One. Nine. Zero.


Let me rephrase that – #190.  That’s the KC metro area’s rank among the 200 metros scoped out by Brookings in Global Metro Monitor 2011, their latest survey of job and economic growth.  For the record, we experienced year-over-year income growth of -0.6% and employment growth of -0.5% between 2010 and 2011.

Not that we were in undistinguished company by any means.  Among other American metros in the lowest eighth were Las Vegas and Indianapolis; even West Coast powerhouse San Francisco languished with Kansas City near the bottom of the stack.

But beyond city-by-city results, the overall picture is nothing short of startling.  Among the world’s 200 biggest metro economies, fully 90% of the fastest-growing metro areas were located outside North America and Western Europe.

Eight of the top 20, and eleven of the top 30 fastest-growing metros were in China.  This should surprise no one, given the economic history of the past 20 years.  But would you care to hazard a guess as to the nationality of the fourth-, sixth- and seventh-fastest growing metro economies?

You’re wrong.

They’re Turkish.

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, the reasons why.  For starters, there’s Mother Nature, and she was in one bad mood during 2011.  Among the bottom 37 metro performers, seven were Japanese cities, and even those literally hundreds of miles from the worst of the March earthquake and tsunami took economic body blows, though  spared the very worst as experienced by the nation’s northeast coast.

Political turbulence showed that human beings weren’t in a particularly upbeat mood in 2011, either.  Cairo, Naples and Madrid were in the bottom 10%, with Athens dead last at income growth of -4.8% and job growth of -3.5%.

But Atlanta, the land of Coke, Delta and Home Depot,  was free from both damaging seismic activity and large-scale rioting (the Occupy movement notwithstanding).  How can we account for their position at #189, one step better than Kansas City?  Des Moines (#172) has enjoyed not just low unemployment rates during the recession and the long march out, but the benefits of high commodity and farmland prices.

There are, perhaps two reasons immediately to hand to make sense of these kinds of results, and our own poor ranking.  First, though there are plenty of bright entrepreneurial sparks in and around Kansas City, we’re not the town that first comes to mind when thinking of free-wheeling capitalism a la Hong Kong or New York.

I was talking with Harvey Siegelman some years back when he held the post of Iowa State Economist, and he wasn’t shy about what he felt was one of the biggest issues facing his state – dyed-in-the-wool conservatism.  “Give an Iowan a million dollars and what will he do?”, he asked.  “Why, he’ll turn around and put it into Treasury bonds.” I’d argue that we’re not quite as conservative as our northern neighbors, but there is something to his lament in terms of how many of us Midwesterners view the highest uses of capital.

The second reason, I think, is something more complex.  There is still a long way to go.  We’re not staring into the abyss as we were back in September and October of 2008.  The economy continues to grow, and job markets are improving, though sluggishly.  But the Great Recession’s psychological impact is not going to fade anytime soon.  Caution is the watchword, whether it’s an employer waiting to see if a new hire makes sense for her company, or an employee surveying his career prospects and waiting to see if this is the time for a change.

Until both of these traits begin to change – the secular caution we learned from the crash of 2008 and the cultural caution many of us learned from our parents – we’re likely not going to be the kind of entrepreneurial city that we could be – or need to be.

For full results from Brookings, click here.


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