Friday, June 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Kotkins

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533), with a disturbingly unidentifiable object floating at their feet.
Shorter David Brooks, "Where America is Working", New York Times, June 3 2016:
One of the many things wrong with the ongoing presidential campaign is how it focuses on what's wrong with America, like the struggling white neighborhoods of the industrial Midwest, where the Trump voters are, although they're not struggling themselves, which makes them desperate for change. The result is a campaign driven by fear, resentment, and pessimism, which is obviously Trump's fault, since nobody in these places would be frightened, resentful, or pessimistic if not for his baleful influence. 
We should focus instead on the neighborhoods that are working well. For example, cities: sprawling, gas-guzzling Joel Kotkin cities like Houston and tightly-zoned, hipster Richard Florida cities like Portland are both doing well. Since both models are successful, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, we should be having a debate about which one is best.
That's the suburban futurologist Joel Kotkin, to whom Brooks devotes a more or less annual tribute (he missed last year, and in 2011) on the theory that Houston represents the ideal of what an American city should be. Today's column is, in a manner of speaking, the 2016 edition of the Kotkin offering, but something, as we'll see, goes dreadfully wrong.

I'm really not seeing that initial point about how the campaign is driven by fear, resentment, and pessimism, perhaps because I try to keep up with what the Democrats are talking about. Important as Trump and his electorate may be, there's a whole other side to the contest, where people are always talking about creating jobs and rebuilding the middle class and America is Already Great, and the tone is really pretty cheerful. Fear plays a role, but it's mainly fear of Trump, which we are starting to experience as a unifying factor.

When Brooks finally makes that voyage he's been promising to make out of the bourgeois strata and across the chasms of segmentation into the pain, to overcome his defects as a journalist and get socially intermingled, he might want to make some side trips to places where he could meet some people hoping to get something good out of the voting process, like progress and stuff.

(It's possible that after his visits to Pittsburgh, Lansing [WV], and Lost Hills [CA], he feels he has already spent all the time he needs in the Heart of Whiteness.)

Indeed, he might visit the struggling white neighborhoods in the industrial Midwest where Trump has decided to focus his campaign—

Trump’s general election focus on the swing states of the industrial Midwest means that Hillary Clinton will have to focus her efforts there, too. The whole tenor of the fall campaign will be shaped by the pain of towns that are in long-term decline — where people feel economically adrift and culturally left behind. (paragraph 7)
—where he might learn, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes in this week's New Yorker, they aren't actually struggling all that much:
And yet in Michigan—in most of the Midwest, really—the economy is doing O.K. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa all have unemployment rates well below the national average of five per cent, and Ohio and Indiana are just a touch higher than average, at 5.2 per cent. Among Midwestern states, only Illinois’s unemployment is significantly higher than the national average, and when people talk about the decline of the Rust Belt no one really means Illinois. It’s hard to know exactly how to get beyond the top-line statistics to understand how shaken people are by a recession, but one way is to examine economic instability. When Yale’s Jacob Hacker led a study that did so, no Midwestern state ranked among the places where instability was most acute. (Those were mostly in the South.) In Michigan especially, Hacker found, over-all levels of economic instability were remarkably low.
Or all that interested in Trump, either:
...even now, as the polls give Trump a higher chance at the Presidency than ever, the possibility of a revolution in the Midwest still looks like conjecture. Last week, Bloomberg Politics published the results of a poll of middle-class voters (those with family incomes between thirty thousand and seventy thousand dollars) in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They found that Trump does not even have the support among these voters that Mitt Romney had. The poll had him trailing Hillary Clinton by nine per cent. Writing up the results, John McCormick, of Bloomberg, noted that Trump is “failing—at least so far—to dominate among the sort of voters thought to be more sympathetic to him.” The word that middle-class Midwesterners volunteered most often when they were asked to describe how they felt about the election was “afraid,” which is the word people tend to use when they are alarmed by Donald Trump.
To Wallace-West, the idea of the Midwest-focused campaign is more of an indication of how inept the Trump operation is, driven more by metaphor than reality. It's the Rust Belt in his mind he's fighting for, not the one in the Great Lakes region. The same thing applies clearly to David Brooks.

But in any event:

But there’s another America out there, pointing to a different political debate. For while people are flooding out of the Midwest, they are flooding into the South and the West. The financial crisis knocked many Sun Belt cities to their knees, but they are back up and surging. Jobs and people are now heading to Orlando, Phoenix, Nashville, Charlotte, Denver and beyond. (paragraph 10)
Here's where the alert Brooksologist might begin to sense the approach of a Joel Kotkin reference; and indeed there's one right there, though lightly disguised; you won't know it's him unless you click the link, to a March article by Kotkin in Forbes, hailing Census Department evidence that his theories are looking somewhat healthier than they have for the past five years (Houston was the top population gainer in numbers, though not in percentages, but Brooks doesn't mention that).

Sure enough, Kotkin shows up in person a couple of paragraphs later:

There are two kinds of places that are getting it right. The first we might call Richard Florida cities, after the writer who champions them. These are dense, highly educated, highly communal places with plenty of hipsters. These cities, like Austin, Seattle and San Francisco, have lots of innovation, lots of cultural amenities, but high housing prices and lots of inequality.
The second kind of cities we might call Joel Kotkin cities, after the writer who champions them. These are opportunity cities like Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City. These places are less regulated, so it’s easier to start a business. They are sprawling with easy, hodgepodge housing construction, so the cost of living is low. Immigrants flock to them. (paragraphs 11-12)
The theory being that car-dependent sprawl cities without downtown districts or any particular zoning laws are economically better designed than the walkable towns dotted with narrow apartment blocks, coffee shops, and pocket parks, theoretically associated with the urbanist Richard Florida, whose work of 10 or 15 years ago focused on the concept of the "creative class" as a driver of urban development—although Florida isn't so much a "champion" as a theorist, and it's not at all an accurate reflection of Florida's current work, in fact, which is more concerned with problems associated with those charming environments, including higher levels of income inequality and residential segregation, and even the rise of Donald Trump as prefigured by Jane Jacobs.

On the other hand not even Kotkin actually believes his Houston-is-best theory any more—Brooks has to link, paragraph 13, to a two-year-old article for a citation. Because it isn't just sprawl cities that are springing back; in his latest results in population growth or job growth (see the paragraph 10 link), sprawl-fighting cities like Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh, are up there with Phoenix and Orlando; and in his job growth figures, places doing spectacularly well include the non–Sun Belt burgs of San Francisco, San Jose, and Portland, Ore. And New York.

Kotkin never really had a theory, you know. He only thought he had one because he doesn't understand basic economics. People move to the low-wage sprawl cities because housing prices are low, meaning they don't really want to live there; people live to the high-wage well-designed cities because they want to live there, meaning housing prices are high. Success can work either way, for reasons that don't really involve the contrast between the two.


We should be having a debate between the Kotkin model and the Florida model, between two successful ways to create prosperity, each with strengths and weaknesses. That would be a forward-looking debate between groups who are open, confident and innovative. That would be a debate that, while it might divide by cultural values and aesthetics, wouldn’t divide along ugly racial lines.
I.e., will you all please stop talking about white people? Let's talk about zoning instead!

Urban planning doesn't create prosperity one way or the other! It reflects the different kinds of prosperity brought by different kinds of industry. (If Houston itself ever succeeds in diversifying itself economically away from the energy industry—it still hasn't despite decades of trying, whatever Kotkin wants to tell you—it will, mark my words, turn to fancy planning the way Brooklyn has turned in the last 10 or 15 years.) If both are successful, why would we try to force the nation to choose between them; wouldn't "we" be better welcoming both?

And besides what kind of debate would that be, in the context of a federal election? It could only be a debate about whether the federal government should do anything about it or not—Florida proposes a Department of Cities, Kotkin doesn't (he'd pretty much like to suppress HUD). It would divide along ugly racial lines in exactly the way the current campaign is dividing, too, as usual, with the Democratic side deeply multiracial and the Republican nearly all-white.

A prospect Kotkin himself seems to regard with some enthusiasm, if we're to judge by the excited blurb he ran in RealClearPolitics on Wednesday:
Megabuck donors like San Francisco’s Tom Steyer are committed to forcing Clinton to embrace progressive green orthodoxy. This will leave many mid-America workers and businesspeople feeling abandoned and, thus, potentially more receptive to Trump’s pitch. Ultimately, suggests historian Michael Lind, Trump could presage the transformation of the GOP into a middle-class populist party, with a strong Midwestern as well as Southern base, while the Democrats rest their hopes on an unlikely coalition of the coastal gentry, the hyper-educated, minorities, and the poor.
So far, the crass New York billionaire has played brilliantly on middle-American resentments, many of them well-founded. He promises repeatedly to cut a “better deal” for them. If he can convincingly make his case, Donald Trump also might yet close the most successful real estate deal of his lifetime: occupancy of the White House.
Putting it a little cleverly: his transformed Republicans don't have any particular racial identity, but all the minorities seem to not be there. (I should add that Steyer isn't "forcing" Clinton to embrace environmental activism, she's been strongly (if not always very loudly) committed on these issues for years.)

Well, then, in any event, here's a howdy-do: old Kotkin appears to have gone to the dark side and signed up for H.M.S. Trump! How ghastly! Do you suppose Brooks knows about this treachery?

And the funny thing is, we can prove he does. Because you know that paragraph 7 of today's column, reproduced near the top, beginning with "Trump's general election focus"? You see the link up there, without any name-check? You wouldn't think it was anything but an ordinary news story—to the Washington Post, say—but it's not. It's to this very Kotkin article, which is thus shown to be the whole column's point of reference.

In this way the column has a secret structure that the reader can't see; a kind of dialogue between Brooks and Kotkin in which Kotkin's part is suppressed. Pleading with Kotkin, apparently—"Come back, dear Joel!"—to return to his higher, more beautiful, pre-Trump nature. Printed in the New York Times, but more or less completely incomprehensible to the paying audience, who can only see the gobbledygook reflected in the Shorter, looking senseless but sinister, like Holbein's anamorphic skull.

Corrected image, via Deke's Techniques.
Driftglass works the other side of the room, on laughter and forgetting.

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