The Coming Suburban Welfare State

Some have predicted that high-energy costs, either due to decreasing supply of oil or costs associated with carbon emission mitigation, will soon push people out of their cars and onto public transportation.

But there’s something else happening: people are getting sick of spending time in transit at all, making city living increasingly attractive. We are now increasingly able to infill “scrap-time” during our days with useful activity, and location-based social networks make it possible to maximize personal connections as we move about. We are engineering our own serendipity to generate real value from every moment. Why would we squander that potential by spending time in transit of any kind?

In the future, I predict:

  • Air travel will be reserved for trips greater than 500 miles
  • Trains will be used for trips less than 500 miles
  • Bicycles, walking, and local transit will be used within cities
  • Any local trip longer than 20 minutes will be seen as burdensome
  • Cars will be seen as a luxury to be used for road-trips + utility hauling

And again, this will not happen due to fuel scarcity alone – it will happen because people demand it; and I’m not talking about you – but your kids and grandkids.

Regardless of what happens with fuel prices, we know that roads do fill to their available capacity. And then that’s it. Expansion does not help for long, because roads then fill to whatever capacity is available and development occurs until roads are too broken to use.

Roads are also increasingly expensive to build. A major construction project such as the popular-but-doomed Intercounty Connector in Maryland will cost over $2.6Bn to build. Is this a good long-term use of resources? Seems to me we’re throwing a bone to some 55 year-old commuters who have been annoyed with the state of the Washington Beltway since it was built, and this is the only solution they thought could fix it. Enough with the reductionist, idiotic causal thinking already: it’s a dumb idea. I don’t begrudge it, but in the long term, who cares?

The idea-driven creative industries that America has hung its hat on can only thrive in cities, where people can get together and trade ideas freely. Any barrier to that exchange lowers the potential net economic value. Put simply, all of this kind of creative work will happen in cities. Period. Because if we don’t do it in cities, we won’t be able to compete with our peers around the world who will be doing this work in cities.

So, what of the suburbs? In many European cities, the urban centers have been long reserved for the upper-class elites; poorer immigrants, often Turks and other Islamic communities, tend to inhabit the outer rings of the city – denying them crucial access to economic opportunity. This kind of social injustice is baked into many European cultures; in France, you are simply French or not French, and no amount of economic mobility will allow someone who is not of that world to sublimate into it.

This is not the case in America. We are all Americans, and even marginalized citizens are able to fully participate in all levels of our culture – though certainly there is social injustice that must be overcome.

Over the next 50-75 years, there will be a net gain of wealthier people in America’s cities and also a net gain of poorer people in our suburbs. This will be a natural byproduct of an increasing demand to be in cities, and an increasing (and aging) suburban housing stock coupled with roads that no longer function.

To fulfill our challenge as Americans, we must use these dual gradients in our cities – the inflow of the rich and the outflow of the poor – as an opportunity to maximize social justice. By avoiding flash-gentrification and fixing education as we go, we can in a span of 20-40 years (1-2 generations) offer millions of people a pathway into new opportunities that stem from real, sustainable economic growth; all the while realizing this is going to mean more color blindness all around – and that suburbs will generally be poorer than the cities.

In my home state of Maryland, the only foreseeable damper on this force is the federal government and the massive amount of money it injects into industries like cybersecurity and other behemoth agencies like the Social Security Agency.

Because these agencies and the companies that service them generally do not have to compete globally to survive, they can locate in the suburbs and employ people that live in the suburbs – and subsidize all of the inefficiency, waste and boredom that comes with that.

This is nothing but a giant make-work program and its benefactors are little more than sucklings on the federal government’s teat, which is spending money that will likely come straight out of your grandchildren’s standard of living. Right on.

Cybersecurity, for all its usefulness in possibly maybe not getting us blown up by wackos (bored wackos from the European Islamic suburbs, I’ll point out), is nothing more than a tax on bad protocol design. For the most part it doesn’t create any new value. In the end, we’ve got suburban overpaid internet engineers fighting an imaginary, boundless war with disenfranchised suburban Islamic radicals. Who’s crazier?

Lastly, for all of you who think I’m wrong or resist these predictions because you personally “wouldn’t do that” or can produce one counterexample, I ask you: Are you over 35? If so, your visceral opinion may not matter much. I fail this test myself, but I believe my argument is logically sound and is based in the emerging attitudes of young people.

The future will be made by people younger than we, and based on everything I can see, we are on the cusp of a major realignment of attitudes and economics in America.

It won’t be too much longer ‘til active, entrepreneurial creative professionals (black and white) in our cities look at the suburbs (black and white) and decry the entitlement culture of the suburban welfare state.

Dave Troy
Whiskey & Gunpowder

November 10, 2010