Gravity's Rainbow

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The urban-rural divide is the fundamental political divide

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Many longstanding rulers and parties still command massive support in rural areas where government control is greater, though more than half the population of Africa is predicated to live in towns and cities within 30 years.

Youth alone is not enough to effect radical change, said Cheeseman. “The really important element is urbanisation. The biggest divide is between urban and rural, not young and old. When the majority of national votes are urban … that will massively transform opposition parties and politics.” Source: Young Africa: new wave of politicians challenges old guard | World news | The Guardian

If these African countries have democracies like ours in North America, that hope may be misplaced. Rural voters often hold a disproportionately large share of the power.

Many political redistrictings are all about rural (and suburban) power grabs, taking advantage of a fundamental bias in our democracies against high density populations. We don’t have one person-one vote in most places – a vote in Nunavut counts 5.6x more than a vote in the Niagara Falls riding of Ontario.

I grew up in a rural area and people there had this persistent sense of persecution from people in the cities. It’s not really true. People in rural areas have much more power than those in urban areas – it doesn’t always feel like that because there are so many people in urban areas!

That rural people feel persecuted by the cityfolk, especially in much of America, is particularly grating as the growing political homogeneity in rural areas is due in part to their bigotry driving out as many of the people who don’t believe like them as can get together enough resources to get the hell out. It doesn’t engender my sympathy either when so much of the (very real) economic hurt they’re facing is due to their consistently terrible political choices.

But it’s not like a person in a rural area can just pick up and leave if they don’t like it. And many people are in suburban areas because they effectively got booted out of the city.

Cities fuck over people in rural and suburban areas – and themselves – by letting land values in cities accrue to private individuals instead of the public interest.

Rural areas are under-resourced. There aren’t enough good schools or access to medical care or transportation. But on a per-person basis, people in rural and suburban areas still receive much more financial support from the government because providing infrastructure at low density is really, really expensive and inefficient. The government saves money when people move to cities. When you consider the extraordinarily high carbon footprint of people in rural areas, it makes even more sense to get them to the city.

But from the perspective of an individual person, living in a rural or suburban area often makes more financial sense – it’s cheaper! What most people don’t realize is that is because it’s more heavily subsidized, not just through infrastructure provision, but also through policies around land ownership, taxation, and housing policies that drive up the cost of rent and buying a place to live in a city.

The federal and provincial/state governments should be incentivizing people to live in cities. We should crush housing prices in cities and make sure the land value returns to the public. Living in a city is cheaper for the government and it should be too for the people who live there. Living in rural and suburban environments should better reflect the costs they exact on society – higher infrastructure expenses, dealing with natural hazards like wildfire, more expensive (per-capita) disaster recovery, higher contribution to climate change, etc.

We should make cities more pleasant places to live. Right now, most cities are bright and loud and smelly and designed more for cars than humans. We can fix that. Some fixes are hard, but many are easy. We should be making places for more people in our cities and building up small towns with good housing, people-oriented streets, and solid infrastructure. This would make people living in cities an even better deal for the government thru reduced healthcare and climate costs.

I don’t think that everyone should live in a city. Some people just can’t bear it and we do still need people in rural areas for agriculture and resource extraction. But those industries have been heavily mechanized and most people who live in rural areas have absolutely nothing to do with them. The decline of rural areas won’t stop unless something dramatic like de-mechanizing agriculture happens.

Let’s make cities better and more affordable places to live so that everyone who wants to be here can. It’ll be good for us all.

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