how we’re fighting over the future one election at a time

how we’re fighting over the future one election at a time

A deep dive into the yawning chasm that is the urban/rural divide.

Few staples of science fiction are as iconic as megacities. Sprawling for hundreds, if not thousands of miles, like Mega City One from the Judge Dredd universe, or taking up the surfaces of entire worlds, like the Galactic Empire’s capital in The Foundation series, and Star Wars’ Coruscant. Want a few more examples? The good folks at i09 put together a map showing over 30 famous sci-fi megacities, and noted with some surprise, that some of the immense urban centers in fiction are actually in the works today and major mergers between megacities have been happening in China. Every available piece of data we have shows that cities are growing and becoming richer at an ever faster pace. Modern economies have long ago reached the point at which more of their residents are urban and suburban than rural, and none have shown any reversal of the trend because cities are the major centers of finance, culture, jobs, and are often perfectly situated as nodes in supply and communication lines, making travel between them easy, and investments in improving them even further almost guaranteed to pay off faster. We talked about this shortly before the election, but this topic merits a further look as we’re desperately trying to prepare for the uncertain future.

Population dynamics are difficult to predict, but we do have some hints as to what may be coming in the very near future based on current migration and commute patterns clearly showing that our major urban hubs are what really powers the economy. And those hubs aren’t equal among themselves; just a dozen of them are driving much of the nation’s GDP. Among these cities are the usual suspects like NYC, Boston, Washington D.C., LA, Chicago, and the greater Bay Area, and a few much less talked about regions covering Austin, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Columbus, and Pittsburgh. As these cities grow and use their established economic might to attract more investment and people in search of new jobs, urban planners are talking about new megacities that will emerge from the joining of adjacent urban hubs, cities like Bos-Wash, a union between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, and the capital, and Chi-Pitts, the merger of Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. (As a Blue Jackets fan, I’m personally not crazy about the name of the latter one.)

These ideas aren’t without precedent. Chongqing, as we know it today, came into existence after seven urban cores were combined into one. And while in America, megacities aren’t being merged, they’re growing in similar ways. In the north, Los Angeles is very swiftly encroaching on the exurb of Camarillo, which is connected to the towns of Oxnard and Ventura, which are both only a short hop away from Santa Barbara, and in the south, not much separates it from the area stretching from Oceanside to San Diego, which is connected to Tijuana. Meanwhile, the Bay Area basically looks and behaves like a single city already. Driving from San Jose to San Francisco it’s almost impossible to tell where one city ends and the other begins just by looking at the densities of homes and office parks. This is not to say that the sprawl will continue in every major metro area the studies have identified because this is simply not possible. Megacities are more likely to expand in waves, pausing to fill in all those newly developed areas before jutting out again to lessen congestion in the city proper and provide a new exurb to lower housing costs.

Likewise, some of these unified metro areas like Bos-Wash may never come to pass because Boston and NYC have their own, unique cultures which they will likely want to keep separate, and Washington D.C. has to have a special privilege to remain unique and independent, even for purely historical and sentimental reasons. But cities like Columbus have plenty of room to grow, being already as filled in as its residents seem comfortable with, and sitting at the convenient node between Canada, and within a short flight to more than two thirds of the American population, it makes perfect sense to beef up its capacity as a hub for tech and financial businesses which thrive there, and in the distribution of tangible goods, which is why Amazon is building two of its fulfillment centers there. And even keeping in mind that you can’t get more wrong in forecasting than a straight line projection, the U.S. is long past the point of no return when it comes to urbanization. Small town life is history, and has been for decades. We just didn’t notice until now.

While there are a lot of debates about what urban and suburban means for census purposes and people’s perceptions of their home metros, just 21% of the population describes where they live as rural, and all of those politicians who eagerly praise small town values of “normal America” failed to notice a major shift in demographics. The typical American “town” is now a diverse, growing city of 1 to 2 million people, not a homogeneous rural outpost. We are long past a tipping point where rural and urban are fighting it out to be the future home of the American population. This statistical point came and went a long time go and the cities won. Now it’s just a matter of what cities will be left standing by the end of the 21st century, and recognizing this has set the stage of a huge political battle that’s taking place right now. Just like many experts are saying, it’s blue or bluish cities vs. red states imposing the preferences of the rural and exurban constituencies on them in a process a lot of mayors consider very undemocratic because the current system gives rural voters terrified that their way of life is changing a greater voice than the urbanites who feel robbed of their equal say and demonized.

And it’s not just an American problem either. In some 20 other nations rural voters are putting the hurt on urban ones, diverting public funds cities need to improve infrastructure, relieve congestion, and revitalize public transport into highways and bridges between small, relatively far flung towns and very loudly demanding their leaders bring back the industries to which they have grown accustomed. In many of the world’s advanced economies there’s now a massive cultural and political split that’s poised to keep getting worse with growth, trade, and education-focused, diverse city dwellers on one side, and more homogeneous, protectionist small town residents who view economies as zero-sum constructs on the other. Their fundamental world views are not compatible, and both face problems to which the other side can’t relate, and in many cases refuses to. Just note the dismissive attitudes towards the votes of those who live in coastal megacities, as if their voices don’t matter, by the pro-rural side, and scathing jokes about attractive cousins and meth labs by the pro-city side. This is not a conflict that’s going away anytime soon, and it seems to be escalating wildly thanks to recent events.

la sunset

Just for a moment, let’s consider some very relevant numbers and trends to zero in on the issue. In 2000, 659 counties voted for Gore and 2,397 voted for Bush, giving Gore an advantage of 500,000 votes. Many of these counties were urbanized, as all the polls and experts predicted, and all together had a 54% share of the national GDP to the more rural counties’ 46% for a more or less equitable split. Fast forward to last November. Clinton won 472 counties (or 28% fewer) with a vote tally almost 3 million higher than Trump’s 2,584 counties. Blue counties were again mostly urban, but they now represented 64% of the GDP, an 18.5% increase to the more rural 36%, a 22% decrease in just 16 years. If we ignore the politics for a minute, these trends seem to tell a story of big cities growing more populous, getting denser, and reaping the benefits of globalization as rural areas stagnated. Plus, keep in mind that not all blue counties in 2000 were urban and many went through enough major economic spasms and political shenanigans to turn red. And this easily had a tremendous impact for the Electoral College system, which today gives just a single vote from Wyoming the same value as 3.6 votes cast in both Texas and California, and almost three votes from Ohio and New York.

On the surface, these macro statistics seem like proof of the zero sum views of economics in rural counties because as the cities’ economic powers grew, theirs declined, and the urbanites’ anger at having the scale of popular votes tilted heavily against them. Considering that gentrifying cities with renewed inner cores are where the jobs are, flocking to them is a very wise economic choice, but it punishes those who make it because the higher population will be diluted by the number of electoral votes, which have a built in floor of 3, making it possible for smallest states to gain even more influence despite the lack of actual voters. We would need to start eliminating small states for the distribution of electoral votes to more accurately resemble the popular vote, because the way things are set up, we may be headed for many cycles of the majority of voters being bossed around by the minority, a perfect recipe for a bitter political conflict, even in the best of times, unless their main priorities line up. And we know that in America, they haven’t for many years.

While the urbanites’ compliant of underrepresentation is borne out by the math, what about rural voters’ zero-sum economics narrative? Well, in the year 2000, the national GDP was $10.28 trillion to which red counties had contributed $4.73 trillion. Last year it rose to $16.77 trillion, or 38.7% with red counties generating $6 trillion, or 21.8% more. On a per county basis, it was an increase of roughly 16.6% which shows that rather than stagnating or losing economic power, red counties are still productive, it’s just that the cities almost doubled their economies by comparison over this time. Worse yet, the gains from red counties, and much of the gains from the blue ones as well while we’re at it, went solely to the top 5% of earners, so rural and exurban voters aren’t seeing any benefit in their pockets, making it appear like the economy isn’t growing and cities are just eating up their share. It’s not the case, but how many people in any country sit down for a long and tedious number crunching session trying to figure out where the economy is headed when they’re not necessarily economists tasked to do so?

Urbanites, with more diverse economic bases, have shrugged off two major economic hits. Outsourcing and automation hasn’t hit them as hard because few cities rely on manufacturing now, and many service jobs are still a long ways away from being automated, even though they’re still at risk. Being in key spots to influence the steady flow of goods coming from trade partners across the world actually resulted in new jobs for them. Similarly, urbanites who found themselves in trouble had access to local colleges where they’ve retrained themselves for what was to come after the Great Recession finally stopped rocking the job markets. Their primary concerns are utilitarian and favoring the policies that allowed them to thrive. Meanwhile, rural counties have seen businesses and their future generations leave for the cities. Their concerns are more existential and revolve around going back to how things were, recreating a world with which they’re familiar, and if in the process, a policy hurts the cities, they don’t care. They are not moving to the city for a new future, they’re far more interested in turning back the clock.

In a nutshell, this was the case against Trumpism in the National Review, a conservative media establishment in its own right. Republicans who formed the Never Trump wing of the party pointed out that while Americans don’t make consumer goods anymore, they make a whole lot of robots, airplanes, sophisticated, specialized machinery, and other “capital goods” that foreign companies buy on a regular basis. And, in a trend that’s currently catching on in developing nations, manufacturing jobs have shrunk thanks to robots doing all the work, not because the nation is losing manufacturing capacity due solely to bad deals with other countries. Both traditional conservative and liberal pundits also say that with companies controlling these factories now more than ever headquartered in or near major urban hubs, there’s no more investment in the small towns that used to host them, which is swiftly destroying idolized, cozy, exurban and rural Americana for which Trump’s ardent supporters pine. But whereas liberals use this as an example of how corporate America is leeching off the economy, elite conservatives praise it as the free market’s natural drive towards efficiency, say that towns relying on a single industry were doomed anyway, and advise those who live there to rent a U-Haul and move to the big city in search of employment.

Now, if you were following the election coverage, you know exactly how the coveted conservative base reacted to these sentiments: with a deafening and resounding “fuck you!” to their establishment. They’re not interested in any change to the life to which they think they’re entitled by virtue of being born in America and either working long hours, or being willing to work hard. In their quest to restore what they see as their birthright, they’re busy looking for scapegoats for their sudden economic misfortune, and refuse to consider that trickle-down economics was nothing more than wishful thinking on the conservative side which totally ignores how businesses actually work. In the media they consume on a regular basis the narrative will always omit that a whole lot of companies are looking for specialized, highly skilled labor with certain education requirements, pretends that automation of jobs isn’t much of a cause for concern, and that today’s cities, where all the jobs are going or have already gone, are crime-riddled cesspools of mooching minorities who are coddled by evil politicians enslaving them with handouts. But even when they do check the facts and see that cities are thriving, cleaning up, and are safer than they’ve been in many decades and any changes in crime are noted immediately and swiftly acted on, they may not afford to take the advice of traditional conservative thinkers and make the big move.

cobblestone street

This probably won’t be a surprise, but cities are not cheap places to live because as they flooded with new workers and their families, housing inventories dwindled. This is why an updated two bedroom apartment in a suburb can go for upward of $1,700 per month in Columbus, $2,700 in LA, $3,000 in NYC, and $3,500 in San Francisco, compared to a median of $500 to $750 per month in most small towns. And if you were looking at buying a house, expect to spend around $100,000 in rural Indiana versus $300,000 in Columbus, and at least $700,000 in Los Angeles for an updated three to four bedroom home. So the obvious question is how those used to low cost living and moving in search of employment are supposed to afford doubling, if not tripling their expenses overnight. And the obvious answer is that most can’t, which is why many younger people who see the writing on the wall take the first possible opportunity to leave small towns and build their lives in cities while attending colleges that will hopefully give them specialized training in demand by their future employers, who may even recruit on their campuses should they get into the right schools. Older generations are getting stuck in slowly dying small towns where opportunities are drying up and are turning to right wing populist outlets as an emotional salve more and more.

To them, the country has lost its way and is falling apart, and needs a strong conservative hand to guide it back to the greatness they remember with the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. So what if they didn’t win the popular vote before trying to impose their agenda on others? In their view, America is still a nation of small towns, even though we just saw that this is objectively false today and has been for decades, and cities are not important because they’re not big enough to really speak for the nation, despite housing something like two thirds of the population. Meanwhile the cities are trying to harness their growth and address problems posed by growing income disparities and the rising cost of education, outdated road systems and a frequent lack of public transport, and thinking about programs intended to help get those who end up on the streets medicated and employed to help keep crime down, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, and because it’s easier to empathize with poor people when you see them on a regular basis and instantly see the disparity between your life and theirs from a moral standpoint. They have the popular vote and are frustrated by the minority disdainfully and gleefully dismissing their concerns about the future as misguided and irrelevant.

How much do the pro-urban pundits point out that the left actually won the popular vote by millions of ballots only to be told that “hey, the system does not care about the popular vote” or the even more dismissive “that’s mostly in California and New York so who cares?” The former is a stunning reversal of their past ridicule of the Electoral College system, and the latter is simply and glibly dismissing a fifth of the nation’s population, and almost a quarter of the economy, as unworthy of a voice. Ignoring 60 million people and then going after where they live by declaring that they’re seeing the biggest spike in crime in 40 years (they’re not), drowning in unwanted foreigners who are raping and pillaging their cities like invading barbarians (cities popular with refugees and immigrants actually have less crime or stable crime rates), and their urban cores are awash in murderous poverty (they’re actually filling up with jobs, renovating, and gentrifying, as we saw already), isn’t exactly the behavior you’d expect from people just looking for common ground and to build bridges with their fellow Americans. It’s the behavior of internet trolls whose number one goal is to lash out and offend, and urbanites see that all too clearly and losing their will to consider any compromises, which almost always get thrown back in their faces with a hefty dose of bile.

It’s the same frustration as that of the Stay voters in the UK vs. doomsaying of the Leave block and those who now back France’s answer to Trump. And it’s the tension between them being used to ferment unrest and isolationism by Russian intelligence agencies hoping to roll back Western alliances that prevent them from reasserting their power over former Soviet satellites they used as buffer zones during the Cold War. Trade and constant connection to our counterparts across the world is steadily driving people into ever larger and more diverse cities, just like science fiction has been predicting since its heyday in the middle of the past century. But the process is hitting some big and painful snags because, predictably, not everyone really wants to go with the program because they don’t see a future for themselves, or just lack the resources to make the move. For the time being, they don’t even have to as the current system gives them a disproportionate voice, which is both good and bad. The good is that they don’t have to go along with policies in which they’re neglected and loudly show their displeasure. The bad is that it allows them to hold those with very different concerns hostage until their needs are met to their exacting criteria, regardless of how possible this is.

For those who were left behind by globalization, there may be few things as satisfying as watching the jet-set Davos Man class, to whom borders are little more than a trivial formality, squirm. But the problem is that the Davos class has money and power, their squirming is just discomfort of having to merely delay their plans rather than cancel them, and today’s global avatars of anti-globalist populism aren’t getting very far in their agendas because the people who pay their salaries rely on globalization to make their fortunes. To put it bluntly, the views of those whose cash makes the world go round still have a huge amount of pull and will continue pushing for a more integrated world which revolves around major urban hubs. There will still be a very rich local culture around each one, but the notion of cultural homogeneity within one nation’s borders, much less a certain cultural supremacy, are going the way of the dodo. Factories will still be getting automated, software will keep on taking over routine work, the investor class will continue to thrive, and jobs will continue to require ever more advanced and adaptable skills, and more credentials and education will continue to be a necessity, maybe not in the form of degrees, but as at least certificates and apprenticeships.

Gone are the days of a stable job out of high school, employer paid tuitions, pensions, and being able to support a family of four on one salary. From a historical perspective, they were an aberration for only two generations, an inordinately cozy break from the usual gig economy and insecurity after the work dries up and you’re too old for most employers to consider. It came as a direct result of America being the only nation unscathed by World War 2, able to manufacture half the planet’s goods and control most of its shipping lanes as others rebuilt from the charred ruins left by giant bombs, or simply created themselves in the aftermath and had to find their way. It seems like such a great idea to close off from international competition and free trade, but at this point, it would be replaying the very policies that turned a major recession at the end of the Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression on a larger scale. But the rural and Rust Belt voters refuse to hear that there’s no silver bullet, no simple magic solution for their problem, or know their way of life is doomed and just want to go down with a fight because while they won’t stop the future, they can at least delay it at great cost to their urbanite foes. Why? In their view, all those city dwellers aren’t even real people, and if they are, they’re outright evil, so who cares what happens to them…

[ waterfall illustration by Alex Ruiz ]

# politics // cities / economy / future / urban planning


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