On economic class, urbanization, and chickens

PHOTO: Pete B., Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

My latest column for the Minnesota Reformer is up today.

Just Like a Century ago, there’s a class war in rural America, and the wrong side is winning.”

This was quite the creative exercise for me. I had a few things on my mind when I wrote it.

First, we seem mired in a hopeless culture war here in northern Minnesota. But it’s not much different from the hopeless culture war found in any rural, post-industrial place in America. Or the world, actually. What’s up with that?

Well, some recent research shows that evidence of a new wave of urbanization caused by changing technology and economic trends. When Iron Rangers have visceral negative reactions to the Twin Cities metro area, especially when those reactions are *hostile and elevated* as they have been recently, it’s related to this very real phenomenon.

But is that the problem? Or is there something else at play? And how to chickens relate to all this? That’s where I compare the attitudes about town chickens found in local debates 100 years ago to the ones we have today. They’re the same, and class conformity is the real issue.

Economic inequality. It’s the throughline from the muddy streets of our old mining camps to the decaying concrete of today’s Iron Range cities. But because we’re conditioned to conform we never get around to solving this original problem.

All this and more in today’s column at the very excellent Minnesota Reformer. While my work is commentary (opinion), their investigative journalism (news) is making waves across the state. Support them with your membership today.



  1. Great article, Aaron.

    Recently, the political science academic literature has been filled with articles whose thesis is that we are currently involved in a political battle pitting the “old” way of life in the US — basically domination of the country by white males of European descent, both at the elite and the rank and file level, and both in terms of power and of culture — and the development of a pluralistic society in which white Europeans are a minority numerically, power is shared by women, Blacks, immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and the culture is a stew of flavors, including many non-European ones. The combination of declining birth rates among the current white majority, higher birth rates among minorities, and immigration seems to be inexorably forcing us toward a “minority majority” status, similar to what already exists in California. In particular, technical fields from medicine to computers to bioengineering are all seeing heavy numbers of non-Europeans, American minorities, and women filling the jobs. That is doubly true in places like Northeastern Minnesota, where our climate and our remoteness makes it harder and harder to recruit highly trained employees who are from the mainstream culture. It is also true in the “new” tech areas that dominate our economy, with a disproportionate number of of the most successful people — the new billionaires and the technically trained people who run their industries — coming from immigrant backgrounds. Steve Jobs’ father was from Syria, and people like Sergey Brin of Google, Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla, Eric Yuan of Zoom, are all from immigrant backgrounds. Even Jeff Bezos was raised by a Latino father.

    Faced with this, people in NE MN are seeing a greater and greater number of the highly trained tech people in the area — doctors, engineers, and so on — being immigrants. It is obvious that if the area wishes to grow and prosper in the 21st century, we need not just to tolerate this, but welcome and recruit these workers. However, there seem to be an ever increasing number of people up here who have the attitude that they would rather see the area collapse and fail than see the area become pluralistic culturally. In particular, people seem reluctant to welcome minorities and people from non-Christian religions, and people who do not share the same values about natural resource exploitation and about firearms are seen as undesirable. If the area is not going to stay the same as it has been for the last century, then many locals would rather see it die.

    The urban chicken issue is a microcosm of this idea. Urban chicken growers are inevitably drawn from the ranks of immigrants and hipster environmentalists, both highly undesirable for many native-born residents of the area.

    As you point out, this is especially ironic since it was the grandparents and great-grandparents of these very “natives” who used to be the outsiders and immigrants who spoke different languages, smelled funny, ate strange foods, and had strange habits. They were the ones who wanted to keep chickens, among other issues.

    The choice here for Northeastern Minnesota is to tolerate and even welcome these new people, or to see the area gradually collapse, with population plummeting and economic opportunity disappearing. Ironically, even the new mining projects that many Rangers and others see as the way to salvage our future will employ, among the small number of workers needed in highly mechanized and automated new mines, substantial numbers of the “new” Americans in the engineering, technical service, and programming jobs that will account for the largest share of the work at these “new” mines. They will come because we don’t have the people who are trained to do that work, and because “native” Americans will not be willing to come here to the frozen North.

    Welcome to the new reality. Pay your money and take your choice.

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