Friday, March 24, 2006

Barbarians at the Gate

Over at Snarkmarket they've got a post on changing demographics in the 21st century, referencing a Foreign Policy article on "The Return of Patriarchy" I shot to LPS a while back, prompted by a New York Times Op-Ed on gender imbalances in college applications that had been flagged earlier. So, like cities last year, demographics and population seem to be the thing everyone in our little virtual salon is thinking about at the moment.

But wait! They're totally related! Here's my original comment on Robin's Snarkmarket post:

That Foreign Policy article on patriarchy reminds me of an even more awesome article by Ian Frazier that appeared last year in The New Yorker, about Genghis Khan.

The gist of both of them seems to be this: cities and advanced civilizations, with their culture, commerce, safety, and pluralism are wonderful things. But sooner or later, the barbarians will come to the gate, and with their axes, horses, draft animals, will either burn your cities to the ground or force you to open your gates, and two centuries from now, all of your children will look like them and speak their language.

When I was in high school, I had a formula for this (it was actually about European languages): "Sooner or later, everyone gets fucked by a Viking."

To modernize it a bit, "the creative class" inevitably gets outdone by "the procreative class": new urbanites are no match for the procreative power of exurban conservatives or the immigrant and indigent urban populations they seem to be displacing.

To some degree, this is really Joel Kotkin's argument against Richard Florida in a nutshell. Kotkin wants cities to stop trying flashy gimmicks to draw in the childless older, gay, and young professional populations, and invest in infrastructure, schools, and the other things that will keep and attract families. We've also been down this road with the cities-schools thread that bounced back and forth on Short Schrift and Snarkmarket last year.

Now I've argued with Kotkin before, and I still think this demographic sword cuts both ways. An aging and childless population, however wealthy, is a terrifying prospect for nations, because it requires huge expenditures in health care, pensions, etc., without a corresponding increase in revenues. For cities and local governments, though, it's a different story, because their revenues and expenditures are balanced in almost entirely the opposite direction. Having a population of the old, gay, and childless is guaranteed property tax revenue without a corresponding expenditure on schools, transit (to some extent), etc.

So we have a demographic contradiction -- cities have strong incentives to get rid of kids, while nations have strong incentives to encourage children and childrearing. (School districts are different -- they want school-age children, or more to the point, they want the money associated with children. But the governments of cities and counties don't, at least, not really.)

Maybe this is an aspect we need to bring to the forefront in our discussions of cities and communities, as it's already been brought to the forefront in most discussions of health care. The policies we make now really have to address the question of what kind of population we want to have, the unintended consequences of well-intended changes, and the unimaginable: how to correct the mistakes of the present without repeating the sins of the past.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

I've had a printout of Britz's op-ed sitting in my bag for nearly a day and finally got around to reading it this morning. It's powerful when she talks about the different standards she's forced to use as an admissions officer when dealing with male and female applicants, but it feels to me that she shoots herself in the foot when she mentions the four acceptance letters her daughter has already received.

To tie in to an oft-repeated anecdote of my own. Britz's daughter, no many how many rejections have crushed her little heart, has been accepted by more schools than I even applied to. My count of three applications (four, if you count the one I initiated but never completed to the University of Chicago) may have been on the low end of average in 1997, but it would be foolhardy now to let one's college dreams rest on only three applications, no matter how demographically favored one may be.

Furthermore, beyond the strain involved to both admissions officers and applicants now that the number of applications sent out by the average student has reached well into the double digits, I've read hardly any indication, including Britz's piece, that serously suggests that the trends they describe are keeping people out of college. Much like the low-B average white male students suing the University of Michigan over affirmative action policies, Britz's daughter will attend college. She, like me, may not attend Harvard or Yale, but there are dozens if not hundreds of schools out there that offer their students an absolutely first-rate education, on par with the ivies in everything but prestige (and in several cases, possibly better).

My degree from Michigan State University may not have had the CEOs of Fortune 500 compies lining up of hire me, but then that may have had more to do with the fact that my degree was in English than the prestige of the institution that gave it to me. The world isn't what it used to be. A Harvard degree may open a few doors (and maybe more than a few), but it doesn't set you up for life. Maybe we should all stop pretending that it does, for our kids' sake.

I'd be more interested in an examination of the difference in value in the job market of a BA or BS for a male and female job seeker. That seems to me to be a far more useful measure.