SocraticGadfly: Did #neoliberalism cause the fall of St. Louis?

March 31, 2016

Did #neoliberalism cause the fall of St. Louis?

So claims Brian Feldman, in a piece surprising in that he's a fellow of the New America Foundation, writing for Washington Monthly, both places that normally don't criticize deregulatory neoliberalism that much.

And, having lived in St. Louis off and on in a 15-year period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, I can also say he's wrong in a number of ways, while also noting he may be right in a way he refused to discuss. You have to scroll to the bottom for that.

First, he's wrong about Jay Gould's early 1880s monopoly of the Eads Bridge hurting St. Louis vs. Chicago. Chicago had already passed St. Louis in population in the early 1870s. Why? The transcontinental railroad ran through it, not St. Louis. Add that to its Lake Michigan shoreline, and especially with the rise of refrigerated shipping, middle American agricultural goods could get to Europe faster and cheaper via Chicago. Besides that, I'll bet I can find a monopolized bridge on the Union Pacific line of that era.

Second, he's wrong about the Miller-Tydings Act not only from what I understand but from what Wikipedia says under retail price maintenance. The fact that it was itself a carve-out from the Sherman Antitrust Act undercuts his whole scenario that deregulation has always been bad for Middle America cities.

He then ignores why Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Indiana, and above all, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, have done better.

Third, it ignores that the city of St. Louis arguably shot itself in the foot by legally separating from St. Louis County. This was not just a physical and legal issue.

Beyond the geographic boundaries, the city-county separation was psychological, for one thing. Kansas City had the option of doing the same and rejected it.

Fourth, other commenters there have good points about the freeways, about white flight issues which reflect St. Louis as a quasi-Southern city that, unlike Atlanta, didn't reinvent itself, and about specifics of development patterns, like building downtown too close to the river.

It also ignores the destructive effect that interstates had on St. Louis. Having build its downtown next to the riverfront, it saw the I-55/70 "canyon" separate the riverfront from downtown even as planning for the Arch was starting. It's a scar that still hasn't been fixed, in part because civic leaders took years and years to recognize it was a scar.

Between that and what I said above about Minneapolis etc., and the self-contradictions that undercuts the author's thesis (and I lived in St. Louis myself, 20-some years ago) no, St. Louis probably needs to look at itself more.

I can think of yet other issues, too. The ad agencies stuff? D'Arcy and Gardner could have decided to get bigger themselves. Find a white knight. Whatever.

The Square founders moving? Maybe St. Louis was too conservative or too dull. Maybe it lacked ethnic diversity outside of black-white — because it does. Again, some Midwestern cities, like MSP, are ahead of it on things like this.

The lost Fortune 500 companies? Not all were so retail related. General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas (disclosure: a relative works there) are both war-related. And GD wasn't acquired, it simply moved.

And, I wouldn't be the first person to say so, while I also wouldn't be the first person you expect, but not all neoliberal deregulation has been an unmixed evil. Airline deregulation did make flying more affordable.

So, no, I'm not buying Brian's thesis, and I"m well to the left of him politically, I'm sure.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the civic pride. I loved St. Louis when I lived there, and sadly saw a certain amount of his decline. But a fair chunk of its problems are self-inflicted.

Others? As other commenters noted, they're not due to deregulation, but free trade. St. Louis had its share of steel and other heavy industries at one time. And, of course, free trade is a hallmark of the neoliberal agenda, one conveniently ignored by Feldman.

Actually, no, not ignored. Deliberately rejected. In the extended-length kicker at the top, Feldman specifically rejects that idea.

And, I can show he's wrong.

In 1991, the New York Times wrote about multiple rounds of layoffs at "Mac," the Fenton Chrysler plant facing closure and more:
While it still has stable companies that employ thousands, like the Anheuser-Busch Companies, the Monsanto Company and Ralston Purina, and has a fast-growing health services field that has added 2,000 to 5,000 jobs annually since the mid-1980's, the metropolitan region still lost 17 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the 1980's, nearly triple the national loss. 
And this:
In 1979, more than 70,000 people were employed making cars here; one-third of those jobs disappeared in the next five years. By this spring, economists expect the number to be about 36,000.
"Free" trade produced plenty of job losses there.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch returned to this issue nearly 20 years later:
Between 1980 and 2005, St. Louis was one of 12 metropolitan areas that lost their status as "strongly specialized" in manufacturing. In plain English, that means we once had a higher concentration of factory jobs than the nation as a whole, and we now have a lower concentration. The U.S. lost 24 percent of its manufacturing jobs during the quarter-century that the study covers; St. Louis lost 34 percent.
There you go. 

But, people who go to Wash U, as it's known in St. Louis, are the type of people who normally only worry about the creative class, not the laboring class. In short, Feldman is seeing a select childhood slice of his city of origin through rose-colored glasses.

I saw the piece via Doug Henwood, who may not know St. Louis well enough to know the problems with the piece.

No comments: