Portland Is Dying, Revisited

The City of Roses counts on the young and college educated migrating there. It shouldn't.
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The City of Roses counts on the young and college educated migrating there. It shouldn't.
Aerial view of central Portland. (PHOTO: DUBBAG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Aerial view of central Portland. (PHOTO: DUBBAG/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

"It's the birth rate, stupid." That's how I ended my last post. How could London be dying if its population is growing? I don't think London is dying. But many contend a place that loses more people than it gains is dying. We vote with our feet. Yet the last word on the subject is population change. Game over. Never mind the net outmigration. How about a declining labor force? Yep, Portland is dying:

The headline on a blog post in Pacific Standard magazine a couple months ago got my attention. It read: “Portland is dying.” ...

... It is true that the statistics Russell cites from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are tepid compared with the same series for Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue. Here, the labor force and employment have both surpassed their old highs, while unemployment, especially in Seattle, has plummeted.

But these statistics contain a good deal of what economists call “noisy data.” They can be unreliable and prone to cherry picking.

That’s one reason why Portland economist Joe Cortright, with the consulting firm Impresa, had this initial reaction to Russell’s post: “B.S.”

Emphasis added. I'm used to that. Unabashed civic boosters get all bent out of shape about the headline. The Rust Belt is dying:

Here's an idea for saving Rust Belt cities: Tell bloggers and radio stations to stop calling your town a basket case.

That was one suggestion from representatives of eight of the 10 cities labeled last year as America's fastest dying. They met at the Dayton Convention Center last weekend to swap ideas about how to halt the long skid that's turned cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., into shorthand for dystopia. ...

... Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. "That was 1969," said Ms. McCall, Cleveland's chief of governmental affairs. "Come on, I wasn't even born then."

Last year, Forbes.com used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of "America's Fastest Dying Cities." A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium.

Mr. Benkendorf, a 47-year-old Dayton resident, said he was angry the article ignored efforts by the cities to attract small businesses and entrepreneurs. He thinks these cities are poised for reinvention.

I imagine the Wall Street Journal scribe rolling his eyes and laughing while typing about the backlash against the label of "dying city." Putting on my geographer's hat, what qualifies as a dying city? Depending on which metric you use, many Texas metros are dying. Depending on which part of the city you look at, Chicago is dying. Geography is in the eye of the beholder, a function of perception.

Pittsburgh is dying. Like a stuck pig, Pittsburgh (or Akron, Ohio) bleeds residents. It's the birth rate, stupid. The labor force climbs to historical highs while the Steel City anchors the annual losers list. Joe Cortright to the rescue:

"I'm a talent-attraction expert," said Cortright. "I know that the quality of life in a city is very important in [the ability] to anchor talent to that city." ...

... "It's not enough to educate your young people; you also have to pay attention to talent," Cortright said. "You must build a community that makes them want to stay. That's a big challenge in the region because the most mobile tend to be the most entrepreneurial."

Cortright said "close-in neighborhoods are the key to keeping young talent. Young people are much more likely to choose to live in close-in neighborhoods."

The talent attraction expert tells us that "you must build a community that makes them want to stay." Great, save that making talent want to stay has nothing to do with attraction. And around we go. Thanks for nothing.

Portland's decline in labor force should be pause for thought. The same goes for labor force peak Pittsburgh. The talent attraction expert can't explain it save to say the data are noisy. All economic data are noisy. Economists and demographers have ways of making them talk coherently. Go ahead and test your impression of a place against the numbers. Social science!

I have a hypothesis about the labor force trends of Portland versus Pittsburgh. Portland is overly dependent upon talent attraction, a strength. Out of necessity, Pittsburgh is overly dependent upon talent production. Better to be overly dependent on talent production than talent attraction:

More than 13 years ago, The Oregonian's Bill Graves wrote a series detailing the fruits of North Carolina's extensive investment in higher education. He described the crucial role local universities played in the 30-year transition from a tobacco-dependent economy to a high-tech magnet.

"Unlike Oregon," Graves wrote, "North Carolina's leaders have long recognized a connection between a high-quality university system and their state's character, culture and prosperity."

The title of the Graves' series? "Majoring in Mediocrity." And, no, that didn't refer to higher ed in North Carolina.

In 2013, the Oregon University System is now married to that mediocrity, as the metrics in Coltrane's "Benchmarking" report make clear. The OUS share of the general fund has fallen in the last 24 years from 15.3 percent to 4.8 percent, notes Mary C. King, a professor of economics at Portland State.

That's B.S., cherry picking noisy data. One way to deal with statistical noise is to focus on trends. Next, ground the trends in qualitative data such as policy decisions. North Carolina went one way, Oregon went another. What were the results?

Portland is a talent magnet. Raleigh-Durham ain't half-bad, either. North Carolina invested heavily in higher education. Oregon did not. Make what you will of the above natural experiment.

Nobody was moving to Pittsburgh. A shrinking city wouldn't fill the freshman course seats in regional universities and colleges. To survive, admissions had to entice a silver spoon brat in New Jersey to go to school in hell with the lid taken off. Talk about talent attraction expertise. No streetcar required.

Portland counts on the young and college educated migrating there. It shouldn't. Red alert in Canada:

Canadians have long taken for granted that a constant stream of skilled foreign workers dream of the opportunity to immigrate here.

The country’s growth model is essentially built on that assumption.

But as the world economic order shuffles, so do the opportunities for mobile talent.

“They are not lining up,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets. “We’ve got to wake up to this realization.” ...

... Growing in this way has its risks — principally, that the supply of human capital will dry up.

That is just what is beginning to happen, as the shortcomings of the immigration system discourage foreign workers from settling in Canada. Instead, they are choosing to take advantage of meteoric economic growth in their home countries.

Emphasis added. Sound familiar, Portland? Domestically, the same thing is happening in the United States. More young adults are talking advantage of growing opportunities in their Rust Belt hometowns. Cortright's young and the restless are discovering new hot spots. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is getting younger and enjoying a net gain of migrants. It's Portland plus a Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh. Next year, Andrew Zimmerman will find another city to drool over. Pittsburgh will still have CMU and Pitt. Portland will still be located in a state that doesn't value investing in higher education.