The World Series starts tonight, pitting two classic franchises: The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The series will showcase both the best of baseball, and the worst. The best should be self-evident; the worst comes in the form of baseball’s economics. Teams in big markets tend to dominate. They make more money, and consequently can afford to pay the highest salaries for the best players. Teams in small markets sometimes break through with a corps of young, cheap, talented players but have trouble sustaining that success once those players hit the free agent market and sign for more money elsewhere. (See Royals, Kansas City.) In that way, this year’s World Series also highlights what’s wrong with the national economy. The nation’s economic growth is concentrated in a relative handful of metro areas, mostly on the two coasts.
Cities have always had a certain economic advantage over rural areas, but once there was at least some economic connection between the two. Now that connection is broken. The New York Times examined this last year by looking at San Francisco. Once, it was a city of shipyards and those shipyards bought their raw materials from smaller communities — lumber came from the forests of the Pacific Northwest, some engines came from as far away as Schenectady, New York. As San Francisco thrived, so did they. Today, San Francisco is essentially part of Silicon Valley. Google and other tech companies, though, don’t have a physical supply chain. Apple does, but many of its products are made overseas where labor is much cheaper. San Francisco’s economic relationship with the rest of the country has been severed. We may benefit from the gizmos and apps it produces, but that doesn’t translate into a supply chain of jobs in the hinterlands. Google might set up a data center somewhere, but it’s not assembling algorithms bought from digit factories in Martinsville. And it’s certainly not burning coal from Appalachia. San Francisco’s economic growth doesn’t necessarily benefit us.
The same principle applies to the two World Series cities. Boston is a health center whose medical advances we certainly benefit from. We watch the movies and television shows coming out of Los Angeles (perhaps, more technically, Hollywood). But their economic success doesn’t necessarily translate into jobs here. Economically speaking, communities outside the bicoastal metropolises are becoming more and more disconnected from their success. A study by The Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tries to craft bipartisan solutions, looked at a 20-year span of the American economy —from 1995 to 2015. Over those two decades, the nation as a whole saw the number of jobs increase. Yet two-thirds of the counties in the country lost jobs — as economic growth concentrated in a small slice of the country. We see this reflected in our politics: Hillary Clinton ran up big margins in places that were doing well economically — 62 percent in California, 60 percent in Massachusetts, the two states whose teams are represented in the World Series. In between those coastal enclaves, though, Donald Trump usually won. Given the economic trajectory of what’s often reduced to “the heartland,” is that really such a surprise?
The curious thing is why we hear so little about how to fix this widening economic gap. Trump seems solely focused on trying to “bring back” manufacturing jobs, which is largely a lost cause because many of those jobs are simply gone for good. Where is the attention on trying to build a new economy in those communities? At the state and local level, we hear both Democrats and Republicans talking about this — but at the federal level, Trump seems completely oblivious to the very voters who turned to him. Indeed, Trump’s first budget proposed to eliminate the agencies that deal most with helping building a new economy in rural areas — especially Appalachia.
We in Virginia are uniquely situated to observe this bifurcation of the economy. Northern Virginia — which increasingly controls state politics — is very much part of that prosperous bicoastal economy. Rural Virginia, though, may as well be in a completely different universe. A prominent Richmond lobbyist, August Wallmeyer, has written a book about this, “The Extremes of Virginia.” Former Gov. Gerald Baliles has called for a “Marshall Plan” to close the economic gap between “the two Virginias.” Will anything happen? We’ll see.
The problem (and therefore the solution) is threefold.
One part deals with infrastructure. Parts of rural Virginia have broadband speeds that creep along at Third World levels. The most recent State of the Internet report found that some parts of Virginia were slower than Bolivia and Namibia. Getting faster broadband to rural America is the modern equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s, but so far lacks an FDR-like executive push.
The second problem is the skill level of the rural workforce. The Virginia community college system has crunched the numbers and found this: If rural Virginia were a separate state, “it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels — dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees.” Meanwhile, the rest of Virginia would rank second in the country. In an economy where education matters more than ever, numbers like that are an economic death sentence. That’s why some states are moving toward making community college free. Notably, this push is often most evident in conservative states, such as Tennessee, that have come to see free community college as an economic development investment.
The third problem, though, is simply one of perception. Economic development officials tell us that many companies look for places that feel “familiar” to them. That’s great for us when the Deschutes Brewery decides Roanoke feels a lot like its hometown in Bend, Oregon. But it doesn’t help us lure technology companies from Silicon Valley. Loudoun County has become a hub for data centers, the computer nerve centers that make internet sites go. There’s no reason why a lot of those shouldn’t be in rural Virginia — except that many technology companies apparently can’t conceive of such a thing. Imagine what would happen if Trump, instead of using his Twitter account to spew insults, used it to jawbone tech executives into putting some of their operations in non-traditional communities? That’s something to think about as we watch this bicoastal World Series play out.