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No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.
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Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Josemaria Toscano/Shutterstock)

Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Josemaria Toscano/Shutterstock)

Portlandia is dying. I'm repeating myself. I'm not repeating myself. Claire Cain Miller stealing my thunder in the New York Times:

City dwelling is generally considered a good thing for the overall economy. Proximity and serendipity offer employers a better chance to hire the perfect person for a job as opposed to someone whose skills just sort of match, according to the work of Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Chance encounters in dense cities, Moretti has argued, lead to innovation, which subsequently leads to income. And as the baby boomers retire, the pressure is on the young and highly educated to spur urban economies. As a result, many American cities are remaking themselves to lure human capital, offering various perks, like cheap housing and tax breaks, in the hope that smart young people can attract others like them. The Greater Houston area has added more than a million residents since 2000, in large part through generous tax breaks and the growth of the energy sector. Las Vegas is in the middle of a privately funded $350 million project to transform its derelict downtown into a tech incubator. Parts of Detroit have more or less been turned over to the online-mortgage billionaire Dan Gilbert. Other cities like Austin, Tex.; Boulder, Colo.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Nashville have tried, in some way or other, to spark their own little Silicon Valleys.

Portland, meanwhile, has the opposite problem. It has more highly educated people than it knows what to do with. Portland is not a corporate town, as its neighbors Seattle and San Francisco have become. While there are employment opportunities in the outdoor-apparel business (Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear are all nearby) or the semiconductor industry (Intel has a large presence in Hillsboro), most workers have far fewer opportunities. According to Renn, personal income per capita in the city grew by a mere 31 percent between 2000 and 2012, slower than 42 other cities, including Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rochester. And yet people still keep showing up. “People move to New York to be in media or finance; they move to L.A. to be in show business,” Renn said. “People move to Portland to move to Portland.” Matthew Hale may have all the kombucha he can drink, but he doesn’t have a job.

Hale, who is 35, told me he is actively looking for work in the field of graphic design. In the meantime, he is getting by, he said, through various freelance gigs and his wife’s income as a barista. This is typical of many Portlanders. (I, too, am originally from there.) David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city. Portland, he discovered, is near the top of the list. Even when college-educated residents get jobs there, they earn 84 cents for the average dollar earned in other cities, according to Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, professors of urban studies at Portland State University. In 41 of the country’s 50 largest cities, young, educated people earn more than they do in Portland. “It’s a buyer’s market for labor,” Schrock says.

Let's start with Enrico Moretti and the two sentences I emphasized. Moretti's contribution to the Times article is the only reason I honed in on this passage. College-educated people bouncing off of each other in close proximity (i.e. density) equals innovation. That's great news for Portland. Stellar urban amenities draw talent from all over. They collide in Northwestern Oregon, creating ecotopia.

At the other end of the quoted passage, David Albouy rains on an already wet parade. (Disclosure: I've lived in the Pacific Northwest, not on the semi-arid side of the Cascades, and it isn't so rainy in winter as it is cloudy.) To live in glorious Portland, one sacrifices wages. Really, no big deal. Besides Olympia, Washington, I've also resided in Boulder, Colorado. Slackers abound.

The college educated agglomerate in quite a few places. Some places are Pittsburgh and others are Asheville (PDF). Not all brain gain is created equal. Sometimes, as is the case in Portland, brain gain is brain waste.

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.