Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why the Death of Small Town America is a Good Thing

My travels and adventures largely circle around mountain climbing and hiking.  This means I must traverse the great expanses of the great plains, inching my way to the Rockies and the thousands of miles of geologic beauty that lay to the west.  Aside from Denver and Salt Lake City, there are very few large metropolitan areas so the majority of time you're either crashing at a hotel or getting gas it's in a small "traditional" American town. 

Unconsciously, this meant I was not just pursuing the latest greatest hike, but conducting a near-10 year study on small town America and its corresponding economy.  At first my observations were simple ones, primarily noting, even ruing, the demise of these small towns.  You typically have a "main street" where old buildings from the 1880's to 1920's have the date they were built etched into the headstone.  Their architecture is beautiful, usually brick or stone and it doesn't take much imagination to see what a bustling town it was over a century ago.  But by my last back-of-napkin estimation nearly 70% of these gorgeous buildings are empty or up for rent.  And the towns I revisit because they're on common throughways I use, you can usually bet at least 20% of the buildings that were occupied have switched tenants.  It's a sad sight to see, a quaint little town that was once a genuine, tight-knit bustling community, now approaching ghost town status, but in the demise of these small towns there is hope as it is a testament to genuine progress in America, as well as a lesson for our economic future.

The first thing to realize about small towns is that they were largely built based on an agricultural economy.  There were enough farmers and ranchers in a certain area that there was enough economic demand for a town that provided wares, equipment, machinery, banking, etc. (notice how a lot of small towns, though decimated, still have a John Deere dealer?).  However, as time went on and technology advanced farming techniques become multiples more efficient, not only increasing yields, but requiring a lot less labor.

Overall this is a good thing for the country.  Food becomes cheaper, the bane of hunger and starvation that plagued human kind since 200,000 BC is defeated, and farmers don't have to toil as much as they used to in the mule and ox days.  However, the town itself suffered.  With farmer Joe able to do thrice the work with 1/10th the labor, demand for labor fell and with it the population of these small towns.  Couple that with transportation technology and the managerial efficiency of large retail stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.), not only was your population decreasing, but the local hardware store, grocery and butcher were no longer needed.  Thus why those beautiful buildings sit empty in small town America, and anybody born there usually leaves for the city.

While we may lament this natural horse-replaced-by-car death of small town America, there was another thing I noticed about these small towns.  The businesses that WERE in business and replacing the grocer, the butcher, the mechanic, etc., were a testament to how these advances in technology, farming methods, and other general improvements in economic efficiency were making the lives of everybody easier.  People were no longer running hard businesses like "butchering animals" or "repairing tractors," but "fun" businesses like opening a coffee shop, an art store, or (my favorite) the small town dive bar.

I didn't fully connect the dots until I started taking pictures of the various small town bars I was visiting as kind of a hobby.  But the more time I had on the road to sit and think it through, the more I realized that technological advances were making it so people in these towns today could live more leisurely and enjoyable lives than their ancestors did 100 years ago.  And that the empty brick buildings on main street that were being replaced with antique stores, bars, and restaurants was a good thing and not a bad thing.

There is just one "thing," however.  And that is what this trend in small town America portends for the rest of the country.  And most Americans are not going to like it as it directly addresses and destroys what they hold most dear - their egos.

Realize that what is ultimately driving this change in small towns is the replacement of labor with machines.  I've addressed this before in a post about the Roboticized Economy, where more and more humans are rendered obsolete as they are essentially replaced by robots.  On the face of it this seems like a great thing.  Robots doing all the work, humans just kicking back doing nothing.  It's so utopian it has inexperienced, leftist academian morons orgasming over their latest half-baked idea of a "minimum guaranteed income."  But there's a problem with this new economy.  While it may feed the human stomach, it won't feed the human ego. And people, especially Americans, value their egos above all else.

Realize this new REAL WORLD economy and what the latest generation has been brought up to believe about itself are like two runaway trains heading towards a horrific collision.   Because of technology the new economy does not need unskilled, untalented human labor.  It needs technicians, engineers, programmers, doctors and all related professions that go into supporting the increasingly-roboticized economy.  However, kids today are increasingly brought up to believe the world bends to their wills and desires. That they can "follow their heart and the money will follow."  So they major in the most worthless and un-intellectually-challenging subjects.  And upon graduation when their skills (or lack thereof) do not match up with what is in demand in this new economy, they sit their, their dreams destroyed, unemployed and with a crippling level of debt.  They may have been a runaway freight train, but the real world economy was a much strong, faster, and powerful one.

Naturally, this does not sit well with a generation brought up to be the most spoiled and entitled of them all.  They protest, they demand student loan forgiveness, they demand other people's money, anything and everything, whatever it takes, they demand their pound of flesh because they've been brought up to believe they're entitled.

But understand the real reason for their anger.

While the real world economy demands doctors, engineers, specialists, programmers, etc., to keep this roboticized economy going, and all these people work hard, attend school, and study rigorous subjects to make this technological miracle reality (AND make it so NONE of the talentless people go starving or without shelter) this new economy still has SOME demand for unskilled labor.  However, since technology has advanced so much (and will continue to do so) the jobs that remain for the unskilled/overeducated class are deemed "insulting."

Food service
Nanny/baby sitting

And given the overeducated mindset of today's latest labor market entrants it's like slapping them in the face.  They have no real skills.  They have no real achievements.  The only thing they "have" is their education.  And in refusing to hire them for jobs they think they're entitled to, but rather give them the only jobs they're qualified for, you insulted the only thing they have in their lives - their worthless educations.

This is why I don't mind seeing the local coffee store, art store, antique store or dive bar taking over beautiful small town America.  Those people actually get it.  They don't know how to program a tractor to self-reap a 100 acre field.  They don't know how to repair a diesel engine on a John Deere.  And they don't know how to route a computer network for the local feed lot.  But they can pour a decent beer, cook a quality stew, and provide decent customer service.

The question is whether the vast majority Americans today have the intellectual temerity and honesty to realize and accept the same thing.  That their "Masters in English" is not of any value, that they have no sought after skill, and that their future is not one of greatness or participation in the cutting edge of economic development, but rather one of customer or "vanity" services servicing other humans.  And if they don't like that, then they need to let go of the ego, work harder and go into fields where they will be in demand.

Of course that would require a genuine work effort, a passion for rigor, and...dare I say it...math.

But wait, let me guess.  "You're just not good at math?"

I'll have fries with that.


Anonymous said...

You neglected to mention a big growth industry for the unskilled: prostitution.

Anonymous said...

Not so fast. Recognize that the reason mechanized agriculture has taken over from more labor intensive agriculture so thoroughly is the price stability provided by various federal programs.

If that price stability were to decrease significantly, capital intensive farming would become much more risky, production would fall and prices would rise, making labor relatively cheap, reversing the trend you see to some degree.

Jose said...

Interestingly, there's a mutually reinforcing pair of phenomena here:

First, the topic of this post, that the automation of menial tasks leads to more people (and more desperate people) not being happy with their job situation. And to these people's actions to make the government "do something" about that.

Second, because of all the entitlement of these people (and of the people who used to work in menial jobs) and the interference of the government in labor markets, it becomes increasingly more economical to replace human labor (which is becoming more and more expensive, for social/political reasons) with capital expenditure in automation (which is becoming ever cheaper, for technological reasons).

What we have here is positive feedback, in a mostly closed system. This will not end well.

Enjoying the decline!

Anonymous said...

I don't know.. can you turn a person with a 97 IQ into a computer engineer..maybe a few can break the ranks but most are going to be working service jobs for the high IQ people.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Anon@12:29. Remove the subsidies and see what happens to the cost of food. My family has farmed for close to 100 years in east central Indiana. Without these subsidies and cheap sources of fuel and fertilizers(which are petroleum based) the need for manual labor would go through the roof.

Before the industrial revolution, most human beings would be lucky if they would produce more calories than they expended on a daily basis.

Joshua Sinistar said...

Where do these machines come from? Do machines make machines? These techs that know how the machines work, do they need the money men that don't?
There will be change, but not what you believe! The middle that works, and knows will live. The top that sucks wine and caviar are unnecessary, and the bottom that votes for a living was never necessary, but to feed the egos of the parasites at the top.
The meek shall inherit the Earth. Those that do and know how shall live. Everyone else is dust in the wind as the wheat and the chaff are separated!

forest grump said...

as somone older,I can remember when small towns had light manufacuring. ALL those jobs went to china and mexico.
agriculture stopped being the driver of small towns here in the midwest in the 50's. light manufacturing of things like door hinges, curtian rods, and plumbing fittings kept them going from the 50's to the late 80's. I worked in a small factory that made the clothing hangers that retailers use. It was a living wage. but that all ended with outsourcing. now it's all SSI and minimum wage work. or prostitution and meth, or pot or pills. none of it good.

Working those light manufacturng jobs let people have Dignity.
lots of them raised a small family on it and were proud of doing it. but that's all gone now, and it has been replaced by all the disfunctional ills of the inner city, but nobody notices or cares how poor caucasian people live.

Alex in Montana said...

The US, Japan and Europe will go belly up in the next 10 years. Japan doesn't have 5 years. When the Ponzi scheme economics of these countries go South, I sure wouldn't want to be in one their cities with so many.

So I live in a smallish town of 4,000 in God's country with buildings with dates on them. You will want to live here too when it all blows sky high. I have 3 children who live in cities of 3 million, 6 million and 15 million. God help them. One of those cities has over 1.5 million Muslims in it and it isn't in the US. That child has no clue what will transpire.

Anonymous said...

Good article. One thing you've omitted is the trend of mega-farms and mega-ranches. In addition to mechanized labor there are also government incentives and disincentives to having a smaller farm Or ranch. These come in the forms of labour unions driving down the price of food and driving up the price of unskilled labour. And government subsidies for new equipment. (need a new sprinkler? Just go into debt with Obama!) These push out the little guy, who might be able to run a more specialized and efficient operation (ostrich eggs anyone?) and eventually one guy ends up owning 30,000 acres. This guy is also indebted to the government for a massive pile of money. So bureaucrats can dictate how he runs certain aspects of his business. This is leading, as you described, to a population redistribution from rural to urban. But I leave it to you, the economist, to figure out the larger implications of my observations.

Anonymous said...

It has nothing to do with the entitlement. Its the damn televisions,video games, and numerous other distractions of the modern world. Men, and women, never had all these entertaining distractions before modern times.

I decided to get rid of televison and video games for awhile. I can watch DVDs on a Laptop and still watch a television show online for free if I so choose.

Since doing this Ive learned how to do 90% of all repairs on my bicycle, basic HTML, basic python, can do almost all of my computing in a linux command line, and a plethora of other things. It is not that hard either if one just sits down and focuses.

There are so many places on the internet that offer free courses in this stuff such as and, and even provide certificates. They even offer courses from worthless degree programs. Not only they are taught from new material which will give you a leg up in the job market on on your college educated peers.

The observations on bars is spot on. Every few years like clock work in my small home town 3-4 new bars open. These bars are opened in store fronts where 3-4 other bars used to be until they had to shut down.

Luke said...

Agreed with the OP as far as it went. However, it didn't make clear one key characteristic about the robots: they don't produce money for anyone who doesn't own (or at least rent) one for economic purposes. This leads to a majority of people being absolutely unneeded, of no use whatsoever economically -- with concomitant earned income to be expected (that is, none). Frankly, the only way short of societal upheaval to remedy this will be to effectively discourage such people from even being born, or raised to be such. (Ending by law all student loans, tax subsidies, scholarships, etc., for fuzzy studies college majors that dullards can pass would be a good start; shutting down all noncraft unions would be another.)

Anonymous said...

I believe all of these distractions are by design. The more free time people have, the worse the world will get. The Romans knew this, which is why they had sports and the Colosseum.
The phrase "Idle hands do the devil's work" is because people have potential to do either very good things or very bad things in their ever increasing spare time.
If entertaining TV were fully available to people in the middle east, do you think we'd be seeing all the turmoil there?
There were papers written about the positive effect of the introduction of television to rural India. The studies conclude that TV let women see what life for other women was like and that they demanded it of their husbands and domestic violence rates went down.
Another possibility is that the women who would otherwise nag their husbands in their spare time, now had an outlet for which to focus.
Spare time can be a great thing if you learn a new skill, build something, write something or grow, but it has been the cause of many problems too.

Sean Carnegie said...

@ Alex in Montana:

Trust me, some of us Canadians wish we lived in God's Country, too. Now if you could only explain this blue-streak through Montanans I'd appreciate that.

brianmark said...

I was from a small town. I don't agree with you that the death of the small town is a good thing. With that went our lower middle class. Not all small towns are in a scenic location where a coffee shop, art gallery, or antique store can make a living. I'm hoping with more high tech jobs going remote some of these people will leave the over priced cities are relocate to these smaller town.

Bebo said...

You neglected how an increasingly complex tax code, favoritism towards corporations, a dwindling middle class business ownership, the devaluation of our currency, bad immigration policies, etc...have diminished the individual's control over their own worth and has led to a decrease in small town sustainability. It's absolutly not as simple or easy as this article makes it seem. A rising minimum wage is what drives automation. said...

I think the small towns have themselves to blame....When I graduated from college in the early '90s, I went and talked to business 'leaders' and none of them knew of any opportunities for recent college grads. Obviously, I'm not the only one who didn't stay/return. This small city I lived in had businesses which manufactured boats, golf bags, concrete pipe, clothing, mattresses,grain/feed mills, heavy equipment for mining, electric motors, etc. Even then, the big business was coal mining.
Now it's 2017, the mines have all closed, the owners of the big businesses have cashed out and closed down, and even the 200+ bed regional hospital has been sold to a national medical conglomerate.
The family that owned $3B coal company? their kids have all moved out of state, taking the money with them. The 'smart' kids have all been forced to larger cities for opportunities...
Now I live in a city of about 1M people...Since 2000, most of the companies based here that were large enough to be publicly traded have all sold to bigger companies out of state.The number of privately held companies that have been sold out are too many to count. What has happened to the small town I grew up in, I fear will happen to the city in which I currently reside. :(