APPEL: Life, And The Future, At The Intersection

Somewhere at the intersection of two great political-economic principles lies the future of America’s cities. The United States is a nation that long ago achieved stability and faith in government because it is a constitutional republican form of government, a form of government whose leaders are democratically elected. It also is a nation whose embrace of free market capitalism underpinned by a reliance on the precepts of western legal tradition propelled it from an economic sideshow to the world’s strongest democracy, a nation in which opportunity and prosperity are co-equal.

For most of America’s history cities were the epicenter of accomplishment. The underlying reason was that these two powerful principles, political stability, and economic freedom, co-existed in a balanced steady state, in a form of political and economic harmony evolved through a millennium of Western trial and error. The vitality of cities, conceived in the balance of political and economic interests, spread nationwide and became the progenitor of good fortune for all the people.

In our times we are seeing the advent mainly in cities of a rapidly evolving social democratic philosophy of government, a system contrary to what Americans have known, one that Americans are only slowly coming to terms with, one to which America’s response may be for good, or for worse.

The seeds of this alien system have been planted by demographic changes in the makeup of cities. Starting after World War II in so many cities large swaths of middle-class citizens, the core that contributed to and benefitted from the healthy balance of interests, migrated to suburbs or to other cities that were more akin to personal freedom. Nothing in these trends should be unexpected as in free societies the middle class, by its nature, seeks opportunities for personal success and is highly mobile. The consequence though is that while opportunity was once the closely held domain of cities, that is not necessarily so anymore.

The departure of the middle class from cities has resulted in an accelerating sea change in which there is a growing majority of city dwellers that are disproportionately under-educated and of the lower income strata. These are citizens that instead of being nurtured by a growth economy, tend to depend upon government-created wealth transfer as well as other government support. Not unexpectedly in a democracy, when these folks vote they do so in their own interests, resulting in electing leaders who institute policies that protect and enhance government largesse for their voter base.

Therein lies the problem. These policies are by their nature fatal to a growth economy and so exacerbate the imbalance between political interest and economic interests by driving away those who perceive that their future demands a vibrant economy. The result is an accelerated imbalance between political and economic interests and the loss of opportunity for the poor to break out of poverty. Eventually a tipping point is reached beyond which, short of precipitous economic collapse, a return to a healthy balance between political and economic interests becomes unlikely, even unfeasible.

New Orleans is the classic case of when the imbalance at the intersection of competing principles perhaps has reached such a tipping point. In the last quarter of the twentieth century there was a great out-migration of middle-class citizens from the city to the suburbs resulting in a voting population that became poorer and far more likely to be government dependent. Whether the out-migration was the result of post-war Federal policies or was a social construct doesn’t matter, it is the consequences of the out-migration that must concern all. In the New Orleans case the result has been a rapidly accelerating imbalance in favor of politics over economics, an imbalance that has resulted in growing poverty and social ills.

In the last half of the 20th century New Orleans was an economic success story. It had multiple regional banks, booming population growth peaking around 1970, spreading economic opportunity, great infrastructure, and quality city services. But the departure of so many of the middle-class resulted in an imbalance of competing interests. The result: economic malaise, spiraling social ills and crime, no growth. Before the out-migration there were free-market pathways to personal economic growth, but since the out-migration those pathways have largely disappeared to be replaced by entrapping poverty.

Ironically an unexpected aspect of the out-migration is that not only did it retard the economic life of the city, but it has also resulted in regional slow or no growth, the measure of which is population stagnation virtually unchanged in fifty years. An interesting question must be what New Orleans would look like today if there had been no middle class out-migration or if those out-migrating had been replaced by in-migrators that found New Orleans to be attractive. What if the political and economic imbalance did not come about at all?


If we expect that New Orleans could once again be the cradle of economic prosperity based upon the American capitalist system, then local political policies and leadership matters a great deal. If we expect that prosperity beckons if we abandon the capitalist system and supplant it with some kind of government dependency model, a hybrid socialist system if you will, then we are well on our way.

All cities have a certain self-generated economy, but there is no limit on how low the level of economic activity can descend or how fast it will do so. Barely forty years ago New Orleans was known as the Queen City of the South, but as the imbalance between political and economic interests diverged, so did New Orleans’ ability to compete. History tells us the rest of the story.

The future of so many great American cities such as New Orleans remains in question. Over time will a new balance between political and economic interests be reached in which each is given the emphasis required to create prosperity? Will leaders arise who understand the significance of such a balance, and if so, will they invest the political capital needed to lead the people to re-establish a healthy balance?

Focusing upon the New Orleans case, if such a balance is not re-established what will a future New Orleans even look like? Short of re-establishing the political-economic balance, that is a frightening prospect indeed.

History is replete with numerous examples of the brutal reality of nature; a city does not exist unless there is an economic reason for it to exist. There is no reason to think that American cities are immune to the forces that determine whether a city is vital or not, and government support is not the path to self-sustaining vitality.



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