Politics and the New Geography of Work

As I was writing my latest Monday column on the root causes of inflation, and in particular whether the administration is right to link corporate concentration to price increases, I came across a new Conference Board survey about CEO worries. Inflation is near the top of the list of course; it has moved from the 23rd ranked worry in 2021 to number two today.

What’s number one? The labour shortage. CEOs in every part of the world ranked attracting and retaining talent as their top focus for 2022. And one of the key ways they plan to do it, particularly in the US, is by making remote work permanent. Pre-pandemic, just 28 per cent of all US CEOs had 40 per cent or more of their workers remote. This year, 53 per cent will, and they plan to keep those figures even after the pandemic subsides. In the US, more than any place else, remote work is here to stay.

Executives say that they expect this new model of work to increase productivity. I think it’s so interesting that everyone now admits that working at home makes most people (assuming they don’t have to look after children at the same time, à la lockdown) more productive, not less so. For years, CEOs have resisted this, mainly because of worries about managerial control. But, as someone who has worked mainly from home for decades, I have always known that it made me more productive. People who are good at their jobs don’t need to be monitored in offices — they want to do their jobs well, for themselves (Ed, I know you are with me on this one!) Indeed, I’ve always thought that seeing who worked well from home (or just remotely, as I did when I was a foreign correspondent, and as many corporate road warriors do) was a good technique for weeding out really motivated people from the rest.

Something I’m watching very closely is how this permanent shift to remote work will change the geography of the country. As we’ve discussed in Notes before, most of the big jumps in real estate prices outside major cities are happening within a two- to three-mile driving radius. Why pay New York or Boston or DC prices and deal with congestion and high taxes and more regulation when you don’t have to?

Likewise, the states that have seen the biggest pandemic population influxes are those such as Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, where people pay lower taxes but also get a lot more space and cheaper real estate. Parts of the Midwest, as well as places like North Dakota and Montana, have also added a disproportionate number of jobs in the past year.

It could be that the lure of space will wear off, and people will migrate back to coastal cities. But I doubt it. I think we are witnessing a major new geographic shift in the US, one that could have big political consequences. Red states getting more people could, for example, bely the usual liberal argument about problems with the electoral college, which has given big, sparsely populated places a disproportionate and some say unfair political advantage (something that the Founders were actually aware it would do). It might also make the country more conservative — polls show that prospects for Democrats usually sink in rural areas.

But that assumes that the people moving to these places won’t change the culture. In a state like Georgia, for example, that may not be the case. New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow has famously called for a new Great Migration of blacks to the South (he moved to Georgia) to shift the political landscape there. This shift is already evident in big southern cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte. Anecdotally, I can see it happening in some parts of the Midwest that I know well, and even outside New York, in the poor, rural places where city residents have now flocked to buy houses (on that note, check out this New Yorker story about the boom in the Catskills, which is truly breathtaking.) As I’ve written in a past column, there is always the risk that this will result in more political polarisation as locals are priced out of housing markets.

But my own hope is that, over time, as all the changes wrought by the pandemic settle down, this shift in the geography of work will make America a better place, by reducing crowding in cities, increasing density in underpopulated parts of the country, and bridging some political polarisation. As everyone knows, we become more moderate when we are exposed to people of differing viewpoints. Maybe we will end up with a political map that looks more purple, rather than bright red and blue. I certainly think we’ll end up with a better work/life balance. Ed, would you agree?

  • My friend Peter Goodman takes aim at Davos Man, in his smart new book which pulls no punches (spoiler: I make a cameo appearance!

  • Pretty much everything John Authers writes is great, but this piece on the psychology of the market amid the coming rate hikes, is particularly good. Read to the very end — his point about how defined contribution is driving bizarrely high equity prices is SO important. The FT’s loss of him is very much Bloomberg’s gain.

  • I thought Parul Sehgal was spot on in this New Yorker feature about how tired the trauma narrative has become:, this made me think of your last note, and the general outrage about the Supreme Court voting against vaccine mandates, which I frankly don’t share. I’m obviously for vaccinations, but I also think the outrage about the decision illuminates a psychology in which people think that we can be safe from everything, all the time. When it comes to the trauma of Covid, and all other sorts of trauma, we should do the best we can — and then get on with it.

Edward Luce responds

Rana, let me chiefly pick up on your last comment about trauma. By implication I think you’re saying that the angry reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision arose from a place of trauma — a culture that is enmired in victimhood and extreme hype. This implies that the decision was both a) reasonably grounded and b) not that consequential. On both those I disagree. Biden’s OHSA order was not motivated by the fantasy that we can all be made 100 per cent safe from “everything, all the time”, as you put it.

The order was a modest and long-overdue attempt to make workers less unsafe through requirements that have become routine in most other democracies — namely, that companies with more than 100 employees require their employees to be vaccinated; meanwhile, those who refuse to get jabbed should present a negative test once a week. This is about as light as a mandate can be. Yet it would save thousands of lives and offer much-needed protection to frontline workers who do not have the option of being able to work from home.

The basis on which the Supreme Court struck down this order was revealingly obtuse. The conservative majority argued that a virus could not be described as a workplace hazard since it is also present outside the workplace in people’s homes etc. By that logic, OSHA shouldn’t be able to regulate workplace fire hazards either since fires break out all over the place. I share the widely held view that the six justices were in fact serving a very different agenda and found specious legal grounds on which to do so. That agenda, ironically, is rooted in a culture of victimhood — the idea that vaccine mandates and mask requirements are an attack on America’s freedom and on the American way of life. This, of course, is nonsense.

As I argued in my last note, this Supreme Court is advancing highly consequential rulings, often based on deeply contentious reasoning, that are encroaching on America’s ability to grapple with all sorts of societal ills — guns, money in politics, gerrymandering, women’s right to choose, carbon emissions and the pandemic. Pointing this out is not evidence of trauma or hypersensitivity. We gloss over it at our peril. However, I do agree with your larger point, and the one made in that New Yorker piece, and appreciate your willingness to advance it. We do indeed live in an outrage machine and our readiness to be triggered seems to be growing. This applies to liberals as much as it does to conservatives. Please don’t stop making that argument, which has the added virtue, like the one I’ve made here, of being true!

Your feedback

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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