fiddled with

Economic base analysis

Economic base analysis was developed by Robert Murray Haig in his work on the Regional Plan of New York in 1928. Briefly, activities in an area divide into two categories – basic and non-basic. Basic industries are those exporting from the region; non-basic (or service) industries support basic industries. Because of data problems, it is not practical to study industry output and trade flows to and from a region. As an alternative, basic and non-basic concepts are operationalized using employment data.

The basic industries of the region are identified by comparing employment in the region to national norms. If the national norm for employment in, e.g. Egyptian woodwind manufacturing is five percent and the region’s employment is eight percent, then three percent of the region’s woodwind employment is basic. Once basic employment is identified, the outlook for basic employment is investigated sector by sector and projections made sector by sector. In turn, this permits the projection of total employment in the region. Typically the basic/non-basic employment ratio is about 1:1. Extending by manipulation of data and comparisons, conjectures may be made about population and income. This is a rough, serviceable procedure and it continues in use today. It has the advantage of being readily operationalized, fiddled with, and understandable. The formula for computing location quotients can be written as:

LQ = frac{e_i/e}{E_i/E}


e_i = Local employment in industry i

e = Total local employment

E_i = Reference area employment in industry i

E = Total reference area employment

It is assumed that the base year is identical in all of the above variables.

The figure showing location quotients uses data from Compare Minnesota: Profiles of Minnesota’s Economy and Population, 2002-2003. It uses the term location quotient, a number derived by comparing percent employment in a place (Minnesota) with percent employment nationwide. Minnesota has about the same percentage of high technology employment as does the nation. It has more medical devices employment than the national average (due to companies such as Medtronic).

Economic base ideas are easy to understand as are measures made of employment. For instance, it's common knowledge that the economy of Seattle, Washington is tied to aircraft manufacturing, Detroit, Michigan to automobiles, and Silicon Valley to high tech manufacturing. When the newspapers discuss the closing of military bases, they will say some thing like: "5,000 jobs at the base will be lost. That’s going to hit the economy hard because it means a loss of 10,000 jobs in the community."

To forecast, what’s mainly done is to compare the region with the nation and national trends. If the economic base of a region is in industries that are declining nationwide, then we have a problem. If our economic base is concentrated in sectors that are growing, then we are in good shape.

Methodologically, economic base analysis views the region as if it were a small nation and uses notions of relative and comparative advantage from international trade theory (Charles Tiebout 1963). In a sense the activity is macroeconomics “written small” (and it has not been of much interest to urban economists in recent years because it does not get at within-city relationships.) The analysis usually takes US growth patterns as a given. The fates of regions are determined by trends in the national economy.

Critique of the economic base concept

The economic base concept emerged in the 1920s, and the economic world was simpler in those times (it may not have been simpler, it’s thought of as having been simpler). The exporting (basic) activities were manufacturing and trade activities and they could be readily identified in the data series. One could think of changes in those activities as causing growth or decline.

Today, export activities purchase many services, and the comparative advantage of an area may well lie in the services it produces. Peter Drucker (1986) imagines a world dominated by trade in ideas and designs. There is little merchandise trade because technology permits small-scale manufacturing. Such a world would change our ideas of what’s basic.

The concept is that of a trading region. But in practice economic base concepts are often applied to areas that fit the concept. The Minnesota study, cited before, compared the Minnesota to the US. One can speak of the economic base of Saint Paul, Minneapolis, or Duluth, but to go on and compare such areas using economic base techniques isn’t very meaningful.

Forecasting is a precursor to actions, and there is no explicit way to get from the economic base to the kinds of actions most communities are interested in. That is, the economic base study doesn’t say what to do. Leaders say they want desirable economic activities, such as high tech ones. Indeed, we have seen studies of the transport needs of high tech industries, studies done prior to investments to attract such industries (for example in Pennsylvania). Again, the economic base study doesn’t say what to do.

Even if we could make what-to-do linkages, the calculus of “desirable” is not simple. We suppose that high pay, little environmental insult, upward mobility for workers, and stability or growth are among the attributes desired of new activities. The table below gives information on the pay attribute. Clearly, that attribute has to be traded off against other attributes.

Table: Average weekly earnings of production or non-supervisory workers on private non-farm payrolls by major industry, in current dollars
Industry Average weekly earnings (April 2003)
Mining: 774.58
Construction: 721.58
Manufacturing: 629.43
Transportation and public utilities: 670.32
Wholesale trade: 627.13
Retail trade: 296.80
Finance, insurance, and real estate: 611.90
Services: 507.43
Total private: 511.39


Quintero, James. 2007. Regional Economic Development: An Economic Base Study and Shift and Shares Analysis of Hays County, Texas. Applied Research Project. Texas State University.

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