Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Country to City - The Broken Equilibrium

This is a subject that's hard to do justice in any single post, but I have to keep trying. Recent blog posts around the Internet remind me what a substantial problem it really is. From the days I began my economic studies in earnest, the growing urban rural divide was one of my top concerns. Some readers may recall that I have always been "torn" to a degree between the heart of the city, and of rural places. Even though being "torn" has been personally frustrating at times, it reminds me how much country and city need to be able to reflect elements that are vital, in the other.

Perhaps a good place to begin is a recent Yichuan Wang post (part of an article for Quartz), as he takes on the problem in a somewhat unusual manner. While Yichuan considers options from a consumption or aggregate demand perspective, what he suggest goes well beyond this particular measure of economic activity. My question of course: does moving everyone into the city alleviate the actual problem of disequilibrium?

Moving children and elderly into cities to increase the value of services there (instead of attempting "stellar" service provisions in the countryside) has the potential to serve a linear economic problem with an equally linear solution - draconian though it may seem to some. How do I feel, about what would be a tremendous effort? It doesn't matter what I feel about it, but what the rural citizens of these multiple areas think about the overall situation. Hopefully their voices would be heard, for their opinions are the most important part of any set of ideas. Readers who have kept up with my posts also know I prefer the non linear options of bringing good services into rural areas, through wide knowledge use rights and completely flexible infrastructure.

While I would be interested in knowing how rural folk in China feel about these matters, there's a good chance I wouldn't have access to such information. After all, their voices and opinions may not be present in a larger media format, any more than those of citizens in multiple rural regions of the U.S. And of course the big difference for the latter, is that little to no public discussion has taken place re their lack of economic access to the nation's economic agenda as a whole. Who really knows what the marginalized, the low income or the rural of this country think? That's why I have such an appreciation of the fact that China is not afraid to express publicly, the plight of their own rural citizens.

Another aspect of the country to city problem - which is common to many nations - was highlighted in a recent article by The Economist. South Korea has prospered, by what has been referred to as a "deep but not wide" success. Not only have occupational structures been more restricted than those of the U.S. but also Japan. Most importantly, almost half of the work to be found, was in Seoul. Efforts to create a government taskforce for "500 promising occupations" generated plenty of  discussion on the recent Marginal Revolution post (Tyler Cowen) which highlighted the article. In a follow up post Tyler took note of the declining gains for education in South Korea. It needs to be stressed again that even though the U.S. has a far greater range of work possibilities, most real choice in workplace activity remains limited to the cities.

In spite of all of the success nations have found, unfortunately it tends to be defined in terms of city life as a necessary requirement for economic access. Any time economic progress is defined as possible only in special instances or specific locales, real growth will eventually be subjected to limits. While I have known authors to present eloquent snapshots of these realities (books too numerous to count), there has been precious little written that I'm aware of in the U.S., which even considers how this situation might be dealt with in economic terms.

While many rural areas have some resources and commodities that they trade both nationally and internationally, more often than not, this form of wealth alone is not enough for sustainability. These places also need to be able to tap into the wealth potential of their own citizens. Otherwise their citizens exist in a sort of perpetual backwater, unnecessarily dependent on the skills sets of people who live far from their own domain. Also in the U.S. it is becoming more difficult for people of rural areas to be able to access the skills sets of distant cities, in the years following the Great Recession.

Because too few in the U.S. have considered the plight of rural areas, over time these places are slipping into economic patterns which are only making things worse. This is the environment which the war on drugs has especially thrived in. Plus, the war on drugs encourages confiscation of private properties by local governments, privatization of prison systems and a general breakdown of societal trust.

Even if everyone wanted to live in the city, it just is not possible to do so. No one who lives in rural areas or small towns should be consigned to a substandard life, just because they did not have the good fortune to be where the "action" is. In a century when we have incredible ability to bring knowledge and resources to people through digital and alternative transportation means, one hopes that the opportunity will not be squandered. Otherwise, it will only become more difficult for those not in cities, to aspire to the kinds of choices and options that urban living makes possible.

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