Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The coronavirus, like so many other social ills, real and metaphorical, incubated in major cities.
New York City, with the highest population density in the country, also accounted for the highest death toll. San Francisco, the second highest among large cities, was a major incubator.
Pandemic maps of the death toll show the deaths concentrating around major cities before making the slow trek from urban into suburban and eventually rural areas. The urban lockdowns didn’t stop the spread of the virus. What they really did was trap poor and middle class residents in urban areas, while the wealthy fled, and the virus spread to urbanites with the least mobility.
The people with the worst immune systems, in the densest living conditions, and the least ability to get up and leave, suffered the most, from nursing home patients to minorities with large families. The general pattern was historically familiar from the Middle Ages, and the only thing that our public health experts proved is that they weren’t any smarter than medieval peasants.
But the coronavirus is an urban problem and all the official solutions to it are urban solutions. And the urban problems and their solutions are killing us and taking down the whole country.
The Black Lives Matter race riots that followed on the heels of the lockdowns were yet another example of an urban problem exploding out of failed cities to become a national crisis. But the vast majority of our problems, social, economic, racial, and political, are the problem of the city.
Cities concentrate civilizational achievements and challenges, but it’s been a long time since cities were generating American achievements. America’s cities were once built to house industries and businesses. Their only real business anymore is the business of government.
That’s why the Democrat plan to stack the Senate depends on making D.C. into a state.
American cities aren’t hyperdense blocs because of industrial density. Even as the city went into a decline as an industrial center, municipal governments began building huge stacks of public housing meant to cram as many people as cheaply as possible into a single block.
Why did so many people need to be housed in such a small space? It wasn’t because they had jobs, but because they didn’t. And yet cities needed to keep growing, not because they had too many jobs to fill, but because their political influence depended on human capital.
The more people a city had, the more votes it commanded, and the more money it got. And the fewer jobs a city had, the more people it needed to boost its political capital and its cash flow.
Even fifty years ago, cities had stopped making jobs and focused on making people.
The cities are running out of money, but population growth made them political powerhouses. Even if that power is based on trapping the descendants of black factory workers in urban wastelands, attracting immigrants they can’t employ, and using raw numbers to seize power.
That’s what the battle over the census is about.
The South had triggered a civil war by trying to use human capital for political power, but its Northern urban counterparts used human capital to dominate regions, states, and then the country. Cities took over the country’s power politics even as they grew more broken and less useful. No one asked what cities were for anymore. The answer seemed self-evident.
Huge cities growing out of control while figuring out new ways to house new immigrants and the grandchildren of dispossessed sharecroppers was one of those things a great nation needed.
What it needed them for, beyond exotic restaurants and a few industries requiring dense office spaces that suburban employees would spend two hours a day commuting to, no one knew.
And pandemics and race riots are just part of the price we pay for having big cities.
Housing thousands of people in an area that would normally be home to one family comes with high crime, mental breakdowns, and vulnerability to disease. Stacking a vast number of poor minority groups together requires high welfare spending, heavy police investment, and tolerance for the inevitable outbreaks of violence by people living dead end lives in miserable conditions.
But cities need that human capital. And that means importing immigrants from Muslim majority countries who react to religious or political dissent with violence. It means that regular air travel and border traffic keeps bringing new exciting diseases into cities where they spread like wildfire. It means the implosion of families and the communal and social structures of civilization which unleash gang violence, feral youth, suicide, drug use, and constant political outrage.
These aren’t really new developments. Prohibition was one of the first massive responses to urban misery. But back then cities created more than they destroyed. Now all they do is destroy.
America was a rare example of a new land. The land attracted settlers, the settlers built villages, towns, cities, industries, and their own unique society and government. Millions of immigrants flocked to the frontiers to run their own farms and to the cities to build their own businesses.
By the turn of the last century, the country was a booming proposition and running out of frontier. But what it lacked in territorial frontiers, it made up for in industrialization. Immigrants came for factory jobs and large numbers of black people also moved out of the South for them.
And then the industrialization declined, but the people still kept coming. A million immigrants poured into the country every year. But America wasn’t making a million more jobs. Certainly not a million jobs that would transform the new arrivals into productive and independent citizens.
The American city has failed. The coronavirus lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter race riots haven’t revealed a new reality, but the old truths under the glossy branding and hipster cafes. The underlying failure of the city isn’t social, it’s economic. Urban areas parted ways from the basis for their existence generations ago. Cities don’t exist because we need them, or because they’re more efficient ways of bringing workers and businesses together. They’re relics of economic empires that have collapsed leaving behind beautiful architecture and urban decay.
Major cities only productively employ a fraction of their residents, and most of their better jobs in both the private and public sectors are filled by workers who don’t live there. But the limited culture, medical, financial and tech industries that do thrive there produce a lot of money and even more influence. The difference between the perception of a failed city and a successful one is bringing in a few companies with a national brand and a global footprint. A city with a few major publishing firms, financial companies, or dot coms is seen as a success even if these narrow sectors have little to do with the majority of the millions of people who actually live there.
Urbanization has become a pyramid scheme taking over entire states, while hollowing out the more conservative rural areas, turning red states blue, and leaving everyone except those at the top of the pyramid scheme poorer with each generation.
America is no longer divided between the old geographies of North and South, but the new geographies of density, between cities and their suburbs, and rural areas and small towns. The latter represent the old American communities, while the former showcase the new feudal order in which great suburban wealth and urban poverty combine into radical political alignment.
That’s the so-called “resistance”, not by the disempowered, but by the politically privileged.
The growth of urban areas benefited Democrat political machines. These machines however fell out of the hands of the old machine politicians and into the hands of a class of academic leftists who were detached from everyday life and incapable of understanding basic economic realities. They accumulated populations without having the faintest idea of how to provide for them even while imposing policies that crushed industries and shattered the economies of entire regions.
And this class insisted that it knew what it was doing because it was listening to the experts.
The bigger the urban political class grew, the more it was able to destroy industries, replacing actual productive labor with government makework in its own economic echo chambers. The deficits were plugged with unsustainable borrowing sprees against the brand of the city. Cities grew, debt rose, jobs declined, welfare increased, and the clock ticked ever closer to midnight.
The scarcity of jobs sharpened racial conflicts, between black and white workers, between citizens and new arrivals, fighting over the rotting slices of a shrinking pie. And the only solution of the political class was to promise that everyone should be able to go to college for free, as if the problem was the lack of credits in social anthropology, instead of the lack of industries.
The dot com boom made the promise of new industries seem real, but it was another facade. The biggest tech companies, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are little more than pipelines connecting Chinese businesses with American consumers. When Chinese dot coms succeed in replicating Amazon’s fulfillment model, and the freebies-for-data advertising models of Google and Facebook, then the big behemoths will fall or just be taken over by our new overlords.
Meanwhile all they’re really doing is creating new industries and manufacturing jobs in China.
Our political and social crises are rooted in the economic boom of our origins. America only ‘worked’ as a growing and expanding nation. The boom of land, liberty and production made us a superpower. But, like the European continent that birthed America, we’re running out of all three. All we have anymore is population growth and so does the entire Third World.
Cities have become cancers on the country, expanding unsustainably, sucking up resources, and eliminating productive employment. The urban model is a welfare state subsidized by a handful of wealthy industries. Those cities that can keep a Silicon Valley, a Wall Street or a Hollywood can go on faking it, while those that lose core industries become black holes, sucking up endless amounts of money, while spewing blight, crime, and violence in all directions.
Urban political models insist that we can spend our way out of these crises by putting even more money into schools, social services, public housing, and the rest of the welfare state.
That hasn’t worked in four generations. It’s not about to start working now.
Welfare states don’t create jobs. They’re what happens when there are too many people and no jobs. We might be able to build our way out of this dead end, but we have to begin by questioning the urban model which is at the root of all of our national problems.
America doesn’t need an expanding population. Urban political machines do. Nor do we need massive urban density that no longer occurs because of the density of opportunities, but just the opposite, the density of failure and the real estate bubbles that are fueled by urban crises.
There is no shortage of cheap labor in America. We don’t need more of it. Every major city is already choking on the unemployed cheap labor forces they have. And unless we have a massive manufacturing boom, the only employment opportunities for them are in the gig economy where they can deliver pad thai and give rides to environmental consultants.
The urban model hasn’t worked for America in sixty years. The pandemic has put it on the verge of collapse as the wealthy industries that made cities their base flee into virtual workspaces. It’s time to rethink and defund cities as the hubs of our economy and our nation.
The Trump administration began the move by trying to relocate federal agencies from Washington D.C. to other parts of the country. But the government has a great deal more power to defund the urban sprawl that’s choking the country’s institutions. Government funding created centralized institutions and massive urban housing complexes. It has the power to defund them.
Envisioning a less dense and more open country will heal many of our social and economic ills.
Urban areas have concentrated political radicalism and blight. Universities have become their own radical cities. Municipalities have built networks of crony companies around themselves. Density has destroyed communities and families while depriving people of a meaningful life.
America was built around communities, not cities. It can be rebuilt around communities again.
Reducing immigration can slow down population growth to sustainably match our economy and replacing cities with communities can allow our society to heal from its urban wounds.
The city is too big to fail and that means that the country is dying of its failures. We can either keep the city alive at the cost of the country, or let the city fail so that the country can live.