The Growth Dilemma

More is more and more is also different
~
Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, 2005

For much of the last seventy years, economic growth has lifted the quality of life in Europe, North America, and East Asia, providing social stability after the violent disruptions of World War II. Today, however, many of the world’s most influential leaders, even in the United States, reject the very notion that societies should improve material wealth and boost incomes given what they believe are more important environmental or social equity concerns. Read more

Is America About to Suffer its Weimar Moment?

Is America about to suffer its Weimar moment, culminating in the collapse of its republican institutions? Our democracy may be far more rooted than that of Germany’s first republic, which fell in 1933 to Adolf Hitler, but there are disturbing similarities.

A polarizing would-be despot as national leader, rising anti-Semitism, an out-of-control upper bureaucracy, a politicized media and education systems, an economically stressed middle class, widespread dalliance with extremist ideologies and the rise of armed militant groups. America’s descent to authoritarianism is far from pre-ordained, but the reality remains that it could happen here, and perhaps already is.

As happened in Germany, we are seeing the collapse of any set of common beliefs among Americans. Before the first votes are case in 2020, “the majority of Americans already believe that we are two-thirds of the way to being on the edge of civil war. That to me is a very pessimistic place,” says Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

In Weimar Germany, the prospects of civil war were greater by far, as the institutions of the young Republic were never fully accepted by the old monarchist elites, the military, the industrialists or the far left, notably the Communists. In comparison, American institutions may be battered, but have more than 200 years of “street cred”; even far left politicians like the members of the socialist “squad” still try to wrap themselves in the American flag rather than wave their own symbol, as occurred in Germany, where Nazis waved the swastika and Communists their Die Rote Fahne.

Yet there are still disturbing parallels, for example in the often lenient treatment for violent protesters whether on the streets or on the campuses. When Bavarian judges gave Hitler a light sentence for his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, they treated treason against the republic as a minor offense. Nazism was particularly strong at the universities, which became a powerful base for the party, and supplier of its specialists, commanders and scientists. In Germany, as here, anti-republican sentiments were not confined to the “deplorables” but were also widely shared, as historian Frederic Spotts has detailed, by many painters, poets, filmmakers and sculptors—at least those not Jewish or openly communist. Many creatives were thrilled by Hitler’s dream that “blood and race will once more be the source of artistic intuition” as an inflation-devastated generation lost faith in the values of compromise, responsibility and justice. The parallels with the assault on free speech and discussion on our campuses are disturbing.

In America, too, respect for the main institutions of our society—corporations, banks, Congress, the presidency, religion, the media, academia—has declined over decades. Only 10 percent of Americans feel that the federal government is suited to meeting the challenges before it; 40 percent feel it is totally incapable, a percentage roughly twice that in 1970. These feelings are strongest, significantly, among the younger generation. Recent revelations about the Afghan conflict, and the military’s systematic lying about it, are not likely to boost confidence.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that respect for the basic folk ways of our republic has disappeared, even at the highest levels of society. President Trump, with his all-too-evident lack of knowledge of how the system works, is a classic authoritarian personality who identifies those who oppose him, like the media, as “enemies of the people.” Some fear that Trump is weaponizing the courts to go after opponents in the bureaucracy and the military, just as Hitler and other dictators once did. 

But if Trump is nauseating and dangerous, so too are his critics. From the moment of his election, a large part of the entrenched establishment—in the military, the court systems, the FBI and CIA as well as large parts of the old GOP establishment—have sought to violate their oaths so they can undermine his rule. Even the foreign policy establishment has been weaponized against the current administration to wage “war by other means” against a sitting President.

Despite claiming to be the protectors of “American values,” many progressive politicians now display their contempt for constitutional norms by calling for “packing” the Supreme Court, eliminating the electoral college and even overhauling the Senate to favor more populous urban states. Calls by leading Democrats for establishing “states of emergency,” particularly to address climate issues, eerily reprise similar practices towards the end of Weimar, which helped set up the logic for the Hitler dictatorship.

Read the rest of the piece at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for 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: Gage Skidmore via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

How Trump Can Win Again

By all rights, Donald Trump should be packing his bags and headed to the golf links and his favorite fast food restaurant. Never popular, he has done little to expand his base over the past three years. Unlike previous officeholders, many from more humble beginnings, he also demonstrably has failed to grow in the job.

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California Preening: Golden State on Path to High-Tech Feudalism

The Golden State is on a path to high-tech feudalism, but there’s still time to change course.

“We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” declared then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. “Not only can we lead California into the future . . . we can show the nation and the world how to get there.”

When a movie star who once played Hercules says so who’s to disagree? The idea of California as a model, of course, precedes the former governor’s tenure. Now the state’s anti-Trump resistance—in its zeal on matters concerning climate, technology, gender, or race—believes that it knows how to create a just, affluent, and enlightened society. “The future depends on us,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at his inauguration. “And we will seize this moment.”

In truth, the Golden State is becoming a semi-feudal kingdom, with the nation’s widest gap between middle and upper incomes—72 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 57 percent—and its highest poverty rate. Read more

The Middle Class Rebellion

We usually associate rebellions with the rise of the desperate. But increasingly we are seeing large protests in comparatively wealthy countries that are led not by working class sans-culottes or starving peasants, but what was once the stable middle class.

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Australia’s China Syndrome

Australia continues to benefit from China’s rise, though few countries are more threatened by its expanding power. Once closely tied to the British Commonwealth, and later to the United States, the Australian subcontinent, with only 24 million people, now relies on China for one-third of its trade—more than with Japan and the U.S. combined. Australia’s major economic sectors rely on Chinese support; investors poured in $17.4 billion in 2017.

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Mayors Won’t Rule the World

Earlier in this decade, cities—the bigger and denser the better—appeared as the planet’s geographic stars. According to Benjamin Barber, author of the 2013 book If Mayors Ruled the World, everyone would be better off if the ineffective, aging nation-state were replaced by rule from the most evolved urban areas. This, Barber argues, would provide the “building blocks” of global governance run by a “parliament of mayors.”

In reality, the validity of the “back to the city” meme was never as pronounced as its boosters believed. And now it seems, if anything, to be reversing—first demographically, then economically—as workers and key industries seek more affordable and congenial environments. Furthermore, many elite urban centers are diverging, sometimes radically, from national norms which produces a political conundrum. As big city politics shift ever further to the left, particularly on climate and “social justice” issues, not only are they becoming toxic to the middle class, they are becoming places many avoid rather than models that invite imitation.

The Demographic Evidence

In the 1990s, following decades marked by shrinking or stagnant city populations, major American cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston began, once again, to attract residents. But the big action was in the developing world. In China, the urbanization rate increased from 19 percent in 1979 to nearly 60 percent in 2018, according to Li Tie, president of the China Center for Urban Development. By 2020, Shanghai, the largest city will have quadrupled in size to 24 million over a half century, while Beijing will have grown by three times to 20 million. Even so, in both the Capital and the financial center has been outside the urban cores.

Read the rest of the piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for 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, will out from Encounter early next year. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Homepage photo credit: Scott Szarapka via Unsplash

Stomping on the Suburbs

Our way of life is a miracle for this kind of world, and … the danger lies in thinking that of it as ‘natural’ and likely to endure without a passionate determination on our part to preserve and defend it.”
— W.V. Aughterson, The Australian Way of Life, 1951

For generations, Australia has enjoyed among the highest living standards in the world. The “Australian dream”, embodied largely by owning a single-family home with a small backyard, included well over 70 per cent of households.

Today that dream is fading.

Those who are aged above 55, notes the Grattan Institute, still enjoy homeownership rates around 80 per cent but property ownership rates among 25-34-year-olds have dropped from more than 60 per cent in 1981 and to 45 per cent in 2016. Equally disturbing, new migrants, the lifeblood of an increasingly diverse country, have experienced a significant fall; skilled immigrants, for example, have seen their homeownership rate plunge just this decade from over 40 per cent to barely 25 per cent.

The obvious villain here is high-housing prices, that have risen twice as fast as incomes over the past four decades, a rate far higher than other high-income countries. Today, notes demographer Wendell Cox, “Sydney’s house prices, even after a recent readjustment, are higher, based on income, than any first world city besides Hong Kong; its housing costs eclipse great global cities like Los Angeles, New York, and London.”

Needlessly Pricey

To an outsider, Australia’s high housing prices are puzzling for a big country with relatively few people. Only 0.3 per cent of the country’s land is already urbanised compared to 6 per cent in the UK and 3 per cent in the US. To be sure, much is desert, as is the case in America as well, but huge swathes near both east and west coasts remain largely uninhabited.

Most Australians should feel free to dream but instead must struggle against regulations designed to force densification and curb “sprawl”.

Read the rest of this piece at The Daily Telegraph.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class,” will be out this spring.

Unsustainable California

The recent rash of fires, like the drought that preceded it, has sparked a new wave of pessimism about the state’s future. But the natural disasters have also obscured the fact the greatest challenge facing the state comes not from burning forests or lack of precipitation but from an increasingly dysfunctional society divided between a small but influential wealthy class and an ever-expanding poverty population.

We are not addressing either the human or natural challenge. Once the ultimate “can do” state, California is morphing into one that is profoundly “can’t do.” Neither right nor left seems to have any program to confront the state’s worsening malaise on issues ranging from housing, education and the economy to the care of the environment.

To be sure, the right is correct to lay some of the blame for fires on green policies that have restricted brush clearance, and have prevented the thinning of the state’s forests, a finding shared by the state’s Little Hoover Commission. But it’s been years since Republicans have been able to present a coherent program — not surprising since vanishingly few in the state listen to, much less follow, the conservative agenda.

For its part, the progressive left controls the debate, the academy, most of the media, but has few answers to the problems plaguing our state. For many, scare-mongering about climate change defines and justifies even the most economically ruinous actions; activists even blame the recent power outages on climate, though the primary cause was lack of investment and maintenance by the state-regulated electrical utility.

Blaming PG&E, President Trump, oil companies, housing developers, car commuters or manufacturers for our problems is no doubt emotionally satisfying to the zealots in Sacramento and their media allies. But despite all this sturm und drang, California’s emissions over the past decade have fallen less than 39 other states and are essentially irrelevant on a global level. Even if the United States adopted the Green New Deal, the impact on climate, notes some recent studies, would be almost infinitesimal. The big emissions increases are almost entirely coming from China and other the less developed countries.

California needs to rediscover its magic

The natural challenges we face are, in fact, not so dissimilar than those in the past. From its inception, California has always been an “unnatural” place for intense urban development. Its lack of water, particularly in the populated parts of the state, long has been an endemic problem; drought and fire a constant theme dating back generations.

The great achievement of the state was to employ innovative engineering solutions that brought massive water supplies from the Sierra range to the water-deficient Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley. Elaborate schemes brought electricity and power to the state, sometimes from as far as Utah. Where there was no natural port, one was carved out at San Pedro and Long Beach, now easily the largest entry port in North America.

It’s hard to believe any of this could be done today. Under progressive governors as well as conservative ones, we have done very little to improve our water systems, much less make it more resilient in the face of much feared climate shifts. We talk boldly about going “all electric” but close down emissions-free nuclear plants, shutter efficient gas facilities while refusing to expand hydro-electric systems. No state imports so much of its energy, notably from the enlightened nation of Saudi Arabia, just to keep the lights on — at great cost to both consumers as well as soon to be unemployed California energy workers.

Who loses in the new California?

The future, if Sacramento gets its way, likely will resemble Jerry Brown’s old “era of limits” on steroids. It will become more expensive to get around, even in electric cars that rely on what are already among the country’s highest rates, almost twice as high as competitors like Texas, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, electricity that is rightfully seen as often unreliable as well. Our ability to buy housing, particularly the family-friendly variety, will also be restricted by a planning regime that seeks to cram most into small apartments.

This future appeals to some predictable voices, like The New York Times and The Atlantic, which see the fires on the urban edge as a reason to pack more people into our already congested, unaffordable cities. But these observations fail to distinguish between the heavily wooded areas on the hilly fringes of the metropolis — which are indeed fire-prone — and largely flat expanses of rangeland adjacent to both the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin. If we don’t find safe places to build the kind of housing most people, notably families, need, our diminished housing choices will accelerate the rising tide of people and companies leaving the state.

These ruinous policies are not necessary. They are based largely on intense “virtue-signaling,” which might also provide the basis for Gavin Newsom’s eventual run for the White House. But he may consider what the rest of the country might think about the kind of bifurcated, dystopic society California now presents; it certainly did not help the failed presidential candidacy of Kamala Harris and was bad enough to keep the disaster that is L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti out of the presidential sweepstakes.

To be sure, not everyone is suffering from the state’s mismanagement. The oligarchal firms of Silicon Valley, their venture funders and some of their unicorn offspring continue to rack up billions. They plan to house their young employees in glorified dormitories until they decide to leave.

But the path for the rest of Californians is not so clear. Over the past decade, most California metros, notes Chapman University’s Marshall Toplansky, are creating, on a per capita basis, far fewer mid- and high-paid jobs than the rest of the country, particularly places like Dallas, Charlotte, Austin and Salt Lake City. Higher-paid industrial jobs, critical to the working class’s progress, have grown well below the national average over the past decade; last year it was fifth from the bottom among the states.

What lies ahead

This economic disparity in the state, not climate change, as Newsom and his allies insist, remains the biggest challenge facing California. As much or as quickly as it manifests itself, climate will impact every part of the country and the world. The compelling issue should be not how California can heroically address climate issues, but how to do so without engendering a truly unsustainable social transformation.

In terms of fire and drought, there are practical steps to be taken, including allowing more extensive elimination of dead trees and brush as well as building extensive fire breaks, particularly near transmission towers. Potential water shortages can be best addressed with more storage and water-catchment systems as well as conservation and desalinization.

California could choose to reduce emissions in ways that, as longtime environmentalist and author Ted Nordhaus says, eschew “utopian fantasies” and “make its peace with modernity and technology.” There are proven, less economically intrusive ways to reduce emissions without skewering the middle class and turning them into permanent renters, like expanding hydro-electric, nuclear and, most importantly, increasingly abundant natural gas in favor of ruinously expensive renewables.

But efficiency and saving the middle class are not priorities for Sacramento’s empowered bureaucracy. Every time regulators impose more restrictions on home construction and force electricity and water rates up, impacting factories, farms and households, they contribute to the outrage that this richest of states also suffers the country’s highest poverty rate, and hosts many of the country’s poorest metros. A huge percentage of the population — over one third of the population, according to the United Way — are barely making ends meet. California is also home to roughly half of the country’s homeless.

The consequences of staying on this course are far scarier, at least in the short term, than anything that can be ascribed reasonably to climate. Despite the good intentions of some, misplaced environmental policies are building a society — already evident — that will restrict the trajectory, in particular, of the young and minorities, who are faced a declining number of well-paying jobs and ultra-inflated rents and housing prices.

We need is policies whose prime goal is not making the already fabulously rich, like Tom Steyer, or ambitious politicians like Newsom, feel better about themselves. We require an approach that offers hope to middle- and working-class Californians by improving housing choices, expanding industry and jobs, particularly in the poorer areas. New sustainable, and cost-effective, water, power and transport infrastructure constitute a critical part of this solution, as is an education system that teaches skills and practical training for students rather than fashionable “woke” ideology.

If we don’t reverse course, this bifurcated social structure, exacerbated by state policies, threatens something far more unsettling than any natural disaster. A society torn by seemingly unbreachable divisions represents the greatest, and most pressing, sustainability challenge before us.

This piece first appeared on The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism,” will be out this spring.

Photo credit: Scott L via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Jews Could Swing the 2020 Election — and Why That’s Not a Good Thing

In our selfie-defined culture, it’s usually considered a good thing to get attention, the more the better. But it may not be the case for Jews, or for Israel, to be caught in the firestorm that is burning through American politics in ways not seen since the Second World War. “That Israel is becoming a wedge issue in American politics,” notes author Daniel Gordis, “ bodes very badly for Israel’s future security.”

Jews have been prominent in U.S. political life for generations but have never previously been considered a “wedge issue” as, for example, African Americans were in the past, or Latinos and Muslim Americans more recently. Yet, both sides of the political divide, along with each party’s Jewish allies, now seek to use the threat of rising anti-Semitism to either keep Jews inside the Democratic Party or pressure them to defect to the Republicans.

The 2020 presidential election is likely to make this all worse. As Republicans try to pry Jewish votes away from their traditional stronghold in the Democratic Party, they will emphasize the most divisive political issues that they wager are able to get people passionate enough to switch party loyalties—namely: Israel and anti-Semitism. This is most evident in the Orthodox community where support for Trump has manifested itself in awards to two Florida lawyers who are accused of being Rudy Giuliani’s alleged Ukrainian fixers.

At the same time, conservatives and Trump operatives point to rising anti-Israel sentiment on the left, as well as to signs of overt anti-Semitism becoming normalized in progressive politics even apart from the debate over Israel, as was the case with the former leadership of the Women’s March. For the people driving the wedge from the right, any Jews who don’t back Trump are “disloyal” to Israel and Jewish survival.

Read the rest of this piece at: Tablet Magazine.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism,” will be out this spring.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon via Flickr under CC 2.0License.