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Joe Biden’s Imaginary America

After two painful recessions and ever greater national discord, there is considerable support for a new beginning, even if it takes massive federal spending. The question we must ask now is what kind of spending makes sense given the character of the country, its geography, and its economic challenges. America remains a vast and diverse place, and decisions that make sense for one locale do not necessarily make any sense in others. A dispersed country needs dispersed decision-making, not edicts issued from on high by the D.C. nomenklatura.

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Joel Kotkin Virtual Salon, on the Topic of Neo-Feudalism

Host: Virtual Salon
On: Fieldstead and Company

Fieldstead opened its 2021 salon series with Joel Kotkin, described by the New York Times as “America’s uber-geographer.” Joel is an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political, and social trends. His work over the past decade has focused on inequality and class mobility as well as how regions can address these pressing issues. Joel discusses his research findings from his recent book, The Coming Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.

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Joel Kotkin on Menzies Research Centre: Medieval Mindset

Host: Nick Cater
On: The Watercooler Podcast by Menzies Research Centre (Soundcloud)

Joel Kotkin warns that traditional middle class aspirations and values such as family, nationhood and home ownership are under threat from a new class of oligarchs.

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What Happened to Social Democracy?

In a world that seems to be divided between neoliberal orthodoxy and identitarian dogmas, it is possible to miss the waning presence of traditional social democracy. Born of the radical Left in Marx’s own time, social democrats worked, sometimes with remarkable success, to improve the living standards of working people by accommodating the virtues of capitalism. Today, that kind of social democracy—learned at home from my immigrant grandparents and from the late Michael Harrington, one time head of the American Socialist Party—is all but dead. This tradition was, in retrospect, perhaps too optimistic about the efficacy of government. Nevertheless, it sincerely sought to improve popular conditions and respected the wisdom of ordinary people.

In its place, we now find a kind of progressivism that focuses on gender, sexual preference, race, and climate change. Abandoned by traditional Left parties, some voters have drifted into nativist—and sometimes openly racist—opposition while more have simply become alienated from major institutions and pessimistic about the future.

The revolution in class relations

Social democracy was a product of the inequities of the industrial era and the consequent solidarity that flourished among working people. This often resulted in greater justice for racial minorities. The German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein developed an “evolutionary” ideology based on gradualism, practical results, and a commitment to democratic norms. Observing late-19th century Britain, where unions were accepted even in business circles, Bernstein noticed that working conditions, contrary to Marxist dogma, were steadily improving. He believed that the proletariat was evolving from an oppressed underclass into a more upwardly mobile group, whose goal was to find “an appropriate status in industrial society.” For their efforts, Social Democrats were denounced as “social fascists” by Stalin, and Antifa’s predecessors—the German Antifaschistische Aktion—spent at least as much time fighting them as fighting the Nazis. A fatal error.

After the Second World War, however, social democrats enjoyed considerable success while the remarkable productivity of the private sector helped transform the once-forlorn proletariat into something more bourgeois in aspiration. A study covering the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States shows that all three saw a rapid decline in the concentration of wealth until the 1970s. Their program focused on physical needs such as boosting access to electricity and improving public health and education.

Never before had so much prosperity and relative economic security been so widely enjoyed. By the 1960s, the American labor movement could boast of “developing a whole new middle class,” said Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers. Industrial laborers could afford to buy homes, send their kids to college, and live the kind of life only the affluent had previously enjoyed. Western Europe benefited from the same process—economic growth helped finance a welfare state that provided greater security and improved the prospects of most families; the rapid growth of export industries, in particular, was an integral part of the original Swedish social model of increasing wages without inflation.

Starting in the 1970s, such things as foreign competition, mass immigration from developing countries, automation, and the growing financialization of economic power undermined this progress. In the United States, data from the Census Bureau show that the share of national income going to the middle 60 percent of households has fallen to a record low since the 1970s. Wealth gains in recent decades have gone overwhelmingly to the top one percent of households, and especially to the top 0.5 percent. Social mobility has declined in over two-thirds of European Union countries, including Sweden. Across the 36 wealthier countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the richest citizens have taken an ever-greater share of national GDP while the middle class has shrunk. Much of the global middle class is heavily in debt—mainly because of high housing costs—and “looks increasingly like a boat in rocky waters,” suggests the OECD.

Parties repositioning

One might assume that this concentration of wealth would energize traditional working class parties—Labour in Britain and Australia, the Liberals in Canada, the Democrats in the US—but they shifted their focus away from blue-collar and lower-middle-class workers. Instead, leftwing parties are increasingly peopled by, and cultivated support from, the well-educated professional class—now an estimated 15 percent of the US work force—along with the corporate elites and academic clerisy. These classes have done well over the past few decades, while the traditional lower-middle and working classes have languished.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.


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: Nicolas Nieves-Quiroz via Unsplash under CC0 1.0 License.

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.

The Collapse of California

If one were to explore the most blessed places on earth, California, my home for a half century, would surely be up there. The state, with its salubrious climate, spectacular scenery, vast natural resources, and entrepreneurial heritage is home to the world’s fifth-largest economy and its still-dominant technological centre. It is also — as some progressives see it — the incubator of “a capitalism we can believe in”.

Perhaps channelling such hyperbole, President Biden recently suggested that he wants to “make America California again”. Yet before leaping on this particular train, he should consider whether the California model may be better seen as a cautionary tale than a roadmap to a better future in the digital age.

The on-the-ground reality — as opposed to that portrayed in the media or popular culture — is more Dickensian than utopian. Rather than the state where dreams are made, in reality California increasingly presents the prototype of a new feudalism fused oddly with a supposedly progressive model in which inequality is growing, not falling.

California now suffers the highest cost-adjusted poverty rate in the country, and the widest gap between middle and upper-middle income earners. It also has one of the nation’s highest Gini ratios, which measures the inequality of wealth distribution from the richest to poorest residents — and the disparity is growing. Incredibly, California’s level of inequality is greater than that of neighboring Mexico, and closer to Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras than developed nations like Canada and Norway.

It is true that California’s GDP per capita is far higher than these Central American countries, but the state has slowly morphed into a low wage economy. Over the past decade, 80% of the state’s jobs have paid under the median wage — half of which are paid less than $40,000 — and most are in poorly paid personal services or hospitality jobs. Even at some of the state’s most prestigious companies like Google, many lower (and even mid-level) workers live in mobile home parks. Others sleep in their cars.

The state’s dependence on low-wage service workers has been critical in the pandemic, but it now suffers among the highest unemployment rates in the nation, outdone only by tourism-dominated states like Hawaii, Nevada and New Jersey. Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood, now has the highest unemployment rate of the nation’s top ten metropolitan areas, higher even than New York.

But that hasn’t stopped California from portraying itself as a progressive’s paradise, publicly advocating racial and social justice. The state just passed a Racial Justice Act to monitor law enforcement, endorsing reparations (although California was never a slave state) and is working to address “systemic” racism in its classrooms. This “woke” agenda was taken to a new extreme this week when the San Francisco School Board decided to rename 44 schools because they were named after people connected to racism or slavery. The district’s Arts Department, originally known as “VAPA”, also decided to re-brand because “acronyms are a symptom of white supremacy culture”.

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.

Homepage photo: Matthew Woitunski via Wikimedia, under CC 3.0 License.

The Other California

California’s coastal urban centers, once the ultimate land of opportunity, suffer notorious traffic congestion, unaffordable housing, and a social chasm defined by a shrinking middle class, a small wealthy sector, and a sizable population seemingly locked in poverty. If there is a future for the region’s middle and upwardly mobile working class, it’s more likely to be found in the state’s large, generally more affordable, interior, known as the Inland Empire, or “the IE.” But for that to happen, the area’s promise needs to be better recognized—and supported—by policymakers.

Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century as a rural area with a few small cities built around affordable land and imported water—San Bernardino, Riverside, Ontario—the Inland Empire evolved as a place where, as the city of Chino’s motto puts it, “Everything Grows.” Over the years, the IE’s burgeoning farm economy attracted Mormons, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Basques, and Russians, and the area was also home to a large Latino workforce. By the end of the twentieth century, the IE was California’s growth hub. More than 300,000 people moved in from the state’s coast between 2007 and 2011, representing America’s largest county-to-county population shift. The IE is now one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies, and Riverside–San Bernardino–Ontario, with 4.5 million residents, is America’s 13th-largest metropolitan statistical area, ahead of Seattle, San Diego, and Denver.

As California’s overall rate of growth falls below the national average for the first time, with Los Angeles itself losing population, the IE continues to attract migrants, particularly families. It has remained, according to the American Community Survey, the only large region in the state that exceeds the national average of residents between the ages of 15 and 50 with children. Most of the area’s growth comes from the increased influx of immigrants and minorities, heavily Latino. The IE turned majority Latino in 2017, according to census data.

The Inland Empire also seems well positioned to benefit from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The American Enterprise Institute has found that, since the pandemic began, less dense areas, like the IE, are growing much faster than denser ones. In 2020 so far, for instance, new home sales are up 13 percent in the IE, compared with the same period in 2019, but are down 16 percent in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Though the IE’s larger existing home market has taken a hit, its decline is 50 percent less than that experienced in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

The employment picture is robust, too. Over the past decade, the IE grew its jobs by 25 percent, equaling the Bay Area’s pace and almost doubling that of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Last year, the IE created more jobs than any major metropolitan area in the state.

The Inland Empire’s trajectory, however, is not problem-free, by any means. While jobs are plentiful, high-wage employment has been scarce. Overall income growth has been among the lowest in the country, and wages rank among the lowest of any of the nation’s 50 largest counties. Even as educated professionals have moved to the area, business-service growth has remained tepid, well below that of the Bay Area and, perhaps more important, of key competitor regions such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City. Some 350,000 of the IE’s skilled and non-skilled workers commute daily to the coast for work. According to its 2018 “State of Work in the Inland Empire” report, the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California found that residents of Riverside tend to go to high-priced Orange County, while San Bernardino residents head to Los Angeles. As a result, two IE communities, Corona and Moreno Valley, rank in the top ten nationally for average length of commuting time.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.


Joel Kotkin is 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. Karla López del Río is associate director of the Center for Social Innovation at UC Riverside.

Five Ways to Stop the Exodus

By: Mark Calvey and Allison Levitsky
On: San Francisco Business Times

More companies are making the leap outside California. How can the Golden State bring back its golden touch?

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein might as well have been talking about California’s corporate exodus when he said that quote, once spotted on the walls of Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters.

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Making America California

As the Biden administration settles in and begins to formulate its agenda, progressive pundits, politicians, and activists point to California as a role model for national policy. If the administration listens to them, it would prove a disaster for America’s already-beleaguered middle and working classes.

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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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