At this time of year, with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, there's a tendency to look back at our lives and those of our families. We should be thankful for the blessings of living in an America where small dreams could be fulfilled.
For many, this promise has been epitomized by owning a house, with a touch of green in the back and a taste of private paradise. Those most grateful for this opportunity were my mother's generation, which grew up in the Great Depression. In her life, she was able to make the move from the tenements of Brownsville, Brooklyn, first to the garden apartments of Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, and, eventually, to a mass-produced suburban house on Long Island.
Barrels of ink and money have been devoted to predictions of where Americans will migrate, particularly younger ones. If you listen to big developer front groups such as the Urban Land Institute or pundits like Richard Florida, you would believe that smart companies that want to improve their chances of cadging skilled workers should head to such places as downtown Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco, leaving their suburban office parks deserted like relics of a bygone era.
One supposed trend, much celebrated in the media, is that younger people are moving back to the city, and plan to stay there for the rest of their lives. Retirees are reportedly following suit.
Urban theorists such as Peter Katz have maintained that millennials (the generation born after 1983) show little interest in “returning to the cul-de-sacs of their teenage years.” Manhattanite Leigh Gallagher, author of the dismally predictable book The Death of Suburbs, asserts with certitude that “millennials hate the suburbs” and prefer more eco-friendly, singleton-dominated urban environments.
China's recent decision to reverse – at least in part – its policy limiting most couples to one child marks a watershed in thinking about demographics. Yet, this reversal of the 30-year policy may prove unavailing due to reasons – notably dense urbanization and high property prices – that work against people having more children.
China already faces a demographic crisis unprecedented for a still-poor country. By 2050, China will have 60 million fewer people under 15 years of age, while the over-65 population grows by 190 million, approximately the population of Pakistan, the world's sixth-most populous country. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that China's population will peak in 2026, and then will age faster than any country besides Japan; most of the world's decline in children and workers ages 15-19 over the next two decades will take place in China.
Its image further enhanced by the recent IPO of Twitter, Silicon Valley now stands in many minds as the cutting edge of the American future. Some, on both right and left, believe that the Valley's geeks should reform the nation, and the government, in their image.
The imminent departure of New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and his replacement by leftist Bill DeBlasio, represents an urban uprising against the Bloombergian “luxury city” and the growing income inequality it represents. Bloomberg epitomized an approach that sought to cater to the rich—most prominently Wall Street—as a means to both finance development growth and collect enough shekels to pay for services needed by the poor.
When I arrived in Los Angeles almost 40 years ago, there was a palpable sense that here, for better or worse, lay the future of America, and even the world. Los Angeles dominated so many areas — film, international trade, fashion, manufacturing, aerospace — that its ascendency seemed assured. Even in terms of the urban form, L.A.’s car-dominated, multipolar configuration was being imitated almost everywhere; it was becoming, as one writer noted, “the original in the Xerox” machine.
Obamacare's first set of victims was predictable: the self-employed and owners of small businesses. Since the bungled launch of the health insurance enrollment system, hundreds of thousands of self-insured people have either had their policies revoked or may find themselves in that situation in the coming months.
With the social media frenzy at a fever pitch, people may be excused for thinking that Silicon Valley is still the main engine for growth in the technology sector. But a close look at employment data over time shows that tech jobs are dispersing beyond the Valley and its much-celebrated urban annex of San Francisco.
The public stock offering by Twitter reflects not only the current bubble in social media stocks, but also the continuing shift in both economic and political power away from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area, home to less than one in five state residents. Not since the late 19th century, when San Francisco and its environs dominated the state, has influence been so lopsidedly concentrated in just one region.
In his classic 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner spoke of “the expansive character of American life.” Even though the frontier was closing, Turner argued, the fundamental nature of Americans was still defined by their incessant probing for “a new field of opportunity.” Turner’s claim held true for at least a century—during that time, the American spirit generated relentless technological improvement, the gradual creation of a mass middle class, and the integration of ever more diverse immigrants into the national narrative.
Despite some hype and a few regional exceptions, the construction of office towers and suburban office parks has not made a significant resurgence in the current recovery. After a century in which office space expanded nationally with every uptick in the economy, we may have reached something close to “peak office” in most markets.
In this strange era of self-congratulation in California, it may be seen as poor manners to point out tectonic shifts that could leave the state and, particularly, Southern California, more economically constrained and ever more dependent on asset bubbles, such as in real estate. One of the most important changes on the horizon is the shift of economic power and influence away from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast – the Third Coast – a process hastened by the imminent widening of the Panama Canal.
Historically, progressives were seen as partisans for the people, eager to help the working and middle classes achieve upward mobility even at expense of the ultrarich. But in California, and much of the country, progressivism has morphed into a political movement that, more often than not, effectively squelches the aspirations of the majority, in large part to serve the interests of the wealthiest.
Perhaps nothing is as critical to America’s future as the trajectory of the middle class and improving the prospects for upward mobility. With middle-class incomes stagnant or falling, we need to find a way to generate jobs for Americans who, though eager to work and willing to be trained, lack the credentials required to enter many of the most lucrative professions.
Mid-skilled jobs in areas such as manufacturing, construction and office administration — a category that pays between $14 and $21 an hour — can provide a decent standard of living, particularly if one has a spouse who also works, and even more so if a family lives in a relatively low-cost area. But mid-skilled employment is in secular decline, falling from 25% of the workforce in 1985 to barely 15% today.