When you wonder why this blog is such a downer to some readers, consider what I must read. For example, The Phoenix Business Journal last week published a story headlined, "Phoenix Cracks Forbes' Top 10 Potential Boom Cities." I am suspicious of these kind of lists, which can be shallow and misleading, although they are wildly popular. And Forbes is not exactly without an agenda. Still, I dutifully followed the link. Imagine my non-surprise when it turned out to be a post by Joel Kotkin, the four-square apologist for Sun Belt suburbia. He claimed to have crunched data to determine which "cities are best positioned to grow and prosper in the coming decade." Austin and Raleigh led the list. He goes on:
Our other two top ten, No. 9 Phoenix, Ariz., and No. 10 Orlando, Fla., have not done well in the recession, but both still have more jobs now than in 2000. Their demographics remain surprisingly robust. Despite some anti-immigrant agitation by local politicians, immigrants still seem to be flocking to both of these states. Known better as retirement havens, their ranks of children and families have surged over the past decade. Warm weather, pro-business environments and, most critically, a large supply of affordable housing should allow these regions to grow, if not in the overheated fashion of the past, at rates both steadier and more sustainable.
Thus enlightened, I set out on the due diligence and critical thinking that should be the basics of good journalism, but are seen as "negative" in booster culture.
Here are the facts. Metro Phoenix had 1.714 million non-farm payroll jobs as of May. This compares with 1.596 million jobs in 2000, an increase of about 7.4 percent. However, the total civilian labor force in the metro area increased 32.6 percent over the decade. Moreover, the Labor Department counts as employed "persons who did any work at all for pay or profit in the reference week" of the survey. Thus we have no sense of job quality. Are these full-time with benefits? Part-time without? We don't know. We do know Phoenix wages are typically lower than in peer cities. It's this kind of half-the-facts, Bob Robb-style polemic that is so damaging to any effort to ground Phoenicians in reality. Yes, Phoenix has more jobs than in 2000, but the real news is the shocking hole in the labor force.
Similarly, I don't see evidence of immigrants "flocking" to Phoenix after SB 1070. Much less are they high-skilled, highly educated immigrants. Metro Phoenix has a large Hispanic immigrant population. But within it is also the majority of the region's underclass, facing immense barriers to mobility, not least of which are those thrown up by the Kookocracy. How much of the family metric is based on these suffering families, rather than affluent white blonds in the outer-ring suburbs? Also, a major change in attitudes is happening, with young educated talent and empty-nest boomers choosing real central cities, not suburbia. Educated migration? Phoenix trails major cities in people over 25 with bachelor's degrees. The "pro-business" environment is subjective; most states with perceived high taxes and regulations do better economically than the red states, with the exception of oil-and-federal-largesse-rich Texas. While the data are limited, Phoenix has a low intensity rate of business formation for a city its size. And speaking of lists, Phoenix comes in at No. 88 in Forbes "Best Places for Business and Careers." Finally, "...most critically, a large supply of affordable housing..." There you go again. Living in the past.
Austin and Raleigh actually have economies based on something other than real estate, especially world-class technology clusters and universities. Real estate is a consequence of their real economies, not the driver. As for Phoenix, there are dreams of solar power and Amazon "fulfillment centers." I see little being done to actually recover the solar industry we let get away decades ago, whether in research, capital formation for new companies or aggressively going after manufacturing of solar components. There's mostly the same old "it's sunny here, so things will work out" mentality, now leavened with right-wing anti-government, "free market" superstition. Meanwhile, Germany and China have become leaders in renewable energy. Nor is there a serious push to make Phoenix a major logistics and distribution center (upgrading and re-opening the northern main rail line would be one such sign).
The big dream persists that a large supply of affordable housing is enough. And maybe Phoenix has one more boom in it before the roof finally collapses. But this assumes several things: 1) Migration will continue in a poorer nation, as the middle class loses its ability to retire with means or at all; 2) Migration will continue to such a large urban area with its attendant troubles; 3) Job creation will resume at decent wages, because no jobs, no house buyers aside from speculators; 4) Somehow the vast debt overhang from the housing bubble will ease; 5) Climate change will move slowly. Unfortunately the evidence is that none of these assumptions are happening. America faces some very hard days ahead as the president buys into the "austerity" national suicide pact and the House just voted to kill the measly $1 billion allocated to higher-speed rail. Places such as Phoenix, which brought so many liabilities to the dance, will suffer worst.
The smart move would be to focus on fixing what's already there and preparing to compete against the quality cities of the world. The last thing Phoenix needs is another "boom," which will only hasten it off the unsustainability cliff. All this knowledge makes me feel intellectually clean, if not "happy."