A view over the mountains

The sort of view that inspires deep thinking. If only you could get a view like this in the city. Can you blame people who wake up to this view every morning for liking things as they are? Maine, August 2020 (Photo by the author)

Over the past few decades, major cities have been engines of enormous growth and prosperity. Cities have brought together diverse groups of people from different places and different walks of life, forcing them to live side by side more or less peaceably and allowing them to learn from one another. Cities are cauldrons of more than cultural mixing, however: they’re also where ideas, business, and innovation flourish. This concentration of different forms of capital—human, intellectual, and financial—has led to the largest explosion of prosperity in human history, particularly visible in places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

The story of the twentieth century is the story of people migrating to cities in search of better lives. At the beginning of the century, only 16% of the global population and 40% of Americans lived in cities; by the end, those figures grew to around 47% and 79%, respectively. In 2007, for the first time, more people in the world lived in urban than in rural areas. And, by and large, they found the prosperity they sought: median household income is higher and poverty rates are lower in urban than in rural counties in the United States, and urban living standards tend to be higher. (Sources: Urbanization, Differences in Income Growth Across U.S. Counties)

While cities have been enormously beneficial to those with the desire and wherewithal to migrate (and stay in spite of crowding and rising costs), the prosperity they’ve generated has not been widely shared. One of the starkest divides politically, economically, and socially in recent years is the urban-rural divide. One way in which this became obvious was the 2016 presidential election, which saw increasing polarization in voting patterns between urban and rural areas.

As someone who spends most of his time in big cities, it’s easy and tempting to write off rural communities as ignorant, backwards, and obstructionist, opposed to innovation and immigration (one of the biggest modern drivers of prosperity). But this view is not only unhelpful, it’s also misguided. The urban-rural divide is about more than education and economics. It reflects a core philosophical divide.

I was born in New York City, but raised on a tiny dairy farm in rural southern New Jersey. I’ve spent my life since then moving back and forth between city and country. I feel at home in both. When I’m in the city, I miss the country, and when I’m in the country, I miss the city.

These days, driving through the countryside, the contrast to city life feels as harsh as ever. New York is an extremely diverse city, with a majority of people of color. By contrast, most of the United States outside major metro areas isn’t very diverse. Leaving the city, you quickly find yourself in Trump Country, especially recognizable this election season by the ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” signs in towns and on lawns.

New York City is home to more than hipster coffee shops and great ethnic food: it’s also full of people who are open-minded, progressive, globally oriented, and optimistic about the future. If I had been old enough to understand politics when I lived on that dairy farm, I would have understood that my neighbors held opposing political views: relatively narrow-minded, conservative, locally-oriented, and, at least recently, pretty pessimistic about their place in the world and the state of the country.

The urban-rural divide is of course much bigger than my personal story, and it’s also bigger than the cultural divide between New York and its neighboring regions. It is, in fact, the story of modern America, of its politics, economics, and society. These days it feels as if there are two Americas. There’s “fast lane” America, open to the world, optimistic, confident about the future, and benefiting handsomely from unstoppable trends like digital technology, globalization, and diversification. Then there’s the other America, an obstinate, backwards-looking, conservative “slow lane” America longing to return to a traditional way of life that’s gone for good. That, at least, is how a progressive urbanite might describe the situation. Someone with a more rural set of sensibilities would be more likely to frame things in terms of urban hedonism and decaying values, entitlement, and loss of national pride.

I’ve long been fascinated by deep, fundamental contrast. And one of the things that makes the urban-rural divide so fascinating is that, if you zoom out far enough, these two camps represent one of the most fundamental opposing pairs of philosophies, remarkably resilient across time and place. Like authoritarianism versus liberalism, it’s a battle that has been going on for centuries and that will likely continue for many generations to come. It’s not a war of right versus wrong, and it’s not a war that can ever be won decisively.

At its core, urbanism is progressive and growth-oriented. It’s a confident, open-minded, compassionate, permissive philosophy that welcomes and celebrates diversity and change. Those who live in big, modern cities feel that we can get more done by supporting one another, working together, and putting diversity to good use through a “marketplace of ideas.” This confidence, assertiveness, and openness is enabled by abundance: when resources are plenty, there’s plenty to go around plenty to share with other people. Cities have long been associated with innovation and prosperity. In the modern economy, they’re engines of wealth creation, where people, ideas, and capital intermingle and synergies arise. In the modern economy, sustained wealth creation relies on the free flow of people, ideas, and capital, and big cities abound with these. This mindset is associated with trade and commerce.

By contrast, the rural mindset is conservative both in the sense of being opposed to change, as well as in the sense of conserving relatively scarce resources. This mindset is less interested in growth and more interested in survival and sustainability. It’s a “circle the wagons” mindset: when resources are scarce, we tend to prioritize our own needs and those of our families and closest friends above the needs of the “other”. This mindset is associated with agriculture, which naturally tends towards conservativism. There is less to be gained from innovation in agriculture, and more to be lost. Agriculture, of course, depends heavily upon nature’s whims: one extra wet or dry season, one bad harvest, can cause great financial distress that may last a long time. Whereas traders can diversify into different lines of business or trade with different geographies, those who practice agriculture are much more tied to the land and have much less ability to diversify. For all of these reasons, the rural mindset is focused much closer to home: the needs of family and of one’s local community are prioritized over those of people farther away.

The point is that neither of these philosophies is right or wrong, and both bring something important to the table. Each can and should learn from the other. Over the long term and at the macro scale, growth is essential because it’s the only way to empower hundreds of millions of people to escape poverty and create better lives for themselves—precisely the story of the past few decades. To some extent, urbanization, globalization, and diversification are the only ways to achieve sustainable, widespread, long term growth.

Other things being equal, growth is good, but we should not pursue a strategy of growth at any cost. In particular, as we’ve seen quite clearly over the past few years, growth must not come at the cost of environmental, social, or economic sustainability and security. Once a certain level of material wellbeing has been established, it may make sense for economies and societies to prioritize things other than growth, which inevitably brings with it a wealth gap and socio-economic disparities. Northern Europe and Japan are examples of societies and economies that, having grown wealthy, have since chosen to prioritize things such as environmental sustainability, cultural continuity, and social cohesion over continued breakneck growth at any cost. Overall, the rural mindset better encapsulates this sense of security, sustainability, and balance.

While big cities have indeed been engines of economic growth and prosperity, they have done less well at sustainability. The story of the city is also inextricably the story of the automobile. Cars enabled generations of Americans to escape from crowded, polluted, unsafe city centers and find independence and a higher quality of life in the suburbs while keeping the jobs and incomes that the city enabled. But they also caused mixed urban communities to fracture and isolate along lines of class and race. Cars led to increasingly longer commute times as more and more families fled city centers and were forced deeper into the suburbs in search of affordable homes. They cause a shocking amount of pollution, and have led to more sedentary lifestyles and increased obesity. Cars all but destroyed the downtowns of cities such as Los Angeles, making them no-go zones to pedestrians and bicyclists.

What’s more, homes in and around big cities have become increasingly unaffordable to all but the wealthiest few. The “American dream” lifestyle of a couple with high-paying jobs and two kids is also one of isolation and loneliness, largely cut off from traditional support groups such as an extended family and a tight knit, local community. Those who pursue a modern, urban lifestyle have in many cases had to sacrifice traditional values such as family ties in order to further their careers. To paraphrase the Book of Matthew, what good does it do us to gain the whole world but lose our families, ourselves, and the things that really matter in the process?

This year marks an inflection point in the inexorable rise of the big city over the past few decades. What’s still unclear is which direction the trend will go from here. Forecasting the decline and death of big, expensive cities like New York and San Francisco seems to have become even more of a national pastime lately than usual. Indeed, cities like New York do face enormous challenges in the wake of Covid-19: billion-dollar budget shortfalls just as states, which typically support city budgets, are also going broke; commuters are working from home; many restaurants and other local businesses are closed for good, increasing unemployment and decreasing tax revenue; rents and property taxes aren’t being paid; and the wealthiest residents are fleeing, possibly for good. If more workers can work remotely, keeping their high salaries without needing to pay big city rents, and if companies don’t need to spend so much to maintain downtown offices, then many of these changes may be permanent and may trigger a downward spiral for cities, the thinking goes.

It seems like the perfect storm. But I wouldn’t be so quick to count big cities out just yet. If the story of the city is one of growth, diversity, and prosperity, it’s also one of reinvention, dynamism, and antifragility. People die—cities don’t, especially the biggest ones. London has been around for two thousand years and I’d wager that it’s probably got a few more good years in it. The story of the city is not a linear story. Cities grow in fits and spurts. Sometimes they shrink a little, then grow more later. New York has been especially pleasant lately as many people have left, there are less cars on the streets, and rents are a little cheaper. It won’t lose its charm anytime soon, regardless of what some putz on LinkedIn says (Jerry Seinfeld gets it).

If there’s one theme in this blog, it’s that of contrast: of dialectic and of opposite extremes meeting in the middle to find a sustainable path forward. The city-country divide is another great example of such a dialectic. Speaking personally, I would be pretty unhappy if I spent all of my time in the city and never escaped to the country: I’d feel out of touch with nature, I’d never feel at peace, and I’d have no space for big-picture thinking. But I’d feel equally unhappy if I spent no time in the city: I’d miss the diversity, the exposure to new people and ideas, the intellectual and sensory stimulation. The country inspires me to reflect on what matters most; the city inspires me to learn, grow, and become better.

We need to find a similar balance as a society and as a country or we too will go crazy. We must continue to pursue growth, and the dynamism and diversity of our big cities is necessarily part of that story. But equally we must not forget our values and where we’ve come from, and we must not pursue growth regardless of the cost. Rural people and rural values do a better job of preserving where we’ve come from, and we can learn from these too: the importance of family and local communities, supporting one another, and sustainable growth. Country folk look out for and take care of each other. We, too, must take care of our people, something we haven’t done such a great job of the past few years. It’s the only sustainable way forward.