In recent history, the United States has arguably never been so divided — but not in the way you might think. Yes, the country has been split by the culture wars, with their polarising focus on race and gender. But behind the scenes, another conflict has been brewing; shaped by the economics of class, it has created two Americas increasingly in conflict.
Even as vaccination increases across the United States and an end to the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic seems in sight, the economic, fiscal, political, and geographic fallout from the virus cannot be overstated: a massive public health crisis that left more than half a million Americans dead, an economic catastrophe that caused record unemployment and small-business closures, and a seismic political event that surely helped tip the presidential election. The pandemic will pass, and the economy will revive, as it is already doing. But in geographic terms, today’s Covid-precipitated crises may well prove to be the most transformative event that America has experienced since the great migration to the suburbs after World War II. After hitting record lows, mobility is up as a result of the pandemic. Between 14 million and 23 million Americans say that they are likely to move as a result of their ability to work remotely, according to research by economist Adam Ozimek. These geographic shifts are even more critical because they point in many directions and represent less a fundamental break with the past and more an acceleration of changes already under way in how we live and work.
America’s economic geography has long been shaped by the interplay of pull and push forces. On the one hand, centrifugal forces pull some people out of cities: families seek more affordable space, backyards, and access to better schools. With the wider scope of choice that remote work affords, some are casting their nets wider and moving farther afield, not just to suburbs but also to other cities, smaller metro areas, and even rural communities. On the other hand, centripetal forces remain that push other groups and activities toward urban centers. College-educated young people in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties have accounted for roughly half the revival of close-in urban neighborhoods (those located near a metro area’s central business district) over the past decade, according to research by Joe Cortright of City Observatory. They are likely to do so, perhaps even more profoundly, in the decade ahead, propelled in part by falling urban real-estate prices. Superstar cities may regain some of their former creativity as artists, musicians, writers, and the like, many uprooted by the pandemic, can once again afford to live in them.
It’s hard to predict how this will play out in the long run, but the pandemic has placed a new burden on all communities. Big cities, Sunbelt boomtowns, small urban regions, and rural areas alike must develop effective strategies for recovery in a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic hit superstar cities like New York and London first and hardest. With their central business districts turned into ghost towns, big cities have suffered a blow from which they will need years to rebound. New York’s midtown and Wall Street still remain noticeably empty. Broadway theaters are still shuttered. San Francisco’s office district, home to many leading tech companies, stands similarly empty.
Dense cities suffered the most total fatalities largely because, as globally connected places, they were hit by the virus in its first, deadliest phase. Time and research have shown, however, that they are not uniquely vulnerable. By the fall of 2020, the second wave of infections and death had spread out across the country to smaller states and rural communities. While large urban centers and big states still have the highest overall death tolls, more sparsely populated places overtook them on a per-capita basis, with North Dakota logging the nation’s highest Covid death rate in the fall. The danger lies not in density per se, but in overcrowding: the number of people per square foot, as opposed to square mile. (See “Problem: Overcrowding,” New York City: Reborn, 2021.) A kind of “exposure density” thus seems key to the spread of the virus.
Yet superstar cities are not about to disintegrate. Cities are more resilient than in the past. The swift distribution of vaccines makes urban comebacks more likely, and far more rapid, than those of ancient cities rising after eruptions of the plague. London recovered from cholera, and New York added 2 million people in the wake of the Spanish flu. Berlin survived Hitler, World War II, and a half-century of partition. New York roared back after 9/11. Large global cities are incredibly resilient places. (See “The Enduring City,” New York City: Reborn, 2021.)
But part of the exodus from New York and San Francisco is rooted in factors that will outlast the virus and that were already in play earlier. Both cities lost people before the pandemic, largely because of their increasing unaffordability. The rate of growth in America’s biggest and most expensive cities began to decline as early as 2015. The pandemic has worsened the new urban crisis of rampant gentrification, high living costs, and class and racial division—all sharply dramatized amid the wave of protests and riots in the summer of 2020.
Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.
Richard Florida is a professor at the University of Toronto and a senior fellow at Heartland Forward. Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, a senior fellow at Heartland Forward, and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
The Democratic Party has always been a loose confederation of outsiders — poor farmers, union members, populists, European immigrants and southern segregationists. As the actor Will Rogers said in 1924: “I am not a member of any organised political party. I am a Democrat.” Yet despite being unwieldy, it was often effective, and usually beat the more homogeneous country-club-led Republicans.
Today, the Democratic Party seems more united, still glowing in the aftermath of the defeat of Trump. But that is just an illusion: Joe Biden’s first hundred days in office are almost up — and the internal conflicts of his party are bound to surface soon.
These divisions are not petty, or merely personal, but based on demands from a number of incompatible constituencies and ideologies. Take the Democrats’s newest supporters: America’s tech oligarchs, Wall Street financiers and urban real estate speculators. They may act “woke” on issues surrounding gender, race and the environment. But such “virtue signalling” is no substitute for the drastic policies pushed by the party’s Left: the confiscation of vast wealth, the break-up of monopolies and the introduction of ever-higher taxes. Big business, after all, is the clear winner in the status quo that the Left, with good reason, despises.
But the impending Democratic civil war is more than, as some conservatives see it, a two-dimensional conflict between “the establishment and the radicals”. Largely ignored in this narrative is the most unappreciated, least articulate yet arguably the largest Democrat-voting bloc: middle and working-class moderates who make up roughly 50% of the party. These voters may often favour populist economics, but remain threatened by the cultural, economic and environmental policies pushed by the other two factions.
All of which leaves Biden in an unenviable position: if he seeks to placate both the corporate woke and the activist Left, the Democrats could sever their last connections with the vast majority of the country, and allow the GOP, even in the wake of the Trump disaster, to recover political momentum.
For what it’s worth, Biden has often been associated with this largely neglected group of what might be called FDR Democrats. His reputation as a moderate “reasonable guy” helped secure the votes of older Democrats, Independents and African-Americans in the recent election. In the primaries, it gave him an edge over both the radical Sanders, whose program frightened many older voters, and the candidates of the corporate elite, notably the well-financed former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. These voters may be fading in the numbers, but still constitute up to 44% of the total electorate, easily the largest identifiable class constituency.
Certainly, parts of Biden’s program — expanding health coverage as well as investments in basic infrastructure and manufacturing — could appeal to these voters, who are now generally supportive of an activist government. But Biden has also backed measures on cultural and environmental issues that are unlikely to win over the traditional working and middle classes. For example, fracking bans, already endorsed by Vice President Harris, could, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession.
Belying his regular guy image, Biden has also expressed support for programmes that would force suburban areas to densify. It is likely few suburbanites, the majority of all Americans, would welcome federal overseers deciding how their communities should be changed. Meanwhile, attempts to force residents out of their cars and into transit, something they were abandoning well before Covid, seems quixotic as well as politically stupid. The President’s Transportation Secretary has even suggested a tax on “vehicle miles” travelled, a measure almost calculated to alienate middle and working-class families outside a few dense urban cores.
Read the rest of this piece at Unherd.
Joel Kotkin is the author of 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. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Our national divide is usually cast in terms of ideology, race, climate, and gender. But it might be more accurate to see our national conflict as regional and riven by economic function. The schism is between two ways of making a living, one based in the incorporeal world of media and digital transactions, the other in the tangible world of making, growing, and using real things.
American politics is increasingly about dueling geographies. Democrats have become the party of the nation’s cities, while the Republican Party finds its base in rural, small town and low-density exurban America, places of less extreme class divisions than the big cities, but also with less diversity and a smaller share of the population.
Yet the political fulcrum of 2020 won’t be found in these competing universes — but in suburbia. Read more
In episode 3 of Feudal Future podcast, Joel Kotkin & Marshall Toplansky interview guest Li Sun about her research on China’s urbanization and globalization.
Like the rest of the country, although far less than New York, California is suffering through the Covid-19 crisis. But in California, the pandemic seems likely to give the state’s political and corporate elites a new license to increase their dominion while continuing to keep the middle and working classes down.
Perhaps nothing spells the triumph of California’s progressive oligarchy more than Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to off-load the state’s recovery strategy to a task force co-chaired by hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer. A recently failed presidential candidate, Steyer stands as a progressive funder. He is as zealous as he is rich. Steyer sometimes even found the policies adopted by climate-obsessed former governor Jerry Brown not extreme enough for his tastes. Read more
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.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed himself to look for ways of “unlocking the enormous potential” of the Central Valley, but in reality he seems more interested in slamming the door to its prosperity behind him.
In two critical moves the former San Francisco mayor has shown his incomprehension of how to address the needs of the vast California interior, particularly the over 6.5 million people in the 17 counties of the Central Valley.
Virtually everyone, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, is aware of the severity of California’s housing crisis. The bad news is that most proposals floating in Sacramento are likely to do very little to address our housing shortage.
Newsom has promised to have 3.5 million homes built over the next seven years to solve the problem. That is, conservatively stated, more than 2.6 million that would be built at the current rate of construction.