Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”
To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!
A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.
National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.
A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).
As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!
In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.
The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.
Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.
With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.
From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:
Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).
A recent New York Times article discusses Republicans’ desire to oust the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as “Obamacare”) before the program becomes entrenched in the daily lives of the American citzenry. Should that happen, the belief goes, the program will become nigh-impossible to dislodge and will only expand. The article usefully places this in recent historical context (expansion of Social Security, and so on).
From my geographic/demographic standpoint the real interest was half down the first page where the NYT asserts (probably from an uncited Congressional Research Service report) that one reason for the expansion of “entitlement” programs since the 1960s has been the “aging of the population.”
Your Geographer (that is, me) explored the U.S. Census Bureau’s site (not their International Data Base) and compared the U.S.-wide summary results from the 1940 and 2010 Censuses to quantify this statement. I chose 1940 as it was the first Census conducted after Congress enacted Social Security in 1935 and its later expansion to cover dependents and survivors in 1939 (thanks NYT).
Understatement of the day: the U.S. has changed substantially since 1940. In 1940, the Census Bureau counted 131.6 million Americans. In 2010, there were 308.7 million Americans. In 1940, 4.6 million Americans were aged over 65 and were (ceteris paribus) eligible for retirement benefits (this 6.9% of the 1940 U.S. population). In 2010, 40.3 million Americans were aged 65 or older (13.0% of the 2010 U.S. population). To put it another way, there were more Americans in 2010 aged over 85 than there were Americans aged over 65 in 1940. This ten-fold increase in the number of elderly Americans, not to mention their growing proportion of the U.S. population, is due in no small part to changing fertility among U.S. families, improved healthcare, nutrition, and a number of other factors.
As the ratio of older Americans eligible for full retirement benefits (somewhere between 65 and 67 according to the Social Security Administration) grows larger the economic burden necessarily falls on a workforce that is proportionately smaller each generation.
To me there are a few solutions to this problem, all of which will probably tick off some political constituency. So we should seriously consider all of them. First, increase the retirement age. If there are more Americans aged over 85 now than there were Americans aged over 65 in 1940, why not make the full retirement age 70 or 75? Second, immigration. If we (as a country) need workers and families to keep the economy humming immigration has always been the American solution. Third, more children. My least favorite idea, mostly because I don’t want the government telling me how many children to have. Further, this would only increase the burden on working adults by expanding the number of dependents; not only would a hypothetical American couple have to support both sets of parents they would also have to support three or four children.
A combination of increased retirement age and more open immigration policies (dare I say, a path to citizenship?) would be one way to keep the expansion of “entitlement” benefits in check, saving the system for future generations to (eventually) enjoy. The pending future, as various commentators have loudly argued, is a collapse in the Social Security system. Go write Congress.
I’ve written a few times about demographics, most specifically population decline (see here, here, here, here, and here). Some time ago I volunteered to make a map showing those countries currently experiencing (i.e. in 2013) population decline. The results of this effort is below. The map uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base. In addition to current population decline, I also highlighted those countries estimated to experience population decline in a decade (2023).
In one of the earlier posts I discussed the eastern European concentration of declining populations. Currently, this belt of decline stretches from Russia to Germany and the Adriatic Sea (specifically to the former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Slovenia, and others). By 2023, Slovakia and Austria are also experiencing population decline. Reviewing the U.S. Census data, Austria is already experiencing a natural population decrease. However, immigration numbers are high enough to ensure a growing population. By 2023, immigration inflow isn’t enough to replace elderly Austrian citizens, who are dying of natural causes. The decline belt also spreads further west (to Belgium, Finland, and Portugal) and south (to Greece).
In addition to Europe, the East Asian region of decline also begins to emerge with South Korea joining Japan in experiencing negative population growth. By 2030, the People’s Republic of China joins South Korea and Japan with a declining population.
Finally, the United States is expected to continue grow about 0.8% per year in both time periods (2013 and 2023) due to a combination of natural increase (i.e. births being more numerous than deaths) and immigration (i.e. more immigrants than emigrants). Likewise, the United Kingdom and Canada also remain in positive growth due to the same factors.
Though nationalists would undoubtedly take issue with immigration as a policy tool to reverse demographic decline, it makes economic and demographic sense. After all, one of the problems associated with demographic decline is the greater burden that the elderly place on working adults. In less developed economies that burden is comprised of an overabundance of youth, where children are often a form of social security. In the advanced economies, there is far less pressure to have children. There is (typically) a social security program for the elderly as well as retirement and pension plans. Similarly, the cost for having children is also greater. Attempting to spur citizens into having more children would (probably) take decades of consistent policy, which is unlikely to happen (at least in a democracy). Such a policy would not only have to take into account the costs of children, but citizens’ (particularly the female citizens’) preferences.
In light of these challenges, why not encourage immigration?