Wall Street Journal Joel Kotkin October 17, 2006

The fact that the U.S. population will soon top 300 million has led some environmentalists to gnash their teeth over the nation’s ability to handle our expanded “ecological footprint.” One can also imagine that few champagne bottles are being popped in Parisian salons.

And there’s even worse news ahead for those who hate the notion of numerous Americans: By 2050 there will be 400 million of us. This surge marks a major watershed in our history, recreating the American Republic and leaving us with unprecedented challenges and remarkable opportunities.

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Today, the U.S. stands out as the only leading industrial power — over time India could prove the other — with a surging population. Due to immigration and higher birth rates, the U.S. population is now growing two to three times faster than South Korea’s and Britain’s, and also far faster than China’s. Our other major competitors, such as Russia, Japan and Germany, are either demographically stagnant or are already about to start losing population.

These demographic changes are remarkable. At the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union was more populous than the U.S. In 2050 the remnant of that empire, the Russian Republic, will have barely one-third to one-fourth the population of the U.S. Taken together, our greatest rivals of the 20th century — Germany, Japan and Russia — are projected to eventually have 130 million fewer people than we do. Even as the European community expands eastwards, virtually the entire region suffers low birthrates, including many of the former Soviet Bloc countries such as Bulgaria and Estonia. By 2050 the entire European Union — without the addition of Muslim Turkey — will have a largely aging population of less than 450 million.

This shift in population trends will directly impact these countries’ bottom lines — from the growth of the work force to consumption patterns — while putting unprecedented stress on pension and health systems. The U.S. will also be aging, but it will still be a relative spring chicken compared to the likes of Germany, Japan, South Korea and Italy. By 2050, roughly one-third of the population in these countries will be over 65, compared to around one-fifth in the U.S.

These population dynamics are also likely to create different attitudes between Americans and our competitors. As fewer Italians, Germans, Japanese, Koreans and Russians have families — in one recent survey half of Italian women 16 to 24 said they want no children — there is likely to be a continued shift away from traditional concerns about future generations. A nation of aging, childless adults — some without nieces, nephews or even siblings — is less likely to act like responsible adults, whose primary concerns center on the fate of their offspring and their offspring’s offspring.

Despite the desires of some new urbanists and “smart growth” activists to cram people into dense cities and regions, the America of 2050 — contrary to the contention of some demographers — also will likely be far more dispersed. A combination of new telecommunications technologies and rising land prices will accelerate the shift of population beyond the current suburban fringes and into the countryside. The demographer Wendell Cox calls this “sprawl beyond sprawl.” It is driven by the simple fact, according to most recent surveys, that the vast majority of Americans — upward of 80% — still prefer single-family homes over apartments, while no more than 10% to 15% want to live near the central core.

Unless there is some sort of cultural revolution, most people, particularly families, are likely to continue migrating to places where they can acquire a spot of land and a little privacy. And despite the much ballyhooed “return to the city” by aging boomers, most experts suggest that most are either staying in the suburbs or moving to towns farther out in the hinterland. At least 30% of Americans, according to surveys by the National Association of Realtors and the Fannie Mae Foundation, express the desire to move to the country or a small environment, far more than live there now. The scale of this dispersion depends largely on urban governance. If cities cannot, due to economic or regulatory constraints, provide sufficient job opportunities, people and businesses naturally will flee elsewhere. Other factors, such as preserving family-friendly neighborhoods and stamping out a nascent resurgence in crime, will also be critical.

Despite these trends, there is no compelling reason for cities not to continue serving as primary centers of the nation’s economic and cultural life. For one thing, 10% to 15% of 400 million is not exactly chopped liver. There will be room for some serious urban infill when you figure another additional 15 million city-dwellers will be added over the next 45 years.

The roster of great American cities will continue to evolve. There’s little chance that aging industrial cities such as Detroit, Baltimore or Cleveland will regain their former prominence. By the same token, due to their dominance in particular industries, New York (finance and media) and Los Angeles (entertainment and Pacific Rim commerce) are all but certain to remain vibrant, if troubled, super-metropolises.

The shift of corporate headquarters and key industries to new cities could catapult more affordable, business-friendly cities such as Houston (energy, inter-American trade and medical care) and even Las Vegas (the global fantasy-factory) into true global centers. Fast growing cities like Phoenix, Charlotte, Dallas, Orlando and San Antonio will also likely become far more important and cosmopolitan.

Ideologues on the left and right both consider America’s changing racial mix as something certain to undermine society. Conservatives generally see the possible emergence of a “majority minority” population as precursor to social crackup and the demise of traditional Anglo-Saxon values. Leftist intellectuals envision a nation where Anglo-Saxon norms are demolished in favor of a hodgepodge of quasi-autonomous ethnic communities. Both sides miss the point entirely. Few people immigrate to America so they can recreate conditions they fled in Mexico, Iran, China or Cuba. And even if the first generation might feel some tug of the old language and culture, virtually every study of the second generation indicates increasing integration into the American mainstream, both linguistically and culturally.

Several factors will accelerate this process. One is the continuing movement of minorities and immigrants into the suburbs, which tend to be less hospitable to the creation of segregated racial enclaves. If you want to find the newest and biggest Chinese supermarkets, Hindu temples, or mosques, the best place to look is not the teeming cities but the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, New York or Houston. Just travel to places where few Manhattan or Washington pundits venture, like Ft. Bend County outside Houston. The largely affordable middle-class suburb has a population that is just under half white, one-fifth African-American, one-fifth Hispanic and around 12% Asian. It’s the new American melting pot, and, more or less, it’s working.

Our population growth certainly indicates belief in the collective American future. But accommodating this surge clearly will require a strong response from both the public and private sectors. Perhaps the most daunting challenge will come not so much from accommodating racial diversity, but dealing with the problem — existent in virtually all advanced economies — of class.

Over the past two decades, education, global competition and other factors have led to a concentration of wealth. Recent surveys found nearly two-thirds of Americans fear that their children will face longer odds in trying to achieve their dreams. These troubling statistics may lead some to call for shutting down immigration, or adopting European-style redistributive politics. Although immigration and economic policies may need some adjustment, emulating the European welfare state or blockading the border would snuff out the very sources of entrepreneurial energy necessary to meet our future challenges.

Instead, we need to deal with the future by doing those things that in the past Americans have done best — building new infrastructure and giving people the opportunity to take care of themselves and their families. Most major surges of economic growth and population have been facilitated by such investments — canals in the early 19th century; railroads during the industrial age; roads, bridges and electrification during the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower eras. Today we need to commit ourselves to building both hard and new infrastructure: more universal high-capacity broadband and better drainage systems, new electric transmission lines and renewable energy sources, better roads and innovative forms of public transit.

Governments at every level can and should play a critical role in this great project. But we also need to take advantage of the vast pool of private capital available both here and abroad for such investments. Investors can be lured, as in the past, by the opportunities created by a growing nation. Building toll roads or super-fast trains between burgeoning Texan or Californian cities offers far better prospects than doing the same in Japan or Germany, whose populations are gradually diminishing.

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Finally, there is the issue of our constitutional system that protects the rights of both property and people. Despite the hysteria in the media and among partisans, neither the fecklessness of Bill Clinton nor the ineptitude of George Bush has done fundamental damage to the Republic’s core values and its basic institutions.

As Tocqueville noted over 170 years ago, America has flourished not because of geniuses in Washington but due to its Constitution, fertile land mass, egalitarianism, entrepreneurship, unique spiritual vitality and attachment to local community and family. This combination of factors has always made us different from other countries, and, in this deeply cynical and secular age, now more so than ever before.

These factors do much to explain why we have reached the 300-million milestone at a time when most of our primary competitors are either stagnating or shrinking. They also provide some reasonable expectation that we will figure out how to accommodate the 400 million Americans living here in the generation ahead.

Mr. Kotkin, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book about the American future.