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News From the Future

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Joel Kotkin, Penguin Press, 320 pages

Joel Kotkin’s new book on population growth in America, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, is that rare work of futurism whose title downplays the changes in store for us. The current Census Bureau projection is not that the U.S. will grow by merely 100 million residents from 2010 to 2050, but by 129 million, from 310 million today to 439 million in 40 years.

Although he’s reluctant to be precise about what’s looming, Kotkin, a veteran commentator on social geography and a fellow at Chapman University in Orange County, assures us that the population bubble is, on the whole, very good news. “[B]ecause of America’s unique demographic trajectory among advanced countries, it should emerge by midcentury as the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history,” he writes. “No other advanced, populous country will enjoy such ethnic diversity.”

Perhaps. Yet the U.S. already was the most successful nation in human history. In 1969, for example, a mere 203 million Americans, even without the enjoyments of much diversity, got the human race to the moon. Presumably, the 439 million highly diverse residents of the U.S. in 2050 will have reached, at minimum, Alpha Centauri.

But I’m finding it hard to share Kotkin’s enthusiasm for what he calls America’s “vibrant demography” because I’m tapping this book review out at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Van Nuys, California. My son is waiting in a 500-foot-long line to get to the first window so he can wait to get to another window, which will probably shut down for the evening before he finishes. California’s government is broke, so the DMV is closed several Fridays per month and is ostentatiously understaffed the rest of the time.

Van Nuys is in the center of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, where I grew up and where Kotkin has lived for decades. Long ago, the Valley was celebrated for making the California dream affordable to the average American, but we’ve since been test-driving America’s future. When watching all the vibrant demography at the Van Nuys DMV waiting to take their driving tests, the next 40 years appear less edifying than they do in Kotkin’s prose.

On the rare occasions when ordinary Americans are asked what they think about population growth, they are leery. A 2006 Gallup poll inquired, “In the future, do you think population growth will be—a major problem, a minor problem, or not a problem—in the United States?” “Major problem,” responded 57 percent, “minor problem,” said 26 percent, and “not a problem,” breezed 14 percent.

Unsurprisingly, elite indoctrination makes Americans more ignorant about the realities of population and immigration. Gallup noted, “In an interesting twist, Americans with less formal education are the most likely to correctly attribute population growth to immigration, while Americans with post-graduate education are least likely to do so.” Only 37 percent of people with a postgraduate degree knew what they were talking about, compared to 56 percent who had never been to college.

The real question, though, is less how bad a problem immigration-driven population growth will become but the “opportunity cost” of the forgone America—that less crowded and better educated country that we won’t be leaving to our children due to our immigration policies.

Kotkin, who leans mildly in a libertarian direction, can’t really explain why his doubly denser America is preferable. He simply assumes that his readers won’t be so uncool as to notice that illegal immigration tends to create a vast hereditary proletariat. That’s not the worst fate imaginable for America, but if the more productive will be required to subsidize the education, the policing, and now the healthcare of the less productive (which, one way or another, we shall), why would we want to continue to import millions of unskilled and highly fertile foreigners? In California in 2005, foreign-born Latinas were giving birth at the rate of 3.7 babies per lifetime (almost the same total fertility as Haiti) versus 2.2 for American-born Latinas and 1.4 for American-born Asians. Ouch.

Although Kotkin is enthusiastic about the quantity of these upcoming residents, he’s reticent about their average quality. After a generation in Los Angeles, he knows what East Coast pundits don’t yet grasp: the children and grandchildren of illegal immigrants are not merging into the educated middle class. Yet he can’t come out and admit that either. Whenever Kotkin appears finally ready to grapple with this central question about America’s future, he wanders off topic to rave about the technological innovativeness of legal immigrants in Silicon Valley or wax nostalgic about the rise of Ellis Island arrivals.

Why are we betting the country on the hope that a vast influx of foreigners and their descendants will benefit “ourselves and our Posterity” (to cite the Preamble to the Constitution’s explanation of what the fundamental purpose of the United States of America is)? Is 42 percent more crowding really going to make the American citizens of 2010 and their posterity better off in 2050?

Benjamin Franklin observed in 1751 that Americans were happier than Europeans because a larger proportion of Americans could afford to own land, to marry, and to have children. Why? Because there were fewer Americans per acre. Franklin’s logic about high wages and cheap land being conducive to marriage still applies. Yet his insight has been forgotten in the bipartisan elite consensus in favor of lax immigration policies that inflate the supply of labor and the demand for land.

Not surprisingly, the illegitimacy rate rose from 33 percent in 1998 to 41 percent in 2008. At this pace, the whole country will reach African-American levels of illegitimacy by 2050. The number of babies born to married women fell 5 percent over the last decade, while out-of-wedlock births rose 34 percent. As the number of individuals who get off to a good start in life continues to drop relative to those who grow up in disorder, how are the former going to subsidize the latter?

In truth, even Kotkin’s rosy vision of America in 2050 doesn’t sound all that enticing, although that’s to his credit. Kotkin has always been the most levelheaded of futurists. While other writers on urban affairs love to suggest that we’ll all move downtown to hang out with Richard Florida’s gay creative set or that we’ll all commute to work on solar-powered magnetic-levitation high-speed rail, Kotkin predicts that America in four decades will look like America today, only more so: more cars, more suburbs, and more strip malls. In The Next Hundred Million, the America of 2050 sounds like a gigantic version of the San Fernando Valley of 2010, just with lousier weather.

As Kotkin explains, suburbia is where most people (including new immigrants) want to live. Being a regular family guy with a wife, a couple of kids, and a house in the burbs helps make Kotkin a rare voice for common sense among urban-planning pundits, a field that has long attracted megalomaniacally-inclined aesthetes such as Le Corbusier and aesthetically-inclined megalomaniacs such as Hitler and Stalin. To Kotkin, in contrast, the chief goal of land-use policy should be to encourage business and facilitate family.

His book would have benefited from more detailed descriptions of why most American moms prefer to live in car-centric suburbs rather than in the high-rises favored by so many single urban-planning pundits, such as bachelor blogger Matthew Yglesias. Many who write about transportation policies are too inexperienced with life to grasp why women with children prefer to drive. “Walkability” is a pleasant amenity in a neighborhood. Still, the sheer tonnage of groceries that the modern family woman buys, typically at a distant Costco or Walmart, means she needs a car to manhandle her purchases home. And once she decides she must have a car, it makes sense for her to live somewhere with ample parking, light traffic, and other suburban blessings.

But how will adding 129 million people make it easier for America as a whole to cut carbon emissions? (Especially when so many immigrants move here in hope of being able to buy big SUVs—ideally with spinning rims.)

America’s future, according to Kotkin, is Los Angeles writ large. Yet L.A. has wound up with the worst of both worlds. It was planned for low density, with few parks, bike paths, or even sidewalks, but it has wound up one of the densest municipalities in the country. (Among major metropolitan areas, Greater Los Angeles now ranks second only to New York in people per square mile.)

When I was a 13-year-old in 1972 in the Valley, I biked to school. The subsequent increase in cars on the streets means that Valley parents don’t encourage their kids to ride bicycles anymore. Instead, they chauffeur them around, which further worsens traffic.

This kind of path-dependent vicious circle is common in Southern California. The government can’t afford to buy up property to retrofit facilities because land is so expensive. Add in Los Angeles’s NIMBY attitudes and attack-dog lawyers, and you have civic gridlock.

It takes forever to build anything in California, whether a subway or a housing development, especially near the coast. Tracts with golf courses typically require a decade or more of squabbling between lawyers and environmental consultants. Because the supply of housing can’t respond quickly to increases in demand, California is subject to ruinous housing-price spikes. These bubbles can deflate calamitously, dragging down the national and even global economy. A large majority of all American mortgage dollars defaulted in the current economic crash were lost in California.

Not surprisingly, Kotkin is falling out of love with Los Angeles and in love with Houston, an L.A. Jr. less hemmed in by ocean, mountains, and liberal regulations. The housing bubble didn’t much happen in Texas because the second most populous state has flat, well-watered prairies to build upon. And perhaps more importantly, Texas has a pro-business, self-confident conservative electoral majority.

Kotkin almost unloads an interesting political idea, but he can’t quite pull the trigger to explain that the contrasting fates of the only two large majority minority states—high-cost and bankrupt California versus low-cost and mildly prospering Texas—suggest something paradoxical about the future of America when the whole country goes majority minority (now forecast for 2042). As mass immigration renders the population relatively less educated and productive, the only kind of government we’ll be able to afford at the federal level is a Texas-style small one.

Unfortunately, while that theory makes economic sense, it’s politically unrealistic. Modern immigrants and their descendants vote solidly Democratic because, rationally enough, they’re pro-tax-and-spend and pro-affirmative action. And why would that be different in 2050? 

Steve Sailer blogs at iSteve.blogspot.com.

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