Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Next Hundred Million by Joel Kotkin

Since Julian Simon's death over a decade ago, few people have thoughtfully articulated optimistic scenarios for the middle range future. Instead, bookstores are littered with books predicting doom and gloom resulting from climate change and environmental degradation, the economic decline of the west relative to China, peak oil and many other factors. Part of this is, no doubt, empirically based. But some of it is probably cultural. For whatever reason, the apocalyptic narrative seems to have returned full force.

Thus, it is refreshing to find someone like Joel Kotkin who makes a well articulated, if ultimately unconvincing, case for a rosy American future. At the heart of Kotkin's vision is the projection that the US, in contrast to other western countries, will increase significantly in population over the next 40 years. And, like Simon before him, he predicts the combination of this brain power and America's adaptability will create by 2050 the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history.

Unfortunately for individuals interested in realistic scenarios of the future, Kotkin's book is notable more for what it leaves out than for what it incorporates. It is, largely, a book that focuses on the US economy in isolation -- there is little consideration of the world system as a whole or of environmental matters. Indeed, in many ways the title misrepresents the real thrust of the argument. This is not a forecast of the future based on consideration of a wide number of complexly interacting factors. It is, rather, a very thoughtful analysis of demographic growth and its consequences (e.g., the geographic distribution of the expanded population and its cultural impact in terms of increased diversity, etc.). Kotkin's earlier work dealt with cities and the geographic impact of digital technology. The current work is best seen in that light, as an argument with Richard Florida over the kind of cities that are most likely to foster economic development in the future. Individuals looking for a surrogate Julian Simon, someone who articulates an optimistic vision of the future based on scenarios that incorporate multiple factors and presume a fundamental continuation of the status quo, had best look elsewhere.

Joel Kotkin Summarizes "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050" from Voices for Innovation on Vimeo.

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