What do small towns have to do with global warming?

Solving environmental problems like global warming and mass extintinction are far more complex than they seem at first.

The base of this complexity is mostly political.  Environmental problems are so huge that you need government to do the job.  And right now, Trump and the Republicans are making government participation in solving environment problems impossible.  And it will be very difficult to remove Trump and the Republicans because they are supported by a huge political base.  And this base supports Trump and the Republicans because they are desperately unhappy with their economic situation.  Hope, prosperity, the good life and even a decent job seems impossible to them.  So they vote for someone who promises he will make America great again.  Who can blame them?

Surprisingly, it turns out that small towns and rural America are intimately connected with global warming.  It begins with the fact small towns and rural areas in the US are getting smaller and smaller and poorer and poorer by the year.  Hope is rapidly fading in rural America. All the good jobs and all the prosperity seem to be in a few big cities these days. And rural people are giving up hope.  They are turning more and more to opiates.  Death rates in these areas are rising.  And unfortunately, these people mostly voted for Trump.   This is understandable.

Don’t get me wrong.   I’m definitely not blaming small town people for global warming.  No one is.  Life in small town and rural America is often very tough these days and it isn’t the fault of the people who live there.  Actually the people who live in rural America turn out to be the victims of some very complex economic forces that no one really understands.  And no one really has any idea of how to solve this problem.  Not even the most hi-powered economic experts, scientists or policy people.

So, what can be done to solve the deepening problem of the loss of prosperity in rural America.   As I said, it’s much more complex than it looks.  Eduardo Porter, one of America’s best economic writers, wrote an article about “The Hard Truths of Trying to Save the Rural Economy in the December 14 edition of the New York Times.

Below are some of the highlights of this article.  There is much more to this article than I have included here.  You can read the entire article by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.


“Rural America is getting old. The median age is 43, seven years older than city dwellers. Its productivity, defined as output per worker, is lower than urban America’s. Its families have lower incomes. And its share of the population is shrinking: the United States has grown by 75 million people since 1990, but this has mostly occurred in cities and suburbs. Rural areas have lost some 3 million people. Since the 1990s, problems such as crime and opioid abuse, once associated with urban areas, are increasingly rural phenomena.”

“Rural communities once captured a greater share of the nation’s prosperity.”

“These days, economic growth bypasses rural economies.”

“One thing seems clear to me: nobody — not experts or policymakers or people in these communities — seems to know quite how to pick rural America up.”

“But they haven’t yet figured out how to hitch this vast swath of the country to the tech-heavy economy that is flourishing in America’s cities.”

“After World War II, small town prosperity relied on its contribution to the industrial economy.”

“But factory jobs can no longer keep small-town America afloat. Even after a robust eight-year growth spell, there are fewer than 13 million workers in manufacturing across the entire economy. Robots and workers in China put together most of the manufactured goods that Americans buy, and the high-tech industries powering the economy today don’t have much need for the cheap labor that rural communities contributed to America’s industrial past. They mostly need highly educated workers. They find those most easily in big cities, not in small towns.”

“What to do? Since the presidential election in 2016, when small town voters enthusiastically endorsed the populist campaign of President Trump, policymakers and academics have thrown themselves at understanding the economic backdrop to their frustrations. They have come up with no shortage of proposals for how to turn rural America around.”

“Sound as these ideas may be, however, even the authors concede that they may not be up to the task. “I don’t know if these ideas are going to work,” Mr. Galston acknowledged when I pressed him on the issue. “But it is worth making the effort.””

[The main problem seems to be] “the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become. This dynamic feeds on itself, drawing more high-tech firms and highly skilled workers to where they already are.”

“In hindsight, no amount of tax incentives would have convinced Amazon to expand in a medium-sized city such as Columbus, Ohio, rather than Northern Virginia and Queens, which sit in some of the largest pools of talent in the country. If even medium-sized cities find it difficult to compete, what are the odds that, say, a small town like Amory, Miss., where 14 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree and a quarter of its 2,500 workers work in small-scale manufacturing, have a chance to attract well-paid tech jobs?”

“What if nothing really works? Is there really no option but to do nothing and, as some have suggested, return depopulated parts of rural America to the bison?”

“Why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are?”  [ie help people move to big cities where the good jobs are.]

“The most helpful policy for people in small towns could be to relax zoning rules in dense cities like New York and San Francisco, so that more affordable housing could be built to receive newcomers from rural Wisconsin or Kentucky, and they wouldn’t need the income of an investment banker or a computer scientist to afford to live there.”

“Policymakers might not want to push too hard against agglomeration though. It adds to American prosperity. As Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, points out, a successful strategy to draw innovative firms away from mega-clusters to small-town America would reduce overall innovation. “If you put a tech company in a place like rural Indiana, it will be vastly less productive than if you put it in a tech cluster,” Mr. Moretti said. “The effect is quite large.””

“Still, there are compelling reasons to try to help rural economies rebound. Even if moving people might prove more efficient on paper than restoring places, many people — especially older people and the family members who care for them — may choose to remain in rural areas. What’s more, the costs of rural poverty are looming over American society. Think of the opioid addiction taking over rural America, of the spike in crime, of the wasted human resources in places where only a third of adults hold a job.”

“And if today’s polarized politics are noxious, what might they look like in a country perpetually divided between diverse, prosperous liberal cities and a largely white rural America in decline? As Mr. Galston warned: “Think through the political consequences of saying to a substantial portion of Americans, which is even more substantial in political terms, ‘We think you’re toast.’ ””

“The distress of 50 million Americans should concern everyone. Powerful economic forces are arrayed against rural America and, so far, efforts to turn it around have failed. Not every small town can be a tech hub, nor should it be. But that can’t be the only answer.”

The image at the top of this page is
Teton National Park in Wyoming


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