Demographics and economics are combining to push the middle-class dream out West.
12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2005 • By REIHAN SALAM
THE FOLLOWING isn't about Harriet Miers or the collapse of an administration weighed down by scandal. Rather, it's about why I'm planning on moving to Montana in about 10 years. At this point, you have every reason to wonder what this has to do with your life. I'll tell you: I'm going to convince you to join me.
In stark contrast to the City College kids huddled in their Alcoves circa 1939, focused like laser beams on the fate of mankind with brows furrowed and fists raised, today's bright youth "ain't rebellin'." And with good reason. The kind of intellectual ferment that leads to social upheaval is invariably a product of rising expectations. The French Revolution was, if you believe Tocqueville, less a response to unusually intolerable oppression than to the steady hollowing-out of what had been a very effective autocracy. Which is to say, good news prompted a lot of murderous rage.
More recently, it was affluence as much as injustice (real and imagined) that fueled America's Baby Boomers' desperate bid for attention--a spoiled-child psychodrama that plagues us to this day. Once again, very good news--dazzling economic growth, the steady breakdown of caste barriers--turned a generation of mild-mannered Bill Bixbys into a generation of crazed, pot-smoking Lou Ferrignos.
So what happens in an age of diminishing expectations? There's no better way to win a bet than to wager that American life will, over time, get better rather than worse. Because there are so many patsies willing to bet otherwise, the rewards are almost always handsome. If history tells us anything, it's that the future will be like the past, only with fancier gadgets, larger homes, and prettier, healthier people.
BUT WHAT IF OUR LUCK IS RUNNING OUT? In How We Got Here, David Frum chronicled the various ways the 1970s scarred the country, leaving a legacy of moral turpitude, garish pastels, and economic illiteracy. Consider then that the rising generation, born at the tail end of 1979, is living through what looks increasingly like a 1970s revival. They're coping with anxiety abroad and rising gas prices at home. They're wearing the flared pants. They're baring the midriffs. And they will need much better judgment than their parents if they are to navigate their way out of the calamitous course set by the Baby Boomers responsible for the Europeanization of American life.
By now, readers are undoubtedly familiar with rising income volatility and the pervasive uncertainty that comes with it. For young workers, resilience is the order of the day: They'll probably lose their job or their benefits at some point, so they have to be prepared. The savvy will survive and thrive--as for the rest, well, good luck. The end result is, for many, a sense of shrinking horizons. That you will necessarily do better than your parents is no longer taken as a given.
Take housing, for example. In the coastal urban regions prized by immigrants and natives alike, resistance to new construction and denser zoning is radically changing the character of the inner suburbs (a shift Joel Kotkin has chronicled). As Kotkin puts it, those lucky enough to have been in the right time and at the right place have become a new landed aristocracy, enjoying a vast increase in unearned wealth. Meanwhile, the cost of living has become prohibitively high for young families. One might call this "the closing of the crabgrass frontier," a historical development of epochal significance. The more enterprising and ambitious are moving to low-cost metropolitan areas and small towns, where the cycle begins anew.
Then you have the lifetime net tax rates. Say we continue on a somewhat more responsible version of our current fiscal course, which is to say, assume that big-ticket government entitlements are left unreformed. If current trends hold, the amount the federal government will take from you minus the amount it will give back (in the form of transfer payments) will go from 17.68 percent of income for the youngest people alive today to a staggering 35.81 percent for those yet to be born. The pampered offspring of single-child families will find their blood, sweat, and tears harvested by self-absorbed, gastric-bypassed, face-lifted geezers living it up into their 90s.
Of course, most of those yet to be born will be cyborgs equipped with hyper-intelligent brains and elaborate virtual reality environments that can dull the pain of being stacked like cordwood in vast warehouses, thanks to the sky-high price of real estate. This will help dull the pain for most. Others will high-tail it to greener pastures. Like Montana.
WHEN THE DECK is stacked against you, cheating is pretty much your only recourse. The best way to "cheat" is to abandon the middle-class mainstream and embrace alternatives. As high-quality public schools grow increasingly inaccessible, the next generation of parents will have little choice other than to supplement their children's inadequate education. Some will turn to private tutoring chains--which are already mushrooming across the cities and suburbs. Others will create increasingly sophisticated cooperative networks that could, over time, come to supplant conventional schools. Looking further out, one can imagine these networks taking on even larger economic roles. Despite steep tax burdens and a rising cost of living, a small handful of would-be outlaws will in this way stumble upon a new birth of freedom.
Where better to live the outlaw life than in Montana, where housing is cheap and experiments in living are welcome? It wouldn't be the first time ornery, ambitious, enterprising young people settled out West in droves.
Reihan Salam is a writer in Brooklyn and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.