The Bear’s Lair: Tech and Covid-19 free us from squalid cities

The Covid-19 crisis has brought an outbreak of despair from the world’s commentators. They forecast a huge economic downturn (hoping it will rid them of President Donald Trump) and moan about the limitations the disease has brought. But the same commentators celebrated the obviously flawed globalist economy, as it dragged us into ever more loathsome global cities. Now tech and the disease have liberated us – to live in villages, where humanity is most comfortable.

It cannot be repeated too often: the two greatest minds in human history, Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare, were born within eighty years of each other in villages of less than 5,000 population and a country of less than 5 million. If mere numbers sufficed to produce genius, we should have 1,500 Newtons and Shakespeares alive today, given the global population of 7.5 billion. Since we do not have anything like that number of such people (we may have a few, though I cannot think who they are) the vulgar celebration of human overpopulation and densely packed cities is a nonsense. There is no advantage whatever to living in a conurbation of 5-10 million people.

In the big-company economy of the 1950s, a certain amount of population crowding was inevitable. Ford’s River Rouge plant, fully integrated for the production of automobiles, had some 100,000 employees; those employees had to live near the plant, and their families, social networks and services such as haircuts and hot dog stands also had to be in close proximity. Thus in 1950, it was reasonable that Detroit had 1.8 million inhabitants.

Those industrial behemoth cities have however substantially slimmed down. Detroit’s population is now down to 700,000, 40% of its peak size. When I drove around Cleveland a few years ago, I rejoiced in the ease of its rush-hour traffic – the ring road had been built half a century ago, when the city’s population was twice what it is today. The city has suffered terrible fiscal problems from this population decline, as has Detroit, but in terms of lifestyle it has been something of an improvement.

No such slimming has occurred in “global cities” such as London and New York, both of which have increased substantially from their already gigantic size 40 years ago. This growth has been accompanied by a vulgar triumphalism, as leftist commentator after leftist commentator in journals such as the Financial Times has celebrated the joys of sky-high real-estate prices and overpriced bistros, and sneered unforgivably at those of us unlucky enough (or sensible enough) to avoid their overpriced Meccas. To hear them write, one would think that no artistic endeavor, no scientific advance, had ever occurred other than amidst the cacophony of urban traffic congestion and the occasional screams of crime victims.

Another problem with global cities is that they tend to be abominably run. This problem has worsened in recent decades, as artificially low interest rates have pushed up the price of urban real estate, pushing it out of the reach of the middle classes. Young graduates, who 40 years ago were quickly able to purchase a modest apartment, thus getting their feet on the urban real estate “ladder” can no longer do so. They thus have become radicalized, and vote for spuriously left-wing local officials, who have no clue about how to run the city properly.

This began to happen in New York in the 1960s, with Mayor John Lindsay, and in London in the 1980s, with Ken Livingstone’s period running the Greater London Council. There was then a reaction against urban squalor, with the abolition of the GLC and the blessed, cleansing (literally) rule of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. As asset prices rose, however, and the spurious prosperity they brought removed any control of the municipal budget, governance deteriorated rapidly, to the current level of Sadiq Khan and Bill de Blasio.

No sane person not blessed with a gigantic trust fund, sufficient to pay for armed bodyguards, can possibly want to live in cities managed by Khan, de Blasio or Mayor London Breed of San Francisco. They pay enormous amounts in real estate and living costs, to be surrounded by squalor, with their lives and persons endangered every time they venture outside their apartments. As for the poor, the benighted souls flock to the big cities, under the impression that jobs may abound there; they can find employment, but only at a living standard equivalent to that in Lagos.

Technology and the coronavirus may now be liberating us from the iron grip of urban blight. It is only too painfully clear that the coronavirus is more lethal in the confined spaces of a big city than in even the moderate spacing of a medium-sized town. The urban pathologies of big cities make the problem worse; the filth on New York’s subways, the overcrowding on London’s “tube” and the squalor of San Francisco’s streets all worsen the effects of disease. Add to that the effects of pathological policies, such as the insistence by the New York authorities on placing infected coronavirus patients in nursing homes full of the most vulnerable, and you have the perfect recipe for mass extinction of the elderly and health-impaired.

The positive attractions of big cities have also been reduced. The night-life, so attractive to recent college graduates with a taste for tacky adventure, will be a pool of disease in which few will wish to swim. Restaurants, operas and theatres, the main attractions of city life for the older and richer, will be much fewer in number; their need to indulge “social distancing” will make them much less profitable, given the realities of exorbitant big-city real estate costs, and so many of them will go out of business. The city’s tax bases will also be wrecked and, given their ineffably poor political leadership, they will relapse into the crime and squalor from which 1970s New York was supposed to suffer but never quite did. Overall, even the most career-oriented yuppie will want to leave, unless he or she is absolutely assured that no further epidemics are likely.

No such assurances can be given. The origins of Covid-19 were almost certainly natural, yet it is clear that China’s overcrowding, authoritarian society and dangerous experimentation make the release of further such pathogens certain, probably every few years. Add to this problem the possibility that the world’s “bad guys,” seeing the catastrophic effect the virus has had on the Western economy, will seek to create further such viruses by artificial means, and you have societies in which city dwelling is the last possible option, to be chosen only if no other alternatives are available.

Fortunately, technology has provided alternatives. With modern videoconferencing capability, it is no longer necessary for colleagues to occupy the same physical space in order to work closely together. While the closest personal relationships will still require physical proximity, as they always have, no such relationships are necessary to work efficiently and pleasantly with colleagues in a corporate setting. Furthermore, it is also no longer so necessary to visit a client to sell that client products or services (although a friend whose livelihood depends on such sales tells me that without the ability to “bounce” a client into signing quickly through one’s personal presence and personality, the sales process may be more protracted and expensive/tedious for the seller). Finally, manufacturing itself no longer requires large workforces of people, though it may involve an immense investment in machinery; it can therefore be carried out in any small town with good transportation links for parts and products.

With big cities unattractive, dangerous and decaying and small towns once again available even for those dedicated to their careers, life will decentralize. It will no longer be either necessary or desirable for the ambitious to spend most of their lives on airplanes, so proximity to major airports will not be needed. In any case, the airline industry itself will drastically downsize, and will then discover that, with its customers more dispersed in small towns and flying less frequently, positions at the gigantic, overcrowded and unpleasant “hubs” such as London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK will no longer be necessary.

Instead, airlines will run smaller aircraft, on “thinner” routes between medium sized airports. This will give business travelers the ability to fly from their small-town residences all over the world, and leisure travelers a much pleasanter flying experience for their vacations. Naturally, flying will become far more expensive, as it was 50 years ago, so people will travel less, but it must surely be admitted that the era of mass tourism has utterly devalued the experience for the tourists, making everywhere resemble everywhere else. Florence, Italy is only worth seeing if it is not shared with unspeakable crowds of the ignorant; now it no longer will be so shared.

Even for the ambitious, small-town life will bring a pleasanter more easy-paced existence, forming friendships with neighbors while they start small businesses or do deals with clients all over the world. For the unambitious, the vast majority of humanity, small-town life will be blissful, like living in an 18th Century village but with a 21st Century standard of living. Their entire psychological make-up will change, they will no longer be tempted by Marxist nostrums, they will be motivated by their close local friendships and family relationships, and they will perhaps learn again to greet the most eminent and respected in their communities with a touch of the forelock and “Morning, squire!”

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)