America’s metropolitan areas contribute disproportionately to the country’s economic output. According to a recent report put out by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. metro areas – cities with a population of greater than 50,000 people – account for 86% of total U.S. non-farm employment.
A picture has been making the rounds on the internet of late that casts an immense light on America’s current set of pressing economic and political problems. Is it a photo of an Occupy rally? Or, is it an image from the recent CPAC conference in Washington D.C.? No, nothing so obvious – it’s a map.
This map, like all maps, is more than a mere exercise in cartography. At first glance it is amazingly simple – a rendering of the familiar shape of the United States in blue speckled here and there with orange. Look closer, however, and the orange specks become more familiar and one swiftly realizes they are in fact America’s 23 largest cities. New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, they pop out to meet eye like diamonds in the rough.
What’s particularly interesting about this map, though, is what this unusual division of America represents. Each color, orange and blue, represents areas of the country that contributes to exactly half of our annual GDP of approximately $16.25 trillion. Suddenly, those small specks become much more important in almost every possible way – certainly economically. Indeed, without those 23 urban areas the United States would have already ceded its economic place in the world to China.
This map actually understates the degree to which America’s metropolitan areas contribute disproportionately to the country’s economic output. According to a recent report put out by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. metro areas – cities with a population of greater than 50,000 people – account for 86% of total U.S. non-farm employment, 90% of real GDP and 85.7% of America’s population while our ten largest cities are responsible for producing 30-percent, or $5 trillion, of America’s annual GDP. Think about that. Of those 23 orange specks in the map discussed above, just ten create one third of America’s total wealth and power.
Going further, trend is the bigger the city the bigger the contribution to national GDP. The New York City metropolitan area alone, for instance, contributes $1.33 trillion, or more than the economic output of 48 out of the 50 states. If the NYC metro was a state, it would be our third richest state after California and Texas and all three of our largest cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – each have an economic output greater than that of Sweden.
In fact, and in whatever way you measure it, America’s superpower status is directly due to its urban centers, and without them there simply would be no America – or at least one that we would recognize today. When it comes to research and development, innovation, business creation, productivity, and so on, America’s cities represent all that is vibrant and bustling about the American economy. Rural America, in contrast, is declining in population, is heavily subsidized, and has struggled to remain relevant both culturally and economically in a country that has increasingly left it behind.
This aged, run-down desperation is obvious to anyone who takes a trip down its winding highways and byways, and is aptly captured in the recent Academy Award-nominated film Nebraska. The film, shot in black and white so as to better capture the hopelessness of its vast, desiccated wastes, features as its main character an elderly man suffering from a slight case of dementia and advanced future shock. Presented with a world he no longer understands, he sets out on a quest to claim a fake, million-dollar prize of the type one receives in junk mail. His family, unwilling to tell him the truth about the prize, allows him to go on his journey – though they accompany him to ensure that he doesn’t hurt himself – and along the way they visit places from the man’s past. These places, now as run-down and decrepit as the man himself, are filled with forgotten people, empty store fronts, and tumble-down taverns where those who remain gather to talk about the ways things used to be.
The larger irony of Nebraska, both film and state, is that while small towns and rural areas are dying due to population loss and economic decline, its cities – places such as Lincoln, where the elusive million-dollar prize of the film resides – are in fact gaining in population, wealth, and vitality. This has been going on for a long time, of course, but only in recent years has this harsh bifurcation of the country into city and country manifested itself so powerfully through a harsh, reactionary conservatism that seeks to overturn every progressive milestone of the last century. Unlike the prairie populism of yesteryear, which reflected a living, breathing people and way of life that sought independence from the moneyed interests back east, the talk-radio conservatism that blasts out from America’s empty quarters today is best viewed as a raging at the dimming, dying light of rural life.
Unfortunately, this rage is still yet powerful. The bias in our national institutions towards rural areas and states, for instance, is well known. Equal representation in the Senate means wastelands like Wyoming, with just 576,000 people, is as powerful as California or Texas while our powerful cities – the true makers of American wealth and power – have no official voice in that body at all. The House, meant to be closer to the people, is made a joke by partisan gerrymandering and by a fluke of generational and electoral timing has been rigged to favor conservative, rural interests at the expense of our major metropolitan areas. This is deeply problematic because now, more than ever, this rural-urban divide is what is fueling partisan polarization in our political system.
Barring a constitutional amendment that fixes the lopsided political representation of rural areas in the Senate and banishes the House gerrymandering that makes that body more reflective of empty land than people, little can seemingly be done to end rural America’s stranglehold over our national politics. Instead, we must wait for the slow, steady pace of demographic change – the literal final death of the folks depicted in Nebraska – for our politics to be more reflective of the body politic as it actually lives and breathes. In fifteen to twenty years, perhaps, rural areas will be depopulated enough and red-state cities will have grown large enough to shift political sentiments in those states far enough to the left to enact the meaningful national legislation that the country desperately needs.
That’s a long time, however, and it is not at all clear that the country can afford another decade or two lost to placating the unrealistic, sentimental wishes of a bygone America. Put starkly, that’s another whole generation that loses out on needed investment in things like education and infrastructure – all while right-wing, reactionary rural America continues to support policies that do little but make our country a more unequal, unfair place for average, working people. It means more lack of action on climate change; more mindless, jingoistic nationalism; more laws enshrining the rights of gun owners than those gunned down by them – more, in other words, of everything that keeps our national blemishes throbbing and painful.
In Nebraska, the family of the elderly man could afford, barely, to placate him by soothing his sense of wounded pride. What families can emotionally do for one another, however, nations as a whole can rarely afford. Too often sentimentality is used as cynical political cover for the past and the powerful that benefit from a certain interpretation of it to rob the future blind. Every minute we as a nation are forced to soothe and placate the wounded pride of those of us in our politics that represent the bewildered cultural sentiments of Nebraska’s elderly man is a minute not spent looking after the interests of the urban children that represent our future.
So, the story of American politics in the next decade-and-a-half will be that of a waiting game as demography inexorably becomes destiny. The good news is that every day there are fewer rural, white conservatives than there were the day before. They are literally dying and their children and grandchildren have largely physically moved on to the cities, becoming more enlightened in the process. The bad news is that there is still an awful lot of them out there and our system of government gives them outsized voice and influence far out of proportion to their actual numbers.
As the larger world moves on around us it remains to be seen how well America will survive this twilight era between the conservative old and the progressive new. Time is on our side, true, but the country might not have enough of it for that to matter. The choice between the old and the new, between the newly born and the slowly dying is a hard one to make, but it is one that has to be made, and soon. We’ve paid our parents and grandparents their due respect. It’s time now to focus on our and our children’s future. The dying people of Nebraska have had their day.