A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 25, 2013

Two-Thirds of Americans Live in Metropolitan Areas of More Than Half a Million People

National myths are important. They help us define ourselves and bind us to what are generally agreed upon as our most positive values.

The problem is when demographics and economics combine to shred whatever meaning we attempt to extract from these hoary tales of resilience, strength and virtue.

The US is especially wedded to its agrarian past. The yeoman farmer is still the beau ideal of political imagery. Even if fewer than 2 percent of the population live on or even near a working farm. And those who do farm may more closely resemble corporate managers - with computerized systems, scientifically designed crop and planting programs, commodity futures contracts and an average net worth in the millions - than they do the rail splitter and sod-busting plowman of yore.

So the fact that most Americans are now urban or suburbanites changes the equation. Even country music is evolving to reflect the fact that its primary audience is more likely to ride a Toyota than a tractor and is probably more comfortable in a mall than in a milk-shed.

Politically, this also means that the voting populace, though still susceptible to traditional themes that provide solace in a confusing and fast-changing world, must refract those images through the prism of their own reality. Rising food prices, long commutes, uncertain job prospects, increasing diversity and a general absence of assurance about much of anything is likely to characterize this not so brave new world. There will be a lag between recognition of this reality and attitudes that more truly reflect it. But there is no going back. JL
Paul Krugman comments in the New York Times:

The real America is, in fact, a nation of metropolitan areas, not small towns.
America in 1776 was a rural land, mainly composed of small farmers and, in the South, somewhat bigger farmers with slaves. And the free population consisted of, well, WASPs: almost all came from northwestern Europe, 65 percent came from Britain, and 98 percent were Protestants.
America today is nothing like that, even though some politicians — think Sarah Palin — like to talk as if the “real America” is still white, Protestant, and rural or small-town.
Tellingly, even when Ms. Palin made her infamous remarks in 2008 she did so in Greensboro, N.C., which may not be in the Northeast Corridor but — with a metropolitan population of more than 700,000 — is hardly Mayberry. In fact, two-thirds of Americans live in metro areas with half-a-million or more residents.
Nor, by the way, are most of us living in leafy suburbs. America as a whole has only 87 people per square mile, but the average American, according to the Census Bureau, lives in a census tract with more than 5,000 people per square mile. For all the bashing of the Northeast Corridor as being somehow un-American, this means that the typical American lives in an environment that resembles greater Boston or greater Philadelphia more than it resembles Greensboro, let alone true small towns.
What do we do in these dense metropolitan areas? Almost none of us are farmers; few of us hunt; by and large, we sit in cubicles on weekdays and visit shopping malls on our days off.
And ethnically we are, of course, very different from the founders. Only a minority of today’s Americans are descended from the WASPs and slaves of 1776. The rest are the descendants of successive waves of immigration: first from Ireland and Germany, then from Southern and Eastern Europe, now from Latin America and Asia. We’re no longer an Anglo-Saxon nation; we’re only around half-Protestant; and we’re increasingly nonwhite.
Yet I would maintain that we are still the same country that declared independence all those years ago.
It’s not just that we have maintained continuity of legal government, although that’s not a small thing. The current government of France is, strictly speaking, the Fifth Republic; we had our anti-monarchical revolution first, yet we’re still on Republic No. 1, which actually makes our government one of the oldest in the world.
More important, however, is the enduring hold on our nation of the democratic ideal, the notion that “all men are created equal” — all men, not just men from certain ethnic groups or from aristocratic families. And to this day — or so it seems to me, and I’ve done a lot of traveling in my time — America remains uniquely democratic in its mannerisms, in the way people from different classes interact.
Of course, our democratic ideal has always been accompanied by enormous hypocrisy, starting with the many founding fathers who espoused the rights of man, then went back to enjoying the fruits of slave labor. Today’s America is a place where everyone claims to support equality of opportunity, yet we are, objectively, the most class-ridden nation in the Western world — the country where children of the wealthy are most likely to inherit their parents’ status. It’s also a place where everyone celebrates the right to vote, yet many politicians work hard to disenfranchise the poor and nonwhite.
But that very hypocrisy is, in a way, a good sign. The wealthy may defend their privileges, but given the temper of America, they have to pretend that they’re doing no such thing. The block-the-vote people know what they’re doing, but they also know that they mustn’t say it in so many words. In effect, both groups know that the nation will view them as un-American unless they pay at least lip service to democratic ideals — and in that fact lies the hope of redemption.


Unknown said...

That reminds me of the fact that half of the world population lives along the coastlines, which will eventually make it the largest crowd of refugees in history if things keep melting around the poles. The journey has already started in certain tiny, low-lying islands. If you're interested in historical matters you might want to take a look at three bilingual pairs of entries at my blog (www.transcripcionesreveladoras.blogspot.com): 1) "Code of the Maya Kings" (Jan. 1), 2) "The Silk Road" (Jan. 5) and 3) "Stories of Our Century: Genetic Engineering & BRAVE NEW WORLD (A. Huxley)" (May 28). The first two are episodes of the Nat'l. Geogr. Society TV series "Treasure Seekers" and the texts of the narrations in the original version are available at a certain website that I point out, but there you will find them in a chaotic, incoherent condition, which made it necessary to spend a great deal of time fixing the problem, and the third one is a Radio Netherlands interview with Jeremy Rifkin and has to do with the present and the near or the medium-range future. I got the following warning from someone working at the U. of Stanford Dept. of Microbiology & Immunology: " I will not even begin on Rifkin, whose anti-genetic engineering tirades probably delayed the development of numerous life-saving therapies." I can't reveal his identity because he also said: "I would prefer if you do not publish my off-hand comments."

Daniel R.

jmark said...

This trend in the geography of demographics is not necessarily a good thing. Urban concentration implies the kind of specialist economy ancillary service providers that produces a vast host of consumers, rather than an infrastructure of essential production. The disappearance of the small farm points to the consolidation of production under mega-corporations. So while Krugman seems to welcome the disappearance of the traditional farm and the values typified by Palin, that disappearance creates the very elitist class that Krugman seems to disdain. The mega farmer class by the way are beneficiaries of the sort of government controlled economics that Keneysians like Krugman favor. I would say Krugman is the real hypocrite.

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