Aberdeen, SD. Joel Kotkin has been writing about geography, demography, and public policy for some time. His most recent book is The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, which I reviewed at Front Porch Republic. Kotkin is Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California and Executive Director of the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute. He also edits the online journal newgeography.

Kotkin’s work places him within the tradition of Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler. Like those authors, Kotkin is interested in the intersection of people, place, and public policy. How can we live a humane life as individuals within healthy, viable communities? How does the physical space in which we live, both natural and built, influence how we see ourselves and how we function as a people? Like many Porchers, Joel Kotkin thinks about place and people as a relationship to be nurtured, not just manipulated.

More recently, as his latest book evinces, Kotkin has been concerned with the rise of a class of global citizens residing in a handful of cities and attached to elite professions and institutions. This elite class, the oligarchy and those who benefit from it, are becoming more entrenched in culturally authoritative institutions. The oligarchs have a disproportionate power over our lives. Recent controversies regarding content censorship by Twitter and Facebook testify to this power. While proclaiming “woke” politics and aping the language of “inclusion,” in fact, claims Kotkin, the oligarchs have climbed to economic and cultural commanding heights but are now promoting various policies that in essence pull the ladder up after themselves.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Kotkin for Front Porch Republic. The following exchange has been lightly edited for clarity.

Schaff: So much of your work in recent years focuses on the notion that America, far from becoming more egalitarian, is becoming a more stratified society. In your latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, you claim that there are three dominant classes in America: the oligarchy, the clerisy, and the yeomanry. Could you define those terms and explain how they exemplify a new feudalism?

Kotkin: Actually we really have two dominant classes, and one declining one. The oligarchs, notably in tech, continue to dominate our economy and, increasingly, all communications. The clerisy, which is largely academia, media, and the upper bureaucracy, are also ascendant. Both have targeted the yeomanry, the small business and property owning middle class, who continue to want to own homes and be independent, despite the regulatory vise. Below these are a rapidly expanding class of serfs, who will never achieve business ownership or property, much like their Medieval predecessors.

Schaff: You single out California as being at the forefront of the class dichotomy. I recall some years ago Victor Davis Hansen writing about “Mexifornia.” This was only partially a comment on immigration. What Hanson meant is that like Mexico, California was on track to evolve into a state populated by the few fabulously rich who can afford the high taxes, high energy costs, and high home prices, and then the many poor (many of whom are Mexican) who do service labor for the rich. Is that your take on California as well? What happened to California to turn it from the “Golden State” to a place that due to population stagnation will likely lose a congressional seat after the 2020 reapportionment?

Kotkin: I have been writing about California’s descent into neo-feudalism for many years. California’s shift has a lot to do with policies that have driven middle-wage industries—in manufacturing and business services—out of state due to regulatory restraints. The state puts all priority on “green” policies which, although ineffective in reality, justify policies that benefit the rich and hurt the poor and middle class. In the past decade 80% of all new jobs in California paid below the minimum wage, and the state created mid-wage jobs at among the lowest rates in the country.

Schaff: Your recent piece in National Review (“Blue Today, Bluer Tomorrow”) reminded me of Walter Russell Mead who a few years ago was writing extensively on what he called the “Blue State Model.” This model, said Mead, was essentially one in which Blue state politicians would talk a lot about punishing the rich and big business, and make some overtures in that direction, but in fact, through complex regulations and loopholes, write laws that benefited the rich. Tax policy is the obvious example. Talk about raising the marginal rate on the rich, but then create all sorts of tax breaks (like the State and Local Tax Deduction) that disproportionately benefit the rich. The poor react to the populist rhetoric, the rich to the elitist policy. This phenomena manifests itself this year when Joe Biden claims to be for “Scranton” not “Park Avenue,” while the finance and banking industry, which presumably knows its own interest, is backing Biden heavily. Why has this strategy been successful, in your view?

Kotkin: It is classic mis-direction. The oligarchs and their heirs fund the progressive media who then promote these policies. It’s a show to virtue-signal. There is a geographic element here. These people live in expensive cities and the “best” suburbs. They live near the coasts and away from where people work in factories, on farms, or in home constriction. Their world is essentially one of their own making, and there’s no strong organized counter-force. When the stakes are high, they can overwhelm opposition, whether inside or outside, the Democratic Party.

Schaff: The Coming of Neo-Feudalism quotes Wendell Berry at one point. This will warm the hearts of most Front Porch Republic readers, many of whom are inspired by Berry’s localism. How can we promote a more vibrant localism as against the dominant ideology of globalism? How can local communities decimated by globalization and economic centralization be revivified?

Kotkin: This is a big question. The key thing is to allow power to devolve away from Washington and state capitals. Local politicians have to be elected based on local, not national issues. There needs to be a concentration of the real: skills training, middle class and upwardly mobile working class jobs. Replace symbolism with real improvements.

Schaff: You’ve written about a couple policy areas that promote neo-feudalism. One of them is housing. How specifically does housing policy present an obstacle to upward mobility for the working class? What policies might you recommend instead?

Kotkin: The biggest issue is homeownership. The issue can be dealt with by supplying more housing, either on the periphery or by replacing the soon to be enormous tsunami of redundant retail and office. Taking away some of the fees and long approval processes, the adoption of manufacturing house and spreading job markets more broadly may help.

Schaff: Another policy area that favors neo-feudalism is the role of colleges and universities. What reforms of higher education might make it more egalitarian by promoting actual upward mobility for the lower classes? What about those who don’t go to college? What can we do to provide more opportunity for those without a college education?

Kotkin: First of all, we should not push so many people into college. Skills training and apprenticeships may be a better route. For those in college, we need to focus on real skills, like knowing things and being able to listen to differing views, as well as simply showing up. Our schools are not really interested in creating adult citizens, but future woke activists.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. This electrician’s take:

    How can we promote a more vibrant localism as against the dominant ideology of globalism? How can local communities decimated by globalization and economic centralization be revivified?

    Jobs, jobs, jobs. Without decent paychecks and benefits, there will be no resurrection of local communities, period. And that means recognizing the damage of the “Reagan revolution” and bringing back the higher tax rates for the rich that existed before Reagan, and using that revenue for rebuilding infrastructure, investing deeply in public education and other institutions of The Commons, and creating a universal healthcare plan. It also requires a balance. While a part of me is very interested in localism, the other more practical and blunt part of me recognizes that it was a strong federal government that brought the Good Things in life into my hands—the “good ol’ boys” networks of localism worked against that, all too eager to keep opportunities away from those not just like themselves. Had it not been for elements like the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, the Pregnancy Anti-Discrimination Act, etc., “local” networks would sit pat in knowing that their people (children, other relatives, in-laws) would be taken care of while the rest of us sat out in the cold, knocking on doors that would never open.

    How specifically does housing policy present an obstacle to upward mobility for the working class? What policies might you recommend instead?

    Higher wages. A major raise in the minimum wage, for a start. Labor policies that make it easier for workers to join unions. In most of the country, it’s not a dearth of housing or unreasonably high housing cost that is the problem: it’s unreasonably low wages that keep people on the rental treadmill.

    First of all, we should not push so many people into college. Skills training and apprenticeships may be a better route.

    Yeah, you first, pal. All these rich mofos on the internet talkin’ about “job training” and “apprenticeships”….never send their own children down that path. Why? Because they want financial (and marital) stability for their children, and the hell with the rest of us. The plain fact is college gives you options and opportunities that are closed to the rest of us. Period. I’ve been an electrician for over 32 years. I’ve been on the road for most of that time. There are more electricians than there are jobs for us (gee, thanks, Reaganism!). I’m riding out the rest of my time on the road, maximizing my hours on overtime jobs to boost my retirement since my daughter is grown. But realtalk: opportunities in my field are shrinking, not growing. Deindustrialization has a lot to do with that, and deregulation of the power industry is a factor too (no incentive for power companies to build or maintain facilities. They want “money for nothing” too.). Can’t have localism without local jobs. I go home once a month. I have enough time to attend a union meeting (and take the minutes—I’m an officer), do my laundry, say hi to my father and my daughter (and sometimes my best friend), pick up my bills, and….that’s about it. Someday, I hope to be able to have a slice of localism for myself, somewhere….but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade away.

    I haven’t read this book. Maybe I shall. (I really enjoyed Richard Reeves’ “The Dream Hoarders”. Made me angry as f*ck, but I was already there, anyway.) Here’s my advice for all the bloviating academics and policy wonks currently making a buck or a name for themselves on the struggles of the rest of us:

    1. Put your money where your mouth is. Literally. Move to our neighborhoods.
    2. Send your children to our public schools. Even if they suck. Especially if they suck.
    3. Buy American-made, union-made products and services whenever possible. You magically find it possible not to whine about cost when it comes to finding a good banker, investment analyst, attorney, physician, etc. You magically find value in paying for expensive foreign vehicles, appliances, clothing, tchotchkes. Well, it’s entirely possible to value your own fellow citizens enough to invest in what we’re doing, too.
    4. Advise your kids to enter the military. Arguably, it’s the most democratic institution we have left in this country.
    5. Quit trying to be the Working Class Whisperer, and start elevating the words of actual working class people. We’re more than able to speak for ourselves—your class isn’t listening, is all.

  2. “Here’s my advice for all the bloviating academics and policy wonks currently making a buck or a name for themselves on the struggles of the rest of us”

    This is entirely too cynical. If you think that the majority of people, right or left, who are writing about this stuff are living high on the hog you’re sorely mistaken. And even if some of them are, would it be better to have no prominent voices raising these concerns?

    Note: I’m one of the “strugglers” myself. I can almost guarantee that I make less than you do as an electrician.

    I suggest you read more about localism. Many of your complaints about it seem to be based on some rather strong misconceptions.

  3. Would you rather work towards a nation with a unionized Walmart and Amazon, or one with thousands of small local businesses? If “make it easier for workers to join unions” is your answer to what you want to do, then you’re choosing the former, and you can head down that nightmare road by yourself, thank you very much.
    A federal government large enough to push Walmart and Amazon around is large enough for them to want to take it over, as they and their predecessors have shown time after time. The corporation, and their unions, just given enough money to the politicians, and they now own their regulators.
    “Free market conservatism” is basically dead. If we’re going to have a big goverment, as it’s clear we are, time to use it to crush our enemies, not just whine about liberals doing so when they’re in charge. So let’s start taxing the bejeesus out of big companies, big cities, etc.

  4. Rob G: Yes, I realize I sound kind of cynical about it, but that’s the result of decades of living in a breathtakingly provincial place (for its size), and working in a provincial trade. Not having a legacy really *is* a barrier to acceptance and opportunity. The ol’ “who’s your daddy” matters a lot in smaller towns (say, less than 250,000 people). I’ve had the same address for damn near 30 years. Joined and participated in *lots* of community stuff. But only found friends among other outsiders. The folks whose grandparents grew up here are notoriously standoffiah (and that’s been a trend for the past 150 years. It wasn’t what I expected when I moved there, because the place I graduated high school from was so much worse and even more so now—it’s an offcial hellhole on every statistical measure you can imagine. The smaller city my parents were originally from doesn’t rank in the official top-ten hellhole lists, but it’s not far from it. It’s growth industry is heroin, and the hospital my folks were born in was torn down, replaced by an emergency center that basically functions as a place to stabilize people before they can be shipped 40-70 miles for actual destination healthcare.)

    Look, it’s human nature. The smaller and/or more provincial the place, the fewer opportunities for people without the “right” parentage. That’s what localism has been *in practice* in my life. I didn’t get that cynicism out of a book. Right now, there’s a big resurgence in COVID in my home in Illinois. The mayor’s reaction: to emphasize that he will NOT enforce the Governor’s orders to for further restrictions on lockdowns and large gatherings, nor will there be any mask enforcement. The Good Old Boys have spoken. Makes me glad for once that I’m working elsewhere, and at a job with strict COVID protocol. I do fear for my daughter and my father though (dad lives in the aforementioned hellhole, but spends more of his time at my house, because he’s lonely since my mother died, and the city he lives in is depressing. As an online friend once memorably wrote (and I’ve been merrily stealing ever since) set design for Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road”.

    Still, I try to have hope, because I believe in the power of human connection and barrier-breaking (another constant in my life), and if that means less-tenable (realtime local) connections and relying more on the deeper connections of brotherhood of my beloved IBEW (mostly separated physically, but connected just the same), so be it.

    Brian: false dilemma. Most of the contractors I’ve worked for are local contractors, not multijurisdictional ones. They’re still union just the same, and have more in common with—or actually are—“mom and pops”. Unions have historically been a more effective, and sometimes the *only* means, of providing a countervailing force to protect workers and give us a slice of the pie than *any other American institution*. Period. Yeah, I think service induatry workers even in smaller operations (like my daughter) should have union pay and union benefits. There is no downside to this. (stick around, because we’re going to experience the huge downside to the dearth of union pay and benefits for the rapidly-aging Gen X (my generation) and even more so the Millenials (entering middle age right now).

    Both of yas: yeah, I get that the richfolk by “local” standards aren’t the 1% (god how I loathe that overused term). But the majority of Americans are low-wage workers, full stop. They don’t earn enough to make ends meet, let alone set back savings for things like medical bills or auto repair, let alone a pipe dream like “retirement”. They’ll just get fired when they age out of “productivity”, long before they’ll be able to collect any Social Security (and if Trump and his Republican enablers have anything to say about it, that won’t exist). So yeah, the academics, even if they aren’t “rich”, *are* largely isolated in a thick bubble. They have job protections and stability I don’t ha e, even though (for right now) I’m making decent money (which hasn’t always been the case. when the economy gets the flu, the trades get double pneumonia). Even the well-meaning ones have huge gaps in their understanding, and don’t even seem to be aware of it.

    Anyway. Stay away from drinking games this election day (no good for you!). I gotta get to work. It’s my first day of return from a 3-week, 2-state hunting/camping trip. It’s gonna be a long night.

    • Bases on your attitude as exhibited here, it’s a total shock you have trouble finding friends.
      I live in one of those “hellholes” you’re talking about. I moved here from elsewhere, because I have no hometown. The city and county are wards of the (very, very, very blue) state. New York, as I’ve said before. We’ve got all sorts of awful pathologies here. No one says small towns are idyllic, especially not in contemporary America where the residents here are quite aware that so many of their countrymen think they’re trash.
      But unions don’t mean squat when there are no jobs to be had, and the state has zero interest in whether this place even exists or not. Those who say “stronger unions are going to save the working class!” are living in delusional fantasyland just as much as those who still claim that “free trade makes everyone better off!” The evidence is all around, just look around you.

      “Social Security (and if Trump and his Republican enablers have anything to say about it, that won’t exist)”
      Yawn. So tiresome. No one’s going to eliminate Social Security. Of course, the money ain’t gonna be worth much in a couple decades, since no one running anything cares about things like the value of the currency, but at least we’ll get that check.

  5. Oh, didn’t mention: it took a strong federal government to ensure labor rights, end Jim Crow, ensure women’s rights, ensure the safety of food and drugs, clean up the environment (air, land, water) from the depredations of “the market”, grant legal marriage to LGBT folks….it’s why when it comes down to the brass tacks, I’ll pick “strong federal government” over localism. Having it makes it possible for people like me.to even be a part of localism. If you can’t see that….well, consider the thickness of your bubble. Federal power keeps local fiefdoms honest, and opens doors that would remain closed otherwise. First-class-citizenship FTW!

    • This represents a false dichotomy, in that in many cases it was not the “small and local” that caused the initial problem but something precisely the opposite — bigness. The size and power of the federal government did not grow in response to localism but to its opposite — the “bigness” of industrial/finance capitalism. Note that the “localist” conservatives of the early 20th century were not chiefly concerned with the size of government but with the size of “business.”

      Your dichotomy also omits the fact that in a great many ways “a strong federal government” and “big business” are joined at the hip. As capitalism gets bigger it tends to get ever more cronyist. One could argue that even a cronyist version of a “strong federal government” provides the things you mention. So the question becomes, how much cronyism are you willing to tolerate to continue getting what you want? Is this really the road you want to go down — “bigness” is fine so long as it benefits me, and damn the other consequences? How is that any different from what the “dream hoarders” say? The fact that they seek their beneficent bigness other than where you seek yours seems to me immaterial.

  6. I’d echo the first commenter’s emphasis on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” That’s certainly what is needed in small-town Montana.

    Aaron

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