The newest issue of The Washington Monthly has an article by Brian Feldman which is devoted to St. Louis. The city is offered as a prime example of the forces that have been unleashed on Midwestern “rustbelt” cities, leaving them in various states of decline. So are the usual suspects put on parade: globalization and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs, and/or racial tensions? No way:
Experts often point to manufacturing decline, off-shoring, and racial strife to explain the relative economic weakness of St. Louis and other Rust Belt cities. But these ills hardly have afflicted St. Louis more than they have Chicago, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles—which all have mounted much stronger comebacks in recent decades. Yes, those other cities made the transition from manufacturing to services and technology. But a quarter century ago, St. Louis was already (and, to some extent, it still is) a hub of many of the post-industrial industries that have gone on to experience the fastest growth, from pharmaceuticals to finance to food processing.
Moreover, St. Louis had an abundance of what regional economic growth theorists such as Richard Florida, Edward Glaeser, and Enrico Moretti argue is the most important ingredient of success for post-industrial America: a large population of educated, professional, creative types who dream up the innovations that drive growth and profits (think software in Seattle and Silicon Valley, biotech in Boston, finance in New York and Charlotte). In 1980, 23 percent of adults living in the St. Louis area had completed four years of college or higher—double the national average and greater than that of economically “hot” cities like Dallas, Charlotte, and San Diego. Even more important, one out of every five residents worked in fields like finance, insurance, real estate, business, health, law, or medicine.
The relative decline of St. Louis—along with that of other similarly endowed heartland cities—is therefore not simply, or even primarily, a story of deindustrialization. The larger explanation involves how presidents and lawmakers in both parties, influenced by a handful of economists and legal scholars, quietly altered federal competition policies, antitrust laws, and enforcement measures over a period of thirty years. These changes, which enabled the same kind of predatory corporate behavior that took the Rams away from St. Louis, also robbed the metro area of a vibrant economy, and of hundreds of locally based companies. This economic uprooting, still all but unaddressed by today’s politicians or presidential candidates, accounts for much of the relative stagnation of other Middle American communities, and for much of the anger roiling voters this election cycle. …
If you’re interested in why the middle class is also in decline, read the whole piece – it not only outlines the history of St. Louis and its past prosperity, but also offers a succinct outline of the growth and decline of anti-trust legislation and enforcement. The conclusion? We’ve been set up and we’ve got to fight back.