My two grandfathers had very different lives. Grandpa Henley was rooted in place as a firefighter with deep connections to his community in Amarillo, Texas. Papa Ladd was transient, moving like the wind in search of work. For him, Amarillo was a kind of moon around which he orbited but seldom landed. Neither was wealthy, but Grandpa Henley lived a comfortable life while Papa Ladd was consistently poor.
Grandpa Henley lived in the same home almost his entire adult life. He had relocated from Arkansas when he was young, but once he established himself he stayed put, dying of old age in the house he purchased when his children were small. There were too many people at his funeral to fit in the church. I have no idea how many places Papa Ladd lived before finally passing in a rented house in Oklahoma that he shared with a woman I had never known. There was no one to collect his remains but my uncles. Success and connectedness once depended on being rooted to a place. Transience was a product and engine of poverty.
Like my less prosperous grandfather, my family are transients. We live more than a thousand miles from my hometown, moving homes every few years. I can’t establish a reliable count of my former addresses, but my life outcomes reflect a major cultural shift. My most successful peers are even more mobile than I am, with even fewer ties to community and place. My least successful peers have the strongest ties to community and the fewest house moves. Global capitalism and the rise of an information economy have inverted the calculus of life, turning local ties into an expensive luxury with serious life consequences.
Can a democracy organized around the mediating influence of social capital survive the rise of transience? Can this system function when so few of its brightest, most talented and successful people can name a single local politician? Perhaps, but across the world the results so far don’t look promising.
Americans still use the word “transient” as a euphemism for homelessness. It’s most often encountered in crime stories or tales of desperate poverty. We celebrate the adventurousness of our pioneers, but only in the distant past, after the realities of their circumstances have faded. Nobody packed their meagre belongings into a wagon and set out for Oregon because they’d been wildly successful in Cleveland. Across our history there’s been no success quite as powerful as finding a place for oneself at home. The signature story of America’s transients has been The Grapes of Wrath. Until now.
Thanks to a rapid transformation of the global economy, success is now virtually inseparable from transience. Permitting one’s attachments to a place, especially a place outside one of the country’s top ten major metros, to limit one’s career ambitions, is a painfully expensive compromise. And remaining tied to a small town or rural area is economic self-sabotage. Investing in a community is a luxury, to be cast aside when opportunity beckons. Economic rewards from transience are spectacular, while rootedness now brings devastating opportunity costs.
America’s most elite colleges, the ones which draw students from the broadest national base, now funnel the majority of their graduates into our five biggest coastal cities and Chicago.
Where my grandparents sought to put down roots at the first available moment, the most successful members of our younger generations remain more or less permanently on the wing. They start their careers living downtown. They may settle in a suburb just long enough for their kids to enjoy an education, moving two or three times locally as their income rises. Throughout that time they might never vote in a city election or know the name of their mayor while voting in every national race. When their kids are done with school, they’re back downtown in one city or another, while spending much of their free time in travel. At the end of their lives they might not remember the names of more than two or three of their former neighbors.
A disconnect has developed between the demands of our politics and the demands of our economy. Our political system still depends on the active, personal engagement of talented people with deep ties to local communities. As described in The Politics of Crazy, these networks of local participation have always been the filter limiting the reach of the corrupt, the fanatical and the lunatics. Meanwhile, our economy now hands out its most lucrative rewards to those who live like hummingbirds, punishing those who cultivate local connections.
Transience brings economic rewards that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. At the same time, it is robbing our political system of the high quality local engagement that makes our democracy work. Barely one percent of Americans are politically active. Apart from a few dedicated enthusiasts, the only competent people left participating in local government are those with material interests, like realtors and real estate developers, along with a few noisy cranks. Sustain this condition long enough and you end up with a political system dominated at all levels by a coalition between hustlers and lunatics.
What happens to the people left behind in America’s old hometowns? Apart from a few smaller towns that benefit from state capitals or universities, quality of life in our little Mayberrys has deteriorated.
We’ve passed a threshold in the declining value of land that started with the Industrial Revolution. Traditionally, rural land supported three main economic pursuits, agriculture, resource extraction and energy production. Small towns scattered across the country provided services for rural residents and sites for small manufacturing. There’s little remaining need for labor in any of these processes. We’ve probably already reached “Peak Farmland,” the point beyond which our need for agricultural land goes into permanent decline. Absent a dense network of government supports that would make a Soviet smile, there would be virtually no family farming in this country today.
In the world’s advanced economies, almost all of the serious money now comes from knowledge industries. Those industries yield higher returns by concentrating near each other. Even the energy industry, the last bastion of small-town support, is on its way to a low-labor, knowledge-driven future with solar beginning to outperform fossil fuels even without price supports. Knowledge industries crave concentration and have little need for land.
Across the longest economic boom in our history, rural poverty has grown to match urban levels, with upward mobility for rural residents moving into steep decline. Whites in particular who remained in hometowns outside the country’s major cities aren’t just making less money, they are dying off at an accelerating rate. In a reversal of course we haven’t seen in modern times, mortality rates are actually increasing and lifespans shrinking for aging rural whites. All the stereotypes we once attached to “the ghetto” now more accurately apply to our bucolic countryside and our charming old hometowns.
Can anything revive the fortunes of rural areas and provide some balance against the culture of transience? The most promising solutions are being fought most bitterly by the those who would benefit the most. Universal health care and a universal basic income would be a lifeline for areas passed over by the knowledge economy. That combo would give new purpose to places that offer inexpensive housing and a chance to build community far from the demands on America’s bustling big cities.
Increased immigration would add vitality to otherwise dying, shrinking communities. We’re not talking about the competition for high-skilled, knowledge economy workers who would be drawn into the already booming cities, but the desperate, determined people looking to build life and community in a safe place. They could bring energy, innovation and much-needed tax revenue to places left behind while strengthening community bonds.
And to keep the whole machine healthy, we need to take some very simple steps to limit the power of those local cartels developing between hustlers and cranks. In urban areas ostensibly benefiting from the culture of transience, these cartels have morphed into blood-sucking political vampires. Exploiting the low-political activism of their transient population, these political cartels have worked to bleed the new migrants with exploitative zoning and development rules. These existing property owners become rentiers, parasites siphoning wealth from the newcomers while producing negative value. San Francisco is leading the world in creating new wealth, while its exploitative local politics has produced an artificial housing crisis and a stunning boom in homelessness.
Despite the rewards of transience, overall, fewer Americans are moving than ever. Millions more Americans would have relocated to America’s economic boomtowns but for the interference of their rentiers. The knock-on effects of preferential zoning in places in San Francisco and Boston are felt by families who remain stuck in Dayton or St Louis, unable to raise enough capital to pay the tolls imposed by local trolls in major centers.
Preserving democracy in an age of transience probably means cutting some of our losses on its most expensive, least successful institutions. Measures being considered in places like California and Massachusetts that would limit the power of local governments are probably just the beginning of what we need. Tokyo has a population roughly the size of California, with housing and transit costs running at a fraction of what Bay Area residents face. Our housing costs are an artificial problem created by a broken political system.
And finally, if democracy will survive at all in an environment that rewards a consumer rather than a citizen lifestyle, our system must evolve. We must all recognize the direct, material costs of our complacency. Those still interested in citizenship must learn to leverage the tools of a transient culture to replicate social capital in social media. We don’t know how to do this yet, as our experience so far in social media demonstrates. But if we want to keep a democracy we will have to learn.
Both of my grandfathers would have viewed my rootless, transient lifestyle with horror, as a recipe for failure. The demands of success have changed. Our culture and politics must adapt to these evolving demands. Much of what we must do now to be successful financially leaves us vulnerable politically. The rise of transience has bred political instability which probably won’t destroy that mobile lifestyle, but could spell the end of democracy. We should find a way to preserve both while we still can.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.