Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book Review: The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050

By Marian Starkey

Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, quotes, "Growth is like toothpaste. Squeezed out of one location, it must go somewhere else." America, it turns out, is that somewhere else. And, according to him, we are lucky that that is the case.

Kotkin predicts that America's relatively high population growth, heavily bolstered by immigration and the descendants of immigrants, will be the magic bullet that will make our economy the strongest in the world, outperforming the aging and shrinking countries of Europe and Eastern Asia. The United States is comparatively welcoming to new immigrants, and second-generation immigrants are much better integrated into American life than their European and Asian counterparts, who tend to live and work in ethnic enclaves and maintain the traditions of their countries or origin.

Without the fear mongering that typically accompanies this discussion, Kotkin states that the U.S. will no longer be a "white country" in 2050. In other words, the United States will be a "majority-minority" country. Because of rapid assimilation, this trend should be welcomed because after a generation or two, immigrants are just as "American" as Americans whose families have lived here for hundreds of years.

Kotkin postulates that the other phenomenon that contributes to higher population growth in the United States is Americans' elevated level of religiosity. In Europe and East Asia, only one in ten young adults belong to an organized religion. By contrast, 60% of Americans believe that religion is "very important" and 75% young Americans consider their religious views important. The author concedes that, "In all countries including the United States, growing affluence and mass education have a dampening effect on people’s willingness to have children." However, he says education and wealth have affected childbearing to a much lesser extent in the U.S., largely due to the fact that religious people everywhere tend to have more children than nonbelievers.

Not mentioned, is the fact that half of all pregnancies and a third of all births are unintended in this country. Far be it for government to dictate how many children couples should have. The government could, however, play a larger role in educating Americans about reproduction and pregnancy prevention so that more pregnancies, and especially pregnancies to teens, could be better timed, i.e. later. Many European countries are experiencing zero population growth largely because teenagers and young adults understand how reproduction works and have easy access to the education and services they need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Of course the author doesn't mention that these unplanned teen pregnancies usually have negative socio-economic and health outcomes for both the mothers and the babies, detracting from his "high population growth equals strong economic growth theory."

Kotkin outlines the changes that will be necessary in urban planning and commuting trends in order to accommodate another hundred million inhabitants in the next forty years. He dismisses as snobbish the distaste urbanites have for the suburbs with the fact that, actually, most people in this country prefer to live in the 'burbs (the so-called "nurseries for the nation") for the green space and affordability they offer. And survey data show that one in three Americans would like to live in a rural area but do not do so for lack of professional jobs. With the rising popularity of telecommuting and businesses forming or relocating to peri-urban outposts to save money, fulfilling peoples' desire to live the simple life may not be such a distant dream.

He accepts that Americans are addicted to driving and that many would not use public transit even if it were convenient and affordable. Therefore, according to him, building more urban villages centered around subway stations is probably not the answer. Developing suburban communities centered around jobs and recreation opportunities, however, is the best possible solution. At least the people who would drive to work and the grocery store no matter what, would be driving shorter distances.

I like Kotkin's optimism, and agree that many Americans won't live in high-density cities regardless of how convenient and culturally stimulating they are. His idealism sometimes gets in the way of facts though: he exemplifies Los Angeles as the modern, commuter-friendly city of the future. That's a bit backward since LA consistently rates worst for traffic in national data analyses. The wide variety of neighborhoods spread out over vast acreage does not necessarily mean that people are able to afford to live in those neighborhoods that are closest to their jobs.

His hypothesis does make some sense if all we care about is fitting people inside the country's borders. If people can live and work in suburbia or in rural America, currently undeveloped land can absorb the excess population of the next four decades...

...But only if we don't mind tearing up the green space and wildlife habitats that make living on the edges of suburbia so attractive to so many Americans. “As urbanized regions become even more crowded and expensive, and as new technologies emerge, more and more Americans will find their best future in the wide open spaces that, even in 2050, will still exist across the continent.” It's anyone's guess how long those wide open spaces would exist beyond 2050 if we exploit them to the extent that Kotkin suggests.

He takes shots at environmentalists and "aesthetes" for caring more about nature and its beauty than people and their happiness. He doesn't agree with conserving nature for nature's sake. Rather, he believes that people are entitled to carve up the land however they wish, as long as it makes their lives more comfortable and lucrative.

Since persistent land development is inevitable as long as the population continues to grow, and much of the fertility-dependent population growth in this country is actually an economic burden due to the social programs it necessitates, rather than a boon to the economy in the form of educated workers, I still vote for stabilizing population in the United States.

There are a lot of reasons that the United States should welcome documented immigrants. But the U.S. should also help developing countries slow population growth through family planning assistance so that there isn't as much "toothpaste" to be squeezed. Whether here or "there," population growth places demands on infrastructure and the environment that no amount of urban planning can counterbalance.

*New* Here's an interview with the author, in which he explains why he thinks the U.S. can sustain high population growth.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for reviewing this book. I don't find much at all to agree with in the book. I think it smacks of growthism, the idea that adding people to the U.S. will be an economic boon. That is nothing but an unsustainable Ponzi scheme.

    Today many nations, regions and cities compete for population growth in their misguided belief that a bigger economy is a better one. The only way out of this Ponzi nightmare is for every nation, region and city (with perhaps some rare exceptions) to have a sustainable (stable and eventually declining) population policy.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity