Every phase or epoch of capitalism has its own distinct geography, or what economic geographers call the “spatial fix” for the era. The physical character of the economy—the way land is used, the location of homes and businesses, the physical infrastructure that ties everything together—shapes consumption, production, and innovation. As the economy grows and evolves, so too must the landscape.
To a surprising degree, the causes of this crash are geographic in nature, and they point out a whole system of economic organization and growth that has reached its limit. Positioning the economy to grow strongly in the coming decades will require not just fiscal stimulus or industrial reform; it will require a new kind of geography as well, a new spatial fix for the next chapter of American economic history.
Suburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age—the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy. Henry Ford’s automobiles had been rolling off assembly lines since 1913, but “Fordism,” the combination of mass production and mass consumption to create national prosperity, didn’t emerge as a full-blown economic and social model until the 1930s and the advent of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
Before the Great Depression, only a minority of Americans owned a home. But in the 1930s and ’40s, government policies brought about longer-term mortgages, which lowered payments and enabled more people to buy a house. Fannie Mae was created to purchase those mortgages and lubricate the system. And of course the tax deduction on mortgage-interest payments (which had existed since 1913, when the federal income-tax system was created) privileged house purchases over other types of spending. Between 1940 and 1960, the homeownership rate rose from 44 percent to 62 percent.
Demand for houses was symbiotic with demand for cars, and both were helped along by federal highway construction, among other infrastructure projects that subsidized a new suburban lifestyle and in turn fueled demand for all manner of household goods. More recently, innovations in finance like adjustable-rate mortgages and securitized subprime loans expanded homeownership further and kept demand high. By 2004, a record 69.2 percent of American families owned their home.
For the generation that grew up during the Depression and was inclined to pinch pennies, policies that encouraged freer spending were sensible enough—they allowed the economy to grow faster. But as younger generations, weaned on credit, followed, and credit availability increased, the system got out of hand. Housing, meanwhile, became an ever-more-central part of the American Dream: for many people, as the recent housing bubble grew, owning a home came to represent not just an end in itself, but a means to financial independence.
On one level, the crisis has demonstrated what everyone has known for a long time: Americans have been living beyond their means, using illusory housing wealth and huge slugs of foreign capital to consume far more than we’ve produced. The crash surely signals the end to that; the adjustment, while painful, is necessary.
But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.
Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.
But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.