Lessons from New England; at Their Convention in Boston, Democrats Should Ask Whether They Can Reinvent Themselves the Way the Region Has Reinvented Its Economy

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, July 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Lessons from New England; at Their Convention in Boston, Democrats Should Ask Whether They Can Reinvent Themselves the Way the Region Has Reinvented Its Economy


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

In some ways, the Democrats' selection of Boston for their convention couldn't have been worse. If you're trying to shed the liberal label--to appeal to the middle--then you wouldn't pick a famously liberal state, especially when it's your candidate's home. But in other ways, Boston is perfect. Not only is New England the crucible for some of the nation's proudest political ideals.

It has also experienced a spectacular economic renaissance. What New England has achieved economically is precisely what Democrats aspire to do politically.

Only 30 years ago New England seemed an economic relic. It was long on tradition and short on vitality. Abandoned shoe and textile factories abounded. From 1948 to 1973, these industries lost roughly two thirds of their jobs. In the 1970s New England's unemployment regularly exceeded the national average. "In 1980, Boston was a declining city in a middle-income metropolitan area in a cold state," writes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. Since 1920 it had lost 26 percent of its population. The whole region seemed quaint--and stagnant.

No more. In May, New England's unemployment rate was 4.8 percent; the national rate was 5.6 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reports more good news: in the first quarter, New England's exports rose 19 percent, compared with 13 percent for the nation. Real-estate markets are also booming, and not just around Boston. From 2001 to 2003 median home prices rose 34 percent in New Haven/Meridien, Conn. (to $225,000), 26 percent in Portland, Maine (to $199,000), 48 percent in Providence, R.I. (to $233,000) and 66 percent in Worcester, Mass. (to $253,000). Sure, there are qualifications. Urban and rural poverty remain. Low unemployment partly reflects an older population (older people have lower jobless rates).

Still, New England has reinvented itself and, significantly, has done so repeatedly. In the early 1700s, Boston was the largest colonial port. New England thrived by shipping fish, meat and wood products to the South and Caribbean. But by the early 1800s, New York was the leading port, and settlers were moving west to more fertile lands. So New England merchants and sailors shifted to whaling and adapted to the new geography of trade. More trade was going through New York, but "Boston shipyards were providing the boats, Boston merchants owned the ships and its sailors operated them," writes Glaeser.

More important, New England became the citadel of U.S. manufacturing. Economic historian Peter Temin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that in 1860 New England provided 75 percent of the nation's cotton textiles. …

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