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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Not too long ago, we passed the 300 million mark in this country, and the population is now expected to hit the 400 million milestone by mid-century.

If you think your commute is a mess now, this may not sound like good news. But in a new book, Joel Kotkin imagines an America 40 years from now not as an overcrowded tangle, but as greener and more diverse. He believes most of us will continue to live in suburbs. While some kinds of cities will thrive, others won't. He believes we'll see repopulation of the American heartland, and while many thinkers predict a slow decline of the U.S. on the world stage, Kotkin argues that our relatively youthful population is likely to lead the United States as the world's leading military, cultural and economic power.

Well, what about you? What do you think another 100 million Americans will change about the U.S., your town, your neighborhood? Give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: the ethics of snow removal. Tell us your story of negotiating a world transformed by a couple of feet of white stuff. The email address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, Joel Kotkin joins us. He's a distinguished fellow in urban futures at the Chapman University in Orange, California. His new book is "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," and he joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor´┐ŻJOEL KOTKIN (Distinguished Fellow in Urban Futures, Chapman University; Author, "Next Hundred Million: America in 2050"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And a lot of Americans read about the inevitable decline, the challenges from China and India. You say there's a certain quality in America that will help us retain an edge, something you call - it's a Japanese word, and I hope I don't pronounce it too badly - that's sokojikara.

Prof. KOTKIN: Yes, that's pretty good. Yeah, basically, what I think is unique about the United States is - what sokojikara means is sort of self-renewing power, at least that's one definition that I've heard. And I think that the United States has gone through these periods where we sort of thought we were in decline before. Unfortunately, I'm old enough to remember the '70s and '80s, and if you recall that time - you may not be able to recall.

CONAN: Regrettably, I am.

Prof. KOTKIN: Okay, I'm sorry. But fundamentally, well, getting old has some advantages. We went through a period where we thought the Japanese were going to take over the world. There was a period before that where the Soviets were going to take over the world. Neither thing happened.

The United States sort of, after messing up, picked itself up and somehow - maybe sometimes blundering its way through, came back and ended up remarkably on top at the end of the day.

And I think we'll see something very much like this. Now, of course, we are completely capable of messing it up. But I think that fundamentally, American history has been this process of reinvention and renewal and, you know, we will look at our world in 2050 - I might not, but my daughters will - and say, you know, we got through this.

CONAN: And the other part of that is that this next 100 million, well, that's going to be a tremendous advantage compared to the declining populations of Europe and East Asia.

Prof. KOTKIN: Yes, and this is going to be particularly marked in countries in the - many of the countries in the European Union have very low birth rates. And, of course, Russia, which has - will have a much smaller population, Japan, Korea, the Tigris - and even starting at about 2030, you'll start seeing a big decline in the youthful population in China itself.

CONAN: You describe their workforce going to their jobs in walkers.

Prof. KOTKIN: Well there's certainly - when you have a society which might be 35 to 40 percent over 65, I mean, this is something we've never seen before in history. You know, you see it sometimes if you go to a small village in Japan or even some cities - really, not cities, but in small towns in rural America where the population is aged. But we've never seen it on this kind of level of whole countries where 40 percent of the population is over 60, 65 years old. I don't think that's going to be a very healthy situation. Just, if nothing else, who's going to pay the bills?

CONAN: Who's going to pay into the Social Security, for one thing? Yes, exactly.

Prof. KOTKIN: Exactly.

CONAN: And as you look at this regenerated America, one of the most interesting things you write about, it seems to me, is that the American heartland, places like the Great Plains, which have lost population for decades, you say that, well, they should start growing again.

Prof. KOTKIN: Well, they've actually started growing again. What's happened in the Great Plains is that some of the rural hamlets, these very small communities, where you see a lot of very elderly people...

CONAN: Because the young people have all left.

Prof. KOTKIN: Right. Those places will probably get smaller, and many will disappear. But the cities, the - though not in huge cities, but the cities like Fargo, Des Moines, certainly you'll see this with Sioux Falls - these places are already growing.

So I think you'll see a migration back. The signs are really there. These places have a lot going for them. You know, one thing is this America of 2050 will have to supply the food for another three billion people in the world. There'll be an enormous market, and these areas are very tied to agriculture. They're tied to energy. They have a lot of manufacturing. And what's remarkable is that they have a very, very good education system and very high high school graduation rates, college attendance rates. And I think as we go into 2050, we're going to see that many of our big metropolitan areas are going to be very expensive, very overcrowded, and a portion of the population will opt for life in less-crowded, safer areas where they can really afford to live the American dream.

CONAN: And to, of course, still be connected by all of those Wi-Fi networks that everybody else uses. Let's get some callers in on the conversation.

Our guest is Joel Kotkin. His new book is "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Danielle is with us from Woodward in Iowa.

DANIELLE (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DANIELLE: With all due respect to the professor, I teach ecology. I do ecological restoration. I live in the ecological sacrifice zone of North America, and I think 100 million more people is ecological lunacy. I mean, I...

CONAN: In particular, what are you worried about, Danielle?

DANIELLE: I am worried that the natural capital - which includes biologically diverse species and processes that are provided by this natural capital, the ecological services we depend on - are all in biological collapse, biological cascade.

Now, perhaps your guest does not get outside very much, but I'm living in a landscape that's fragmented, that is losing biodiversity, and that's happening all around the planet. I'm not persuaded that 100 million more people is a good thing. I think we need to control our numbers.

CONAN: Let's hear from Joel Kotkin.

Prof. KOTKIN: Well, first of all, whether it's a good thing or not, it's going to happen. The 400 million number is a fairly conservative estimate. I also have to say that, first of all, I do get out a lot. I spend a lot of time, particularly in the Dakotas. So I actually don't just, you know, stay in my garage.

But, you know, we have - no question have an enormous environmental challenge, and part of what the book talks about is how do we cope with this extra 100 million people. And - but I don't think we're - you know, the only thing you could probably do to reduce it would be to stop all immigration and begin to sterilize women after their first child or second child.

I don't think Americans are going to do that. I think that we're on this trajectory, and my object is to say: How do we cope with this? How do we make this work? And how do we take advantage of some of the positives that will come out of this, particularly relative to some other countries?

CONAN: And you do say that there will be negatives, too. I mean, this is not an unalloyed good.

Prof. KOTKIN: No, there definitely will be negatives. I mean, there certainly will be negatives in terms of the population that lives in some of our larger cities who will see more people. That's why I think it's so important that we use technology and the new telecommunications network to reduce commuting, to reduce our use of energy and to allow people to live in parts of the country where, in the past, there has been a - they have been cut off from the economy and information.

You know, Karl Marx wrote about the idiocy of rural life, but I can tell you something. I spent time out in some small towns in the Dakotas where I've talked to farmers, and I'll tell you, they're as plugged-in as any Wall Street investment banker or NPR reporter could be. And that is a revolution in how people live in low-density environments.

CONAN: Danielle?

DANIELLE: That's a very happy scenario. Last term and this term, I have surveyed my students, and asked them directly what they think - and I deal with students who are between the age of 17 going on into their 30s.

They are looking at the horizon because they're - they have more skin in the game than any of us do, and they believe that it is the nature of human beings to wait till things get really bad. So they're expecting a crash. They're ready for it, and I'm hoping that they will choose to have fewer children than my parents' generation did.

CONAN: Danielle, thanks for the call. Joel, go ahead.

Prof. KOTKIN: Neal, you know, I just think it's - first of all, I also teach. I also have kids. You know, I have to apologize for doing that, but I do. And I think that what we have to understand is, actually, if you look at the poll data, at a time when most Americans are very pessimistic, the older Americans, young people, the millennial generation, according to the poll data, are basically pretty optimistic. And I have to say that my students are basically optimistic.

I mean, they have concerns about the short run. Maybe the students who are taking ecology classes are predisposed to being negative, but I think that I - my sense of it is that young Americans are amazing in terms of their sense of okay, it may be bad for a few years, but things will come back and we'll proceed. And when you ask them, do they want to get married? Yes. Do they want to have children? A lot of them, I would say the vast majority, are saying they want to.

I don't know. I guess maybe I'm a father, but I think that somehow, the most important thing we do as human beings is have children. I don't think we need to have 10 children or 15 children. I think that replacing ourselves is probably not a bad idea. And I think in terms of the sort of spiritual values that people have and how you look at the world and how you care about your society, having children is a positive thing.

I go - I teach a class on the history of the future for - at Chapman, and I'm just, I am so interested in what my students have to say. And many of them come away with this idea, you know, it may be tough in the next five, 10 years, but things will get better.

CONAN: In his new book, the "Next Hundred Million," Joel Kotkin writes: In coming decades, the most critical challenge facing the nation may be maintaining the prospect of upward mobility, the promise that anyone can reach the highest levels of society has been and remains fundamental to the American ethos. He also notes that, well, the gaps between rich and poor are getting wider.

We'll talk more about that and the next 100 million when we come back from a short break. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Joel Kotkin is our guest, and we're looking into the future, the United States growing at a record rate. According to census projections, it will be home to 400 million people by 2050. According to Joel Kotkin, that's not only a larger population, it's a dramatically more diverse one. You can read how he expects the nation to change in an excerpt from his book, the "Next Hundred Million," at our Web site. That's at npr.org.

We also want to hear from you. What do you think another 100 million Americans will change about the U.S., about your town, your neighborhood? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And again, you can also join the conversation at that Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Joel Kotkin, I wanted to ask you about that point we mentioned just before the break, and that's about the growing divide between rich and poor in this country, and the challenge, you say, America must maintain that belief that anybody can make it.

Prof. KOTKIN: Yeah, I think that that's, in my mind, the biggest challenge of the next 35 to 40 years - by the way, not just in the United States but around the world.

I'm just working on a report right now on the whole question of upward mobility in global cities and working in London, Mumbai and Mexico City, in particular. And this is going to be a great challenge for us. And I think it's going to mean that we're going to have to have some very, very strong investments in infrastructure, both human and physical. I think we're going to really need to focus much more on what I would consider our productive industries - you know, manufacturing, energy, as well as agriculture. And I think we're going to really have to face this as a major issue.

Americans have written and talk a lot about issues such as culture and particularly race. We've always been a country that's had a hard time dealing with the issue of class. And I think this is going to be the big issue, because - although, obviously, there are many ethnic groups where there's a disproportionate number of poor people, African-Americans, Hispanics, we also know that race is not the barrier that it once was in the United States.

I mean, we have an African-American president. We've had two African-American secretaries of state. But I think the issue of class is going to become more and more important, and it is probably the single-biggest challenge that I think we will face, along with some of the environmental challenges in the next 40 years.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Elizabeth, Elizabeth calling from Battle Creek in Michigan.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. I'm calling because this is exactly what I've been talking about and blogging about on my newspaper. We have emptied out a lot of our state, and we have - in our city, we're emptying out. We have a lot of blighted homes, and we are noticing a lot more of the children of parents who have no income causing a lot of problems in school.

Well, for the first time, we're really kind of looking at it, and we're asking all these questions about how can we solve these problems? How can we fix the schools? And how can we take back our community? And that's what I wanted to talk about.

CONAN: And, Joel, it's not going to be easy.

Prof. KOTKIN: No, it won't be easy, but I do think that one of the things I find unacceptable is when people say, well, this part of the country's going to die and that part of the country's going to die, and it's only going to be a few hip, cool, rich places that will do well and places where Ph.D.s are most concentrated. And I don't think that's necessarily the case.

I think that the middle part of the country has many areas that offer good quality of life, a good - a family and community environment. I've seen cities like Fargo that people thought were dying to come back. And I think that there are many American cities in the so-called Rust Belt that are fundamentally attractive places to live with skilled labor, and the state of Michigan is a great example.

And I've spent some time in Kalamazoo, where they're really making efforts to turn that community around. I think these communities are going to be very attractive to people, particularly because with a greater population, you're going to see great demand on real estate in California, the Northeast, the already expensive parts. And people are going to start thinking: Maybe I could live, if I want to live in a smaller town, or if I want to live in an urban neighborhood - let's say in a city like St.´┐ŻLouis, which has some lovely areas that are right now not doing so great. And so I believe that this renewal can take place.

You know, 30 years ago, many people would have said that New York City was doomed, and yet New York City, in many ways, has recovered. And, you know, it obviously has many problems, but it is an infinitely better place than the city that I left in 1971.

So I think that there is a renewal that we can go through, and I think that communities like the one that the lady was talking about, I think have tremendous potential. And again, if we pay more attention to productive industry, places like Michigan have huge amounts of skill, and they have locational advantages, which is why they had the industries in the first place.

CONAN: And they have some things that places in the Southwest don't have, like water. Anyway, Elizabeth, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it, and good luck to you in Battle Creek.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Sayid(ph), Sayid with us from Jacksonville.

SAYID (Caller): How are you?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

SAYID: I was listening to many callers that called and with their comments and the comments that were said by your host, by the gentleman who's talking about the population melt.

CONAN: Yes.

SAYID: It is a very interesting thing, because I think one of the pluses that we have is we're able to absorb people in because of our belief in migration policy. But the problem that we are going to have is one of people that have established themselves from Western Europe and their attitude toward how societies should be formed versus people that may come in from more-populated place, which most likely is going to be Far East or the Middle East, and how those people are going to melt in is going to be a challenge.

Number one is, as these people come in, among them there is going to be some that amass wealth, and then will there be room for those people, the migration groups, to have their own millionaires and billionaires? (unintelligible)...

CONAN: More importantly, I would say, Joel Kotkin, their own middle class. But this is something that you write a lot about in the book.

Prof. KOTKIN: Yeah. First of all, I think that one of the things that is really remarkable to me is when you look at the attitudes, let's say on the issue of intermarriage, interracial dating among younger people, they're remarkably more liberal and open than those of their parents and certainly much more than their grandparents.

So I think that we're moving in the right direction there. I also find that the migrants who have come here, particularly in terms of the middle class and the more-educated ones, have integrated at a remarkably rapid rate.

There are whole, huge parts of Los Angeles where I live that are - you know, nearby where I live, there are lots of people from Armenia and from Iran. They have really integrated into the society. They've been very successful. There are huge parts of L.A. where Chinese immigrants have come in and completely transformed areas and have really developed, and they established themselves as powers - not just in the Asian community, but in the community overall.

I think Americans do have an intrinsic sense that this amazing ability to bring in and assimilate immigrants - and at the same time, in a sense, be assimilated by them. In other words, their food, their words, their customs, their way of looking at the world, their business practices, their business connections become assets for us. And I think that this is something that I find, actually, that - there are always going to be nativists and people who are negative, but I find most people are really kind of excited about that.

And it's particularly interesting when you go to a city like Houston, which I write a lot about, which was a Southern city that was, you know, had black people and white people and is now a multicultural melting pot approaching the levels of Los Angeles and New York, Chicago.

So I find this to be one of the great things about our society. And I do a lot of work in Europe, and I don't find that that is happening nearly as much in Europe as it is happening in the United States. And, of course, most of the Far Eastern countries really are completely incapable of absorbing almost any immigration.

SAYID: I do have a comment.

CONAN: Go ahead, Sayid.

SAYID: The comment - here's, really, the deep question. Will people coming into America, will they be assimilated? Or will the culture of America be assimilated to the people who are immigrating to this country? I mean, that is the basic question, because there is a group of people that tend to set trends, and they want to keep those trends constant. And I will take my answer offline.

CONAN: Sayid, thanks for the call.

Prof. KOTKIN: Sayid, what I would say is that it will be both. America's history, and I write about this in "The Next Hundred Million," is -really has been this process where people - new people come in. There's a little bit of pushback, sometimes a lot of pushback, and yet over time, those people become part of our culture. Their foods become our food.

You know, think about it. I wonder what Henry James would think about the fact that there's a preponderance of pizza places being - you know, pizza was an ethnic cuisine. Now it's an American cuisine. You - I can go and go to a breakfast in a Midwestern town, and they're serving bagels. I mean, their grandparents didn't know what a bagel was. So I think if you look at the music, you look in our styles and what we find beautiful and what fashions we wear and what music we listen to, we transform the immigrants, and they transform us.

CONAN: Some people might say the bagel you get at a Dennys in Kansas City - Jewish grandparents from New York wouldnt recognize it as a bagel either, but something to be said about that. In terms of developments of cities, you talk about something that a lot of places seem to do, which is to develop, well, big ball parks and art museums and concert halls in an attempt to attract the bright, young culturally aware people they think will revitalize their city mistake, you say.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, I think in most cases, it doesn't work very well. Look, there are going to be cities - I call them superstar cities, which is a term developed by somebody at Wharton.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: The San Franciscos, maybe the Seattles, Manhattan, even, to some extent, Washington, D.C., which are going to be magnets for that group, that very well-educated group, at least for - until they're into their early 30s, that's going to be very attractive. But for many of these other cities, they've got to look at their own DNA - like, lets say Kansas City, which I think is a city with tremendous potential. Why does somebody move to Kansas City? Well, you know, if I - if my primary interest is culture and...

CONAN: (unintelligible)

Mr. KOTKIN: ...and the theater, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KOTKIN: You know, yes, you can get that in Kansas City, but that's not why you move to Kansas City. Most people would move to Kansas City because it's a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, a good place to get a job, a good place to have a job that pays enough so that you can live decently.

And so every city has to sort of look at itself and say: What are we about? Why would somebody come here? And in our great cities - and the one, of course, I'm familiar with besides Los Angeles is New York, because it's, as you might tell...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOTKIN: ...it's my native town. You go to places that I call the plain vanilla neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn. And those are, in many ways, very much like, in some senses, a Kansas City - a little more ethnically diverse, but they offer a good quality of life for considerably less than what you could get in Manhattan.

And those neighborhoods in - and all the big cities have them - are very important. And I think that politicians spend much too much time worrying about how they're going to attract a Stanford PhD and not enough about their own middle and working-class people and how they are really the key to the citys thriving.

CONAN: We're talking with Joel Kotkin about his new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050." Don't forget, in a few minutes, we're going to be talking about the etiquette of snow removal. Did you mark your parking spot with a - well, one of those traffic cones you swiped? Give us an email: talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Norma, Norma with us from Tucson.

NORMA (Caller): Well, hello there. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

NORMA: I appreciate your conversation very much today. And I just wanted to say that I agree with your guest and kind of want to take away the fears of some people that think that increasing the amount of people in the United States is a bad idea. I actually think that it's a very good idea. I think that - you had an earlier caller that had communicated that it would basically be devastating to the ecology, and thus economy, of the United States.

I think that's completely wrong. As a former small-business owner, I just want to put into context, kind of, two thoughts. One is, is that as far as the ecology and economy, the previous caller kind of discounted the fact that the youth of the United States has already kind of decided that beer is important and they want to have it there to breathe, so they're not going to...

CONAN: Destroy it, yeah.

NORMAN: ...possibly jump on a bad wagon to destroy the United States that way, and also that you, kind of, need to have more people to get innovation in life. You can't...

CONAN: That's interesting. Joel Kotkin, Norma - is she talking about one of those towns were you said, the new arrivals, the new businesspeople, the new entrepreneurs told you, hey, you know, there's always a new zip code we can market to.

Mr. KOTKIN: Oh, yeah. Well, there's certainly that. I mean, the increased population and market is one of the great things that will drive our economy. I'm - you know, you - you know, people sometimes say, well, I would rather not have more population. I'd rather have, lets say, the demographics with - where people don't have children. And the problem is, you know, the world doesn't give you a choice of, well, you can stay the way you are or you have a slightly larger population or significantly larger over time.

Well, the problem is, if you do not have children, in 20, 30 years, you have a population that's geriatric, and there's nobody to support those people. There's no growth market. There's a lack of new ideas. And you can already see the outlines of that future in places like Japan, where, you know, is a country that I have great affection for, spent a lot of time in. But without a new generation to come up, their - they've clearly lost the ability to grow their economy.

And one other issue about the - about pollution and the environment. In many ways, we have cleaner air than we had when we had 200 million people. I think we can deal with this population and continue to improve the environment if we're intelligent about it.

CONAN: And that raises - Norma, thanks very much for the call. We just have a few seconds left, and I just wanted to ask you. If we're intelligent about it, again, we don't react to crises until theyre crises. We don't respond to problems like redeveloping our infrastructure until it's sometimes too late.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, except, of course, we've managed to do it, you know, several times in our history. But I really think that the country, I think, is in a period now where we're really unsure where we want to go next. I think there are elements of President Obama's program that I think are very attractive to people, but there are parts that aren't.

And - but I think when I speak around the country, almost everyone says, let's invest in education. Let's invest in infrastructure.

CONAN: Joel Kotkin, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. KOTKIN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Joel Kotkin's new book is "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050." He's a distinguished fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. He joined us today from NPR West.

Up next: With more snow forecast for Washington, D.C. and other cities around the country, the ethics of digging out. Do you dibs parking spots with lawn chairs? Do you shovel the sidewalk? How do people react? 800-988-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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