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More Wealth In Fewer Cities: Why Inequality Divides America


There's been some debate in the current presidential campaign about tax breaks and 1 percenters, income inequality and Wall Street. But Phillip Longman, a demographer who's a senior editor at Washington Monthly and the policy director at the New America Foundation, says regional inequality now divides America. More wealth is concentrated in fewer U.S. cities. Phillip Longman, who's the author of the 2004 book "The Empty Cradle," joins us in our studios. And thanks so much for being with us.

PHILLIP LONGMAN: Wonderful to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What are some of the cities who've lost out?

LONGMAN: Well, that one's that most people would identify off the top of their heads are on the list, right, the big Rust Belt industrial cities like Cleveland, Detroit. But the part that most people don't understand is that even cities that think of themselves as booming, right, booming in population, booming in local GDP, have been falling farther and farther behind these elite coastal cities. So for example, Atlanta has lost out in relative income to New York City; so has Houston, so has Salt Lake City. These are not places that are decaying industrial ghost towns, right? These are booming places, and yet their standard of living is falling relative of that of these elite cities.

SIMON: You don't cite the usual bogey persons - to use a phrase maybe of our time. But for example, you say airline deregulation contributed to it.

LONGMAN: Yes. We now live in a world where depending on where you live your access to airline travel, your connectivity to the world economy, is drastically different. So in the '60s, if you lived in Memphis or Cincinnati or something, your air service was equivalent in price and in quality to what you would find in elite coastal cities like New York. But as a result of deregulation...

SIMON: Because it was fixed more or less per mile.

LONGMAN: Yes. The price was fixed by government, and the actual routes and frequency of service was dictated by government agencies. Today, you know, we live in a world where there's only four airlines left basically, right? And if you happen to live in a city that hasn't been completely monopolized so that there's only one airline then you might get really good air service. But if you live in a city where it is monopolized, then you're kind of out of luck. And what that means is if you want to have a corporate headquarters in your town - can't do that. Not so long ago, the Chiquita company that brings you Chiquita bananas, they just up and left Cincinnati. Their executives have to fly all over the world. They found that they could not get to anywhere in less than a day from Cincinnati because first of all you've got to change in Charlotte. So this is a major factor.

SIMON: And what are some of the effects of that that maybe we don't appreciate? I'm thinking of particularly, let's say, support for local institutions. They tend not to care what has a great symphony.

LONGMAN: Or the symphony, the little league, the junior league, all of that. And in St. Louis for years, Anheuser-Busch was headquartered in St. Louis. And the local philanthropies depended enormously on the executive C-suite of Anheuser-Busch and all the people that worked there that were invested in that community. Now Anheuser-Busch is owned by some Brazilians and the Brazilians don't look at St. Louis the same way as the local St. Louis people did.

SIMON: Yeah, and do you see any force interested in changing this?

LONGMAN: Well, it's quite an irony that the parts of the country that are the biggest losers under this are basically - it's flyover America. It was mostly red state America, right, which has a deep hostility to government generally. And part of the irony here is that it was government policy that brought those nether regions into the mainstream of the American economy and created the economic equality that we now miss so much. And irony's on the other side, too, because these - you know, who has done best under this era of deregulation? Well, it's deep blue elite cities that have done best under this, you know, post-Reagan world of deregulation.

SIMON: Phillip Longman - his article "Bloom And Bust" is in the current issue of Washington Monthly. Thanks so much being with us.

LONGMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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