China’s economic growth arises from the greatest migration of peoples in history, involving the displacement of hundreds of millions to the coast from the interior over the course of a century. On a smaller scale, Hurricane Katrina emulates Chinese circumstances for the poor residents of New Orleans, the destruction of whose homes is the best thing that could have happened to them.
Inadvertently, the United States has taken a leaf from China’s book. The US should stop worrying about the parity of the yuan and consider what it might learn from China’s economic success.
Sunday’s New York Times offered a piece titled “Katrina’s tide carries many to hopeful shores,” recounting the rising fortunes of impoverished New Orleans residents forced out of their flooded homes. The newspaper analyzed relocation patterns in 17 counties in and around Atlanta and Houston, two leading destinations for Katrina evacuees.
Like the Marcells, the average evacuee has landed in a neighborhood with nearly twice the income as the one left behind, less than half as much poverty, and significantly higher levels of education, employment and home ownership.
A Ms Marcell, a black woman interviewed by the Times, “was furious with Barbara Bush last fall when the former first lady, seeming to ignore the pain the storm had caused, said the evacuation was ‘working very well’ because most displaced families ‘were underprivileged anyway.’ Yet in calling [her new home] Atlanta a ‘land of opportunity,’ Ms Marcell, from the other end of the class spectrum, is making a parallel point,” the newspaper observed. I do not read the New York Times exhaustively, but this may be the first kind thing it has said about a member of the Bush family in a decade.
The best way to improve the lot of poor people is to move them out of poor regions into rich regions. Rich regions offer a culture of enterprise that easily assimilates new entrants, while poor regions labor under a cultural of poverty that stifles their most promising residents. Merely displacing people from poor regions, of course, does not necessarily improve their lot.
In the case of China, peasants arriving in cities improve their living standards manifold even with the humblest employment in an urban economy, and rapidly acquire skills that give them upward mobility. The same appears to be true for the refugees from Katrina.
That is the source of China’s economic miracle. China’s cities held only 135 million people in 1995, but will burgeon to 800 million by 2050, according to United Nations population forecasts. Peasants who spent their lives in rural poverty without hope of betterment are joining the global economy. At a 10% economic growth rate, China’s output will double every seven years. It can sustain this growth rate as long as it can transfer people from low-productivity subsistence agriculture to high-productivity manufacturing. China’s urban-rural population ratio now stands at about 1:2, but by mid-century will shift to 2:1.
The US long since accomplished the great transition from farm to city, but pockets of immiserated rural culture remain in the great cities. New Orleans notoriously enclosed the poorest black population in the United States. The city produced nothing of note, hosted no great financial institutions, attracted no entrepreneurs in the emerging technology industries, but offered an urban theme park to tourists attracted by the garish carnival, jazz funerals, decaying 19th-century architecture, Creole cooking, an officially tolerated sex industry – in short, the lurid slop of Anne Rice novels.
To the regret of tourists who no more will click their tongues over the quaintness of New Orleans culture, Katrina washed away the detritus of the US south’s putrescent aristocracy. Brennan’s, the city’s best-known purveyor of local cuisine, will continue to cook gumbo at its Las Vegas location, joining the local reproductions of Venetian canals and the Eiffel Tower in America’s commercial museum of world culture.
The former residents of New Orleans slums, meanwhile, find themselves in the promised land of shopping malls and suburban subdivisions. As the cited New York Times story says of Atlanta,
Growth is the region’s secular religion. A half-century ago, Atlanta was a second-string province the size of Birmingham, Alabama. Now it is home to 4 million people and the world’s busiest airport, with a prosperity that crosses color lines. Compared with blacks nationwide, the black population of Greater Atlanta is much better paid, much better educated and much more likely to be raising children with two parents at home.
Of course, the traditional culture of New Orleans will disappear, like most of the traditional cultures of the world. But the people of New Orleans are better off without it. Full disclosure: I never visited the city nor intended to, in part because I detest New Orleans jazz, but mostly because the ambience of louche hedonism annoys me. I read with indifference the innumerate eulogies to New Orleans culture.
Eulogies of this kind are becoming more frequent. Perhaps 90% of the world’s languages will disappear during the next century. One is more likely to encounter KFC chicken or Domino’s pizza in downtown Shanghai than the recondite and elegant cuisine that bears the name of the city.
Many beautiful things will disappear because poor people no longer will suffer to make them. One simply cannot find decent Mexican food in the United States, in part because traditional Mexican cuisine requires vast amounts of labor. Machine-made corn tortillas never will hold the savor of the hand-made article, but Mexicans migrate to the US precisely to escape a life of making tortillas by hand.
Atlanta, for readers whose main association with the Georgia state capital might be Gone With the Wind, has metamorphosed into an expanse of steel and glass surrounded by ticky-tacky housing developments, an emblem for the sort of urban sprawl that Europeans disdain. “I love New Orleans, don’t get me wrong,” one of the Katrina refugees told the New York Times. “But I thank God we are in Atlanta.”
The best thing the US could do for the poor people of its urban ghettos is to expel them. One does not do poor people a favor by concentrating them in government housing (or for that matter refugee camps) where they depend on the public dole. Given the incidental costs of major hurricanes, there probably are cheaper ways to accomplish this, eg, simply pay them to leave.
This is difficult to accomplish in a democracy, to be sure, for the elected representatives of immiserated black Americans form a bloc large enough to thwart legislative attempts to better their conditions. Were the urban poor dispersed into the rich regions of the country, they no longer would vote as a bloc for the sort of congress members who now conspire to keep them poor.
It was the great luck of the poor blacks of New Orleans that a great wind came along to carry them away from servitude to their political leaders. The Black Caucus of America’s Congress keeps urban blacks as political hostages, much as the regimes of the Arab world have exploited Palestinian refugees, whom they refuse to take in, and expel when convenient.
China’s advantage is that it is not a democracy and can manage the great transfer of population by fiat (see China must wait for democracy, September 27, 2005). I favor democracy and abhor many practices of China’s regime, but it is an ill wind that blows nobody good.
Nor do I mean to make light of the consequences of cultural deracination. Many of Katrina’s refugees are ascending out of the humiliating poverty that blighted their lives back home. Now they will have the means to watch sex and violence on plasma-screen televisions, spend their free time in the esthetic dystopia of shopping malls, and worship in mega-churches.
Will more money make them happier? I do not think so, any more than the loss of traditional Chinese culture in the globalized urban jungle of the coastal cities will make Chinese peasants happier. With the admonition Careful what you wish for, I addressed that issue in a March 21 review of Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons.
What it will do, however, is enable them to contemplate their unhappiness with a sense of empowerment. People with money, education and opportunity may be as miserable as any illiterate dirt farmer, but they have the means – how did Thomas Jefferson put it? – for the pursuit of happiness. Whether they choose good or ill is not up to this writer. But it is a vicious form of condescension to condemn people to perpetual poverty in the name of preserving traditional culture.