April 06, 2009

Our Rootless Future

Americans have a proud tradition of wanderlust, from the original English colonists to the frontiersmen who followed Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky to the 49ers of the California Gold Rush. Yet 21st-century rootlessness can scarcely be considered an extension of the pioneer spirit.

I am that rarity, a native Atlantan, born at Georgia Baptist Hospital in 1959. I like to joke that the city motto of Atlanta is, “Will the last person leaving Cleveland, please turn out the lights.” During the ‘70s and ‘80s, I watched as a massive influx of Rust Belt emigres turned my hometown into . . . well, what? Go visit Douglas County, where I grew up, and it seems to have become one big six-lane road, lined with shopping centers and convenience stores, connecting cookie-cutter cul-de-sac developments full of people from somewhere else. Meanwhile, the places where those people came from are filling up with immigrants from Ghana, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, etc. And my Ohio-born wife and I are living in Maryland, but that’s another story, I suppose.

Traditionalists cringe in horror at the typically deracinated lifestyle of 21st-century America, even though it is truly so typical that most people in, say, Fairfax County, Virginia, take it entirely for granted. The New Jersey native in the bustling northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. lives next door to the immigrant from El Salvador, and they both work at the hospital with the doctor from Minnesota and the nurse from Egypt, and this experience is to them so utterly banal that they never think about it as a phenomenon.

Whether you view the 21st-century vagabond lifestyle as horrific or ordinary, however, nearly everyone would raise an eyebrow at the kind of cosmopolitan elitist who waxes enthusiastic about the Nomadic American and, indeed, thinks we are too rooted. Say hello to Richard Florida:

The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its ?sell-by? date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance. . . .
As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.  [Emphasis added]

Ah, yes. Statistics always prove the experts right, and you are merely a bead on the Census Bureau abacus. Careerism has replaced the family as the primary focus of our society, so that the cognoscenti speak of us only as a “workforce.” And they no longer speak of “homes”—the freehold of the yeomanry, the estate of one’s kindred—but of “housing.” This is not to be viewed as a possession, a thing owned, but rather a commodity to be bought low and sold high. Or better yet, says Richard Florida, rented:

If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study by Grace Wong, an economist at the Wharton School of Business, shows that, controlling for income and demographics, homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem.

Again, more scientific research that perfectly proves the point, namely, that the experts are always right and common sense is always wrong. Fear not, then. The experts know what they’re doing and they know what you should do, and by all means you should do it immediately. Sell the old homeplace, move into an urban apartment and live the expert-approved life.

Trust the experts. What could possibly go wrong?

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