Oct 18, 2018

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1 big thing: A surprising new economic juggernaut
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Data: U.S. Census Bureau via Brookings, Opportunity Insights; Note: “Economic mobility” is measured as the average income percentile of children whose parents were in the lowest income quartile; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios

The newest U.S. economic hotspot is not in or near Silicon Valley, New York or any tech corridor, but in the northern Plains — specifically oil-infused North Dakota.

What's happening: This region, in the middle north of the country, has led the nation in a string of economic indicators since the financial crash, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution. And North Dakota is atop the bunch.

Why it matters: Commentators often refer to the middle of the U.S. as a single entity, like "middle America" or, more pejoratively, "flyover country." This makes the economic vitality of the northern Plains all the more striking, writes Axios' Harry Stevens.

  • As is clear in the map above, most working-age adults in the region have jobs. And people born into low-income households are moving into the middle class with greater ease than other Americans.
  • The top six metro areas in terms of upward mobility — defined as the average income of people with the poorest parents — are all in the northern Plains.

The region's prosperity has been driven in part by a massive expansion of shale oil and gas production in the Bakken region of North Dakota.

  • "Energy creates cyclical but significant job creation, small firm growth and consumer activity," Mark Muro, who co-authored the report, tells Axios.

The boom has driven North Dakota to the top of the economic indicators:

  • Its wage growth has been 2.3% a year, compared with 0.8% for the rest of the country.
  • 80.9% of the state's working-age population is working, second only to Minnesota at 81.1%.
  • GDP per capita in North Dakota rose at 3% a year, the fastest in the country; productivity grew at a sizzling 2.4% annual growth, while it was flat for the rest of the nation.
  • North Dakota also had the 10th-lowest poverty rate in the country, at 10.5%; Minnesota had the fourth lowest at 9.9%.

The other side: The boom has brought growing crime and environmental destruction.

  • "This economic prosperity has come with devastating social byproducts," says Richard Edwards, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. “We are paying a high, high price for such ‘prosperity.’”

Go deeper:

2. The coming Amazonian housing crunch

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Judging from Seattle's experience, Amazon's planned second headquarters could bring a housing crisis to the as-yet-unannounced city where it will be built, pushing up home prices by as much as 30%, according to a new analysis.

Why it matters: Amazon HQ2 will take up 8 million square feet, employ up to 50,000 people and cost some $5 billion. A footprint of that scale will strain any city's infrastructure and trigger economic impacts that will reverberate for decades, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

For a picture of how HQ2 will shake up housing markets, Mr. Cooper, a home loan and mortgage company, analyzed home price changes in Seattle after Amazon expanded its headquarters there in 2010. It says it attempted to isolate Amazon's influence from other factors — and the impact in Seattle hinted at what’s in store for Amazon’s second home.

Of the 20 finalists to host the new Amazon complex, Mr. Cooper looked at the 18 cities that had adequate data from which to draw conclusions:

  • Newark would see the greatest potential impact. Without Amazon, home prices there are expected to drop 5%. But with the behemoth in town, prices are projected to rise 28.5%.
  • Next in line are Raleigh and Phoenix, where housing prices would soar by 27.2% and 12.1%, respectively.
  • At the lower end of projected impacts are D.C. and Los Angeles, which would have 3.9% price hikes.
  • The lowest is Boston, whose prices would go up by 0.4%, per the analysis.

"Wherever Amazon goes, they're going to change that city landscape completely," says Alexander Lowry, a professor of financial analysis at Gordon College. Even in a city like Boston, where the report predicts only a slight price bump, the market is hot, he says.

Many of the bigger cities on Amazon's shortlist are already straining to provide affordable housing to residents, and the e-commerce giant moving in would shift the market further toward pricier homes, says Lowry.

  • "If you're lucky, and you've been there a long time, you can sell at a good price," but if you're a renter, you may be in trouble, he said.

But, but, but: Amazon has said it's determined not to do to its new home what it did to Seattle. By way of preparing HQ2 bids, "all of the cities have had to do some planning already," Lowry said. "Every city has some different problems, and they've all had to speak to those."

3. Every choice is wrong in this VR adventure

Christoph Hanger of the International Committee of the Red Cross prepares a virtual reality headset. Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

A haunting choose-your-own-adventure, set in a modest Syrian home and rendered in immersive virtual reality, is the latest product from a humanitarian organization desperate to remind the world of the harms of urban warfare.

Why it matters: Syria’s 7-year-long civil war has killed roughly half a million civilians, and it’s just one of many ongoing conflicts that are lost in the wash of daily headlines. With new storytelling formats, aid organizations hope to ignite empathy in faraway viewers — and perhaps stoke some generosity, reports Axios' Kaveh Waddell.

Details: The new VR experience comes from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a relief organization that works in war zones. It was funded by a $200,000 grant from Google, the company behind the Daydream VR platform the experience is built for.

The story is short — it takes only minutes to play through — but it stayed with me long after I removed a clunky white VR headset last week. The potentially upsetting experience is described here. If you’d rather see it yourself, it’s available for iOS and Android, but requires a Google Cardboard headset.

  • The viewer is in the center of a small family room at night. A father prepares tea on a stove while a mother sits reading with two daughters on the ground. Faint gunfire and explosions are heard outside.
  • All of a sudden, as the father passes in front of a window, he's shot through the shoulder. He falls to the ground, shirt blooming red, as his family gathers panicked around him. The action stops and the viewer is presented with a choice: run or hide.
  • Neither ends well. Choose to hide, as I did first, and gunmen soon burst into the house and point large assault rifles at the injured man, who has not yet crawled into the cupboard.
  • Having failed, the viewer can rewind and choose the alternative. In it, the family runs out of the house through the kitchen. Gunfire rings out and the two daughters return alone to huddle in the corner of the room.

"You're part of the decision-making process, but it doesn't matter what you do," says Christoph Hanger, a spokesperson for the ICRC. "There is no choice that's going to lead you in a good direction."

  • The organization's message: "When you have conflict, choices get reduced, and that strips dignity away from people."
  • The world inside the viewer drew me in so quickly that within seconds of starting the film, I kicked over a bottle of water I’d just placed on the ground.
  • The United Nations has been using VR for storytelling since 2015, but the ICRC says this film is the first interactive experience from a humanitarian organization.

What’s next: The ICRC will show the interactive film to people on the street in the U.S. and Europe to gauge its impact. The organization will also use it as an advocacy and fundraising tool, with plans to show it to U.K. parliamentarians to prod for action and donations.

4. Worthy of your time
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Data: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The unrepentant Eddie Lampert (Suzanne Kapner, Rachael Levy, Juliet Chung — WSJ)

Where Saudi Arabia fits in the global arms trade (Zach Basu — Axios)

How social democracy in Germany got lost (Tobias Buck — FT)

Students fighting hackers on college campuses (Erin Winick — MIT Tech Review)

Spain climbs past Japan in global life expectancy (Rob Picheta — CNN)

5. 1 fun thing: The pet costume boom

An old-timey pilot. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Why should trick-or-treating be just for humans? This year, some of the most creative costumes will be donned by dogs and cats.

The big picture: By the end of the month, 31 million Americans will spend $480 million on Halloween costumes for pets, reports MarketWatch. That's a sizable chunk of the $9 billion that the National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend on Halloween in total, Erica writes.

  • Spending on pet getups has more than doubled since 2010, when people dished out $220 million for costumes.
  • Millennials are the most likely to dress up their pets, per MarketWatch.
  • The most popular pet costume is a pumpkin, followed by hot dog, then bumblebee, according to the NRF.

Go deeper: The working dogs of Instagram