Are Cities Vestigial?

OK, confession, I had to look up that v-word in the dictionary to make sure I was using it correctly  Here’s the relevant meaning: “Biology.  A degenerate structure that has little or no utility, but that in an earlier evolutionary stage performed a useful function.  Example: the human tailbone.”

Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.  Cities generally came into existence because of some useful feature of geography at that spot.  Port cities, obviously, were useful as ports.  The more sheltered the harbor, the more useful.  (Think: New York, San Francisco, London.)  Other cities were located at strategic spots for travel, such as Detroit and St. Louis.  Many cities in Europe were located by rivers because mills required moving water to function.  Factories grew up around them, and people worked in those factories. 

But manufacturing facilities have largely moved to third world countries. In the last half century, cities have been where white collar workers congregate, to interact, communicate, plan, organize, and implement all those things that white collar workers do in the office.    

For some reason I don’t quite understand, a lot of low-skilled, unemployed people have gravitated to cities.  This could be because factories drew them there originally, and our nation’s welfare system enabled them to stay on, even after the factories closed. Perhaps this is why large cities have such a vast infrastructure of public housing, and a large base of welfare recipients. 

Not surprisingly, these folk tend to vote for Democrats, which has produced a world in which most of the major cities in America are run by Democrats.  Let’s resurrect that famous adage: “If you’re not a liberal at age 25 you have no heart.  But if you’re not a conservative at age 35 you have no brain.”  There’s a lot of truth to it.  Liberals think of themselves as compassionate, and always want to help the less fortunate.  Unfortunately, they tend to have little understanding of economics and don’t realize their prescriptions generally make things worse.

There can be no doubt that liberal (let’s switch now and call them progressive) policies have almost single-handedly destroyed the Black family in America.  In the fifties, Blacks had a lower rate of out-of-wedlock births than did Whites.  Various welfare programs changed incentives such that out-of-wedlock births became a viable lifestyle choice.  And the rest is history.

However it happened, it’s no surprise that those American cities currently run by Progressives (which is most of the cities) are going downhill rapidly.  Whatever metric you want to pick: graffiti, crime, poor educational outcomes, lousy infrastructure, or bums spreading themselves and their bodily waste all over the parks, streets, and sidewalks, America’s cities today are embarrassing.  It only takes a trip to Dubai to see the contrast: zero graffiti, close to zero crime, fantastic educational system, amazing infrastructure, and zero homeless.  I have my own criticisms of the place, but the folks in Dubai sure know how to run a city. 

Back in America, we all kind of tolerated the downfall of our urban areas because, well, we had no choice.  The demographics ensured cities were going to stay in Progressive hands, and Progressive governance ensured cities were going to continue declining. 

Then along came two game changers: Covid, and BLM.  Covid, for all the chaos, hardship, and heartbreak it caused, did make telecommuting not only acceptable, but fashionable.  We’ve had the technology for years.  Covid forced us to use it.  And it was pretty cool.  All those white collar workers could function reasonably well working from home.  Which means businesses could save a fortune on office space.  And employees could save all the time and costs of a daily commute.  

Then, right when it seemed cities might no longer be necessary, along came the BLM riots and a full summer in which those Progressives running cities allowed chaos to run rampant through our urban areas.  For some reason, a war on cops was declared (not by the criminals, but by city governments) and police departments in large municipalities have been decimated.  Not surprisingly, crime in those areas has soared, with no end in sight.

So just when it seemed we could abandon our cities and all work from home, suddenly there was a huge new incentive to do so: personal safety. 

Not counting diamond dealers,  every white collar worker I know is now a telecommuter—and expects that to continue as the new normal. 

What will this mean for cities?  Well, let’s see.  We don’t need them anymore to power our mills.   The factories are gone.   And now all those administrative jobs are being done by telecommuters.   On present trend lines, the only people left in the cities will soon be the bums and the welfare recipients.  That ensures City Halls across America will stay firmly Progressive.  Which means things will get worse that much faster.  Which will accelerate the trend of those leaving. 

Wait a minute.  Cities also provide an enriching cultural experience, serving up museums, restaurants, pubs/clubs, and various sporting and artistic events.  Yeah, but that won’t be enough to pull people into the hellish chaos that has replaced our once vibrant cities.  It’s not that difficult to be entertained in other ways. 

The human tailbone used to be a critical piece of our anatomical structure.  But we outgrew tails, and the “coccyx” (it’s formal name) is today nearly useless. 

Cities, the lynchpin of human civilization since the days of ancient Sumer, seem poised to go the same way. 

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