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Urban-rural: sharing a leaky boat 

City Sage

Who are the makers, and who are the takers? Who are the workers and loafers? Whose ancestors built America, and whose benefited? Who are the patriotic, self-sacrificing citizens, and who are the worthless leeches?

Who are the just and righteous, and who should be ashamed, disgraced and even deported?

Identity politics is all about vice and virtue, about ancient injustices or present unfairness. These persistently toxic themes never go away, resurfacing in times like our own.

One such theme is the clash between urban and rural America. Recently on National Public Radio, an unemployed Idahoan who long worked in the logging industry spoke wistfully of vanished jobs and hollowed-out towns.

"We built the nation," she said. "Mining, timber, agriculture — that's what made America."

That's a mild expression of the belief that cities are not part of the real America. Nativists have long believed that cities are populated by foreigners, immigrants, bankers, industrialists and ruthless merchants who prey upon simple, honest country folk.

This trope has a long history. As drafted, the Constitution restricted the franchise to white male landowners. That seemed reasonable to the small landholders who dominated political discourse in the mid-18th century.

Thomas Jefferson, who owned both land and slaves, won the presidency with an anti-federalist, anti-industrialist and anti-banking platform. Jefferson famously clashed with self-made immigrant Alexander Hamilton, who realized America would become an industrialized, mercantile nation.

As George Washington's treasury secretary (1789-1795), Hamilton helped create the fundamental structure of the federal government and established, despite Jefferson's fierce opposition, the first national bank.

Hamilton's vision triumphed, but the division remains. Nativists accuse city bankers and industrialists of conspiring to close factories and export jobs overseas, while city-spawned environmentalists prefer protecting spotted owls to preserving jobs of hard-working loggers. They're fed up with elites who demand reparations for sins of their forefathers, openly mock their religion and create exclusionary minority preferences for jobs and education.

Urbanists have another narrative — one of racism, rural militarism, mass incarceration and anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-city hysteria stoked by right-wing demagogues. Urban and rural areas can't exist without each other, but cities no longer depend upon surrounding countryside. As Colorado Springs grows, our raw materials come from everywhere. Canadian forests provide the timber that once came from the Pacific Northwest, while American mines no longer dominate local and world markets.

Consider copper, one of two metals intimately linked to the city's past and present. In 1907, the United States produced almost 60 percent of the world's copper (399,000 metric tons of the 723,000 produced worldwide). That's because Springs business titan Spencer Penrose financed Utah Copper's revolutionary method of mining and refining low-grade copper in a vast Utah mine. A century later the United States produced 1.36 million metric tons of copper, less than 8 percent of world production. The copper in pipe local homebuilders use may come from any of a dozen countries.

Cities create wealth but depend upon remote-site extractive industries and agriculture. Colorado Springs would collapse without natural gas, petroleum-based products, supermarket produce and other imported raw materials. But we sure don't want oil wells in our city parks, or an open-pit copper mine on the eastern face of Pikes Peak — and we'd just as soon not worry about the fate of those displaced by the economics of globalization.

So here's the question for all of us: Can we build localized, sustainable economies that will create jobs for all? That may be a pipe dream.

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter described the creative destruction of capitalism as the "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." After 74 years, Schumpeter's description is still apt. Penrose's "industrial mutation" changed the copper mining business forever — and probably cost hundreds of miners their jobs.

The lesson to be learned is simple and unambiguous: Urban, rural or anything in between, we're all in the same leaky boat.

We'd better give up on identity politics, and get to work.

  • Cities no longer depend upon surrounding countryside.

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