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Opinion Should I stay, or should I go? How to balance American rootedness and wanderlust.


Would you rather live in a place with a vibrant, dynamic economy, or one with a tightknit community where people know their neighbors?

Your first response might be, “Why do I have to choose?” The answer comes in a recent report from the Legatum Institute, a think tank in London, which evaluated the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia on 200 indicators of economic success, social progress and well-being that go into a capacious definition of prosperity. (I am a board member of the institute but did not contribute to the research.)

The U.S. Prosperity Index aggregates and ranks the states across these indicators. The method necessarily accepts a good deal of subjectivity in how much to weight different dimensions, and the states with dynamic economies and good labor markets tend to come out on top: Massachusetts is No. 1, followed by Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Washington state. At the bottom are Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Obviously, many people will disagree with this (or any other) ranking. I know people who love living in West Virginia and others who complain bitterly about Boston or Seattle. Very often, the assessment depends on whether someone values a vibrant, booming economy or prefers a quieter, tighter community where people seldom move and thus know their neighbors. The index data show that there are trade-offs. To me, more telling than the ranking is this line in the report: “No single state has yet succeeded in fully securing both economic and social wellbeing for its population.”

I ran my own analysis of the data, and the assertion is accurate. For example, moving up 10 spots in the rankings on favors between neighbors is associated with moving down three to four spots on concentration of start-up businesses. Most of us have seen just these kinds of trade-offs in action. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Seattle; we knew all our neighbors and helped each other out when needed. Today, my old neighborhood is barely recognizable — and neighbors barely recognize each other. They have come for Seattle’s go-go start-up economy and have gentrified the neighborhood. The small house my father paid $16,000 for when I was a kid is now assessed at $1.7 million.

There is a fundamental tension in American life today between opportunity and community. If you seek opportunity, you will probably be highly mobile, seek a relatively anonymous-but-prosperous urban area, and trade away the stability of knowing your neighbors and living near family. If you seek community, you will be more rooted, at the cost of benefiting from a national labor market.

For me, it’s a pretty easy choice. I love the spirit of the migrant, the pioneer who seeks adventure. My family legend has it we are descendants of the frontiersman Kit Carson and the urge to explore is in our blood. I left Seattle at 18 for good; I have moved between states (and countries) 11 times as an adult; I married an immigrant. Our latest move was just six months ago, when I was 55, to Massachusetts — No. 1 in the Legatum index! — a place where I have never lived (although my English ancestors did, starting about 400 years ago after bailing out of Lancashire).

To forsake home and move for opportunity has been considered part of the American character since the nation’s earliest days. As the newspaper publisher Horace Greeley so famously counseled in 1865: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” So you might think the country would be trending in my direction — that people are becoming more and more mobile to follow the best economic circumstances. That’s not right, however. According to the Census Bureau, geographic mobility has been falling for years. Last year, 9.4 percent of Americans changed residence, including 1.5 percent moving between states. In 2000, 14 percent moved (2.8 percent between states); the year I was born, 1964, 20 percent moved (3.3 percent between states).

What’s going on? Some would say we are simply getting our priorities in order. Timothy P. Carney, author of the illuminating 2019 book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” strongly believes we are too focused on professional success and fetishize the national goal of economic vibrancy, at the cost of our well-being. His book lays out the case for stronger neighborhoods and civic institutions, which is impossible if people move at the drop of a hat in the quest for economic gains. “Your happiness, your satisfaction and your family’s thriving all depend on relationships and belonging,” he recently told me. “That requires commitment, rootedness and shedding the modern tendency toward the transactional.”

Another prominent voice in favor of community over mobility is that of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who wrote the 2018 bestseller “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.” His book extols the satisfaction of finding a rootedness in the places that don’t show up in the top of a prosperity index, in part precisely because people are doing things other than starting companies and working 12-hour days.

I count Sasse as a friend, and I showed him what I had written up to this point in the column. “Your obituary isn’t going to be a travel log,” he said, ribbing me for my wanderlust. “There’s no extra credit for more frequent flier miles in the tomb.”

We’ll just see about that. If I can get United Airlines to sponsor my funeral, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

But I do take the point. The key to truly shared prosperity is to find a happy middle ground between the mobile and rooted parts of society. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m trying.

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