When recent data from the US Census Bureau revealed that Seattle's growth rate is, in the words of Seattle Times' Gene Balk, "easily the fastest among the 50 largest U.S. cities," the attention of the city's indefatigable Seattle Is Dying movement turned to Portland, Oregon. That city is surely in the decline that Seattle should be in. Its county lost 16,000 people in 2022. Fox News wasted no time

Major West Coast cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have seen many residents pack up and leave, amid the coronavirus pandemic, crime and dissatisfaction with left-wing policies. In fact, U-Haul found California was responsible for the largest one-way net loss of trucks. Now, Oregon’s Portland could next in line for a significant exodus.

But Seattle is actually growing. And who can afford to live in San Fransisco but those at the tip of the tech pyramid? But the business of Fox News is, as I have said before, not unlike that of the monsters in the Pixar masterpiece, Monsters, Inc., to generate a very strong and negative feeling about the state of things, which can only be positive if the interests of the most powerful capitalists are satisfied. Fox: "Though the general population [of Portland] has declined for three years in a row, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office reported a 50% increase in homelessness from 2019 to 2022. The mayor, a Democrat, also revealed Portland's number of homeless encampments has topped 700." But the Seattle Times began ringing this bogus Portland alarm before the Monsters, Inc. of cable news, before even the new census data.

Indeed, Danny Westneat has been on this tip for more than a minute. Even in 2016, he warned: "Now Seattle wants to copy Portland’s disastrous homeless camping policy." That city, described by him as "our little brother" ("too experimental," hopelessly puerile, so on), was already a lost cause. But there was still hope if we learned from Portland's folly: "...175 miles up Interstate 5, the big brother seems oblivious to what the little brother just went through."

So the news of Portland's population decline seemed to prove Westneat's crystal ball was in working order. He saw this coming from nearly a decade ago. He saw the explosion of the homeless crisis during the lockdown. He saw the black plague of the BLM protests—white America will never forgive Portland's white youth and progressives for so passionately siding with Black Americans on this issue, which, when examined, only made one demand: equal treatment under the law. Westneat saw it all and then some.

But here is the curious thing. Danny Westneat quoted a tweet by an Oregon economist who deserves our attention on the matter of Portland's doom and gloom:

His name is Josh Lehner, with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. He presented a far richer picture of the population decline on Think Out Loud on OPB. He is super-cautious about reading census data that is new because the details behind the numbers take time to realize and analyze. All we have, for now (2022), are just numbers and nothing more. But according to his nose, Oregon's low birth rate must be considered while processing the economic impact of US Census Bureau data.


Last year, in the 2022 estimates that just came out from the Census Bureau, Washington also saw negative net migration as well, just like Oregon did, a little less than we did. But the big difference between Oregon and Washington is not just that they’re north of us, it’s that their birth rate is higher. Even though they also experienced an increase in pandemic related deaths and a decline in migration, their higher birth rate was more than large enough to offset those other changes. So Washington’s population increased overall, whereas ours did not because we have a very low birth rate.   

This is an economist. Sure, not of my school (Marxist), but he sticks to facts like a respectable Keynesian or a heterodox post-Keynesian. (Mainstream economics is about feelings, not facts—this is exactly what the Keynesian revolution of the 1930s was all about.) Lehner is not an anti-capitalist but, instead, he understands how it works from the point of view of public policy. This is what Westneat missed in his tweet. Lehner sees the serious macro/political/economic implications of population shifts. Massive amounts of public investment can be cut or directed in this and that way. The numbers matter. And not for a good reason.

It is here we arrive at the point of this post. It is here I hope to show you the value of a good economist. The economist Westneat obviously, predictably, instinctively missed. An economist who works with the facts? This is Lehner. The most valuable point he makes in the OPB interview is this: Our economic planning is structured to provide easy policy answers for a boom but close to nothing for a bust. (Please pause on this.) The meaning: We know what to do when things are going well (capital inflation); we are in the dark when things go south (capital devaluation).

[Dave] Miller: When this U.S. census data came out, you wrote on Twitter that this is a two or three alarm fire. Why is population decline in a state such a big deal?

Lehner: I think there’s a couple of reasons for it. First, just quickly on maybe like a public policy point of view, growing pains are real. When we have more people moving here than are moving away, you have to build more housing, you have to build more roads or manage your transportation networks in a different way. Growing pains are real, but managing decay, managing decline, seems to be a lot harder because you have to decide what are you going to stop doing. When are you gonna stop replacing the sewer system, which roads are you gonna choose not to repair in the years ahead, that sort of thing. That’s a lot harder to do than to say, ‘Hey, we just need to add an extra road,’ or we need to toll the roads and put more buses in or whatever it is. Those aren’t not challenges, it’s just that those are easier things to manage than decline.

Please reread this passage. It says so much. A Marxist such as myself can have nothing but the deepest respect for this kind of economic reasoning. It rawly exposes the game that feeling engineers, Westneat, Seattle Is Dying, and so on, are playing. It's one in which only half of the court is permitted to be visible. We are led to believe that growth is the be-all-end-all, and de-growth is the horror of horrors, not because de-growth (and capitalist devaluation in particular) is inherently a failure, but because it is culturally programmed to fail.