Abstract: From Backwater to Sunbelt: Boosters, Economists, and Policymakers and Regional Economic Development

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer


In most considerations of the Sunbelt/Rustbelt dynamic, scholars have described capital's flight from the Northeast and Midwest as instantaneous, natural, and even foreordained. Such narratives leave out the role of local boosters, policymakers, and economists in the transformation of the South and Southwest. In the early postwar period, local business groups began to construct "business climates" that stood squarely against the liberal vision for the South and Southwest. Boosters, who by and large controlled the regions' cities and towns, believed low taxes on business, anti-union ordinances, land giveaways, and other incentives would better guarantee prosperity. Though these policies were in part rooted in local businessmen's opposition to liberalism, boosters sought advice and assistance from economists, who worked at Federal Reserve branch banks, in economics departments, and small think tanks. These specialists produced numerous studies during the early postwar period that celebrated the decidedly anti-liberal business climate and thus helped draw attention to the lucrative opportunities in the proto-Sunbelt. These experts also counseled CEOs, who were often eager to move their operations outside the well-regulated and well-organized industrial core. In doing so, these economists, boosters, and local officials had a profound and early impact on economic policy and thought and played a crucial role in the dismantling of the New Deal order.