The Death of the American City

When my grandparents migrated to New York from Russia over a century ago, they found a city that was hardly paradise, but one that provided a pathway towards a better life. Life was tough, crowded and always a paycheck from poverty. My relatives were poor, but so was everyone; eventually, they all bought houses or apartments, and entered the middle class. As for crime in their native Brownsville, the home of Murder, Incorporated and other villainous enterprises, it rarely impacted “civilians”; my mother would tell me how a young girl could still walk across Prospect Park without fear of assault.

Today’s urban promise is, however, vastly different — not only in New York, but San Francisco and Los Angeles, London and Paris. No longer cities of aspiration, they are increasingly defined by an almost feudal hierarchy: the rich live well, protected by private security and served by local coffee shops and trendy clubs.

Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere. Crime rates are spiking and homelessness, once an exception, is increasingly widespread. Those very streets once said to be “paved with gold” are now are filled with discarded needles, excrement and graffiti.

Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the decline of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s description of the city as “a luxury product”. Today, that sense of “luxury” has all but vanished, with modern urban economies promoting class divisions rather than upward mobility. Amid all the hoopla about urban revival, the truth is that entrenched urban poverty in the US — places where 30% or more of the population live below the poverty line — actually grew in the first decade of the new millennium, from 1,100 to 3,100 neighbourhoods.

Even the New York Times admits that, in the past decade, cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places where class relations are increasing fixed, with only the upper end of the income spectrum doing well. Gotham’s one percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income. That’s almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country. But such class disparity is becoming the norm; in the tech haven of San Francisco, which has the worst levels of inequality in California, the top 5% of households earn an average of $808,105 annually, compared with $16,184 for the lowest 20%.

Predictably, those at the bottom of this new feudal structure suffer the most; today, the old saying that “the city air makes one free” all too often means freedom to be poor, to experience endemic homelessness, collapsing public infrastructure and rising crime.

And that was before Covid hit. Already many poor urban residents subsisted on transfer payments or worked in service industries. They were paid, usually poorly, to clean now-empty offices or work in restaurants and hotels. The lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have since pummelled these low-income workers; roughly 40% of Americans earning under $40,000 a year lost their jobs last March.

Unlike workers who occupy “the commanding heights” of finance, tech, marketing, and media , these people did not have the option of working from their kitchen tables or moving to suburban locations or smaller cities. Nor could they count on education systems to work their magic; most schools in American inner-city districts, in contrast to many suburbs and smaller cities, remained closed.

All of which meant America’s urban districts were ripe for civil unrest when George Floyd died last May, and these festering conditions exploded into the worst national rioting in decades. Parts of many cities went up in flames, the damage of which was obscured by mainstream media’s mantra of “mostly peaceful protests”. The constant rioting and demonstrations in Portland, once seen as a paragon of new urbanist-led revival, has all but destroyed its downtown, which is now largely bereft of pedestrians.

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.

Photo credit: Christopher Michel via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Battlefield ‘Burbs

America’s political culture has been shaped by its rural and urban environments, each of which tends to be dominated by one party. Urban Republicans are now as rare as rural Democrats.

Yet the political future of the country lies in the suburban and exurban rings that dominate every metropolitan region. These voters are made up predominately neither of woke city hipsters nor gun-toting rubes, the stereotypes that dominate our competing cultural memes. The suburbs are the last contestable geography in the country. Read more

Economic Civil War

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.

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Environmentalism is the New War on the Working Class

“There should be a real liberal party in this country, and I don’t mean a crackpot professional one.” – Harry Truman.

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s new climate czar, took a private jet to accept an environmental award in Iceland in 2019. “It’s the only choice for somebody like me, who is traveling the world to win this battle,” he unironically told a reporter when asked about it.

If this sounds like a clueless joke, it’s not. President Biden’s chief environmental officer took the least carbon-efficient means of travel known to man because it was “the only choice” he could think of for a member in good standing of the indulged upper classes.

But this is no anomaly when it comes to liberal climate activism; it is a perfect encapsulation of what it has become: a vanity project of the jet set that directly harms working-class interests. And it’s this green agenda that directly threatens the working class that Biden has prioritized as he has taken command of the federal government.

The first victims of this agenda include the upwards of 10,000 people, many of them union members, who expected to work on the now cancelled Keystone XL Pipeline. But this draconian climate agenda that cost so many jobs should not have come as a surprise. As a Rasmussen Reports poll found, most Americans—52 percent—predicted that Biden’s decision to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement “will cost American jobs and force households and small business to pay higher utility bills.”

Regions from the Appalachians to the Rockies could experience massive job losses, particularly if Biden embraces the green demand to ban all fracking, even on private land. In Texas alone, as many as a million good-paying jobs would be lost. Overall, according to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national fracking ban would cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession. That could turn even vital smaller towns into instant slums. And in places like New Mexico, where spending on public programs hinges on the oil industry—now experiencing a 60-day moratorium on new permits, thanks to President Biden—even issues like education will be impacted.

What has happened to the party of the people?

The climate story is just one part of a bigger one, which led Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan to complain that the party of the people increasingly resembles the old , with lockstep support from Wall Street, the celebrity circuit, Silicon Valley and other elite sectors like professional service and law firms. Put simply, the Democrats have won the battle of the elites, with Democratic campaign spending more than tripling in recent years.

Read the rest of this piece at Newsweek.


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.

Homepage photo: screenshot from CSPAN video

Peak Progressive?

In the minds of most progressives, as well as some horrified conservatives, California is the harbinger of America’s future. Governor Gavin Newsom sees his state as a model, claiming California is “the envy of the world” and the great bastion of social justice. “Unlike the Washington plutocracy,” he boasts, “California isn’t satisfied serving a powerful few on one side of the velvet rope.” Read more

Ownership and Opportunity: A New Report from Urban Reform Institute

In a new report from Urban Reform Institute, edited by Joel Kotkin, J.H. Cullum Clark and Anne Snyder explore what happens when opportunity stalls. Pete Saunders and Karla Lopez del Rio tell the story of how homeownership enabled upward mobility for their respective families. Wendell Cox quantifies the connection between urban containment policies and housing affordabilty.

The introduction, authored by Charles Blain, President of Urban Reform Institute is excerpted below:

The middle-class way of living is under constant threat as housing costs increase, eating away larger shares of the average American’s income.

Homeownership, which has been a critical source of advancement for middle-class, immigrant, and ethnic minority families and an asset that people can pass down from one generation to the next, is under threat. For many families, this means that instead of building wealth, they are seeing opportunity erode before their eyes.

As housing costs are the biggest driver of variation in living costs across metropolitan areas, the relentless housing cost increases of the last two decades have undermined standards of living for many Americans in the nation’s most expensive cities. If home prices continue to outpace household incomes for ordinary Americans in coming years, the American Dream will move ever further out of reach for millions of families. This is especially the case for Millennials and Gen Zers for whom high and rising housing costs are the single largest obstacle to accumulating wealth and achieving a financially sustainable life.

The COVID-19 crisis presents America with enormous challenges, but also new opportunities to move forward in rethinking policy on the future of housing and work to improve affordability and advance opportunity – particularly for our most disadvantaged communities.

A fresh policy agenda can breathe new life into the American Dream and protect middle-class standards of living. This agenda should prioritize new housing supply at all price points, particularly in growing, high-opportunity places. Cities should relax urban containment policies that have had the clear effect of making urban real estate scarce and expensive. State governments should reform tax codes that make it more cost effective to leave land stagnant than to build upon it.

If we want to protect the ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder from one generation to the next, we must face the crisis of unaffordable housing and declining homeownership. We must protect the biggest opportunity for advancement and scale back the rules and regulations that continue to snatch this opportunity away from millions of Americans.

Click here to download/read the full report.

Join the discussion on a new policy agenda for home ownership and opportunity in our post-pandemic economy.

Date: December 4, 2020
Time: 11:30AM – 1:00PM (Central Time)

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Coronavirus and the Office Apocalypse

“We shall never deal with the complex problems of large units and differentiated groups unless at the same time we rebuild and revitalize the small unit. We must begin at the beginning; it is here where all life, even in big communities and organizations, starts.”
— Lewis Mumford

What if they reopened the office and nobody came? This scenario is not as far-fetched as many believe. The office may not be dead, but its post-COVID future, particularly in big cities, may look more like a medieval-style arrangement than the buzzing, super dense science fiction vision from The Jetsons.

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The Limits of Rhetoric

Deep-blue cities and states are eager to declare their social-justice credentials. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has set up a commission designed to uproot the city’s “institutional” racism, while California governor Gavin Newsom brags that his state is “the envy of the world” and will not abandon its poor. “Unlike the Washington plutocracy,” he proclaims, “California isn’t satisfied serving a powerful few on one side of the velvet rope. The California Dream is for all.”

Yet California, though well known for its wealth, also has the nation’s highest poverty rate, adjusted for housing cost. If rhetoric were magic, metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago would be ideal places for aspirational minority residents. But according to statistics compiled by demographer Wendell Cox in a newly released report, these cities are far worse for nonwhites in terms of income, housing affordability, and education. New York and California also exhibit some of the highest levels of inequality in the United States, with poor outcomes for blacks and Hispanics, who, population-growth patterns suggest, are increasingly moving away from deep-blue metros to less stridently progressive ones.

The current focus on “systemic racism”—often devolving into symbolic actions like mandatory minority representation on corporate boards, hiring quotas, and an educational focus on racial redress and resentment—is not likely to improve conditions for most minorities. “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness,” Martin Luther King said. “He merely exists.” That remains true. Our lodestar should be upward mobility: improving how well people live, across the board. When it comes to that criterion, blue states and cities are falling short.

The Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted disproportionate harm to the health of Latinos and African-Americans, who, according to the CDC, have suffered rates of infections and deaths higher than the overall population, which makes a focus on upward mobility even more important. To measure progress, we have developed an Upward Mobility Index, with “opportunity ratings” for the nation’s 107 largest metropolitan areas—those with populations of 500,000 or more in 2018—by race and ethnicity. We examined the factors that underpin upward mobility and entry into the middle class. Then, we created a ranking by metro that combined these factors for the three largest ethnic and racial minorities: African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

The results confound assertions that nominally progressive policies—affirmative action, programs for racial redress, strict labor and environmental laws—help nonwhites. It turns out that places with low housing costs, friendly business conditions, and reasonable tax rates do much better than cities proclaiming their woke credentials.

African-Americans do best by these measurements in southern metros such as Atlanta, the traditional capital of black America; McAllen, El Paso, and Austin, Texas; and Raleigh, Virginia Beach/ Norfolk, and Richmond, Virginia. The Washington, D.C. metro area, well known for its large, middle-class African-American suburbs, also compares well. Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and (perhaps surprisingly) Provo, Utah rank high for black success.

At the bottom of the list, California dominates, with four of the worst ten locations, including Los Angeles, which a half-century ago was widely seen as a mecca of sorts for blacks. Two of the state’s most prominent political leaders of the late twentieth century—four-term Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and long-time assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown—came from poor Texas families, not Golden State metros. Other cities traditionally attractive to African-Americans no longer serve as leading places for black ambition, including Miami and New York.

Similar, though somewhat varied, results can be seen for Latinos, now the nation’s largest minority, and Asians, the fastest-growing. Latinos seem to be doing best outside the Northeast Corridor and the West. Fayetteville (Arkansas/Missouri), for example, ranks number 7; it’s an evolving economic hub paced by Walmart, JB Hunt, and Tyson Foods. Latinos have found opportunities in metros tied to basic goods as well as technological production (St. Louis); logistics and agribusiness (Kansas City, Des Moines, and Omaha); energy (Pittsburgh and Oklahoma City); and manufacturing (Grand Rapids and Akron).

In contrast, California, with the nation’s largest Hispanic population, now includes eight of the bottom 15 metros on the Hispanic Upward Mobility Index. The nation’s largest Hispanic conurbation, Los Angeles, ranked 105th out of the 107 largest U.S. metros. The remaining six worst performers, apart from Honolulu, are on the much-deindustrialized east coast, including New York, Bridgeport-Stamford, and Worcester.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Charles Blain (@cjblain10) is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues. Joel Kotkin (@joelkotkin) is a contributing editor of City Journal, the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book is The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.

America After COVID: What Demographics Tell Us

“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

The Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear, will help reshape America’s economic and demographic future. Yet, many of the trends that we may associate with this reshaping—the rise of online work, a growing interest in suburbia and smaller cities—were already in place before the pandemic. The pandemic did not originate these trends, but it will likely accelerate them.

For years, the conventional wisdom from economic observers like Neil Irwin of The New York Times and echoed by public relations aces and property speculators has been that “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco and Seattle have “the best chance of recruiting superstar employees. In contrast, rural and interior regions would become home to “behind.” And experts like urbanist Christopher Leinberger predict suburban tracts would become “the next slums.”

Yet, in reality, jobs and young people have been increasingly heading toward both the suburban periphery and smaller cities. In fact, a snapshot of America before the appearance of Covid-19 was of a country migrating more to suburbs, exurbs and smaller cities, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting the fastest growth in domestic migration between 2010 and 2019 taking place in cities with less than a million people—a dramatic change from just a decade earlier.

In contrast, our largest metropolitan areas—New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—lost nearly as many net domestic migrants as the population of Arkansas from 2010 to 2019 (2.8 million compared to 3.0 million). New York’s population growth peaked at 130,000 in 2011 but fell to a 60,000 loss by 2019, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The Geography of Pandemics

The pandemic has been toughest on areas suffering from what we call “exposure density.” Nationwide, the highest fatality rates are in the two highest urban density categories, which are comprised of three New York City counties. Manhattan’s fatality rate, with 2.4 percent of the nation’s deaths, is 4.8 times its proportional share of deaths; Brooklyn and Bronx counties, which have the higher poverty rates associated with higher death rates, do even worse, with a fatality rate 7.5 times the national average.

In contrast, less dense counties—those with urban densities between 2,500 and 5,000—have less than their proportional share of deaths (0.8 percent), with 22.4 percent of deaths and 28.1 percent of the population. Lower density areas have even lower fatality rates, despite the occasional spikes in food-processing plants, Native American reservations and extremely poor areas like those close to the Mexican border. Even with the recent surge, fatality rates in states like Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and the Dakotas remain between one-third to one-eighth of those in New York and New Jersey.

Pandemics, like changes in climate, often alter how and where people live. In the 14th century, plagues wiped out as much as one-third of Europe’s population, but the wreckage also brought opportunities for those left standing. Large tracts of land, left abandoned, could be consolidated by rich nobles or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who looked to lower rents and higher pay. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” suggested historian Barbara Tuchman, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”

Read the rest of this piece at Chief Executive.


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.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Photo credit: Mike Dunn via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Democratic Prospects & The Plural Generation with Morley Winograd

In this episode of the Feudal Future podcast, Morley Winograd joins hosts Joel and Marshall on Feudal Future Podcast to talk about the 2020 election, and the prospects for a democratic administration should they win.