Now the rooms are all empty down at Frankie’s joint, and the highway she’s deserted clear down to Breaker’s Point, There’s a lot of people leaving town now, leaving their friends, their homes, at night they walk that dark and dusty highway all alone, so said Bruce Springsteen on his album The River.
As the nation celebrates its 235th year since independence (and therefore the 236th Independence Day), mired in self doubt, it is important to think about how the country has truly prospered since 1776.
When the 13 Colonies declared their independence from Britain, there were about 2.5 million people in the country of which about a fifth were slaves (note that Native Americans were not counted in any of the statistics at that time). Today, including Native Americans there are about 310 million people in the country, an annual growth rate of just under 2.1 percent per year.
Over the same period, through purchase or conquest, the size of the country has increased from about 430,000 square miles to 3.7 million square miles (or just under 1 percent per year), wages for an average worker (in this case a carpenter) from about 32.8-cents per day to $152 per day or about 2.64 percent per year.
Interestingly over the same period commodity prices have been fairly flat. Comparisons of the price of corn show an increase of about 0.33 percent per year, and cotton prices (in spite of the end of slavery) have grown by less than 0.05 percent per year.
Taking this all together, the country has become larger, more populous, and more densely populated. The average working person has seen wages grow much faster than prices, children no longer need to begin working and can continue school for 12 years. Over a third of the population graduates college and today has access to a much wider range of products than could have been even dreamed of by the founding fathers.
This does not mean that there are not dips and booms. Over the past 235 years, the country has suffered wars, including a civil war that wiped out two percent of the population, an intentional and unintentional genocide that killed as many as 95 percent of the Native Americans, 47 recessions and depressions, an influenza epidemic that killed as many as 675,000 people, major terrorist attacks in New York City in 1916, 1920 and 2001, four presidential assassinations, and countless floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, dustbowls and tornados.
The same is true for regions of the country – areas go through booms and busts. Virginia City, Nevada, for example, had a population of 30,000 in the 1870’s and was considered to be the richest city in the country. Today, it boasts about 1,000 residents. Detroit, Michigan, in its heyday had nearly 2 million residents, only 38 percent of whom remain today. The same is true for Cleveland, which is now tearing down neighborhoods and turning lots into vineyards and farms. New Orleans has seen its population rebound some following its nearly complete desertion after Hurricane Katrina, but its population is still only about half of what it was during its peak. In the case of these communities, The Boss is right, rooms are all empty, the highway she’s deserted and there’s a lot of people leaving town now.
But America is a very diverse country and even with all of its problems it is still prosperous. Communities in every region, including Indianapolis, Indiana, and Columbus Ohio, in the Midwest, Austin and Nashville in the South, Raleigh-Durham on the East Coast, Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City in the West and Omaha in the Great Plains are all growing rapidly, reflecting strong economic conditions, good housing markets and job growth.
Diversity is a wonderful thing in an economy. The economies of cities like Raleigh-Durham and Indianapolis are not tied to a single industry or commodity, but to a broad range of companies and economic sectors. On the other hand, the cities that are in decline tend to be company towns that rise and fall with the prosperity of a single economic sector. The loss of jobs in steel production (Cleveland), tourism (New Orleans), and silver (Virginia City) led to the depopulation and demise of host communities.
From its inception in 1776, America has been a country, and an economy driven by diversity – diversity in people, in culture, in religion, in economic class, in education, in ideas and in industries. This will continue to serve the country well in the 21st Century and beyond, and is something that all Americans should be proud of this Independence Day.