These are times, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, that try the souls of American optimists. A strain of insane ideologies, from QAnon to critical race theory, is running through our societies like a virus, infecting everything from political life and media to the schoolroom. Unable to unite even in the face of COVID-19, the country seems to be losing the post-pandemic struggle with China while American society becomes ever more feudalized into separate, and permanently unequal, classes.
Yet underneath the detritus of the age, a more hopeful future could be emerging. It will not be easy to get there and will evolve largely at the personal and local level outside the imbecilic national political culture. America’s recovery won’t come from our failed institutions but from our willingness to change conditions, on our own, when we no longer like them.
This recovery starts with a demonstrated ability to absorb and engage an ever more diverse population, including in our vast interior and suburban periphery. Our economic salvation lies with the creation of new businesses, from street-level retail to the entrepreneurial race into space. And the evidence so far is promising: Last year, after years of decline, new business formations rose to 4.4 million applications, compared to roughly 3.5 million in 2019. Self-employment, pummeled at first by the pandemic, has recovered more rapidly than conventional salaried jobs as more Americans reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs.
And supporting this growth is the bounty of our land itself. Providence has bequeathed us the most fertile, geographically diverse, resource-rich nation on Earth, with the second-largest expanse of arable land behind India, which has three times as many people to feed and far less efficient agriculture. We have land to accommodate people’s housing dreams and not pack them into ever more crowded cities, as other countries are forced to do.
These three key factors — diversity, entrepreneurship, and resources — suggest that, despite the challenges we face, the optimists are right in betting on a bright future for America.
Sadly, the current presidential administration seems inured to these realities and ignores much of our country’s inherent strength. Biden’s approach to urban transit shows how his administration has misunderstood or overlooked the movement of diverse groups of Americans currently taking place around the country.
For example, Biden wants to spend far more on trains and high-speed rail — $165 billion for public transit against only $115 billion to fix and modernize roads and bridges — despite the fact that public transit accounted for less than 2 percent of all urban travel before COVID.
Biden’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg clearly wants to get Americans out of their cars and into trains and buses. He even claims that highways, like much else in pre-Biden America, are inherently racist. Yet public transit is not desirable or feasible for the vast majority of Americans of all races in most of the country. Urban centers like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington accommodate nearly 60 percent of public transit use but only about 6 percent of the country’s jobs. Attempts to get people out of their cars have been a failure virtually everywhere else. Looking at twenty-three completed rail systems over the past decade demonstrates no great tendency towards transit. Overall, where the new systems have opened, the percentage of commuters driving alone has increased.
And critically, the dense urban model, with a job-rich core surrounded by feeder communities, is unraveling. Since 2010, over 90 percent of metropolitan growth has been in suburbs and exurbs, a trend that has been further accelerated by COVID. Many have adapted to new hybrid work models, with remote work being done not only from homes but also in dispersed offices and coffee shops. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom suggests at least 20 percent of the workforce will work remotely even after the pandemic ends, up from 5.7 percent in 2019.
Some, like J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, will try to dragoon more employees into returning to the office, but they will face widespread resistance, according to human relations managers. In a recent survey of over five thousand employed adults, four in ten American workers expected some level of remote work flexibility post-pandemic. For many millennials, the hybrid and dispersed model, including suburban satellite offices, addresses issues like enhanced “life-work balance,” something generally held critical to millennials, and particularly to women with children trying to get back into the labor force as schools reopen, according to a Conference Board survey.
So jobs seem destined to emigrate from downtowns. It’s just a matter of how many and how far, as people find new opportunities elsewhere. Between September 2019 and September 2020, according to the firm American Communities and based on federal data, big cities lost nearly 10 percent of their jobs, followed by their close-in suburbs, while rural areas lost 6 percent and exurbs less than 5 percent.
These losses may well be enhanced by rising crime rates in large cities. Fear of crime now tops even the pandemic as a national concern, and it’s a hotly debated issue in the current New York City mayoral race. The failure to solve these problems is part of the reason that many companies are looking to invest elsewhere, primarily in smaller cities and suburbs, notes Site Selection Magazine.
Progressives’ knee-jerk response to this kind of emigration is evoking the “white flight” narrative, including the charge that suburbs and single-family homes are inherently “racist.” Although suburbs have often discriminated against minorities, in recent decades they have become increasingly integrated. Of the 13.3 million new suburbanites between 2000 and 2010, more than a third were Hispanic, compared to a fifth for whites. Brookings’ William Frey calculated in 2011 that the percentage of suburbanites living in predominantly white suburbs fell from 51 percent to 39 percent during the preceding decade.
The Biden administration misrepresents this phenomenon, too, with a warped view of race relations that seems more attuned to the New York Times newsroom than reality. As the statistics above show, race relations in today’s America, despite all their obvious problems, should be a source of pride, not derision. I am old enough to remember seeing segregated hotels on the road from Washington to Williamsburg. I remember when a non-white person was rarely seen in much of the suburban landscape. Interracial couples, where not banned, were rare and often greeted at best with curiosity.
Today, despite the claims of alarmists on both left and right, America is not headed towards race war. At a time when “progressives” push segregated dorms, set up separate standards for minorities, and warn of “cultural appropriation,” Americans are getting together across racial lines, including in the most intimate ways. Consider the rise and acceptance of interracial dating, up 40 percent since 2003 according to the Census, and marriage, up from 3 percent in 1967 to roughly one in six now.
The dense urban model, with a job-rich core surrounded by feeder communities, is unraveling.
Ironically, this “multiculturalism of the streets,” as my old colleague Sergio Muñoz puts it, is now expanding in unexpected places like the suburban periphery, long castigated as a bastion for white racists. In the fifty largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44 percent of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, which range from 20 percent to 60 percent non-white. Nationwide, in the fifty-three largest metropolitan areas, more than three-quarters of Blacks and 88 percent of Hispanics now live in suburban or exurban areas. According to a recent study by the Urban Reform Institute, between 2000 and 2012–16, the urban core population of Blacks declined by six hundred thousand, while the suburban and exurban Black population increased by 4.4 million.
Minorities are also migrating away from big, coastal, progressive areas to vibrant “breakout cities” like Nashville, Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Phoenix. As the Urban Reform Institute study demonstrates, minorities do better in terms of real incomes and home ownership in various southern and Midwest cities than in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago.
Much the same pattern can be seen among the foreign born. In the past decade, Dallas–Fort Worth, has grown its foreign-born population by 30 percent while Los Angeles and Chicago actually suffered declines and New York largely stagnated, as shown in a recent report from Heartland Forward. Rather than settling in a few places, immigrants are engaging in the latest phase of the great American drama, creating new communities and reinvigorating all kinds of existing ones.
The second key to America’s recovery is investment in its economic resources: supporting its brain trust of entrepreneurs and refocusing on domestic industry.
For a generation, pundits on the right, such as Kevin Phillips, and even more so on the left, from Paul Kennedy and Jane Jacobs to Martin Jacques, have predicted the decline of the United States. To be sure, the combined forces of policy naïveté and corporate greed have left our economy highly vulnerable to other countries, notably to China. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves hostage to China for everything from pharmaceuticals needed to combat the disease’s symptoms to masks and sanitary equipment.
We’re not dependent on other countries for just medical equipment. Cars can’t be built because chip-makers have off-shored so much production to places like Taiwan and Korea; electronic gear does not arrive because it all comes from China and developing countries. China’s rise in particular cost us three million jobs, most painfully evident in the consumer electronics and tech sector. The most notable of these companies is Apple, which is almost completely dependent on production from China. We’re feeding the growth of a ruthless and unscrupulous competitor in China, whose share of the world’s economic output has grown dramatically from 4 percent in 1990 to a projected 21 percent in 2022, according to the World Bank.
But COVID — and the 2016 election of Donald Trump — may have awakened some from their globalist slumbers. The annual rate of jobs coming from offshore has increased from six thousand in 2010 to over four hundred thousand in 2019, suggests the Reshoring Initiative. That year, for the first time in a decade, the percentage of United States manufacturing goods that were imported dropped, a recent Kearny study notes, with much of the shift coming from East Asia.
Even our usually brain-dead political establishment embraces this shift back toward domestic manufacturing, a rare bit of consensus evidenced by the nearly unanimous passage of the “Buy American Act.” Even as the pandemic was shutting down some sectors, growth in medical products, personal protective equipment (PPE) — gowns, gloves, masks, and materials for protective barriers like plexiglass — helped manufacturing grow by seven hundred thousand jobs by June 2020, after hitting a decade-long low earlier in the pandemic.
In reality, China’s challenge is not insurmountable. As its repression of the Uighurs and Hong Kong makes clear, Chinese leaders can no longer maintain power without resorting to brutal measures. Other vulnerabilities, such as a looming demographic decline, including a record-low birth rate, massive corporate debt, and a history of environmental disasters and serial pandemics, make China less than an unassailable superpower.
Our country’s physical endowment is the third key to a reinvigorated America. How we respond to environmental concerns and use our natural energy resources will shape our ability to compete. The relatively strong U.S. economy has been bolstered by the rising use of shale gas, which has reduced greenhouse gases far more than heavily subsidized, intermittent, expensive renewable energy sources. Yet the Biden “climate plan,” already largely in place in California, means higher gas prices, and the administration’s efforts to ban natural gas and nuclear power put us in danger of squandering our enormous resource advantage for the benefit of other countries, notably China.
Under the Paris Accords, newly reentered under Biden, we are allowing China and other competitors to keep producing cheap fossil fuel energy while we essentially obliterate the American energy industry. According to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national fracking ban would cost fourteen million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession, with the potential of instantly turning some now-vital smaller towns into slums. President Biden has promised to spend $500 billion each year on abating climate change — about 13 percent of all federal revenue. The economic impact of this plan, estimates economist Bjorn Lonborg, would reach $5 trillion, more than the entire federal budget.
A renewed America needs the ability to power our economy efficiently as well as more sustainably. Wiping out much of the U.S. economy may not bother university professors, investment bankers, tech oligarchs, and others who are suited to reap rewards from the so-called “great reset.” But it won’t do much for those who work in factories, warehouses, farms, mines, and the energy sector.
The junction of demographic diversity, entrepreneurial ingenuity, and intelligent use of our land resources could help us forge a brighter future for most Americans. The current labor shortage, particularly in industry, seems to be a product of low labor force growth and a sinking birth rate; U.S. labor force growth between ages 16 and 64 has dropped from 20 percent in the 1980s to less than 5 percent in the last decade.
This creates a unique opportunity for working-class Americans. Even before the pandemic, wages for lower-income laborers were rising for the first time in decades. Today, even with high unemployment over 6 percent and over eight million fewer positions available, there are 7.4 million unfilled jobs.
The question is what kind of policy environment would allow these workers and grassroots entrepreneurs who may employ them to take advantage of these changes. The present PC agenda, unfortunately embraced by President Biden, is not what most Americans need. They want jobs and the opportunity to own a home and support their families. In reality, the progressive activists’ agenda is supported by barely 8 percent of the electorate, according to a survey conducted by the nonpartisan More in Common group. Another study found 80 percent of all Americans, including large majorities of millennials and racial minorities, find the “politically correct” agenda “dangerous.”
This suggests that grassroots trends will create conditions for new and often shifting coalitions. Conservatives and many leftists may find areas of agreement on anti-trust regulation, particularly of banks and tech firms. Socially conservative minorities and the traditional Right might find common ground on issues like new sex education standards, child-care policy, or political indoctrination at schools. Conservatives can connect with both minorities such as African-Americans and even more so immigrants, who, according to one recent survey, are twice as conservative in their social views as the general population.
None of this suggests that everyone will embrace a revived American future. Oligarchs, Wall Street, and their corporate and nonprofit allies, backed by their libertarian apologists and consultants, will not want to see their power challenged. Various prominent race-hustlers will resist changing progressives’ political focus from “systemic racism” toward promoting upward mobility, and green scolds will find their analyses and policy demands again questioned, despite the best efforts of the social media mafia to block discussion.
In the long run, however, areas of consensus could emerge once Americans, irrespective of their politics, look for solutions that truly align with our interests and reflect our basic values and aspirations. If we do so, America will grow into a new, reinvigorated version of the land of promise it has been for so many generations of its citizens.
Joel Kotkin is author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, presidential fellow at Chapman University, and executive director of the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute.
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