The New Frontier: Economic Geography

For the past month I have been negotiating a new department and a new field: Economic Geography. Economic Geography is not Economics. It is much closer to Geography. And, yet, its literature is not unfamiliar.

For six years I have been trying to master the field of Economics. Economics is not my original field. That would be history. Nevertheless, like history, Economics affects a kind of agnosticism. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” as Joe Friday might say. Economic Geography, by contrast, bores down into a neighborhood, a city, a region and maps the relationships out of which it is composed, usually, but not always, with a socio-economic, political punch-line.

In Economics, I have approached this same terrain armed with a battery of models I have had to tweak to render them useful. What is the marginal utility of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, class? What I have found powerful about the Economic model — its capacity to display these fault lines — is downplayed in Economic Geography, because the fault lines are assumed (and, mostly, assumed to be bad). Which is to say that there is an assumed moral taxonomy playing in the background; playing much louder than in Economics. So, for example, in Economics students are interested in the marginal benefit wealth enjoys because the marginal cost in transportation time is so much higher than it is for employees further down on the income hierarchy. Employees living in the valley but working at SFO endure far lower absolute costs than CEOs who live five minutes from work. Is this a moral question? What does the model tell us? What does it conceal?

In Economic Geography, by contrast, it is wrong that employees travel so far. Disclosing the economic geography of a region is held to expose what is wrong. The models are unnecessary as are the historical and social contexts.

Oddly then there is a surprising lack of self-reflexivity not among the Economists, who are eager to learn about the history underwriting their categories, but among the Economic Geographers, who already know in advance where the truth lies. If economists are priests, economic geographers are prophets. I find this troubling.

At the same time, the object of teaching is illuminating enough of a terrain to let students negotiate it themselves; even to shed light on features I have not noticed. So I am ploughing ahead.