This Friday at 8:30 PM Eastern we will be live streaming the debate of the year, the CNU NextGen debate from CNU 24 in Detroit. You can catch the action here. I'll be announcing topics and contestants shortly so stay tuned.

Last week I interviewed Andres Duany, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism as well as one of my intellectual heroes. As always, he was thought provoking and, in his customary way, challenging of those he sees as a bit too comfortable for their own good. The headline quote we shared was this:

“Instead of inheriting the work from other people, do the work yourself... The whole history of the United States is moving on and creating new wealth and creating places. Is it really too difficult to get people to go to Detroit?”

I found this to be one of those things that, while insightful, was completely obvious once Duany stated it (genius typically involves identifying that which lies hidden in plain sight). I hear the continual laments that San Francisco, New York, Washington DC and the like are too expensive. I agree -= they are bizarrely expensive to my price-sensitive mind. I also see many of my peers moving to these places despite being underemployed, short on cash and struggling with huge college loan debts. NYC is an amazing city -- no doubt -- but what are people willing to sacrifice to be there? Apparently a lot.

One of our contributors, Johnny Sanphillippo, lives in San Francisco. He has told me that the only reason he can afford to live there is because he was once a pioneer, getting in when the place was undervalued and then hanging on as prices have risen. He's told me stories of young people who rent single bedrooms -- one small room -- for double the price of my mortgage and the lengths they've gone to make ends meet. There's a whole world out there I don't understand.

I've had the chance visit many of the major cities in the United States. While New York City, Washington and San Francisco are truly amazing places, I can't say that I would choose them over Louisville, Cincinnati or Seattle. More precisely, I wouldn't be willing to spend twice as much to make that choice. Now, I acknowledge I'm atypical -- I love living here in Central Minnesota in a city of 14,000 -- but I do think there are some practical implications to my practicality.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the latest economic fad to make the rounds: the minimum guaranteed income. While the concept has been around a long time, it's gotten more play lately. I have to acknowledge, I've long liked Milton Friedman's application of the negative income tax as a way to achieve a minimum guaranteed income. Call me a romantic, but I like a society where poets and painters can opt out and not worry about earning a wage. I also feel that, in an affluent society, a minimum income is a non-bureaucratic way to reflect our humanity.

And a minimum guaranteed income is certainly more honest than the minimum wage, which is a political wedge as disingenuous as it is ineffective.

So here's a very practical question about a minimum guaranteed income: Would it be the same in every city? In other words, would we have a national guaranteed minimum income or would it vary (like Medicare reimbursements and other federal assistance programs) based on the the costs of living in a specific region? There are some big implications to the answer.

Here are some median household income statistics based on a non-rigorous Google search:

  • San Francisco: $83,000
  • Minneapolis: $65,000
  • United States: $54,000
  • Detroit: $50,000
  • Brainerd, MN: $29,000

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that the minimum income was set at 40% of the city's median. In other words, if you live in San Francisco, your minimum income is $33,200 but if you live here with me in Brainerd it would be only $11,600. Forget if those numbers seem fair to you but just look at the difference. We -- the nation of taxpayers -- would spend three times the amount to have an individual eke out a living in San Francisco than we will in Brainerd.

In San Francisco there is a housing shortage. In Brainerd, there is an investment shortage. I use these extremes on the spectrum to make the point. With a minimum guaranteed income that varied by region, we would encourage people to stay in place, to stagnate in a city that is either rising or falling around them.

If, however, we based the minimum income off of national medians, both San Francisco and Brainerd would have a guaranteed minimum income of $21,600. In a theoretical sense (which I say because, with a complex system, we really can't know what would happen), it would make a lot of sense for someone struggling in San Francisco to move to a place that is far more affordable. If that made San Francisco a city of rich people without a service sector, then services are going to be obscenely expensive and the affluent there will either pay obscene prices for routine transactions or change their housing market to make it easier for the less affluent to thrive there. In a place like Brainerd, there is an opportunity to attract or retain a creative class of people who can pioneer a renewal, the kind of people we are desperate for.

In a nation that has invested so heavily in mobility and connectivity, a nation where people have a long history of moving in order to find opportunity, shouldn't a guaranteed national income -- if it ever comes about -- assume that people will continue to move, to match wealth with opportunity in a way that is healthy for everyone?

Detroit. (Image from Wikimedia.)

Detroit. (Image from Wikimedia.)

I've used the foil of the guaranteed minimum income to reach this point, because, even without the guarantee, that world actually exists right now. Someone struggling to live in San Francisco can move to Brainerd -- or Cincinnati or Louisville or Buffalo or even Detroit -- and enjoy a very nice life with a far lower economic burn rate. I live in Brainerd and I've been to all those other cities. They are each quite nice, or at least have parts that are really quite exceptional for North America. Why, when affordability is near crisis in many places, are these alternatives not seeing the influx of young, adventurous people that we would expect?

This, my friends, is what Duany said in a far simpler and straightforward way. Is it really too difficult to get people to go to Detroit?

Where are the pioneers? Where are those looking for opportunity? Where are the idealistic, oblivious to the possibility of failure, ready to strike out into the unknown in search of a better life?

Some of the reaction to Duany implied that he should move to Detroit, put his money where his mouth is, leave the comforts of Miami where he enjoys a nice life and become the pioneer he is calling on others to become. That reaction depressed me. Duany is not an old man, but in his mid sixties, he's not a young guy either. He's not hungry in the same way someone in their twenties should be, the way I was in my twenties. The way he was in his twenties. He can afford to live in Miami. He did his part. It's no longer his time.

It's someone else's time. There's a vast frontier of opportunity waiting to be explored -- waiting to be exploited -- by the adventurous, the hard-working, by the irresistible among us. The new pioneers.

Is American still capable of creating such people?

Join me this week in Detroit for CNU 24, either in person or here at Strong Towns, as we search for an answer.

Top photo from Wikimedia.