason, I’ve argued that it’s important to invest in individual cities in the Rust Belt, but it’s also important to improve connections between the cities. To effectively bring them closer together.

High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.

I like the high speed rail idea, but I’m not sure I buy the argument that distance is the real problem in the Rust Belt. Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver really aren’t that close to each other by Midwest standards, yet they all seem to be doing fine. Denver is very far from anything of consequence, yet is typically regarded as a wealthy city. I haven’t done any research, and so my thinking could be all wrong (maybe Cincy and Cleveland are richer than Seattle and Portland in some non-obvious way?) but cities that aren’t really close to other cities would also seem to benefit from being regional centers of consumption. Maybe there’s some kind of upside down bell curve, such that close proximity and relative isolation are good for growth, while middling distances are a problem? Or perhaps the experience of the coastal cities of the West isn’t transferable to the Midwest (this wouldn’t apply to Denver, though)?

Via Ezra.

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