David Price interviews Enrico Moretti in Econ Focus, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (First Quarter 2019, pp. 18-23). From the intro to the interview: Geographic differences in economic well-being, it seems, have become increasingly salient in American policy and political conversation. These differences are a longtime concern of University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti. In his research, he has found that the sorting of highly educated Americans — and high-paying jobs requiring a lot of education — into certain communities has led to other communities falling behind. ... Moretti's interest in American geographical sorting began during his days as a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, where he arrived after his undergraduate education in his native Milan. At
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Geographic differences in economic well-being, it seems, have become increasingly salient in American policy and political conversation. These differences are a longtime concern of University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti. In his research, he has found that the sorting of highly educated Americans — and high-paying jobs requiring a lot of education — into certain communities has led to other communities falling behind. ... Moretti's interest in American geographical sorting began during his days as a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, where he arrived after his undergraduate education in his native Milan. At first, he just wanted to fill in some blanks in his knowledge of America. "I started looking at data from the U.S. census," he says. "Just out of curiosity, wanting to know more about this country, I started looking at the different city averages of whatever the census could measure — earnings, level of education of the workforce, the type of industry. I suspected there were big differences, but I didn't know how large the differences were."Here are some of Enrico's comments that particularly caught my eye, but there's much more at the interview itself. (Full disclosure: Enrico has been the current editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives for the last five years, which makes him my boss.)
The explosion of the internet, email, and cellphones democratizes the access to information. In the 1990s, people thought it would also make the place where the company is located or where workers live much less important. ...
But what we have seen over the past 25 years is that the opposite is true: Location has become more important than ever before, especially for highly educated workers. The types of jobs and careers that are available in some American cities are increasingly different from the ones available in other American cities.
There's nothing new in the fact that some areas are economically more dynamic than others and offer better labor market opportunities; that's always been the case. What is different today is how large the difference between the most successful labor markets and the least successful labor markets has become and how fast they are growing apart. It's a paradox because it is true that we can have access to a lot of information and communicate easily from everywhere in the world, but at the same time, location remains crucial for worker productivity and for economic success.
In the first three decades after World War II, manufacturing was the most important source of high-paying jobs in the United States. Manufacturing was geographically clustered, but the amount of clustering was limited. Over the past 30 years, manufacturing employment has declined, and the innovation sector has become a key source of good jobs. The innovation sector tends to be much more geographically clustered. Thus, in the past, having access to good jobs was not tied to a specific location as much as it is today. I expect the difference in wages, earnings, and household incomes across cities to continue growing at least for the foreseeable future. ...
[W]e see some agglomeration of traditional manufacturing firms, but when we compare it to agglomeration of firms in the innovation sector, the latter is much stronger. I have just finished a new project where I study how locating in a high-tech cluster improves the productivity and creativity of inventors. If you look at the major fields — computer science, semiconductor, biology, and chemistry — you see a concentration of inventors that is staggering. In computer science, the top 10 cities account for 70 percent of all the innovation, as measured by patents. For semiconductors, it's 79 percent. For biology and chemistry, it's 59 percent. This means that the top 10 cities generate the vast majority of innovation in each field. Importantly, the share of the top 10 cities has been increasing since 1971, indicating increased agglomeration. ...
Companies in industries that are very advanced and very specialized find it difficult to locate in areas where they would be isolated. Nobody wants to be the first to move to a city because they're going to have a hard time in finding the right type of specialized workers. And it's hard for workers with specialized skills to be first because they're going to have a hard time finding the right job. It's an equilibrium in which areas that have a large share of innovative employers and highly specialized workers tend to attract more of both. It is difficult for areas that don't have a large share of innovative employers and highly specialized workers to jump-start that process. Ultimately, that is what generates the divergence across cities. ...
In a new paper I just finished, I find that by concentrating geographically, high-tech firms and workers become more productive and more innovative, which has aggregate benefits for the national economy. In particular, if you take the current location of inventors in the United States, which is now very concentrated in a handful of locations, and you spread it across all cities, to the point where you equalize the number of inventors in each city, the U.S. aggregate production of innovation in the United States would decline by about 11 percent as measured by number of new patents. Thus, the concentration we observe in tech employment has drawbacks in the sense that it increases inequality across cities, but at the same time, it is good from the point of view of the overall production of innovation in the country. I see this as an equity-efficiency trade-off.