| CURRENT EVENTS The Coming Urban Exodus: Failing progressive governance is making daily life too chaotic and stressful in many U.S. cities.

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The Coming Urban Exodus
Failing progressive governance is making daily life too chaotic and stressful in many U.S. cities.

By Daniel Henninger
June 17, 2020 7:14 pm ET

Opinion: The Coming Urban Exodus

Opinion: The Coming Urban Exodus
Wonder Land: After months of the pandemic, protests and failing progressive leadership, many are going to move out of U.S. centers. Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly
In his speech last weekend to the graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Trump said something with which, in normal times, few would disagree: “What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment.” Until now.
Among the most durable of those institutions is what some call “the great American city.” America’s cities are indeed a wonder—built quickly from nearly nothing across a vast continent into a unique story of social and economic success. We may now be on the cusp of a great reordering of the nation’s population as many people decide it is time to separate themselves and their families from the social, political and moral turbulence of this country’s large urban areas.

A familiar story line of recent years has described the rise to economic and political power of urban centers such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington as young, politically progressive workers in the knowledge and service industries poured in. This, by popular account, increased tension and division between urban sophisticates on the forward edge of everything and the stodgy suburbs and conservative rural communities. I think the coming urban exodus will be different. People with all sorts of political beliefs are going to get out because they are watching city after city reach a tipping point of social disorder and political disorganization.
In two recent, overlooked articles, demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution reports that the well-noted migration into large metropolitan areas that occurred from 2010 to 2015—predicting “the decade of the city”—has in fact reversed sharply in the past five years.

Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Washington are all leaking people. Meanwhile the presumably disdained suburbs and exurbs, distant from these city centers, are gaining residents.
Then came the pandemic and the protests of 2020.

Hardly anyone disputes that the coronarivus pandemic was going to affect individuals’ trust in the human density of urban living. Many were already daunted by the possibility of again enduring a shutdown of every aspect of city life while quarantined in small living quarters.
Late May witnessed the killing of George Floyd, followed by nonstop street marches and significant looting in multiple city centers—the ones already losing population: New York (as always), Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., on and on.

Urban dwellers are resilient, but these simultaneous events have forced people to face a hard reality. In just three months it has become clear that modern urban progressivism is politically incompetent and intellectually incoherent.
After the days and weeks of marches through cities, what has fallen out of it is basically one idea—defund the police. In New York, with blocks of stores boarded up and cherry bombs exploding nightly everywhere, the City Council has agreed to cut the city’s police budget by $1 billion, or one-sixth. How hard is it to connect the dots?
A shapeless mass declares multiple blocks of Seattle now belong to it, and when asked how long it could on, Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan wanly offers: “I don’t know. We could have a Summer of Love.” The first one was in 1967, also accompanied by massive urban unrest.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the weekend issued a plaintive request to the daily street protests: “You don’t need to protest. You won. You won.” Then the kicker: “What reform do you want? What do you want?”
Historically, the media and press have served an arbitrating function among competing urban forces. No longer. Through the pandemic and now the protests, much of the urban-based media have become bizarrely invested in apocalyptic story lines, picking at scab after scab and problem after problem, with not much effort at sorting substantive policy alternatives other than heading deeper into the progressive frontier.
The message being sent is that progressive governance is, at best, ambivalent about maintaining civil order. The net result the past three months has been a sense in many cities of irresolvable chaos, stress and threat.
I think many younger, often liberal families would stick it out if they thought there was anything resembling a coherent strategy to address this mess—the new health threat, the homeless, the rising crime, the filth, the increasingly weird school curriculums. But there is no strategy.

The quality of the response by both political and institutional urban leadership to the pressure of these two events has been so uniformly unproductive that it sends a message: The cost-benefit just isn’t working anymore, with incentives mounting to move out.
The unhappy result as young families and well-off retirees leave is that these cities will increasingly become more divided between upscale progressive singles able to afford the political incompetence and the residents of inner-city neighborhoods that will fall further behind.
For those who’ve always wondered what the 1960s were like, you’re living it, but this time without much love.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

Is Another Exodus Ahead for U.S. Cities?
Without the right policy response, the pandemic and civil unrest could undo decades of urban progress.

Pedestrians in midtown Manhattan, 2018.
By Reihan Salam
June 18, 2020 9:50 am ET

Picture two young people living in the same divided American city, both of whom decided to take to the streets to protest police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. One is working-class, recently unemployed and living with extended family in a neighborhood plagued by violent crime. The other is upper-middle-class, securely employed and living with a spouse in a much safer neighborhood where serious crime is almost unheard of.
Both are committed to fighting racism and support defunding the police. But consider what happens if defunding the police doesn’t turn out as its champions hope and the dangerous neighborhood grows more dangerous, the safe neighborhood less safe. Will the better-off of the two young people choose to endure a deteriorating quality of life in solidarity with the poorest of her neighbors? Or will she move out of the city and leave her fellow protester to pick up the pieces? If I had to guess, I suspect she’d bolt. Self-interest has a way of trumping other considerations, including ideological ones.
The twin crises of Covid-19 and the recent civil unrest represent a turning point for urban life in America. They could herald an age of disorder and disinvestment for the American metropolis, or a civic revival that lifts the fortunes of city-dwellers of every color, class and creed.
As recently as February, it was hard to imagine that the workers, investors and entrepreneurs who have flocked to America’s cities in recent years would flee en masse, not least because most cities had become so safe. Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the crack epidemic was raging in neighborhoods around the country. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been spared as a result of this extraordinary crime decline. Communities that saw steep declines in violence also saw increases in academic achievement, according to a 2014 study in the journal Sociological Science by Patrick Sharkey and colleagues.

Gutted buildings in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City, 1977.
The crime decline helped to stem the flow of people out of inner-city neighborhoods. It led a not insignificant number of high-income and college-educated families to choose to build their lives in neighborhoods that were once blighted and abandoned. It also created opportunities for less-skilled workers, many of them immigrants. Even as middle-skill jobs in production and clerical work evaporated, a large and growing urban service economy was a hopeful sign. Jobs in hospitality or entertainment, for example, depend on face-to-face interaction and a modicum of human warmth, making them resistant to automation.

Then the pandemic struck, causing a massive rupture in urban life that left millions of service workers unemployed, idle and angry. This development almost certainly contributed to the recent outbreaks of violence that were intertwined with the Floyd protests. Inevitably, the crippling of the service economy has also made urban life less attractive for the skilled professionals who fueled its expansion with their spending.

The shutdowns have already taught many large employers that much knowledge work can be done remotely. It remains to be seen if the rise of Zoom will transform America’s urban geography, but it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility. In a recent survey of 1,500 U.S. hiring managers, Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at the online freelancer platform Upwork, found that 61.9% expected their workforce to be more remote in the years to come.
Consider the post-1960s transformation of America’s urban cores, when poor black migrants arrived in large numbers and middle-class white residents fled. It’s common to reduce this “white flight” to racial animus, and no doubt it played a role. But as the Princeton economist Leah Boustan observed in her 2017 book “Competition in the Promised Land,” many middle-class whites decamped for the suburbs in those years even when their own neighborhoods remained as white as ever.

Part of the story is that the arrival of poor black migrants changed the composition of the municipal electorate, shifting the political balance in favor of increased spending on public services, which meant higher taxes. In other words, white flight often amounted to people fleeing taxes, some of whom surely thought of themselves as committed to the cause of racial justice. And though this middle-class exodus started with white city-dwellers, many upwardly mobile black families soon made the same journey.
While fighting the pandemic, public safety can’t be taken for granted.
One can imagine a similar dynamic in the near future, with a steady outflow of middle- and high-income households driving change in the composition of municipal electorates. As cities grow poorer and less populous, and as public employees come to represent an even larger share of those with meaningful political influence, urban populists may promise to redistribute whatever wealth is left—which in turn will contribute to further outmigration.
What can be done to prevent a repeat of the post-1960s exodus from America’s cities? The indispensable first step is to meet the threat of Covid-19, an effort that must be led by a competent and committed federal government. Failure to contain and ultimately defeat the pandemic would do grievous harm to cities, where the virus spreads most easily, and to America’s prospects for a meaningful economic recovery.
While fighting the pandemic, however, public safety can’t be taken for granted. Instead of calling for defunding the police, urban leaders should focus on how they can make police departments more capable and effective. To foster more positive police-community relations, departments would do well to embrace precision policing, which leans on community outreach and careful analysis of crime patterns. The aim is to minimize adversarial encounters with law-abiding people who happen to reside in unsafe neighborhoods.
Cities must also limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees, to ensure that labor contracts don’t lock in place rigid work rules that make it exceedingly difficult to boost efficiency. The coming years will be a time of fiscal retrenchment, which means that cities will have to get creative to maintain or improve the quality of public services while limiting spending. That simply can’t happen without increased flexibility.
The solution to gentrification is not to resist new development.
It is also time to end the gentrification wars that have roiled our most prosperous and productive cities over the past decade. The problem is real: A number of once-impoverished urban neighborhoods have grown so attractive to educated professionals that working- and middle-class residents, not to mention the very poor, have found themselves priced out. But the solution is not to resist new development, especially in the current economic climate. The best way to solve the problem of displacement in these neighborhoods is to relax and rescind counterproductive regulations and allow developers big and small to build new homes.
Finally, cities would do well to embrace a more pluralistic approach to education. There should be room for high-performing charter school networks, support for low-income families who send their children to private schools, and a more differentiated approach to learning within district schools. Urban school districts ought to look to Idaho, which gives the parents of every seventh grader $4,125 to spend on education however they wish, from AP classes to remedial summer courses to training programs at local community colleges.

All these measures recognize that urban residents aren’t a captive audience. Cities are facing a much more competitive landscape than they were even six months ago. Those that succeed will do so by offering the highest quality of life at a price that won’t cause sticker shock. That is the surest route to maintaining urban communities that are more integrated, prosperous and just—a goal worthy of this moment.
—Mr. Salam is the president of the Manhattan Institute and the author of “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.”

For Newly Remote Workers, Small Town U.S.A. Will Lose Its Allure Soon Enough
Lower taxes? Cheaper housing? Shorter commute? For some knowledge workers fleeing the big city amid the pandemic, the perks of relocating to a distant burg will soon grow stale.

Laura Forman
June 19, 2020 5:30 am ET

America’s smaller cities are finally getting their big break. Will it last?
For decades a handful of urban areas have attracted the lion’s share of well-compensated knowledge workers. For nearly as long, the rest have tried mostly in vain to compete. Tax incentives and cheap housing have occasionally convinced big companies to relocate their headquarters, but the hoped-for flood of bright young things rarely seemed to follow.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have changed that with the broader adoption of permanent work-from-home policies and a newfound appreciation for cheaper, more-spacious surroundings. Many coveted knowledge workers have already made their move or are considering it. They might soon get homesick for the big city lights, though.
Young people with the most valuable degrees have historically gravitated toward major coastal cities and companies with the most competitive applicant pools hire them disproportionately. More than 11% of Silicon Valley-based Google and Facebook and more than 21% of New York-based Goldman Sachs employees are Ivy League graduates, for example, according to talent innovation company SHL.

Now many of these professionals want to pack up and take their lucrative jobs with them. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said recently that 75% of his employees have expressed some degree of interest in leaving the Bay Area. Meanwhile, a 2018 Bloomberg analysis of U.S. Census data showed more people were leaving New York City daily on a population adjusted basis than any other U.S. city. The pandemic has predictably accelerated this trend. Zillow and Redfin are both reporting spikes in single family home searches in smaller cities, suggesting the exodus could be more than temporary.

Cities have long tried to lure entire companies. In 2018, investment management firm Alliance Bernstein threatened to shake up the finance world when it announced it would move its headquarters to Nashville from New York City, citing benefits like lower cost of living, shorter commute times and no state income tax. Late last year, JP Morgan was reportedly shrinking its Manhattan presence and even weighing selling its investment banking headquarters there. The Dallas area, also free of state income tax, has seen a recent influx of San Francisco-based companies moving to the area.

Small cities have also attempted to lure individual workers in recent years. In 2017, the city of Lincoln, Kan., was actually offering free land in a “brand new subdivision” on a first come, first served basis. The Remote Worker Grant Program in Vermont last year offered up to $10,000 over two years to select remote workers living full-time in the state. That trend is picking up steam amid the pandemic. In Kansas, the “Choose Topeka,” program is offering up to $15,000 for professionals to relocate. And as of last week, Savannah, Ga., said it was offering $2,000 to tech workers who moved there.
The key difference in the pandemic-induced wave of relocations could be that the movement is organic, led by employees themselves rather than their bosses. But even that could falter. Smaller towns, away from buzzing business headquarters and bustling city life, might struggle to retain their charm for transplants unless they attract a critical mass of big city refugees. While the promise of more land, more space and less commute may sound compelling, there is the threat of boredom or, a worse fate for many, career marginalization.
Working away from main offices also could be more “work” than employees bargained for. Y. Sekou Bermiss, associate professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, says his research has shown remote employees actually end up working more to compensate for lost facetime.

And they might not feel so much wealthier after relocating. Companies like Facebook are planning to offer remote employees “localized” compensation, commensurate with a lower cost of living. Meanwhile, perks like free food, happy hours and on site child care won’t be available.

Along with in-person collaboration, big office settings also offer the ancillary benefits of friendship and even love at work. Mr. Bermiss warns against major corporations trading office space for a remote workforce, noting its employees are going to be “itching to get back together” once the pandemic subsides. Indeed, a survey by Vault.com last year found that 58% of workers had participated in an office romance at some point in their working lives.
Meanwhile, not everyone wants to leave “the city.” Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg said 38% of his employees would prefer to move to another big U.S. city rather than a smaller one.

The coronavirus could very well precipitate a temporary dispersion of American’s top talent, but it isn’t likely to stick. The gating factor preventing most smaller cities from growing may be that they are small to begin with. No one wants to “make” a city; ambitious professionals want to be made by them.
Write to Laura Forman at laura.forman@wsj.com

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Urban dwellers are resilient, but these simultaneous events have forced people to face a hard reality. In just three months it has become clear that modern urban progressivism is politically incompetent and intellectually incoherent.
After the days and weeks of marches through cities, what has fallen out of it is basically one idea—defund the police. In New York, with blocks of stores boarded up and cherry bombs exploding nightly everywhere, the City Council has agreed to cut the city’s police budget by $1 billion, or one-sixth. How hard is it to connect the dots?


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