Start With the Positives to Rebuild America

(FIRST PUBLISHED AT THEHILL.COM)

In my home town, there are many carousels.

Six, to be exact. They exist because a man named George F. Johnson ran a shoe company. Maybe you’ve worn E-J (Endicott-Johnson) footwear. The company employed hundreds of thousands of people in the Binghamton, New York region. The Johnson family also believed in “welfare capitalism.” In addition to free merry-go-rounds, E-J profits funded schools, parks and a hospital.

The factories are empty now, undone by competition from overseas. E-J was replaced as a major employer by IBM. Then, by the late 1980s, that came to stand for “I’ve Been Moved” as that company shipped jobs out of the area. Now IBM is gone as well, leaving empty facilities and a “plume” of groundwater pollution it will cost millions to clean up.

It’s important to figure out where American jobs went, but even more important to figure out how to get them back. Or at least how to help the people who’ve lost them. After all, we can’t all move to Brooklyn; some of us have to be able to shelter in place. Perhaps residents in troubled regions could even deliver positive changes on their own.

Where to begin? Start small.

In their book “Switch,” authors Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of Miner County, South Dakota. By 1995, the region was shrinking as “farm and industrial jobs had slowly dried up.” When young people “got old enough, they left and didn’t return.” But it didn’t need to be that way.

Students at a local high school launched a campaign aimed at reversing the decline. They called it “Let’s keep Miner dollars in Miner County.” The students calculated that if residents “spent just 10 percent more of their disposable income at home, they would boost the local economy by $7 million.”

They ended up doing much better than that. A year after the campaign started, the state calculated that the amount spent in the county had jumped by $15.6 million. That helped local businesses, of course. But it also increased tax revenues, making more money available for other projects. Instead of a death spiral, Miner County started spinning up.

In local communities today, people could start by shopping at a local grocery instead of a dollar store. Then eating at a local restaurant instead of a chain. That would begin to keep more local money circulating locally. Then, they must find ways to keep more people around.

In their book “Our Towns,” Jim and Deborah Fallows write that successful areas usually have a major research university nearby. Well, Binghamton University is one of the top New York State schools. But students usually get their degrees and leave the area.

Give more of those grads a reason to stay (the way technology grads often remain near Boston and Palo Alto after graduation) and the area might find itself playing host to the next big thing. It’s worth noting that, in their book “Jump-Starting America,” economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson list the Binghamton-Ithaca region in the top-10 for potential development.

Of course, you can also try to compete on beer. Brewpubs won’t change everything, but having some helps; the Fallows book notes that the presence of a craft brewery is a sign of a healthy community. So it’s good news that small breweries are popping up in communities nationwide. Let’s all drink to that.

Finally, think really big. Warehouse big.

The Binghamton area, like many places throughout the U.S., is blessed with superhighways, railroads, and affordable land. There are plenty of places for more inland ports. As long as a region is within a three-hour drive of a major city, where shoppers are hungering for same-day delivery, it could be home to massive fulfillment centers. Failing malls, once the center of suburban life and now eyesores, could be converted to data centers. Or they could become places to store and ship goods for e-commerce.

Weather forecasters have all the available information, and yet they still sometimes end up caught in downpours. Americans can’t know what the future will hold, but we can still try to shape it with development that would generate jobs and drive innovation. There’s no reason the future can’t be bright, all across the fruited plain.

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