Schlegel sitting and smiling.

A wide-ranging tour through law and economy

Prof. John Henry Schlegel’s new book looks at Buffalo’s economic past and future

How can a city reinvent itself without getting stuck in nostalgia for its boom times of the 1950s?

Professor John Henry Schlegel takes up that question in thinking about Buffalo’s past and future—and by extension the larger economic trends that have shaped the U.S. economy—in a far-reaching new book.

While Waiting for Rain: Community Economy and Law in a Time of Change (University of Michigan Press) covers a wide range of law and economy topics, reviewing the nation’s economic history and looking at Buffalo as an example of­ how a city devastated by the loss of its manufacturing base might find a brighter future.

“I write first to explain to those who did not experience firsthand an America that I knew, and that I saw mostly disappear from the passing scene, how its economy came together and why it fell apart,” Schlegel writes in the book’s preface. “Second, I write for those who, sensing that something vital in our society has been lost, are trying to bring what they call ‘economic development’ to what were once vibrant areas dominated by steam transportation and heavy manufacturing.”

A conversation with the author reflects the reach of this ambitious project and the ideas behind it.

cover of book titled While Waiting for Rain.

Purchase the book "While Waiting for Rain: Community, Economy, and Law in a Time of Change" from University of Michigan Press.

You use Buffalo as a stand-in for the American economy in general, or at least that of the Rust Belt. What makes our city emblematic or representative of the national economy?

Buffalo is not emblematic, much less representative, of the American economy in general, but rather participated in a portion of that economy that was centered in mass manufacturing. This economy largely employed individuals who immigrated between our un-Civil War and the end of World War I. Eventually, their families became part of an expanded middle class that no longer was limited to white-collar workers. As such, their views became politically salient. This economy, one that I sometimes call the ’50s Economy, started to fade in the ’70s and has mostly disappeared, though it has left behind huge numbers of people.

This project was a long time in the making.  Did you have to rethink anything in light of Buffalo’s recent economic resurgence?

No. There is no question that there is more money sloshing around in pockets than 20-plus years ago when I started this project, and there is more residential construction, too. But construction jobs are highly cyclical, hardly the stuff on which a worker could build an approximation of the salaried work that identifies membership in the middle class. And there is very little evidence that the sound of money newly sloshing around can be found in lower-middle-class and lower-class communities. In fact, I see little resurgence other than in middle-class office work. Such employment is not particularly attractive to people who like to “work with their hands.”

You write, “Family and class are … among the most important values that have shaped this manuscript.” Can you elaborate on the role of family and social class in economic development?

Family and social class play little role in economic development. It is the other way around. Economy plays a serious role in family and social class development. Strong economies make it easier to build strong families, though hopefully not oppressive ones. Strong economies tend to increase the size of the middle classes and decrease the size of the lower class. Such is important because middle class membership increases political voice.

As a legal historian, what do you see as the most important legal underpinnings of the economic history you’ve written here?

First, the law of mine and thine—of contract, tort, property and crime. It is always silently at work, except as it drives crime reporting in the newspapers. Second, all of the state and local law that says local government “can’t”—can’t do things without running to Albany, can’t do things without engaging in endless legal folderol, without endless public meetings, without endless litigation. Third, the federal administrative state and occasionally its state relatives.

You cite the urbanist Jane Jacobs on the necessity of homegrown innovation as a key to prosperity. Why, in this era of web connections that transcend geography, is it so important that ideas arise from within the local community?

Capital is footloose, if not fancy-free. As Buffalo’s history shows, other-than-local capital makes decisions based on its needs, not ours. However, capital is less likely to abandon a place that it has a personal tie to, at least in the first generation or two. After two generations there is always the possibility that Buffalo will be seen as home base in the way that Minneapolis is the home of 3M.

What lessons do you draw from your research that might help guide Buffalo’s civic leaders as they look toward further economic growth in the future?

First, recognize that the City of Buffalo is no longer a plausible political unit because it no longer has a plausible economy. It cannot even support its own school system without massive state and federal aid. The City of Buffalo is but a part of the region also called Buffalo. It would probably be better off were it to give up its charter and revert to being a town. Second, when spending money, remember that there is a difference between community development and its cousin, economic development. Don’t confuse the two, especially for political purposes. Third, stop being afraid of each other. The pie is too small as it is. Welcome the chance to work with others on their ideas; they may just pay you back. Fourth, stop chasing rainbows; rather, put available money into streets, sewers, police, firefighters and sanitation workers, things that might both make the lives of present citizens better and make the place attractive to others whose ideas might bring jobs into the region.