What Happened to St. Louis

We have a great feature in our new March/April/May 2016 issue. Brian Feldman, a researcher-reporter with the New America Foundation’s Open Markets Program, has done a deep dive into the history of St. Louis’s economy and the explanations for the city’s current struggles.

It is widely known that St. Louis just lost its NFL team. It’s actually the second time this has happened. The Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. Now the Rams have returned to Los Angeles where they will resume play next season after a two-decade hiatus. The Ram’s owner explained his decision in a 26-page article that said “Compared to other cities, St. Louis lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an N.F.L. franchise.”

As Feldman explains, it didn’t used to be this way. For most of the 20th-Century, St. Louis was a leader in many fields, including advertising, public relations, food processing, engineering and aviation. Its fall from grace isn’t a simple story of deindustrialization, especially because St. Louis excelled in many of the service sectors that make up the modern economy. It also had one of best educated populations in the country, attractive cultural institutions, and a professional “creative class” that should have helped it weather the globalization storm.

The explanation for the city’s struggles may surprise you:

The relative decline of St. Louis—along with that of other similarly endowed heartland cities—is therefore not simply, or even primarily, a story of deindustrialization. The larger explanation involves how presidents and lawmakers in both parties, influenced by a handful of economists and legal scholars, quietly altered federal competition policies antitrust laws, and enforcement measures over a period of thirty years. These changes, which enabled the same kind of predatory corporate behavior that took the Rams away from St. Louis, also robbed the metro area of a vibrant economy, and of hundreds of locally based companies. This economic uprooting, still all but unaddressed by today’s politicians or presidential candidates, accounts for much of the relative stagnation of other middle American communities, and for much of the anger roiling voters this election cycle. The rise and fall of St. Louis’s advertising industry stands as a cautionary tale for what ails so many of the once vigorous and innovative cities of “flyover” America.

This article is important for a variety of reasons. It’s obviously of interest to people who live in St. Louis or its metropolitan area. It also explains how political decisions have overturned antitrust laws, and how this has hollowed out once vibrant communities in the heartland and Rust Belt. Finally, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle that helps us understand the current political climate.

As a piece of reporting, it’s a real accomplishment. Make sure to read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.