How are we ever supposed to improve our economic situation if we can’t even agree on what the problems are? Here we are, a good two-three years through the Greatest Recession/Depression/Indigestion since the 1930s and we’re still arguing about who did what tho whom when.
The trouble with current events is they’re just too darn current to benefit from the perspective of history, and history is too darn historic to easily apply to the current situation.
Perhaps even more perspective is necessary. This winter I read, and re-read, some books and articles and blogs trying to remember how the Longest Peacetime Prosperity in living memory went to hell in a handbasket so fast. At first glance the common wisdom is that the Greedy Wall Street Bankers just put the shaft to all the rest of us. As much as I love to hate Greedy Wall Street Bankers, I seldom trust the common wisdom.
At second glance, you can find plenty of pundits—left, right and center—blaming not only the Greedy Wall Street Banks but everybody else and their brother. It’s all George Bush’s fault (both George Bushs). It’s all the Liberal Democrats’ fault. It’s all Europe’s fault. It’s all China’s fault. It’s all Osama bin Laden’s fault. yada yada yada. Who did what is a question for the prosecutors, but how can we move forward if we can’t understand how we got here?
At third glance, I’m thinking of that old cartoon of the blind men describing the elephant. Who is right? Yes. Everybody’s right…. and everybody’s wrong. It’s all two (or more) sides of the same coin. And the coin I’m most interested in helps us understand where we go from here.
Analyst Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in California and principal provocateur at NewGeography.com, released a thought-provoking book last year called The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Kotkin focuses less on the economics and more on demographics. As Europe, Russia and Japan age in place, and China and India deal with overwhelming poverty and urbanization, America holds the dynamic middle ground. We offer Opportunity with a Capital ‘O’—not as in Obama, but as in room to grow and prosper:
“History has much to tell us about the relationship between demographics and national destiny. People do not line up to occupy deck chairs on a sinking ship, and if they find themselves stuck on one, they certainly do not start having children…. The notion of inevitable American decline, although often accurate in its critique of aspects of American society, consistently underestimates America’s proven adaptability.”
Kotkin goes on to describe examples of that adaptability enabled by the dynamics of growth and change. He talks about Cities of Aspiration and Archipelago of Villages arising in our fastest growing cities like Austin and Denver, and reborn suburbs across the country. He talks about a Resurgent Heartland as middle class families seek affordable lifestyles in Fargo and Omaha and the Wenatchee Valley in Washington state. And he talks alot about a post-ethnic America, not exactly a melting pot but an exciting diversity of diverseness; a place where people have choices.
Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto and evangelist for the “Creative Class“, often seems at conflict with Kotkin’s “glass-half-full” optimism. Kotkin lauds L.A.’s auto-oriented suburban sprawl over Florida’s urban density. Florida lauds the expertise of the Creative Class over Kotkin’s blue-collar tribes. Yet both, to me, seem to have more in common than in disagreement.
Last year Florida published his analysis of the current situation, called The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity. The professor gets in his way-back machine and revisits the technologically challenging decades after the US Civil War, when the American economy exploded onto the world stage of industrialization. He looks in-depth at the Long Depression of 1873, which I’ve always heard called a “Panic” (he gets into terminology of economic destabilization if you’re interested). The “First Reset”, he writes “engendered a fundamental shift in the organization of production itself.” The First Reset built our big industrial cities, where the Second Reset (the Great Depression) gave rise to suburbanization. He goes on to describe the current unpleasantness as another Reset and offer his insights for the future of our economy and ubanization.
Really, we’re talking abut the same thing here.
We’re talking about a future where people are much more mobile worldwide, where they can do business in Shanghai or San Antonio, and choose to live in Bozeman or London or Whitefish, Montana. Cities that build the infrastructure to compete for the Creative Class may very well do better than those who continue business as usual. But also most people won’t be making choices between China and Chicago, they’ll be choosing between Charlotte and Schaumburg, places with the resources and room to grow up AND out.
It’s not a lose-lose proposition of cities vs. suburbs or Asia vs America. There are some important and urgent policy choices that serve one approach better than the other, but there are many policy choices that get us all to the same place. We all do certain things well and we all have to keep our eye on how those certain things change. Both of these books help keep our eyes on that prize. They are both well-written, amply documented and easy to read in one sitting or at your bedside table.
Enjoy, and let me know what you think.