SKOL: Snow Days are Fun, Living in “The North”

I am one of those people who enjoyed the snow last Monday. I love Wintergreen, a store in Ely that celebrates Scandinavian heritage by making warm and beautiful coats. My daughter and I celebrated the mild weather Saturday with a big walk in Excelsior as the sun came up.

So I read with interest about a marketing campaign for Minnesota that was featured in The Wall Street Journal (Forget the Midwest. Minnesota Casts Itself as ‘the North’, January 21, 2018).

The subtitle sums up our challenge as a state:

It won’t help the Vikings but to solve its population problem, the state is branding itself as ‘the North’; ‘Sick of being this afterthought in this afterthought called the Midwest’

Eric Dayton, one of the Governor’s sons, has followed the family tradition of starting a retail clothing store and other entrepreneurial pursuits. He could live anywhere and do something else. Instead, he and other Minnesotans who chose to live here, and love winter, have been marketing an idea: instead of complaining about living here (stop already), let’s embrace it and promote the great things about four seasons, including winter.

The state is using the North to tackle an economic challenge: historically low unemployment and sluggish population growth. Employers complain that they can’t find the workers they need to fill jobs. The unemployment rate in the Minneapolis region stood at 2.4% in November. The state has an unemployment rate of 3.1%, a full percentage point lower than the national average.

The state’s population inched up 0.68% in 2016, while the Midwest region had a mere 0.15% uptick. By contrast, the Western U.S. grew 1.08% in 2016 and the South grew 1.06%.

Given that Minnesota will most likely lose the 8th Congressional District due to a steady loss in population, I think we better get on board with “the North” campaign. It may be too late, however, to reverse an almost 20-year trend of Minnesotans fleeing the state. Hard to say; we will be judged after the 2020 Census against the population growth in other states.

[There are only 435 members of Congress, and the districts are allotted based on state population.  The Reapportionment Act of 1929 established a method for reallocating seats among the states, given population shifts and the maximum of 435 representatives. The Apportionment Act of 1941 made the apportionment process self-executing after each decennial census. (Wiki)]

There is some reason for hope but only in long run. Our talented state demographer, Susan Brower, recently released an update on population growth; for the first time since 2002, Minnesota had more people from other states move to Minnesota than leave Minnesota. Our net positive domestic migration was up about 7,500 people in 2017.

But don’t get too excited. As noted by The Journal, Minnesota’s population grew much less than a percentage point; other states are beating us handily. But if it is the start of a new trend, that should be good news, right? It depends, and it is only part of the picture. What about culture and demographics?

Take a look at my favorite chart, Figure 4 from the state demographer’s office:

Anyone who reads me regularly knows I am fascinated by what happened in 2000 and for the last 15 years: why is all the net positive migration only from people born outside of the U.S. until last year? The refugee program, as reported, does account for all foreign migration. Perhaps chain migration, where immigrants and refugees sponsor their extended family and so on and so on, explains a lot of it. I do not know.

We also do not know who the 7,500 new residents are: “Domestic” just means they came from other states; they could have been born anywhere from Chicago, to Kiev, Kinshasa or Mogadishu. So, we know nothing about the productivity or skills of these domestic migrants, how many came here for work or just to join their families, but whatever their stories or citizenship status, so long as they are here legally, they officially count toward the 2020 Census.  (Illegals aliens get counted but not as a matter of law. But that is another story.)

Convincing people to move to Minnesota is “the most important work we can do in terms of growing our economy and staying competitive for the future,” said Michael Langley, chief executive of the regional economic development group Greater MSP and an executive board member of the Super Bowl host committee.

Cities across the country are trying to figure out ways to attract millennials. Embracing its cold reputation, and casting off caricatures of Minnesotans like the heavy northern accents in the 1996 movie “Fargo,” is key to attracting young talent, North advocates say. Instead, they want to emphasize wintertime sports like cross-country skiing, skijoring, curling and ice fishing.

What accent?

I admit I had to look up “skijoring.” That’s how we got across the lake or up the hill in our yard when I was a kid.

It is no mystery, however, why Minnesotans of all ages leave—or go to college and don’t come back. While the states that are growing reward success and attract wealth, we punish success and chase wealth and employers out the door with bad tax policies and a punitive regulatory environment. The K-12 curriculum in some schools like Edina, Hopkins, Minneapolis and St. Paul sounds like they are preparing students to be DFL activists, or perhaps street protesters, instead of preparing citizens for self-governance. Hey, “A was for Apple” when I was a kid. Now Ms. Anderson is telling children that “A is for Activism.”

Maybe Minnesota’s elite finally looked at the hard data and realized we will be fighting over seven Congressional seats instead of eight, and that if people from Minnesota do not stay here, you cannot fill those expensive taxpayer-funded stadiums, sell them anything–or tax them.  I think Eric Dayton, who presumably must make payroll, gets this.

Mr. Dayton, who is also the son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, is largely credited with starting the movement when in 2015 he advocated in a TED talk that Minnesotans embrace the cold.

“What if just as the Scandinavian countries have their own identity…what if we had our own region as the northern U.S. or to be concise, the North,” said Mr. Dayton in his TED talk.

There’s a winter festival, called The Great Northern; a summer festival, Northern Spark; Grow North MN, a group connecting agricultural entrepreneurs and the tech community has started calling the Twin Cities the start-up capital of the North.

Who knew? Saying we are the start-up capital of the North won’t make it true but I like the aspiration. (You can  read our Minnesota Economy Report here.)

Two final points: first, Midwest culture should be admired and emulated by the whole country (read John Lauck in Thinking Minnesota, Page 46, “The Case for Midwestern History.” ) but I love the idea of re-branding, noting that it can be done without rejecting our deep Midwestern roots—or embracing the whole Scandinavian/socialist thing.

Which gets me to my second point. The folks pushing the re-branding like R.T. Rybak and other Minnesota elite have contributed greatly to some of the state’s challenges by, ironically, forgetting their Midwestern ethic and roots, and embracing policies that would never have grown the diverse economy of Minnesota that we all benefit from to this day.

Snappy ad campaigns to get Minnesotans to embrace our inner Nordic, and attract people from other states, no matter how successful, are no match for the bad policies that have contributed to the state’s loss of population and wealth. As Mr. Langley noted, the competition for talent and wealth is fierce.

Maybe Eric Dayton, who seems like a great business guy, can talk to his Dad, and while he is at it, his Mom.