ARE WE HEADING FOR AN ECONOMIC CIVIL WAR?

Monday, November 9, 2015
By Paul Martin

by Joel Kotkin
NewGeography.com
11/08/2015

When we speak about the ever-expanding chasm that defines modern American politics, we usually focus on cultural issues such as gay marriage, race, or religion. But as often has been the case throughout our history, the biggest source of division may be largely economic.

Today we see a growing conflict between the economy that produces consumable, tangible goods and another economy, now ascendant, that deals largely in the intangible world of media, software, and entertainment. Like the old divide between the agrarian South and the industrial North before the Civil War, this threatens to become what President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, defined as an “irrepressible conflict.”

Other major economic divides—between capital and labor, Wall Street versus Main Street—defined politics for much of the 20th century. But today’s tangible-intangible divide is particularly tragic because it undermines America’s peculiar advantage in being a powerhouse in both the material and non-material worlds. No other large country can say that, certainly not China, Japan, or Germany, industrial powerhouses short on resources, while our closest cousins, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, remain, for the most part, dependent on commodity trade.

The China syndrome and the shape of the next slowdown

Over the past decade, the United States has enjoyed two parallel booms that combined to propel the economy out of recession. One was centered in places like Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City, and across much of the Great Plains. These areas were all located in the first states to emerge from the recession, and benefited massively from a gusher in energy jobs due largely to fracking.

At the same time, another part of the economy, centered in Silicon Valley as well as Seattle, Austin, and Raleigh/Durham, has also been booming. Though far more restricted than their counterparts in the “tangible” economy in terms of both geography and jobs, the tech/digital economy did not lag when it came to minting fortunes. By 2014, the media-tech sector accounted for six of the nation’swealthiest people. Perhaps more important, 12 of the nation’s 17 billionaires under 40 also hail from the tech sector.

Until China’s economy hit a wall this fall, these two sectors were humming along, maybe not enough to restore the economy to its ’90s trim robustly enough to improve conditions in many parts of the country. But as China begins to cut back on commodity purchases, many key raw material prices—copper and iron to oil and gas as well as food stuffs—have fallen precipitously, devastating many developing economies in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

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