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Globalization's Winner-Take-All Economy

The Chicagos and Cincinnatis of the world are more vulnerable than they realize.

“If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.” 

This statement by Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and venture capitalist, unsurprisingly caused a stir, given that he made it in Chicago. Simon Kuper had made a similar observation in the Financial Times when he described how young Dutch up-and-comers had their sights set on London, not Amsterdam. “Many ambitious Dutch people no longer want to join the Dutch elite,” Kuper wrote. “They want to join the global elite.”

Populist movements in Europe and the United States have fueled talk of social and economic division, of a small class of winners at the top and a far larger group of increasingly disaffected lower-skilled workers at the bottom. This attitude seems to flow through to places as well, with global city winners like London and post-industrial losers like Flint, Mich.

Because these divides cleave along social class, educational and cultural lines, they are clear and easy to see. But there’s another -- less visible -- divide cutting across the seemingly monolithic group of the successful. This one separates those who are indisputably winners from those whose success is ambiguous, more qualified and more contingent. This difference is the one between the hedge fund principal, raking in wealth seemingly effortlessly, and the young adult struggling to pay urban rent despite possessing an excellent degree and professional employment. It’s the difference between New York and Cincinnati -- or even Chicago.

The same forces of globalization that  have pulled top Midwest talent into Chicago from below are also acting on the city from above, drawing its talent further up the global city hierarchy. The knowledge economy favors the college degreed over the less educated, but those with the highest and most differentiated skills are most favored, while those whose skills are second tier -- less perfectly in tune with the emerging economy -- are more vulnerable to competitive pressures.

It’s easy to see that the Flints of this world have struggled. Less visible are the stresses put on second-tier cities -- the Chicagos and Cincinnatis -- from a system that is disproportionately giving the greatest rewards to those at the very top of the hierarchy while threatening even the seemingly successful cities with being left behind.

Economist Richard Florida calls this phenomenon “winner-take-all urbanism.” It’s the superstar athlete or celebrity effect transposed into the urban world. Just as A-list stars earn far more than the merely famous, the top business talent and the top cities are reaping disproportionate riches over the merely prosperous.

This divide is harder to spot because the people and places involved are often superficially similar. The people in both possess university degrees. They share similar cultural norms, aspirations and politics. The places they live in all have their farm-to-table restaurants, tech startups, artisanal coffee roasters and bicycle commuter infrastructure. As with a sports team, they all wear the same uniform. But some are all-stars while others are role players who are more easily replaced.

When young workers or artists struggle to find an affordable apartment in a global capital, this isn’t just proof of a failure to deregulate housing development. It’s also a marketplace sending a powerful signal that their position among the winners of society is much more precarious than they might imagine. Most would agree that there are some businesses and people who shouldn’t be in New York or San Francisco. We shouldn’t expect a peanut butter spread of talent and economic activity across the country. The nature of the industries concentrated in these places produces a higher-end specialization. So there will be some economic value line below which it isn’t viable to be there.

There’s an argument to be made that building more housing to reduce rents can draw the line lower. But that still presumes a line. When aspirational millennials -- or even older people like me -- can’t afford the current rent, that’s a signal that they are near or below that line. In a time in which rewards seem to be skewed to the top, that should be worrisome to them personally, not just to the poor or working classes.

Similarly, cities that remain a notch below the top tier should be worried. Chicago’s financial crisis, population loss, violent crime spike and other problems suggest fundamental structural challenges facing the city. And if even Chicago is not fully achieving the global-city status it craves, shouldn’t other cities be worried?

Yet the leaders of these cities, and the ambiguously successful people who live in them, have tended to identify themselves as among the winners. They haven’t really grappled with the fact that the global economy puts them at risk. It’s not just people in Flint or Youngstown, Ohio, who are being buffeted by globalization. If these people and cities ever came to view themselves as at risk, they could become a powerful voice for reforming the system to be more equitable while retaining its fundamentally open character. They are the exact potential champions for change in a system that badly needs it so that we can broaden the pool of success.

Unfortunately, those among the ranks of the second-tier successful have instead sided with the global capitals and the global elite to defend the economic status quo, leaving the reform fight to the populists who prefer an overly closed system. They may yet discover to their chagrin that the very system they so vigorously supported will ultimately become their own undoing. 

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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