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The Great Office Refusal

The pandemic has cut a swath through our sense of normalcy, but as has been the case throughout history, a disastrous plague also brings opportunities to reshape and even improve society. COVID-19 provides the threat of greater economic concentration, but also a unique chance to recast our geography, expand the realm of the middle class, boost social equity, and develop better ways to create sustainable communities.

Driven partly by fear of infection, and by the liberating rise of remote work, Americans have been increasingly freed from locational constraints. Work continues apace in suburbs and particularly in sprawling exurbs that surround core cities, while the largest downtowns (central business districts, or CBDs) increasingly resemble ghost towns.

This shift has made it more practical for individuals and particularly families to migrate to locations where they can find more affordable rents, and perhaps even buy a house. But such a pattern may be countered by investors on Wall Street, who seem determined to turn the disruption to their own advantage by gearing up efforts to buy out increasingly expensive single-family homes, transforming potential homeowners into permanent rental serfs and much of the country into a latifundium dominated by large landlords.

We are in the midst of what the CEO of Zillow has called “the great reshuffling,” essentially an acceleration of an already entrenched trend of internal American migration toward suburbs, the sunbelt, and smaller cities. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, a preference for larger homes in less dense areas grew from 53% to 60%, according to Pew. As many as 14 million to 23 million workers may relocate as a consequence of the pandemic, according to a recent Upwork survey, half of whom say they are seeking more affordable places to live.

This suggests that the downtown cores of U.S. cities will continue to struggle. Since the pandemic began, tenants have given back around 200 million square feet of commercial real estate, according to Marcus & Millichap data, and the current office vacancy rate stands at 16.2%, matching the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. Between September 2019 and September 2020, the biggest job losses, according to the firm American Communities and based on federal data, have been in big cities (nearly a 10% drop in employment), followed by their close-in suburbs, while rural areas suffered only a 6% drop, and exurbs less than 5%. Today our biggest cities—Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago—account for three of the five highest unemployment rates among the 51 largest metropolitan areas.

The rise of remote work drives these trends. Today, perhaps 42% of the 165 million-strong U.S. labor force is working from home full time, up from 5.7% in 2019. When the pandemic ends, that number will probably drop, but one study, based on surveys of more than 30,000 employees, projects that 20% of the U.S. workforce will still work from home post-COVID. 

Others predict a still more durable shift: A University of Chicago study suggests that a full one-third of the workforce could remain remote, and in Silicon Valley, the number could stabilize near 50%. Both executives and employees have been impressed by the surprising gains of remote work, and now many companies, banks, and leading tech firms—including Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter—expect a large proportion of their workforces to continue to work remotely. Nine out of 10 organizations, according to a new McKinsey survey of 100 executives across industries and geographies, plan to keep at least a hybrid of remote and on-site work indefinitely.

The shift of work from the office to the home, or at least to less congested spaces, threatens the strict geographic hierarchy of many elite corporations. Some corporate executives, like Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon, are determined to force employees back into Manhattan offices, like it or not. It’s now a common mantra among like-minded executives, especially those connected to downtown office development, that workers are “pining” to return to the office. Some have even threatened employees who do not come back in person with lower wages and decreased opportunities for promotion, while offering to reward those willing to take the personal hit of coming back on-site every day.

Read the rest of this piece at Tablet.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs 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: Steven Zwerink via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

America the Indispensable

God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.
~Otto von Bismarck

Post-millennium America does not look good at a glance. The country has struggled with the pandemic and with deepening divisions over race, class, inequality, and culture. It is in the humiliating process of losing another war, this time in Afghanistan. Since 2016, the world’s largest economy has been presided over first by the buffoonish and occasionally deranged Donald Trump, and then by an aging Joe Biden who bears scant resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt.

Yet, despite its manifest failings—the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s supporters was not a good image builder—the US remains the indispensable country, the last major counterforce to the rising authoritarian challenge of China, and its growing list of allies, including perhaps the new Islamist regime in Kabul. It remains, without question, the only nation with the natural resources, population, military, and technical skill to rally the West and salvage its threatened legacy.

The US routinely rises to the challenge late, a pattern evident in both World Wars, the initial period of the Cold War, the response to China’s late 20th century industrial juggernaut, and the terrorist threat. But in the end, it remains a huge and blessed land with enormous sokojikara, or “reserve power,” as Japanese political scientist Fuji Kamiya described it decades ago, that allows it to overcome competitors.

The case for America

Pessimism about America’s direction has resurged, following a brief improvement when Biden became president. According to an ABC/Ipsos poll, Americans’ optimism about the country’s direction has dropped 20 points since May. Concern is growing that the country is in a  precipitous decline, something that won’t improve with the bleak images from the Afghani debacle. Most Europeans believe that China will soon replace America as the world’s economic powerhouse. The Chinese, unsurprisingly, seem to feel the same. In a since-deleted tweet, Ministry official Zhao Lijian described Western efforts to slow China’s dominion as being “as stupid as Don Quixote versus the windmills … China’s win is unstoppable.”

So will our children—now living in unhappy and increasingly divided societies—grow up kowtowing to the Mandarins? Without America, that’s the future for the West and everyone else. Europe, politically divided, demographically stagnant, and anti-American, lacks the capacity and willingness to resist. Germany appears unwilling to stand up to either its largest trading partner, China, or to its now-favored supplier of energy, Russia. Weaker European states, such as Italy, the Czech Republic, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, and even rightwing favorite Hungary have signed up to be cogs in China’s “Belt and Road initiative.” Asia’s democracies can’t hack it without America. Japan is a rich but aging country that lacks much forward momentum, something that can also be said of South Korea. India is still too poor and chaotic to match China’s regimented power.

Nevertheless, as Bismarck suggested, it’s not usually a good idea to bet against the United States. Trump’s disruptive interlude, notes Walter Russell Mead, may have concentrated the minds of others, creating “new leverage” for the US now that its support, particularly on the military side, can never again be taken for granted, particularly if they don’t seem willing to fight for themselves. Some countries, like the Philippines, have already reconsidered their China links and moved closer to Washington. Even some Europeans, notably France’s Emmanuel Macron, are ready to consider China as a strategic “rival.”

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.

Homepage photo: Osman Rana, via Unsplash.

The American Renaissance Has Begun

By: David Brooks
Appearing in: The New York Times

Americans are searching for ways to make more money while living more connected lives. Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Chapman University, points out that as the U.S. population disperses, economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities will most likely shrink. And, he says, as more and more immigrants settle in rural areas and small towns, their presence might reduce nativism and increase economic competitiveness.

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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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The Emergence of the Global Heartland

Report: Emergence of the Global Heartland

A major shift in the demographic evolution of America is occurring, largely out of sight in the national media, but profoundly affecting communities throughout the Heartland.

The 20 state region, which extends between the Appalachians and the Rockies, has for generations been largely unaffected by the massive movement of people from abroad that has so dramatically transformed the great metropolitan regions of coastal America.

In the national media, the Heartland represented a region, as the New York Times described it, as ’not far from forsaken,’ a depopulating place where the American dream has come and gone. Others have seen the region as an unreconstructed mecca for intolerance, one that had few immigrants and poor race relations and seems destined to suffer for it. As one professor at Vanderbilt suggested recently, the region was “dying from whiteness” and that its “politics of racial resentment is killing America’s heartland.”

Perhaps it is time to change that narrative. Over the past decade, the Heartland’s share of the foreign-born population has risen from 23.5 percent in 2010 to 31.1 percent in 2019. This shift can be seen in many Heartland communities, some such as Louisville, Columbus and Nashville, have seen their immigrant populations swell more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2019, often helping to reverse generations of demographic decline. They are now growing their foreign-born populations faster than such historic immigrant hubs as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.

The reasons include many factors also seen in our previous studies on entrepreneurs and millennials; lower costs, economic growth and better access to good schools. Perhaps the most underappreciated may be the spirit of friendliness that has been cited by the vast majority of the people we interviewed. For people who have migrated great distances, and sometimes at personal risk, the reception in the Heartland—sometimes described as a hotbed of nativist and xenophobic attitudes—often instead has been both warm and inspiring.

“Each immigrant comes with different potential and dreams,” observes Ahmed Elkhady, a half Palestinian, half Egyptian resident in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, known as the Motorcycle Imam, who works with underprivileged children. “I have big hope in this first migrant generation. They come with unique perspectives from all over the world. They come to grow in a new place they get to help create.” This shift in migration is good not only for the Heartland but also for the nation. Spreading new talent to areas that need it, it also takes the pressure off already overcrowded areas. For too long, essentially since the 1970s, the Heartland, with the notable exception of Texas, was on the sidelines in the nation’s demographic transition, leaving a large part of the country facing much slower population growth and rapid aging. It is on the sidelines no longer.

Download the full report here (PDF).


This piece and the report first appeared at Heartland Forward. Joel Kotkin, Mark Schill, Karla López del Río, Wendell Cox, Alicia Kurimska, and Celia López del Río authored the report.

Heartland Forward is a non-partisan organization that seeks to improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth. Learn more at HeartlandForward.org.

Image credit: Heartland Forward, from the report

How America Turned Into the EU

For many liberal Americans, the European Union is the perfect elite model: a non-elected, highly credentialed bureaucracy that embraces and seeks to enforce the environmental, social and cultural zeitgeist of the urban upper classes. It is, as the establishment Council on Foreign Relations puts it, a “model for regional integration”.

Now that “progressives” have returned to the White House, aping the EU has become a national policy. Taking his cue from his party’s Left, President Joe Biden has already sought to federalise many functions — from zoning to labour laws to education — that historically have been under local control.

But while Biden’s administration has been embraced by the Eurocrats, Americans would do well to consider the EU’s remarkable record of turning Europe into the developed world’s economic and technological laggard. Overall, nearly a third of Europeans consider Brussels an utter failure; half admit the EU’s pandemic response was inadequate. Indeed, while the American media was busy denouncing the US response to Covid under Trump as the “worst” in the world, the EU was showing them how it was done: of the 15 countries suffering the highest fatality rates, 13 are European, of which nine are in the EU — all worse than the US.

The US may always have had a “Federal Government”, but the notion of dispersed power gained approval from many on the Left only after President Trump’s election, as many Democrats looked to local government as a means of fighting back. Cheerleaders for Barack Obama’s imperial presidency, such as The New Yorker, started to embrace states’ rights with an almost Confederate enthusiasm.

But once the Democrats won back the House in 2018, the appeal of total central power became irresistible, with leading Democrats competing for who could most expand DC’s remit. Kamala Harris, now Vice President, demanded Washington give teachers across the country a federally funded five-figure pay rise, while Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro sought to hand over local planning and zoning powers to the DC bureaucrats.

President Trump, for what it’s worth, had little interest in such issues — though even he made a point of trying to overturn states’ laws when it suited his agenda, particularly with the border wall and his attempts to crack down on radical education policies. In many ways, Trump’s authoritarian brand of Republicanism was always going to express an interest in an expanded federal role.

Yet in looking to expand federal power, Biden is picking up the mantle of President Obama, regarded by Republicans as one of the most prolific authors of executive power in US history. During its first six years, the Obama administration put forward more than twice as many major rules as George W. Bush’s government during the same period, focusing largely on issues such as climate change and immigration.

Of course, the notion of decentralised control — and the benefits associated with it — predates America. Ancient Roman cities enjoyed particular autonomy from central control, while the great Italian and Dutch cities of the early modern period developed extensive forms of self-government and, in some cases, functioned as independent states. Indeed, born out of Enlightenment ideals about limited government, the US Constitution lays out a system of dispersed power, creating in localities “the habits of self-government”.

In some cases, however, federal action was necessary; for example, to end the abomination of slavery and keep the Republic safe from European encroachments. And of course, some local governments continued to pass detestable laws, such as Jim Crow segregation in the South — though states also innovated in a more positive direction, providing models for other jurisdictions. For example, western states less tied to parochial ways of thinking — such as Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington and California — introduced female suffrage well before the federal government. New York built the earliest welfare state, while my adopted home of California invested heavily in roads, schools, universities and technical training, leading to its remarkable boom in the late 20th Century.

States, as progressive Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis noted, were “laboratories of democracy”, places that experimented with policies that, when they were successful, would be adopted by others, and sometimes the federal government. In contrast, Europe’s bureaucratic meddling has served to keep wealth concentrated, as it has been for centuries, in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, while the south and east lag perpetually behind.

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: European Parliament via Flickr, under CC 2.0 License.

The Case for American Optimism

Now that Trump has been edged out of office, Joe Biden may emerge as the harbinger of a brighter, better blue future or as a version of Konstantin Chernenko, the aged timeserver who ran the Soviet Union in its dying days. To succeed, he will have to confront massive pessimism about America’s direction, with some 80 percent thinking the country is out of control. The Atlantic last year compared the U.S. to a “failed state,” while The Week predicts “dark days ahead.”

Conservative opinion, particularly after the election, is also increasingly mordant. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher thinks we are heading towards a state of “no families, no children, no future” as the cultural Left and its gender-fluid ideology take hold of the culture. Marco Rubio has already suggested that the new president’s administration will prove “polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”

America as a whole is not a “failed state” but a place where people move from areas of limited opportunity to those with more. The pandemic has accelerated this process. The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that the economy could take a decade to recover, but some metropolitan areas, such as Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, and San Antonio, as well as others across the South, have recovered far more decisively from the pandemic than Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Similarly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California and New York suffered the highest unemployment rates outside of tourist-dominated Nevada, Louisiana, and Hawaii.

The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from expensive coastal cities that was already well under way before it hit. Urbanistas blame this migration on the pandemic, which was most deadly in dense urban areas, but it has been going on for years, for many reasons. Workers in New York City are the least likely to return to offices, according to Kastle Systems, because of virus concerns about public transportation and skyscrapers as well as the city’s population density.

The home office is replacing at banks and leading technology firms, the office for many and, to many manager’s surprise, with surprising productivity gains. A University of Chicago study suggests that this could grow to as much as one-third of the workforce, and in Silicon Valley, the number could reach nearly 50 percent.

Many companies predict much of the workforce will remain online, some part-time and some all the time. The impact on our geography could be profound: An estimated 14 to 23 million remote workers may relocate as a consequence of the pandemic, according to a recent Upwork survey, with half of them saying they are seeking more affordable places to live.

These trends likely will moderate, but much of the repositioning of work may continue even after the introduction of a vaccine. To be sure, lower rents could provide a great opportunity to reinvent and revitalize our cities, by luring a new generation of immigrants and young entrepreneurs. But the political wave now sweeping our cities threatens to undermine even a modest rebound.

In recent months, many of our once most attractive cities — Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland — have become largely dysfunctional, particularly in their downtown areas. Movements to limit the police and cut their funding have become de rigueur in our most progressive cities, and violent crime in places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles is picking up. Given the failures of urban educational systems, the return of fear to the cities will continue to force out many middle-class families.

The pandemic has widened the gap between the vast majority and the relatively small upper-middle and upper classes. It could widen further under an administration that appears determined to fill itself with people who have close ties to Wall Street, technology firms, and the China lobby. That tendency can be seen in Biden’s proposed choice for secretary of state (Antony Blinken) as well as his naming as head of his economic council Brian Deese, a high-ranking official at BlackRock — a firm that, like many woke corporations, has pushed “stakeholder capitalism.” In this formulation, large companies are expected to serve not only their shareholders but a specific agenda of set progressive values on such things as climate change, gender roles, and “systemic” racism.

Read the rest of this piece at National Review.


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 — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Tim Brown via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

America Isn’t Falling Apart. It’s Still the Land of Opportunity

More than 840,000 green card holders became citizens last year, the most in a decade. Over 10 percent of the American electorate was born elsewhere, the highest share in a half-century. All of Donald Trump’s huffing and puffing could not stop this demographic evolution; nor could an endless stream of stories about what an unequal, unfair, and no good place America has supposedly become.

The ground-level integration of America—what my friend Sergio Munoz calls “the multiculturalism of the streets”—continues with ever greater mingling, epitomized by the rise and acceptance of interracial dating, up 40 percent since 2003, and marriage.

What Trump and his most dedicated opponents have both had trouble appreciating is that, rather than a chaotic future defined by racial conflict, most Americans want both order and justice. Most Americans initially supported the George Floyd protests but soon overwhelmingly rejected the violence and looting that accompanied them. Racial minorities, like other Americans, are increasingly heterodox in their political views.

This was evident in Trump—an unpleasant and unprincipled man frequently labeled as a “racist” in the mainstream media, a term also applied to his voters— improving in 2020 on his 2016 results with most minorities, including a significant gain in the Latino vote, particularly in Florida and Texas, and among Black men. In California, Asian voters also didn’t flock to Trump, but they helped reject an affirmative action measure bankrolled by the tech oligarchs. In heavily Asian Orange County, Biden won comfortably but the affirmative action measure lost 2-to-1, and two Korean American women replaced Democratic congresspeople. The measure was also crushed in heavily Latino interior counties.

Another issue where elite support and popular opinion diverge is defunding the police, a position that the vast majority of Americans—including millennials and minorities—do not favor. As my colleague Charles Blain points out, when the Houston city council was swamped with testimony from residents pushing for the dismantling of the city’s Police Department, Black council members and Mayor Sylvester Turner pushed back, saying that these people clearly didn’t spend time in the communities that they claimed to support. A similar dynamic played out in New York, where Black City Council members held the line against a push to slash the NYPD budget by $1 billion.

Economics account for some of Trump’s gains among minority voters. Before the pandemic, most minority workers had done better in terms of income under his administration than they had under previous administrations from both parties. Like working-class people in general, most African Americans did worse economically under Barack Obama despite the enormous boost in political power and influence for portions of the African American upper class on his watch.

Latinos, suggests former California state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero. have been devastated by the state’s more extreme lockdowns, and angered to see their putative advocates, like Gavin Newsom or Nancy Pelosi, flaunt their privilege in luxury and even violate their own rules as “ordinary people have literally been arrested and even thrown in jail for opening their businesses to just survive and feed their families.”

Read the rest of this piece at Daily Beast.

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

Homepage photo credit: Angelsharum via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.

How the Virus is Pushing America Toward a Better Future

The peak globalization bubble has finally burst and America has a chance to reinvent itself and realign how things work here with the best parts of our national identity.

Pessimism is the mood of the day, with 80 percent of Americans saying the country is generally out of control. Even before civil unrest and pestilence, most Americans believed our country was in decline, Pew reported, with a shrinking middle class, increased indebtedness and growing polarization.

It’s a dark hour, but the United States has a way of coming back, after struggling with itself, stronger than ever. As it did in World War II and the Cold War, America retains enormous sokojikara, or “reserve power,” as Japan political scientist Fuji Kamiya described it decades ago. Read more