Op-Ed

What’s at Stake for Pittsburgh? The G-20 Should Focus on What’s Good for Cities

Bruce Katz

There’s been a lot of talk of Pittsburgh’s “new economy” as a key reason for the city’s star turn as host of this week’s G-20 summit, but little has been said about the region’s “next economy” — what comes after the current slump.

It’s beginning to be created under our noses.

Though seemingly abstract, the G-20’s big-picture decisions — on dialing down the extraordinary fiscal and monetary steps taken in the past year, building a new regulatory architecture for global finance, and starting the process towards a more balanced global economy and sustainable future — have big implications for metropolitan areas.

Pittsburgh’s stake in the G-20 deliberations goes beyond filling up local hotels and restaurants or hiring additional police — and even beyond showcasing the region’s resilience to the recession.

The fact is that Pittsburgh already is a global metropolis, with deep and growing ties to many of the G-20 countries because of its position as a supplier to the global steel industry (and still a maker of some types of steel), its burgeoning involvement in clean-energy sectors and its established position as a global center of education and health care.

Bayer, the German pharmaceutical conglomerate, has its U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh, employing some 2,700 workers, including 1,200 at local medical-device manufacturer Medrad. Gamesa, the Spanish wind-energy giant, opened its first North American plant in Ebensburg, about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh. All told, more than 300 international firms from 26 different countries operate in the region, employing tens of thousands of people.

Pittsburgh’s goods and services exports make up more than 14 percent of the region’s gross metropolitan product, with the lion’s share of goods headed to Canada, China, Japan and major economies in Europe — all G-20 partners.

Given Pittsburgh’s global status, the G-20 discussions have substantial implications for the future of the region’s $100 billion economy.

The big question, at this summit and others in the future, is how to rebalance the global economy. The Great Recession followed a period of excessive consumption in the United States as Americans spent more on homes and consumer goods than they produced.

The fix is easy to state, but difficult to engineer. As Larry Summers, the head of the White House National Economic Council, said recently, “The rebuilt American economy must be more export-oriented and less consumption-oriented.”

This rebalancing will require major and sustained action on currency values and trade policy in the United States as well as in large export economies like China, Germany and Japan (which will need to consume more). As this occurs, U.S. metro areas like Pittsburgh could benefit substantially given their unique assets and special niches.

While this won’t quite be a 21st-century version of the equation “what Pittsburgh makes, the world takes,” the combination of a more export-oriented trade policy and higher costs for carbon emissions (also to be discussed at the G-20 summit) present the region’s economy with both opportunities and threats.

On the plus side, Pittsburgh could export more to the rest of the world and its steel-industry suppliers could benefit from increased exports by U.S. steelmakers. Higher prices for gasoline and jet fuel could mean that manufacturers and retailers in the United States would move away from far-flung networks of global suppliers and rely more on U.S. companies.

There is a potential downside for Pittsburgh, as well: for instance, as steelmakers in Germany and other countries export less and face higher costs of using U.S.-based suppliers, they might rely less on machinery and repair services from Pittsburgh.

To help ensure that the benefits of a rebalanced U.S. economy and a new climate regime outweigh the costs to the Pittsburgh area, local corporate, labor, political, university and civic leaders need a sharp regional business plan to guide the economic policies and innovation investments that they and the federal and state governments make in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh will have to continue to reclaim polluted industrial “brown fields” for post-industrial use — an example for cities around the country and world.

Pittsburgh also will need to figure out how to draw more international traffic to its metropolitan airport, which currently offers only one direct flight to Europe.

The upshot: It is time for U.S. metropolitan regions to become more globally fluent and for national leaders to connect their big-picture policies to the fortunes of the urban areas that drive their economies. Only in this way can the United States, and Pittsburgh, move to the next stage of their economic evolution.

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