All politics is local, they say. Given where Roanoke is — adjacent to Southside and Southwest Virginia, rural areas that are losing population even in good economic times — we’ve made it a point to look at the various plans of the presidential candidates to improve the nation’s rural economy.
So far, we haven’t been impressed. President Trump effectively has no plan, other than to hope that a strong national economy spills over into rural areas — a strategy that worked in previous economic eras but not this one. Instead, the economy is marked by what economists call “the great divergence” in which “superstar cities” prosper while rural areas do not. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have plans, but they don’t say much. Elizabeth Warren has a plan, too. It’s got some good ideas, but it’s also heavy on federal spending and doesn’t say much about how to generate more private investment in rural communities, which is what they really need. That’s what makes the one we’re about to address so unusual. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has put out a plan that sounds like he actually knows what he’s talking about.
Make no mistake; he calls for lots of federal spending. But unlike Biden, Warren and Sanders, he’s much more focused on trying to grow the private sector. This is one of the upsides of having a small-city mayor run for president: He’s much closer to how economic development works than other candidates are.
Other candidates have a “one size fits all” strategy. Buttigieg recognizes, well, reality: There are lots of different regional economies. Economic developers talk in terms of “clusters” — what assets does one region have that it can build on? Buttigieg talks their language. Silicon Valley is a mega-cluster of technology companies. The Roanoke and New River valleys have a cluster of auto-related companies — that’s a cluster that can be grown. It doesn’t have a cluster of, say, shipbuilding. Buttigieg would spend $500 million to develop “a national network of 1,000 clusters.” It’s unclear what that money would go toward, but in name-checking the concept of clusters Buttigieg shows he knows a lot more about how the economy works than other contenders.
Republicans who want to paint any Democratic nominee as a socialist would have a tough time with Buttigieg. Business communities around the country may not agree with Buttigieg on other issues, but they’d identify with his emphasis on private-sector growth.
As a model for his “regional innovation clusters,” Buttigieg cites … Virginia. Specifically, the GO Virginia economic development initiative, which directs a certain amount of state money to nine regional boards. GO Virginia remains very much a work-in-progress, but the underlying philosophy is that there isn’t a single state economy but rather a jumble of regional economies. Buttigieg wants to apply that model nationally.
It’s notable that Buttigieg wants to leave the decision on how to spend much of that money up to states and local governments. That kind of block-grant program is typically a Republican notion. Instead, Buttigieg’s plan says that “each region is uniquely qualified to determine how to spur both entrepreneurship and job growth.” He is a different sort of Democrat.