Despite what you hear, 2020 is not 1968. We are not tangled in a terrible war; we have not experienced the assassination of two leaders within two months; and these riots have mostly been limited instances of looting, rather than widespread fire and destruction.
But there is one similarity. In the wake of this year, American cities are going to experience a reprise of the flight of the middle and upper-middle classes similar to the postwar flight that was accelerated by the destruction and fear of 1968.
This time, in addition to very real concerns about the inability or indifference of big-city mayors on quelling violence directed at property (not even counting the hundreds of police officers wounded), the flight of talent and those mobile enough to exit will be exacerbated by a few features not present in 1968.
Most important among these is the newfound ability of many companies and their employees to work pretty much wherever. The coronavirus, and the government’s disastrous response to it, has provided a beta test of working from home. For most employees, the lack of commute means more time, which is the most prized commodity of all. For companies, they now know that they can shift the burden of real estate and other office costs to their workers.
Additionally, among a certain segment of the population, the cities are now associated with disease transmission. These people have their own reasons to leave.
In a generation obsessed with safety, the lawlessness that has followed the protests — and the seeming indifference to the destruction of property on the part of the local political elites, will lead some to conclude that cities are less safe than they originally thought. Seattle’s experiencing a secessionist movement and San Francisco’s alerting its residents not to bother the police with actual disputes only serve to highlight the centrifugal vibe of the last month or so.
This sentiment will be especially acute among those who contemplate or dream of opening a small retail business — the kind that has been most exposed to the violence.
Now stir in a generous helping of public sector unions (police, teachers, clerks) who resist any attempts to reform any system. Add in mayors — in places as disparate as Richmond, New York City, and Minneapolis — seemingly indifferent to property destruction. And this is not likely to get better: Warren Wilhelm de Blasio is not going to be replaced by Fiorella La Guardia. Richard Daley is not coming to save Chicago.
Taken together — disease, violence, sclerotic or even hostile governments, the possibility of more time, space and safety elsewhere — it becomes very difficult to see why anyone who has the means and ability to move from the cities would not.
What will this next round of flight look like? Probably a lot like the last round. As the cities bleed population and those remaining behind are either the less affluent or the very rich, the relative political strength of the cities will diminish. Spending on infrastructure and education will suffer. In the private sector, investments in residential and commercial real estate will shift.
Real estate prices will be indicators of the flight in more or less real-time. We are already seeing anecdotal evidence of this in San Francisco and New York.
There will be no announcements, no press releases. People and businesses will simply ebb away for “more space for the kids” or because of a better “business environment.”
One last thought bears notice. Most of these cities have been Democratic strongholds for a generation or more. When democracy devolves to one-party rule, when the ballot box fails to provide remedies, people will vote with their feet.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.