THE PANDEMIC COULD end up being bad news for big coastal cities like Boston, which have enjoyed a decades-long boom as centers of the knowledge economy but whose future now seems less certain given their extraordinarily high cost of living and surge of interest in suburban living. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser unspooled some of that uncertainty on this week’s Codcast.
But it could be good news for smaller cities with footholds in the innovation economy — and, politically, it could help Democrats become competitive in more areas.
Those are some of the takeaways from a fascinating column in today’s New York Times by Thomas Edsall. Edsall regularly mines the world of data and current research, connecting the dots to spin out compelling narratives that point to the implications of big trends taking place right in front of our noses.
He cites a recent paper by urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin that lays out the potential winners in a post-pandemic landscape that sees high-cost big coastal cities take a hit.
“Any shift away from superstar cities may augur a long-overdue and much-needed geographic recalibration of America’s innovation economy. High-tech industries have come to be massively concentrated — some would say overconcentrated — in coastal elite cities and tech hubs. The San Francisco Bay Area and the Acela Corridor (spanning Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.) have accounted for about three-quarters of all venture-capital investment in high-tech start-ups,” they write.
That could ultimately temper the housing cost run-up in places like Boston, but it will come with hits to the city tax base and other challenges.
Meanwhile, Edsall points to work by Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden, whose pre-pandemic research already showed that in-migration to areas tends to result in more Democratic votes while counties seeing an outflow of residents tend to move more Republican.
For years, political demographers have observed that Democratic voters tend to be hyperconcentrated in urban areas, where their voting power is essentially overkill — delivering huge margins to Democratic candidates. That phenomenon explains why, for example, the share of votes nationally for Democratic House candidates is often greater than the share of seats Democrats hold in the House.
Rodden thinks the movement out of big cities spurred by the pandemic may have direct implications for that pattern.
“Democrats have been excessively concentrated in urban centers, which makes it difficult for them to transform their votes into commensurate legislative seats,” he told Edsall. “But as cities lose population, most of the growing suburban counties are either red counties that are trending purple, or purple counties that are trending blue, and very few are overwhelmingly Democratic.”
Glaeser is a big believer in the power — and allure — of face-to-face interaction and he thinks people will end up returning to workplaces “with a vengeance.” But he said the pandemic has certainly helped fuel the idea that such workplaces could be located anywhere that the highly mobile talent driving the innovation economy is interested in living. “They can do that from Austin, Texas. They can do that in Miami,” he said. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t think that a whole bunch of young startups won’t relocate from Silicon Valley to Vail or from Boston to someplace.”
If population realignment provides a potential silver lining to the pandemic for Democrats nationally, it may create big challenges for long-booming coastal cities. New York City and Boston, two big winners in the soaring knowledge economy of recent decades, are both poised to elect new mayors this year. The victors may have their work cut out for them.