City planners should be wary of any predictions that downplay the unknowability of the future by projecting present conditions onto it.

Envisioning cities of the future can sometimes be more at home in science fiction than urban planning. Optimism generally looms large in these visions. At the 1939 World’s Fair, the exhibit, “World of Tomorrow”—with its motto “For Peace and Freedom”—featured an elaborate futuristic model city calledDemocracity, a tribute to the reigning techno-utopian hopes of the time. Millions of visitors were awed by it. In a dark twist of irony, the model was melted down only a few years later to provide four thousand tons of steel for making bombs in World War II. This was only one of many 20th century futuristic urban visions that failed to materialize.

The New York Times columnist and George Mason economist Tyler Cowen has produced a vision that no one can accuse of being techno-utopian. InAverage is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Cowen sees reason for cities to accept some grim realities of the present as they plan for their future.

Cowen’s argument centers on the labor market. He points out that technological development and increasing foreign competition have decreased the demand for middle-wage workers. 


Problematically, predictive models and (dys)utopian ideals typically gloss over the future’s dependence upon choices, discoveries, and events yet to happen. Revolutions, international conflict, famines and natural disasters, natural resources discoveries, monetary system collapses, entrepreneurial activity, and labor movements are typically not worked into economic models. City planners should be wary of any predictions that downplay the unknowability of the future by projecting present conditions onto it.

The other reason to take Cowen’s predictions with a grain of salt is the narrow focus on economics as the driver of the future. There is a danger of single-causal explanations, such as a faltering labor market, that overlooks the important non-economic contingencies driving social outcomes. Scholars like William Julius Wilson have long posited under-resourced neighborhoods as the result of an array of complex factors that are historical, cultural, social, as well as economic.

However, Cowen’s narrative can (and should) supplement other explanations of growing divides in postindustrial American culture, including research on neighborhood effectsracial legacies, the decline of unionized labor, andclass-polarized childhood experiences. In fact, Cowen’s book joins a long line of newer works charting rising inequality and residential segregation in recent decades, including Robert PutnamClaude FischerBill BishopCharles Murray.