by Bruce Fisher
Joel Kotkin predicts growing population, growing suburbanization
Günter Grass, the German author of The Tin Drum who won the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple of years before ‘fessing up to having been in the Waffen SS, wrote a few not-so-famous books about a subject Rust Belt people know about: dying out. The German birth-rate is low. The Italians aren’t making many babies, either. Member-states of the European Union have reproduction rates that won’t sustain current population levels of actual Europeans, which partly explains why some nativist political movements are getting stronger: Immigrants brought in as “guest workers” are a growing share of the population, and ethnic Europeans are getting nervous. Many of the children born in Europe today are being raised as Muslims by parents who may live in Germany, France, or Norway but who were born in Turkey, Algeria, or Kurdistan. Grass’s novel Headbirths, Or, The Germans Are Dying Out was a political allegory about running out of Germans.
Every once in a while in a Grass novel, he mentions Buffalo. It’s the city where Oskar Matzerath’s grandfather went on, if indeed he didn’t drown in a lumber-raft disaster on a Polish river, to become a millionaire. Grass wrote an absurdist play about Buffalo, a place that two German locomotive workers never quite get to but are heading for. In Grass’s imagination, Buffalo is a fabled place of possibility, if slightly insane, as Buffalo is America.
But in Joel Kotkin’s new book about the coming population explosion in America, it’s best to keep the German’s worry about his volk fading away in mind, as the story of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 has an upbeat, positive take on the coming American Century, but not much to say about places like ours.
The American recipe for growth
Only one of the five published projections of population trends in the Buffalo-Niagara area sees this region growing by 2035. The US Census, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the New York State Comptroller all project that Erie and Niagara counties will continue to shrink. Only the Greater Buffalo Niagara Transportation Council holds to a model that produces an output that says that the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region will start growing again starting about 20 years from now. The growth: from today’s regional population of 1.27 million to (drum roll, please) 1.29 million, an increase of about 20,000. But only after more shrinkage first.
Kotkin’s book is about the rest of America. By 2050, if cataclysmic climate change hasn’t made large parts of the Southeast, Southwest, and California uninhabitable, the Census predicts that the United States will have grown from 308 million today to 400 million people. Kotkin’s book is about how America gets there, and also why. It’s hard not to like this book. He is no ideologue, though his essays and op-eds are often published on the highly tendentious and ideological pages of the Wall Street Journal. Kotkin is a futurist an MBA can like, because his analyses are data-driven. But mainly, Kotkin is positive about the very trends that progressives, secularists, and New Urbanists find very hard to like.
Where will the next 100 million Americans live? Kotkin thinks he knows: While 20 million may indeed find their way into the urban cores, most will live in the multi-nodal, car-defined suburbs. Will rising energy costs and a desire for density “force” empty-nesters back downtown? Not likely, says Kotkin—and the sprawled-out megacities of Houston, LA, Atlanta, and Miami will become the dominant paradigm of metro life. The strip shopping plaza may make Jane Jacobs aficionados wince, but in the West, the Southwest, Texas, and all across the Southeast, that’s where the folks are going to continue to want to be. Meanwhile, the “superstar” cities—Manhattan, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle—will become even more luxurious playgrounds for the owning class, folks who are so much richer than everybody else that these places will have next to no middle class residents at all, only tycoons and their servants.
Meanwhile, by 2050, massive immigration will have transformed the American racial drama from the tired white-versus-black, suburb-versus-city tape-loop drama of Buffalo into a non-drama of interracial marriages, multiracial children, and multi-local networks where everything positive about diversity will trump old resentments and old boundaries.
Kotkin says that the American birth-rate, American productivity, and American economic growth are so unrelentingly positive compared to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, African, and European trends that we will still dominate the planet even though there will always be many more Chinese and Indians than us. Reports of our demise, he says, are more about politics than about facts.
As immigrants (even fictional ones) from across the planet know, it’s still good to become an American, and we still get the restless strivers crossing our borders every which way they can. Census data shows that while refugees tend to congregate in cities, the less-stressed head for the ‘burbs.
But all is not rosy, even in Kotkin’s rose-tinged reckoning. He is immensely critical of the immense polarization of income and wealth in the Bill Clinton-George Bush-Barack Obama years. He worries about stuffing all the rewards of enterprise into the hands of financial speculators, the US risks the potential demise of the one magical ingredient of American success—namely, the idea, reinforced by many real experiences, that by independence, clean living, hard work, and educational uplift, a person or a family can get a piece of the pie.
And Kotkin is much more upbeat about energy and environmental issues than the specialists tend to be. James Kunstler and other exponents of the Peak Oil hypothesis recently had a sad confirmation, by no less than Saudi Arabian oil executives whose admissions were published in those Wikileaks disclosures, that Peak Oil may be here within the next year. Here’s what Peak Oil means, in a nutshell: Anybody stuck far from workplaces, schools, healthcare providers, food sources, and the other commonplaces of life will see more and more of his or her after-tax disposable income get devoured by the cost of running a car.
Most analysts expect much more public transportation, not less. Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida are busily spurning federal funds for high-speed rail, but Republicans and Democrats elsewhere are generally supportive of major rail, light-rail and subway improvements. (Republicans in Northern Virginia last year instructed their House and Senate colleagues to cool the rhetoric and just put the money up for extending the Washington, DC metro system all the way to Dulles Airport). In the mega-cities and certainly in the “superstar” cities, enhanced public transportation systems are a much better bet than Kotkin acknowledges.
But do the math: If you commute the times and distances that are typical in Rust Belt metros, which is to say, commutes that are shorter and quicker than the national averages of 45 minutes and 20+ miles, gasoline could rise to $10 a gallon, and still, most of the behavior of staying solo in the car would persist.
Infrastructure decisions shape lives for decades to come. Take the UB Amherst Campus, for example. The Greater Buffalo Regional Transportation Council plan for 2035 quotes a UB review of its constituents’ transportation behaviors: Today, nine out of 10 teachers drive solo to work at the suburban campus, while the overwhelming majority of students who don’t live on campus do the same.
A much better bet for energy-efficient, cost-effective people-moving and goods-moving is the city. Kotkin acknowledges this, even as he observes that the oil-sucking, car-focused suburban Sunbelt formula won’t be easily disrupted.
The short, sad sum of this story: While the rest of the country will get the next 100 million people, and in the course of doing so will embrace the New Urbanists and the movement toward sustainable communities that use less energy and that spare middle-class wallets, in a Rust Belt region like ours, nothing short of sustained, assertive campaigning for re-tooling transportation will get more people to use it. Without a leader and a campaign, or better, an ongoing movement with a chorus of voices chanting a wake-up call, we will remain stuck with the sprawled-out structure of a Houston, an LA, or a Phoenix. But unlike those immigrant-friendly, entrepreneur-friendly places, we today lack—and will continue to lack—the population to replace all our Günter Grass characters as they age out and trend toward the cemeteries that were our first suburbs. Funny, those: how densely they’re settled!
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.