All politics is local, they say. Given where Roanoke is — adjacent to Southside and Southwest Virginia, rural areas that are losing population even in good economic times— we’ve made it a point to look at the various plans of the presidential candidates to improve the nation’s rural economy.
So far, we haven’t been impressed. President Trump effectively has no plan, other than to hope that a strong national economy spills over into rural areas — a strategy that worked in previous economic eras but not this one. Instead, the economy is marked by what economists call “the great divergence” in which “superstar cities” prosper while rural areas do not. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have plans, but they don’t say much. Elizabeth Warren has a plan, too. It’s got some good ideas, but it’s also heavy on federal spending, and doesn’t say much about how to generate more private investment in rural communities, which is what they really need. That’s what makes the one we’re about to address so unusual. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has put out a plan that sounds like he actually knows what he’s talking about.
Buttigieg has generally gotten attention for being gay, for being a military veteran, for speaking seven languages. What’s gotten almost no attention, though, is what might be his most important attribute: He’s a former business consultant. Here is a Democrat who actually worked in the private sector — and it shows in his rural economic plan.
Make no mistake; he calls for lots of federal spending, too. But unlike Biden, Warren and Sanders, he’s much more focused on trying to grow the private sector. This is one of the upsides of having a small-city mayor run for president: He’s much closer to how economic development works than other candidates are.
Buttigieg’s plan runs for 14 pages with 39 different bullet points. Quantity is not the same as quality, of course, but it’s telling what his first point is. It’s about building “regional economic clusters.” This isn’t sexy but it’s significant —and substantive. Other candidates have a “one size fits all” strategy. Buttigieg recognizes, well, reality: There are lots of different regional economies. Economic developers talk in terms of “clusters” — what assets does one region have that it can build on? Buttigieg talks their language. Silicon Valley is a mega-cluster of technology companies. The Roanoke and New River valleys have a cluster of auto-related companies — that’s a cluster that can be grown. It doesn’t have a cluster of, say, shipbuilding. Buttigieg would spend $500 million to develop “a national network of 1,000 clusters.” It’s unclear what that money would go toward, but in name-checking the concept of clusters Buttigieg shows he knows a lot more about how the economy works than other contenders.
Here’s a telling statistic: Warren and Sanders never use the word “innovation” “or “innovator” or “innovative” in their rural plans. Biden uses them four times. Buttigieg uses them 16 times. Republicans who want to paint any Democratic nominee as a socialist would have a tough time with Buttigieg. Business communities around the country may not agree with Buttigieg on other issues, but they’d identify with his emphasis on private-sector growth.
As a model for his “regional innovation clusters,” Buttigieg cites . . . Virginia. Specifically, the GO Virginia economic development initiative – which directs a certain amount of state money to nine regional boards. GO Virginia remains very much a work in progress, but the underlying philosophy is that there isn’t a single state economy but rather a jumble of regional economies. Buttigieg wants to apply that model nationally.
It’s notable that Buttigieg wants to leave the decision on how to spend much of that money up to states and local governments. That kind of block-grant program is typically a Republican notion. Instead, Buttigieg’s plan says that “each region is uniquely qualified to determine how to spur both entrepreneurship and job growth.” He is a different sort of Democrat.
Buttigieg is also the only Democrat we’ve seen address the skills gap between rural America and the rest of the country. Curiously — and wrongly —Warren denies there is such a thing, another sign of her lack of understanding about how the economy really works. Reality check: The percentage of jobs that require only a high-school diplomas is shrinking and the percentage requiring credentials or a college degree is growing. That puts rural areas at a disadvantage. In Arlington, 74% of working-age adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. In Southwest and Southside Virginia, the figure is typically under 20% and sometimes in single digits. There are lots of reasons why technology jobs are clustering in “superstar” cities and not rural America; that’s one of them. Buttigieg vows to increase the number of rural Americans with a college degree by 25% in 10 years. That’s a fine goal that may or may not be achieved, but it’s more specific than other candidates have put forward.
Also notable: Other candidates promise free college tuition for all; Buttigieg doesn’t. Instead, he talks about using federal tuition assistance to get more students into community colleges, which he correctly points out would have the biggest impact in rural areas.
Another sign of Buttigieg’s depth of knowledge: Every candidate these days, Democrat or Republican, talks up rural broadband. The Trump administration is spending $20 billion. Other Democrats promise more. Buttigieg promises $80 billion, second only to Warren’s proposed $85 billion. We’re unimpressed by bidding wars; it’s easy to propose a bigger number. Here’s what catches our eye. Buttigieg is the only candidate to raise the prospect that rural access to broadband internet need not come through fiber. Instead, he points out that there are multiple private companies that want to provide that service by satellite. He promises to promote that. Again, promises are easy to make — but simply by making this one, Buttigieg shows he knows more about what’s happening than other candidates seem to.
There’s plenty missing from Buttigieg’s plan: How would he build a new economy in former coal-mining communities, for instance?
Still, in what he’s outlined so far, Buttigieg demonstrates a more sophisticated understanding of the rural economy than all the other candidates put together. Of course, cynics might also say that’s easy to do.