During the 1980s and 1990s, when many believed that Japan was ascendant and the United States was doomed to become an economic backwater, Joel Kotkin offered a strikingly different thesis. Rather than displace American economic power, Kotkin argued, the rise of East Asia would actually enhance it. The cross-pollination of Japanese ingenuity and American entrepreneurship would spark a transformative productivity boom. Kotkin was vindicated as American manufacturers embraced Japanese managerial innovations, and as heavy investments in information technology, pioneered by lean immigrant-driven start-ups, started to pay off. Far from a liability, the U.S.’s openness to newcomers and its intellectual, cultural, and regional diversity proved a tremendous advantage over the insularity of other societies. So began Kotkin’s long fascination with America’s sokojikara, “a reserve power that allows it to overcome both the inadequacies of its leaders and the foibles of its citizens.”
Yet when many Americans turned triumphalist in the late Clinton era, a time when people sincerely believed that Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan had permanently triumphed over the business cycle, Kotkin offered a cautionary look at potential sources of economic sclerosis, from an inefficient public-sector workforce to severe underinvestment in infrastructure and human capital. By neglecting these key areas, Kotkin worried, the U.S. had created an economic boom that was actually a mirage, one that masked deep long-term problems. His diagnosis resonates very strongly in the wake of the current downturn.
Nevertheless, Kotkin remains an optimist. In The Next Hundred Million, he offers a vivid and compelling portrait of how the American future will unfold between now and 2050, a blip in historical terms that will nevertheless bring a dramatic demographic transformation. Drawing on census projections, Kotkin anticipates a country that is somewhat older and denser, and one in which the post-1960s immigrant influx has left a lasting cultural imprint. Though the U.S. will retain its predominantly Anglo-Protestant culture, defined by a common English language, a Latin influence will be felt in every corner of the country. Intermarriage will blur some racial and cultural distinctions while creating new ones, and the suburbs will serve as the American melting pot. The U.S. will represent an almost unique combination of demographic and economic vitality in the West, with an economy that could be twice as large as Europe’s. Though our population will age, it will do so far more slowly than those of Europe and China, and even Mexico.
As in his book The New Geography (2000), Kotkin focuses on the regions that will rise and decline, and here he represents a decidedly contrarian point of view. In The Option of Urbanism, land-use strategist Christopher Leinberger argued that the central problem facing the American housing market is the severe undersupply of “walkable urbanism,” or neighborhoods in which one can work, shop, and live comfortably without an automobile, or without heavy reliance on an automobile. The result of this severe undersupply is that the small handful of walkable neighborhoods in regions outside of the densely populated northeastern United States command high prices. With this in mind, Leinberger, in a well-regarded essay in The Atlantic in March 2008 titled “The Next Slum?,” famously predicted that the foreclosure crisis would turn much of the auto-dependent suburban fringe into an economic disaster area, cut off from job opportunities and facing a dearth of services. Leinberger’s view resonated with that of such urban scholars as Alan Ehrenhalt and Richard Florida, who have been celebrating the “demographic inversion” of American cities that attract affluent college-educated professionals to their most desirable walkable neighborhoods.
#page#Yet as Kotkin forcefully argues in The Next Hundred Million, the truth is more complicated. While it’s certainly true that some middle-class families choose to live in a handful of dense cities, the large majority continue to prefer the suburbs. As for the much-noted phenomenon of empty-nesters’ returning to the city, a growing number of retirees are actually retiring in situ, choosing the suburbs they know over Sunbelt destinations or urban meccas. At the same time, the suburbs themselves are taking on a greater number of urban characteristics, from increasing ethnic diversity to a wider array of employment opportunities. The downtown-centric city of the past, in which workers commute from bedroom suburbs to central business districts that go dead after 5 p.m., is being replaced by a new and in many respects more attractive rhythm, in which a growing number of workers telecommute and others travel relatively short distances to suburban office parks, giving them more time to spend with family and friends. A growing number of downtowns, in a similar vein, are evolving into mixed-use neighborhoods, with a residential population that is slowly restoring life.
Given that conservative predictions suggest the U.S. population will grow by an extraordinary 100 million over the next four decades (hence the title of the book), it is easy to see how the suburbs and the cities can both flourish. But it is the polycentric, auto-dependent metropolitan areas that, in Kotkin’s view, best meet the needs of the vast majority of Americans. The Parisian model of a handsome, manicured, extremely dense center city ringed by bleak, featureless suburbs won’t take root in the U.S. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will remain extremely unequal, home to elite professionals, a large foreign-born working class that serves them, and a middle class dominated by public-sector workers funded by a punishing tax burden on the aforementioned elite professionals.
The goal for urban policymakers should be to keep urban life safe and appealing enough to retain elite professionals as they age, marry, and have children — an increasingly difficult task. Upwardly mobile working and middle-class families dissatisfied with inadequate public schools and high taxes will continue to leave for the suburbs and suburb-like cities. This is one reason Kotkin has been such a forceful advocate of reforming America’s big cities. As New York and cities like it have grown overly dependent on a small minority of wealthy taxpayers, Kotkin has long called for policies designed to encourage grassroots entrepreneurship, ranging from lower taxes to better schools and infrastructure. In short, he’s made the case for making Los Angeles more like, say, Austin, Texas, a city that has some aspects of the “luxury cities” that attract creative professionals while also offering a relatively low-cost housing stock and a wide range of amenities that appeal to middle-class families.
Over the last ten years, as housing prices skyrocketed, Americans moved from city to city and from state to state at a breakneck pace, and much of this movement was from high-cost metropolitan areas in the Northeast and California to the Mountain West and the South. This reflects the simple but powerful fact that the same income buys far more house in suburban Houston than in suburban New York. Now, however, this churning is slowing down, and Kotkin anticipates a structural shift in which Americans will tend to establish deeper roots in their neighborhoods and regions. For Kotkin, the region to watch is the Great Plains, where a modest cost of living and a well-educated population in states like North Dakota and Iowa will spark an economic renaissance. Some small towns will continue to fade away, but others will find new life as hubs for telecommuters who appreciate a slower pace of life and the ability to be near large extended families. The Red River valley will flourish as a technology hub, while California’s Silicon Valley and Manhattan’s Silicon Alley will suffer as high costs drive out all but the affluent and young singles. A region that once appeared to be in terminal decline will come back to life, demonstrating the power of American sokojikara.
California, with its beautiful Mediterranean climate, can pursue self-destructive economic policies and be confident that a few million sun-worshippers will grin and bear it. Fargo and Omaha and Provo know that their task is somewhat more difficult, which is why they focus on offering value for money. None of America’s rivals has a hinterland as vast and attractive — and that’s an edge that’s not going away anytime soon.
– Mr. Salam, a policy adviser at e21, blogs at agenda.nationalreview.com.