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February 02, 2007

Richard Florida

Two Americas

« Talent wars are spiky | Main | Debating green cities »

Reading through the comments on Paul Kaihla's talent wars 2.0 post (below), I was struck by this comment by Bob Marsh:

"Since the US requires 150,000 jobs per month just to accommodate new immigrants along with expansion in the population base, I wonder who in their right mind considers this to be "a hot job market". Late 1990's saw 400K per month with rising salaries. Flash to now and you see stagnant wages (yes they've gone up a bit lately but are still sub-trend). I don't believe you. People vanish off the books after a few months of unemployment today, or take two or three part time jobs just to make ends meet. That's what most Americans see."

He's absolutely right. But so is Kaihla. How can there be such different perspective of the same country?

The answer, actually, is quite simple.  We are no longer citizens of one country, but two very different nations.  These Two America are very different places. And with the economic and demographic shifts currently in motion, they are becoming more so everyday. Our job prospects, our economic situations, our financial futures are becoming more separate and distinct, not just by education and skill-set or even by family background but by where we live.

Take the same exact person, say, in tech or even professional services  and put them in greater Detroit or greater Pittsburgh and they will have problems finding a decent job; put them in DC or the Bay Area or the Research Triangle and they'll be swept up immediately.  There are a handful of city-regions which are experiencing continued growth and record low levels of unemployment, while regions like Detroit are in economic crisis.  It's now said that Michigan as a whole is mired in a "one state depression."

And of course, the split between the Two Americas is compounded by returns to knowledge, skill and talent. Those with education and skills are highly mobile and get to choose locations which maximize their talent, while those who are less advantaged are essentially stuck in place.  This ability of a select group of people to choose locations than maximize and optimize their talent is now more important, in my view, than where you are born or even where you go to school.

It is little wonder that  many of those who are trapped in this "other America," to borrow Michael Harrington's phrase, are becoming more anxious, more fearful and growing ever angrier at their prospects.  Compounding this is the demographic shift which leaves  gays, bohemians, and young singles all highly concentrated in the thriving means metros.

These places are also the ones which reflect open-minded, self-expression values of the sort Ronald Inglehart writes about. In addition to their very different economic and class structures, the Two America's have very different household compositions and very different values.  The battle lines are easily drawn:  us against them, "family values" versus "yuppies, sophistos, trendoids and gays," the "true America" versus "San Francisco".  All of this is  fueled by our celebrity-obsessed culture which broadcasts the antics of the latest unhinged teen celebrity into living rooms across America.  These are the  "role models"  they see their kids being drawn to. Guess where all their cavorting goes on? That's right:  Those very same means metros. Talk about a perfect, and potentially very noxious,  storm.

The issue becomes how to we overcome the growing economic, cultural and regional divide that separates the Two Americas.  Is there a single leader  - a potential candidate of either party - who is willing to take this on, and generate a vision of a  more prosperous and inclusive future for all? The task is not yet on the level of what confronted Lincoln, but is perhaps in line with FDR.  Your thoughts?


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"Is there a single leader - a potential candidate of either party - who is willing to take this on, and generate a vision of a more prosperous and inclusive future for all?"

Yes, it was Russ Feingold. But because he was willing and vocal about it, he was slashed like so many rain forest trees.


Mika- A good friend of ours,who worked with Gary Hart and who's been around politics a long time, told me several years ago of Feingold's political courage. He thought Feingold had a good chance of higher office and saw him as someone who is having a significant impact on American politics regardless. It is interesting to see Chuck Hagel talking about the transformation of American politics that is going on today and how political elites are out-of-touch with the values and concerns of American voters. Richard


Thanks for responding! Hi, Richard.

I agree Hagel is making odd noises for the conservative I know him to be, but still, if we are talking beyond the lipservice of inclusivity and including LGBT folks in the mix, Feingold is the go-to-guy. Clinton declares she needs "more education on this issue", Obama is leaning hard right on the issue. Maybe Richards has a chance to be the voice of progress, but none of the candidates have the Elvis-in-teflon to tackle it fully, IMHO.


Mika - You're quite right on that dimension. I guess these people want to be "electable" whatever that really means. But the clock of history is ticking in favor of increased diversity and inclusiveness. Heck, in ten or twenty years they are going to look "Neanderthal" - like Strom Thurmmond or Jesse Helms on civil rights. Even died-in-the-wool segregationists like George Wallace eventually had to face the reality of historical progress. Regardless of the utter absence of political courage, do they even think about their legacies? Don't they know - or care - how history will deal with them?


I agree with your premise of Two Americas. It's impossible for any informed person to not see it in how each time they talk of the creation of all these jobs, they never seem to tell you what the jobs are. Or in how the Bush administration actually reclassified Fast-Food positions as manufacturing jobs! Or how, while the economy is continually cited as growing at a robust rate, seldom mention is ever made of how uneven the bounty is distributed.

And it's disillusioning to me that many of these rural regions and slow growth cities seem so doomed to forever remain stuck in a Catch 22: The more uncertainty they find economically, the more they find comfort and certainty in the cultural traditions of "true America," the more rigid, anti-intellectual and resistent to cultural changes and allergic to things like stem-cell research they then become, the further they fall behind and so on.

Breaking through that culture barrier to unite this country in a progressive way is a daunting proposition for any politician. Politicians who are extremely passionate about this "Two America" issue, usually, like Mika said, get predictably slashed down like trees in the rain forest. But, that happens for a reason.

Our politicians REALLY need to start thinking as if they were in the Other's shoes, if creating a new dialogue to bridge that gap is going to be even possible.

We think we are doing that right now, but I'm not sure that we are.

For starters, I think the assumption that there is always - or even often - a direct link in between regions that are struggling economically and the expected perception of the economy, one like Bob Marsh's, is at least partially specious.

Human proclivity leads me to believe, on one hand, that those who are struggling most are frequently the last to publically advertise their hardships and two, that those who aren't struggling, whether because of conscience, because they see themselves as part of the "reality-based community", and we hope not for more base reasons, never mind pointing out and addressing the hardships of others and, to the ire of many, unwittingly unveiling their own 'privileged' place.

Just as often it seems that skepticism of the claims of a robust economy is coming from those who are participating in activities where it actually is robust, while those in regions where it isn't would apparently rather try and convince themselves or at least everyone else that everything is economically okay.

Like you somewhat allude to, and like many have pointed out, the focus of politics in these slow growth regions isn't even economics. It's the preservation of so-called "True America" and its cultural values.

The intent of the message is innocent enough, but, unfortunately, as soon as you say something like "Two Americas," all kinds of polarizing things happen in peoples' heads, causing them to retreat even further into "True America."

Not the least of which is that vast swaths of people begin reacting defensively to a perceived implication, however real these disparities are and however they came to be, that they are the denizens not of the thriving America but instead of the Backwards one nobody wants to be in.

Of course, nobody wants to feel that.

And By the time the message gets filtered through these cultural mediators who fan the flames of Culture Kampf to sustain their own gain in ratings, that experience of humiliation is intensified.

Good intentions inevitably get converted into fuel for a backlash against paternally-minded "Elites" who obviously think they are superior to even think that real people, out there in the "True America," have a problem that needs to be addressed.

In this context, merely offering anything as a solution from the position of one being a "have" to those in the 'have not' position, gets perceived as a subjection to indignity by the party on the proposed receiving end.

This, I believe, presents one of, if not thee, greatest impasse in our contemporary cultural politics. HOW does one say something RELEVANT to this problem of "Two Americas" that falls outside a polarizing discourse?

Certainly, nothing said in this text does.

I believe that's the nitty gritty reality of the politics we are dealing with in this country right now, at least to the extent that only the most vocal are making themselves heard. And, in the long run, unless there are big changes that I cannot forsee, I don't know how we'll get around it intact.

I'm speaking now from the not-so-unique perspective of ten years on the internet casually talking to people from all over the country. It's taken me that long to realize how often and how easily I have alienated fellow Americans I have only tried to reach out to.

Of course, I have no delusions of the inflated importance of these chats. However, still, I've been trying to remind myself when I speak of whom I am speaking to.

No one wants someone to suggest to them that they are a victim. Not of globalization, not of their own cultural barriers to progress, however real they may be, not of anything else.

No matter, this discourse seems unavoidable if the problems are to be addressed and somehow, still, I always wind up preaching only to the choir.

I would like to think that by their nature politicians, when not intentionally polarizing with wedge issues, would be more adept at bridging these gaps than I. But, truthfully, I don't know how even the most skillful politician could successfully navigate this issue of Two Americas without running straight into land mines of increasing polarization, that are already set, rigged and ready to explode.

I hate to sound this disillusioned with the state of American politics. But, it would have to be one hell of a Messiah (I say that metaphorically) of a Politician to bridge that gap between these "Two Americas."

We've got a lot of people with amazing skills in America. But, right now, what we need most is some people with the skill to create a new dialogue.

One in which genuine concern for the slow growth, old industrial regions, is immune or at least minimizes its potential for being corrupted into the poisonous experience of indignity for so many out there in that America that Globalization is rapidly leaving behind.


Evan- Very nicely said. Which puts the entire country in a gigantic Catch 22, as economic forces left unaddressed continue to deepen these regional, economic and cultural divides. I think this is the single dominant factor that in the medium to long-run will begin to erode so-called American competitiveness.


Oh, I think you can safely say that it has already begun to erode our competitiveness. I don't think Americans are recognizing it yet, but they will in 5, 10, at the absolute most, 15 years.

How many people do you think know that, According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index, Switzerland, not the United States, is ranked the number one competitive economy in the World this year? Findland Last year?

Or that the United States isn't even number number 2, let alone number one. Or even in the top 5, for that matter?!?

And that we've lost the lead to Nordic Countries?

I think Americans would be shocked.


"According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index, Switzerland, not the United States..." maybe we need to look again.

Rankings 2007-2008 Top Ten

Rank Country Score
1 US 5.67
2 Switzerland 5.62
3 Denmark 5.55
4 Sweden 5.54
5 Germany 5.51
6 Finland 5.49
7 Singapore 5.45
8 Japan 5.43
9 UK 5.41
10 Netherlands 5.40

Evan, check your numbers.

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