September 13, 2004


Hey, Guys, the Action's Down There (Joel Kotkin, September 12, 2004, Washington Post)

"The Great Divide" is the self-published -- and vigorously self-promoted -- brainchild of an eccentric 83-year-old Arizona billionaire businessman named John Sperling, founder of the for-profit University of Phoenix. It suggests that Sen. John Kerry can ace the election this fall by taking advantage of a growing conflict between what the book describes as a highly sophisticated, productive "metro" economy based largely in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and a troglodyte, parasitic "retro" economy located in the South and parts of the West and Southwest.

In the book's analysis, the famous Republican "red states" of 2000 are socially and culturally regressive and economically backward. Meanwhile, the Democratic blue states are the "economic engines" of America, the incubators of new industries and bastions of financial brilliance and global savvy. Kerry's challenge, Sperling and his three co-authors declare, is to convince voters in swing states such as Arizona, Colorado and the industrial Midwest that they should get hip by becoming more "metro" and less "retro."

Memo to Kerry: If only it were that easy.

There are lots of reasons why this analysis is wrongheaded. It's based on a significant misreading of many key economic indicators. And it doesn't recognize where Americans who aspire to upward mobility make their homes. But it's easy to see why it plays with the pro-Kerry crowd: In recent years, the Democratic Party has shifted away from its working- and middle-class roots to identify more and more with the rising elites of the information age. Yet this shift could cost it an election where economic issues may still prove decisive.

Look at Kerry's chief supporters and you see a new kind of elite, a veritable "hip-ocracy" of high-tech tycoons, Hollywood moguls and celebrities, and a bevy of Wall Street financiers. This group is bolstered by Americans with graduate degrees and a growing number of college and university faculty members.

These core Kerry constituencies, the technical and professional intelligentsia, increasingly show signs of seeing themselves as a new social elite, what urban guru Richard Florida has anointed as the nation's "creative class." Most make their homes in the peculiarly elitist economies of post-industrial metropolises such as greater Boston, Manhattan, San Francisco and the west side of Los Angeles, where the definition of middle class often comes with a million-dollar-plus mortgage, a PhD and, often enough, more than a few pence handed down from the parents. Kerry, a Yale graduate identified by Burke's Peerage as having more royal blood than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, educated in Swiss boarding schools and married to his second heiress, is an almost-too-perfect representative of this new class.

Bush, of course, isn't exactly from the wrong side of the tracks, and he has more than his share of corporate backers. But they're mostly from the more established business community. The Democratic elites see themselves as in
many ways smarter and much "hipper" than these good-old-boy business elites
of Dallas, Houston or Atlanta. Their collective self-image fits right into the retro/metro analysis.

But the assertion that the "retro" states represent the economic past is a vast, and dangerous, exaggeration. Wyoming and Mississippi may still be backward, but it's absurd to write off North Carolina, Georgia and Texas as technological laggards.

Forget whether the Blue state folks are smarter, more progressive, more affluent, blah, blah, blah, in political terms the only thing that matters is that the balance in the Electoral College is shifting from Blue to Red because the American population is shifting from Blue states to Red states. America's future is Retro.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2004 6:43 PM

'The Great Divide' also breaks down Red vs. Blue states in terms of the number of Nobel Prize winners who live in each group, a clear case of total irrelevence. The factors which caused twice as many Nobel Prize winners to live in one group, as do in the other, have nothing whatsoever to do with the book's central thesis, and are easily explained.

If John Sperling had submitted this nonsense in one of the classes at his own University, he would have been asked to revise it.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 13, 2004 7:59 PM

Being gifted with a intellegence and having common sense are not the same thing, although there are many in the first category who aren't smart enough to figure that out because they think they're too smart to learn anything from those they don't consider their equals.

Posted by: John at September 13, 2004 8:49 PM

Having read this a few times I have one concern. Blue staters are migrating to red states and transforming their politics. Californians (mostly from the Bay Area) have flocked to Reno, NV and it seems to be changing it into a blue metropolis, and possibly, a blue state. Is this a trend or an aberation?

Posted by: Pat H at September 13, 2004 10:20 PM

It's an aberration. Blue staters don't procreate.

Posted by: MB at September 13, 2004 10:38 PM

It's always entertaining when Californicans move to a place like Bozeman or Boise or Bend because of the "quality of life" and then immediately start to import the same politics and lifestyles they left behind. Then they complain as the quality of the schools deteriorates (for example) and the same social problems they wanted to leave behind follow them. They never consider that maybe if they wanted to live in Little Californica they maybe should have just stayed in the real thing.

As for Reno, in the 1980s, it was the Chanber of Commerce's goal was to make gambling (oops, gaming) the second largest employer in the county. It was then #1. I wonder if it they were successful and was it worth the price...

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 13, 2004 11:46 PM

>It's an aberration. Blue staters don't procreate.

Hard to conceive a kid:
1) When both penetrator and penetrated are of the same sex
2) Between the teeth
3) In the colon
4) When chemically restrung (via pill) to prevent ovulation or implantation
5) All of the above

Posted by: Ken at September 14, 2004 6:17 PM

Raoul, I work in the gaming industry. I moved from Reno to Seattle because the bottom was falling out of the industry there. I am almost certain it is no longer the number one industry in Reno. When I visit It feels more and more like a suburb of San Fran, but I still look forward to getting out of Seattle in about 13 years. Money up here is too good to return before then.

Posted by: Pat H at September 14, 2004 7:03 PM