Pandemics and Pandemonium

Minneapolis and urban centers across America are burning, most directly in response to the brutal killing of a black man by a white Minnesota police officer. But the rage ignited by the death of George Floyd is symptomatic of a profound sense of alienation that has been building for years among millions of poor, working class urbanites. The already diminished prospects facing such people have only been worsened by the unforeseen onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policies devised to combat it. Read more

Blue City Lockdowns Obscure COVID’s Root Causes

It will be months, likely years, before we understand how COVID-19 has reshaped our communities. Yet there is enough data, based on just the last three months, to get some notion of what areas and populations are most vulnerable.

The patterns are in many ways fairly clear. Media outlets, particularly those based in New York, seem to feel that the pain of the urban centers will be shared universally. The “science” as generally endorsed by our ruling Clerisy  dictates that we impose strong controls which, though perhaps necessary in New York and other places, have been disastrous in marginally unaffected rural and suburban areas.

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The New Geography of America, Post-Coronavirus

When there is a general change in conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed, and the whole world altered
Ibn Khaldun, 14th Century Arab historian

For a generation, a procession of pundits, public relations aces and speculators have promoted the notion that our future lay in dense — and politically deep-blue — urban centers, largely on the coasts. Just a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis,  suburbia’s future seemed perilous Read more

The Coronavirus Means Millennials Are More Screwed Than Ever

In the nearly eight years since I first described millennials as “the screwed generation,” things have only worsened for those born between 1982 and 2000—and the coronavirus is now accelerating that slide.

In the midst of a pandemic, millennials are twice as likely to be uninsured as Boomers (PDF). Despite their superior educational credentials, millennials on average earn wages that are 20 percent less than what Baby Boomers made at the same age. Millennials are far less likely to own homes than Boomers were, and those millennials with homes are far more likely to have rich parents.

Seniors may suffer a much higher risk from the virus, but, from an economic point of view, it’s the millennials getting screwed the most. In a new report, Data for Progress found that a staggering 52 percent of people under the age of 45 have lost a job, been put on leave, or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic, compared with 26 percent of people over the age of 45.

Some recent research suggests that the pandemic may impact this generation in terms of such things as mental and physical health, leading to shortened lifespans. Before the pandemic, about 8 percent of American teens (members of Generation Z) reported trying to kill themselves each year and about 70 percent suffered from loneliness. In 2020, these numbers will likely be higher, suggests an excellent analysis in The Atlantic. The young generations are already more likely to report poor mental health, per the American Psychological Association, and suicides among people ages 10-24 soared 56 percent from 2007 to 2017.

This reflects the pessimism felt by millennials, both here and globally, about their futures, with most not expecting to do better than their parents. Their dismal prospects are reflected in the lowest marriage rates in history and loathness to start families. Battered now by pestilence and its aftermath, they could well become what one conservative writer referred to as a “resentful generation.”

Particularly vulnerable are the two-thirds of Americans between 25 and 32 who lack a four-year college degree. In the past, these workers would have been employed in factories or worked in a small businesses, or even started one. You do not need a PhD to operate a donut shop, a gym or a hair salon.

But now factory work has declined as companies have shifted their production to China and other parts of the developing world. The Main Street option was fading even before the COVID lockdown, as evidenced in falling rates of business formation, particularly among the young. The share of GDP represented by small firms has dropped from 50 to 45 percent since the 1990s. The share of young firms in all industries has fallen in the last 40 years. Increasingly more industries have become dominated by large, superstar firms  with access to Wall Street capital.

But even educated youth now suffer consistently lower wages, notes Pew, than their counterparts from previous generations. Many young people, including some college graduates, are employed in low-wage industries such as hospitality, retail and restaurants, fields now suffering the largest share of the job losses. Even those still working often have little ability to control working conditions, terms of employment, or gain guarantees for health coverage.

Read the rest of this piece at Daily Beast.


Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

The Glory—and Risk—of Cities

The glory of cities is to serve as places of interaction between people and economies. Yet throughout history—from Roman times to the present—this advantage has also entailed exposure to deadly contagions. As Marc Riedl, a specialist in respiratory disease at UCLA, puts it: “Megacity life is an unprecedented insult to the immune system.” Today’s coronavirus pandemic reflects these patterns, concentrating, at least initially, in densely populated regions, such as Wuhan, Madrid, and around Milan. In the United States, the vast majority of cases to date are occurring in the densest, most globalized regions, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and, in particular, greater New York. Cases have been far less prevalent, so far, in the vast middle of the country—except for New Orleans and Detroit—and in rural areas, where people have less daily contact.

Yet density is not a death sentence. Taiwan and South Korea—which have denser cities—and Singapore, roughly the density of New York City, have largely avoided the worst of the outbreaks. In all three countries, health officials took decisive and early steps to control travel and identify those who might be susceptible to the disease. Some of this was based on experience from earlier contagions, such as SARS, and from a far more disciplined population and more effective, authoritative governance. From the beginning, notes MIT Technology Review, Singapore authorities worked to piece together the complex chain of transmission from one person to another. As of February, anyone entering a government or corporate building in Singapore had to provide contact details. South Korea also began aggressive testing early on and has administered at least a quarter-million tests.

By contrast, the U.S. and Europe have been slower to address the crisis, posing a significant threat to their cities. Europe’s fast-growing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s proudest accomplishments. Canada was also slow to act. It did not ban overseas travelers until mid-March; flights from China to Vancouver continued as late as March 15, reportedly without screening or testing.

As a result, we’re seeing in Europe and North America a shutdown of many urban essentials, including in dense and transit-dominated New York. To tell New Yorkers to avoid crowded subways—a legitimate concern—is also to take away one way that dense cities work. Mass-transit ridership, struggling throughout the country, has taken a huge hit during the crisis, leaving systems in perilous financial shape. In New York, despite efforts to keep the subway cars clean, ridership is down as much as 50 percent, as the lockdown has many commuters working from home. The massive transit subsidies in the federal stimulus could end up largely plugging holes from devastated budgets.

The pandemic raises issues that should have been confronted after earlier scares such as SARS, Ebola, and swine flu. Cities, historian William McNeill noted in his revealing Plagues and Peoples, have always struggled from being “unhealthy places.” To avoid the high rates of infectious disease in the tropics, the earliest cities generally were built in the dry areas of Mesopotamia, Egypt, northern India, and China, as well as in the Mediterranean basin. Even so, the great classical cities—Athens, Rome, and Alexandria—all suffered from periodic plagues that, in some cases, wiped out as much as half their population.

Trade, an essential element of cities, often triggered what McNeill described as “fateful encounters” with foreign pestilence. The rat-borne bubonic plague came to Europe on ships from the East, where the disease originated. It affected the cosmopolitan centers of Renaissance Italy—with their often crowded and filthy marketplaces—far more than the rural, backward reaches of Poland or other parts of central Europe. Those who could—like some contemporary wealthy New Yorkers fleeing to country homes—tried to avoid the contagion by holing up in rural redoubts, where the chances of infection, though not negligible, were generally less. Boccaccio’s Decameron relates 100 stories told by a coterie of elite Florentine youths who fled the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death.

Modernity brought its own health crises. Friedrich Engels speaks powerfully in The Condition of the Working Class in England of the squalid conditions endured by Britain’s mid-nineteenth-century urban poor. Mortality rates in London were three times higher than in the surrounding countryside, making the city dependent on constant demographic infusions from the hinterlands and Ireland. The urban proletariat suffered stunted lives, not only in terms of economics but also regarding their physical stature and longevity. Epidemics of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, typhus, smallpox, and tuberculosis were widespread, and crowded conditions, alcoholism, and mass prostitution contributed to a public-health nightmare.

Such maladies also became commonplace in America. Pollution of air and water was rampant—observers speak of the Ohio River in Cincinnati turning red with “rivers of blood” from slaughtered pigs. Residents of industrial cities like Pittsburgh suffered high rates of lung infection. Smog in southern California in the past created an environment so toxic that young children often had to be warned not to play outside.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Loozrboy via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

One Nation, Under Lockdown, Divided by Pandemic

The last thing this polarized Republic needs is, well, more polarization, but that is what we are contracting from the pandemic. Americans, irrespective of region, broadly want the same things, such as safety, a return to normalcy, and an end to dependence on China for medical supplies, but they differ in the depth of their experiences with the pandemic.

Rather than rallying the nation, COVID-19 has amplified every fissure in this society from class to race, but perhaps most of all regarding geography. This reflects, in large part, the different experiences felt in various localities and the differences in how economies function from region to region.

On one hand there is the New York City urban area, which has suffered roughly 40 percent of fatalities, and bore the brunt of the crisis. Places outside New York with the most deaths have been central cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, where the vast majority of deaths have been endured by African Americans living in crowded, low income districts.

In past circumstances (after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina), Americans responded with their customary generosity. New Yorkers, in particular, were seen as heroic, and for a short while Rudy Giuliani, hard as it is to believe now, was “America’s Mayor.” Not this time. Only a person just arrived from Mars would see New York Mayor Bill De Blasio as an inspiring figure, although his nemesis, Andrew Cuomo, has gained some national street cred.

The polarized reaction to the pandemic reflects already established patterns of partisan group-think, particularly in the dominant mainstream media. In early times a pandemic would inspire a surge of unity akin to 9/11 among Americans — even journalists. But the never-ending battle between bombastic narcissist Donald Trump and the equally self-indulgent media seemingly allows for no such genuflection to national interest.

Viral Geography

To the political divide, add a major geographic one. Huge parts of the country have been barely impacted by the virus but almost everywhere has been hit by the lockdowns and social distancing policies. Not surprisingly, extending lockdown orders seems far less compelling in places where the pandemic’s impact has, so far, been minimal.

This pattern of infection and fatalities almost completely parallels that of our political divides, with the generally GOP dominated countryside least impacted, the suburbs only somewhat so, and the big blue cities bearing the bulk of pain. By one estimate, states with Republican governors, mostly in the South, Intermountain West, and the Great Plains have suffered one-third the rate of fatalities seen in Democratic controlled states, which tend to be denser in their settlement patterns.

Read the rest of this piece at Daily Caller.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: screenshot from COVID-19 CSSE Dashboard Johns Hopkins.

The Coronavirus Means You May Have Seen Your Last Skyscraper, New York

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that “we are your future,” since “what happens to New York is going to wind up happening to California and Washington state and Illinois” and the New York Times has blared that “This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America,” the COVID-19 death rate in the United States appears to be more than twice as high in large urban counties Read more

Who Will Prosper After the Plague?

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to widen even further the growing class divides now found in virtually every major country. By disrupting smaller grassroots businesses while expanding the power of technologies used in the enforcement of government edicts, the virus could further empower both the tech oligarchs and the “expert” class leading the national response to the crisis. Read more

The Coronavirus is Changing the Future of Home, Work, and Life

The COVID-19 pandemic will be shaping how we live, work and learn about the world long after the last lockdown ends and toilet paper hoarding is done, accelerating shifts that were already underway including the dispersion of population out of the nation’s densest urban areas and the long-standing trend away from mass transit and office concentration towards flatter and often home-based employment. 

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The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States.

Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, for example, have occurred in Madrid while the Milan region, with its cosmopolitan population and economy, accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.

In the US, known cases and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Seattle area, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Gotham, with six percent of the US population, now accounts by itself for nearly half of the 18,000 cases in the country. Even the New York Times, a consistent booster for packing people into small spaces, now acknowledges that the city’s high densities are responsible for its much higher rate of infection even than relatively dense but far more dispersed areas like Los Angeles, which is equally diverse and global but still consists largely of single family houses.

In places like New York, crowded mass transit systems remain essential to many commuters, while suburban, exurban, and small-town residents get around in the sanctuary of their private cars. These patterns can be seen in a new report by the mid-American think tank Heartland Forward (where I am a senior fellow), which shows how relatively slight the impact has been outside of a few large urban centers on the coasts. Rural areas around the world have been largely spared, at least for now. The North American hinterlands, according to health professionals, benefit from less crowding and unwanted human contact.

Living in dispersion may not save you from contagion, but being away from people, driving around in your own car, and having neighbors you know, does have its advantages in times like these. Even the urban cognoscenti have figured this out—much as their Renaissance predecessors did during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, wealthy New Yorkers today are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the locals over depleted supplies of essentials.

Back to the Dark Ages?

In classical times, plagues devastated Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Along with barbarian invasions, they reduced the population of the Eternal City from 1.2 million at its height to barely 30,000 by the sixth century. Outside Europe, pandemics devastated cities such as Cairo, Canton, and Harbin. Following the conquest of the New World, the indigenous population suffered massive casualties from exposure to European diseases like smallpox.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Pavel Dvorak via Wikimedia under CC 1.0 License.