July 26, 2019

Demographics are never destiny in a world of negative feedback mechanisms

Leftoids love to triumphantly brag about how urbanized the American population has become, and at the supposed demographic destiny that will ripple throughout the political world. Sorry, non-urbanites, you've been canceled. Lotsa luck staying alive.

Right-wingers love to parrot the same narrative, only with the emotional value reversed -- it's a sick, cruel joke of the universe that our societies keep getting more and more dominated by urban centers. Cities never sleep from hunting down a nearly extinct species -- the non-urbanite.

In reality, cities have been around for literally thousands of years, and they have never reproduced their own populations. They are endogenous population sinks, as high population density leads to greater epidemic disease burden, higher crime rates, and lower fertility rates. The material standard of living is far lower on average, although with far greater variance -- a few super-wealthy people who cannot be found in rural areas, but teeming hordes of quasi-slaves, who are worse off than their rural counterparts who toil in fields (disease, crime, etc.).

Cities only reproduce and grow their populations from exogenous sources -- migration from country to city, internal to the nation, or immigration of foreigners.

If those external sources dry up, or if there is higher migration out of cities for any reason, then the demographic destiny turns in the other direction -- a supposed future of depopulated cities, ever to be ruled over by country bumpkins and suburbanites. The emptying out of cities has already happened once in recent history -- during the rising-crime period of 1960 to 1990 -- and it will happen again during the next crime wave. Today's return to cities is in no small part due to falling crime rates from around 1990. But crime rates go in cycles, not in one direction.

And the same is true for other forces that affect the degree of urbanization, such as status-striving (pro-city) vs. restrained ambition (anti-city). They move one way for decades, then the opposite way for decades.

These various negative feedback loops keep civilization from heading off in one direction only toward further and further extremes. At most, there is logistic type growth that saturates at a certain level, without going further, such as urbanization resulting from an agricultural economy -- it got more and more urbanized after we adopted farming, but only to a certain point.

In fact, the more common dynamic is an oscillating one -- decades or centuries in one direction, then a reversal for decades or centuries. That prevents a triumphal narrative for either the country or city cheerleaders. The only constant over the long term is tension between the two, not steady erosion of one by the other.

See also: long-term tension between sedentary crop farmers and nomadic livestock herders, where either one could be in the ascendant position for decades and even centuries, only to surrender those victories over the following decades and centuries.

The same is true for the supposed demographic destiny of multi-racial migration. It's possible that diversity will beget diversity, up to a certain point anyway -- that happened when the Indo-Europeans invaded the dark-skinned natives of the Indian subcontinent. And it's apparently happening now in Brazil ("apparently" because of the shorter time scale there, compared to thousands of years in India).

Notice, though, who has maintained dominant status ever since the beginning of those migrations -- not the darker-skinned and tropical-adapted groups, but the lighter-skinned and temperate-adapted groups. So, be careful about wishing for demographic destiny involving racial or ethnic diversity.

But it's also possible that diversity will show oscillatory behavior, whether like an ongoing pendulum or a one-time rise-and-fall. It doesn't look like whites will be returning to Zimbabwe or South Africa anytime soon, after being driven out in the post-Apartheid era.

The Germanic migrations of the medieval period left minimal genetic or cultural traces outside of their original homeland, including where they had been the rulers of the post-Roman period (Spain, Italy). The longstanding genetic and cultural roots of those places proved resistant to even large-scale and centuries-long migrations of foreigners.

Nor did the North African diversity within Moorish-occupied Iberia continue on and on forever -- they got expelled back to where they came from.

And of course the diversity that arrived in North America with the Europeans did not sustain itself -- one group largely wiped out the other, eliminating the temporary diversity of the initial colonial period. Before the Europeans, the Athabaskan wave of Native American migration wiped out the much earlier Amerindian wave in large swaths of Western North America.

This quick overview has left aside the adaptive nature of the political coalition system, which adds yet another source of oscillation to the dynamics. In one period, rural and urban may team up against upstart suburbanites (like the New Deal). In another, rural may side with suburbanites to team up against out-of-control mega-cities (like the Reagan era).

A follow-up post will look at what would happen, just within the left or liberal side of the system, if urbanites determined the future. The black-humor punchline is that the Democrats would only ever nominate Hillary Clinton, and never Bernie Sanders. But stay tuned for a more in-depth discussion.


  1. "The emptying out of cities has already happened once in recent history -- during the rising-crime period of 1960 to 1990 -- and it will happen again during the next crime wave. Today's return to cities is in no small part due to falling crime rates from around 1990. But crime rates go in cycles, not in one direction."

    3.3.1 Frank C. (2017) Why kids don’t play outside anymore

    ABSTRACT/EXCERPT: Australian children are outdoors on the weekend half as much as their parents were back in the day. Where today’s parents ran around, got dirty, explored neighbourhoods and made their own fun, their offspring are more likely to be found watching TV, playing video games and churning through homework.
    FIGURES: (N/A)
    NOTES: 1. Research shows that anyone who grew up in the 1970s, ’80s or early ’90s, would have spent, on average, more than 2 hours playing outside every day and 9 hours over a weekend. In contrast, today’s youth have been found to spend less than 2 hours a day outside, on average, and only 4 hours over a weekend.
    2. Further research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that less than 8% of the nation’s children play outside every day.

    From The Coddling of the Australian mind, spearheaded by Jon Haidt @ https://docs.google.com/document/d/19maacSq_DYIaQ-IccCS3psBAvCy24GNt709Tl_L5AhM/edit#

    It also says that the same trends were observed throughout the English speaking world. Now it's rather startling that while pop culture discussion of junkies and homeless people was at an all-time high in the 1980's, these days the cultural gate-keepers mostly don't stop fellating the beauty of the city. You do hear partisan Republicans complaining about the dystopian conditions of big cities (almost always it's LA, Frisco, and Chicago that they complain about, seldom do they say anything about Dallas or Milwaukee), but it's done mainly for political brownie points and there isn't the sincerity that you would have gotten in the 1980's. See this trailer for the 1982 movie Vigilante: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eoc1EOygTMA; gotta love memorable dialogue and no dull vocal fry from the narrator (whatever happened to trailer narrators?), "they place little value on your life, and even less on theirs". And note too that the victims in the movie (and in real life) include the young, the old, black people, white people, the upper middle class, and the working class; there's no ID politics twaddle.

    Back when people actually had a life, they noticed what was really going on around them. I'm sure that elites wanted to enjoy some of the gentrified/nice areas of our cities, but they didn't sweep the problem of criminals, nutcases, drug addicts, and bums under the rug in the 80's. It was too hard to fool most people back then, and elites didn't bother to even try.

  2. I think the shift out of rural areas has been more monotonic with the decline of the agricultural share of the workforce. When cities were declining during the Great Sixties Freakout, the shift was toward suburbs, as well as sunbelt cities.

  3. Rural share of population has been stable since the early '90s. General Social Survey: SRCBELT by YEAR.

    "Other rural" is 15-20% during the '70s, and declines to just over 10% by 1993, where it has stayed since. Like I said, it's not whether it's "monotonic" but rather unbounded as the triumphalists believe. They also think that like half the population was rural before they were born, when it was more like 20%.

    "Other urban" is small towns, and has oscillated rather than moved monotonically. It ranges between 30-40%, currently toward 30%.

    Urbanists consider small towns to be rural -- anything other than DA CITY or its 'burbs -- so we're talking a steady 40-50% of the population that's living in sparsely populated areas for the past 50 years.

    They're all urbanite transplants, and assume that everyone else is like them -- since that's who they interact with all of their adult lives, fellow transplants.

    They forget that the people they abandoned back home are still there, they didn't just collectively die off because they were deprived of their area's snarky strivers.

    The rise of suburbs is also against their triumphalism, since they're claiming that we're all going to be living in cities proper, not the gross suburbs or the even ickier suburbs.

  4. If everyone is the same geographically, that will *intensify* the culture war, not eliminate it.

    The political coalition system feeds off of variation, generally a mix of material and social-cultural issues. If entire material subsistence modes are eliminated, that also eliminates their contribution to the political coalition formation. And since the energy, resources, etc., remain constant, they will be re-invested into the social-cultural issues instead.

    So, if there's no agriculture or other forms of rural / small town living, and not even suburban or exurban modes -- everyone lives in DA CITY like the urbanite triumphalists believe -- then there will be no more political warring over whether to subsidize farms vs. hi-tech, or rural broadband vs. urban mass transit.

    Rather, the desire to form teams and go to war against each other will be entirely focused on the remaining variation among people -- moral conservatives vs. moral liberals (in Haidt's sense), one racial or ethnic group vs. another, one generation vs. another, etc. Those differences are not going anywhere just because everyone lives in a city.

  5. Trimphalists cope by believing that if everyone lives in a city, they'll adopt the mores of today's urbanites. People are just blank slates, waiting to be molded by their environments.

    That will happen to some degree, but too much of the differences above are hard-wired in. If legions of white people are forced to migrate into multi-racial cities, they're not going to become non-white racially or ethnically. Old people are not going to become young, or one generation transform into another.

    And moral conservatives are not going to become moral liberals. The basic intuitions are hard-wired, although what domains of life they target, and what positions they take can vary somewhat.

    So if rural and small town people, and even suburban / exurban people, are herded into cities, there will be a giant influx of moral conservatives who will begin destabilizing urban mores. Maybe they'll call a truce on gay marriage, since most gays don't get married anyway, but they might draw the line instead on gay adoption, or surgeries to mutilate body-dysmorphic trannies into their ideal form, or pornography, or slutty clothing, or whatever else.

    And unlike today, when moral conservatives sort themselves outside of cities, in that world the conservatives would have the strength of numbers. And being so densely concentrated, it would be easier for them to collectively organize around such issues. And since cities have more pressure-points, these folks could make the urbanites hurt.

    Today, they'd have to cut off all food flowing into cities, which is just a coping pipe-dream for non-urbanites. But if they all had to live in cities, who says they couldn't collectively act to bust up a sex toy shop? Or blockade a subway station or two, and get a bunch of liberals fired for missing work? Or straight-up guerrilla / gang warfare? (Currently just a cope for non-urbanites, but much more realistic if everyone's forced to live in dense cities, with no pressure release valves to sort apart groups who are antagonistic.)

    The Muslim immigrants into English cities are a case in point. They're banning pro-homo sex ed, operating underage rape gangs against the out-group (whites), and producing the odd terrorist against British political or cultural hegemony over their homeland.

    Anyone who thinks you can herd that many moral conservatives and tribalists into a city, and they're all just going to melt into being white liberals, is profoundly retarded.

  6. "Everyone will live in cities" = "Everyone will live in the West". It's a rationalization of materially extinguishing The Other's way of life, and offering them a place to stay in your own way of life, which they will of course never adapt to, and will remain resentful of, until a major conflict erupts over it.

    Sure, we're bombing the shit out of some country, or strangling it with sanctions -- but the least we can do is open our borders and let their people come here to enjoy a higher standard of living than back home.

    That entirely excuses the destruction of their society, since you have no interest in rebuilding what has been destroyed. Nah, let their whole society rot. It sucks anyways -- fucking foreigners. You'll be much better off here, so look at us wrecking your country as a blessing in disguise.

    Ditto for urbanites destroying non-urban modes of living. Some urbanites think such destruction is good per se (like the neo-cons), some say it's an unfortunate fact of modern life (like the neo-libs), but both are just rationalizing the destruction. They will never commit to and invest in rebuilding what has been destroyed, and sustaining it within the overall system.

    Nope, just forget your whole way of life, move to the city, and enjoy urban living. Your way of life was inferior anyway, fucking Other members, and you ought to be grateful that you get to join Us, the superior people, in earthly paradise.

    *Trips over 1,000 homeless people, brain scrambled from his neighbors speaking 50 different languages, corporation pays him in VR pornography credits, incinerated en masse when a refrigerator malfunctions in their over-optimized housing complex*

  7. The GSS does give rather stable numbers compared to others sources like https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/rural-population-percent-of-total-population-wb-data.html
    That link refers to the non-urban population as a little over 19%. The census bureau similarly says roughly 80% of the population live on the 3% of land that is urban. The CB's report from 2000 on population distribution shows a monotonic trend of central cities + suburbs comprising a larger share of the population each decade starting at 1910, but the figure given for 2000 was 80%, similar to what's being reported now. Pew's report on demographic change from 2018 had the rural population share as 16% in 2000, gone to 14% in 2012-16. The large growth in suburbs should definitely dampen the notion of urban triumphalism, but much of this seems to be due to intentional restrictions on building by urban residents who've got theirs and don't feel the need for others to afford housing in their adult playground.

  8. That treats anyone who isn't living off the land as "urban" and "metropolitan".

    For instance, my mother's side of the family hails from Jefferson County, OH -- technically part of the Weirton-Steubenville "Metropolitan" Statistical Area in eastern OH / northern WV. There are small towns and the occasional micro-city, with lots of people living well outside city limits. It's rural, unmistakably.

    The way the triumphalists, and their enemies on the other side, use the term "rural" is in this broad sense -- including small towns, micro-cities, and those who live in the areas surrounding such places.

    None of them would drive through Wheeling, WV, look at the people there (who may live nearby, outside city limits), and say, "Man, there's nothing like urban metropolitan living. And here I thought West Virginia was all rural."

    And to return to the main point, these people who live in or near small towns, without living off of farmland or pastures of their own, identify politically just like the narrowly-rural people do.

    Check PARTYID in the GSS, by SRCBELT. You can restrict just to whites, or control by decade. No matter what, "other urban" and "rural" people are the same in partisan affiliation (and other metrics). They may or may not be joined by various suburban or big-city urban groups, but they are always at least in the same grouping as each other.

    GSS uses the cut-off of "metro statistical area below the top 100" for the "other urban" group. You can quibble that it should be below 150 or 200 or whatever, but the overall conclusion does not change. (Weirton-Steubenville is #332.)

  9. A.B. Prosper7/30/19, 5:21 PM

    Sensible educated comment on the nature of citie sis as are as proverbial hen's teeth and much appreciated.

    I don't have much to add but I have noticed that many of the population decline hysterics don't seem to understand the idea that cities are natural population sinks or that the baby boom is not only a once off but in part was predicated on urban people getting more space, moving from cramped tenements to a 1000 SQ foot house is a huge quality of life improvement

    I like to say, the natural large family size in a city among anyone with the impulse control to manage procreation is two, often less and that the current 1.6 TFR and ultra low children per woman is natural the economic climate and much less influenced by divorce and similar social trends than people think

    Basically, there is no cheap social capital to bump up fertility to well above replacement in any industrialized nation and managing immigration and decline is the smart way to go, not panicking because there is less consumption or people to lord over and destroying your society in the process

  10. "Basically, there is no cheap social capital to bump up fertility to well above replacement in any industrialized nation and managing immigration and decline is the smart way to go, not panicking because there is less consumption or people to lord over and destroying your society in the process"

    This is a self-correcting problem. According to Turchin (and also some stuff by John Xenakis), and also the vast evidence of history, pop. booms lead to too much competition for, and consumption of, resources. And eventually you reach a point where the mere presence of so many is literally lethal; urban over-crowding creates disease epidemics, something which even Dr. Drew has talked about recently in terms of bums, junkies, teeming immigrants, and yes, rats, carrying lots of disease in Los Angeles (the joke is on the putative "elites" who think that they can, always and forevermore, be insulated from the consequences of their own malfeasance and greed).

    The fulcrum of history rests on war, disease, and famine, all of which vary in large part due to population dynamics. As Turchin points out, the initial shock and horror of the Black Plague was followed by a period of renewed well-being and peace in the affected areas. Why? A reduced population was able to better enjoy the available resources, and was for a time less combative and disgruntled.


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