Americans on the Move!

In 1781, after six long years of grueling battles against a military force with superior training and firepower, General George Washington  — with the active support of his French allies — led his fledgling Continental Army to a smashing war-ending victory over the British military at Yorktown, Virginia.

Did Washington win with overwhelming force? Not really; his victory was actually more a matter of adroit strategic movement. In fact, the American victory was as attributable to the legs of their soldiers as to their arms. That’s because Lord and General Charles Cornwallis of Great Britain had allowed his forces to enter the Yorktown region without regard to the physical locations of the French and American forces.

When Cornwallis surveyed the Yorktown harbor, he was horrified to see hostile French warships under the command of Commander François Joseph Paul de Grassebearing threatening his positions. But then, as he attempted to dig in and wait for relief from the Royal British Navy, he watched the joint American and French armies under Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau swing into position and surround his men.

Trapped between the French and American forces, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender his entire army. The British acknowledged the defeat by playing the song The World Turned Upside Down, noting the ability of Americans to change world history by shifting locations and out-positioning their rivals.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, Americans are still optimizing their chances of success by simply moving across the countryside. In fact, just last week, the Bureau announced that a centuries old pattern of internal American migration had unexpectedly flipped into reverse.

California, Here We Come?

Although the United States was first established on the northeastern shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean between New Hampshire and Georgia, Americans have been moving west and south in search of opportunity ever since. It was President Thomas Jefferson who virtually doubled the size of the nation by agreeing to purchase most of the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains from France in 1803; General Andrew Jackson later pushed the American border south to encompass Florida in 1821.

The movement of citizens into these new lands soon followed; the United States later expanded clear across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean with the seizure of California by Commodore John Sloat during the Mexican American War in 1846. The West Coast began booming with population growth during the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, and Florida similarly surged in population with its great Land Boom of the 1920s. More recently, many southern and western states such as Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and the Carolinas grew with influxes of retirees from colder climes.

Many pundits believed that the current recession would further accelerate these trends, with the “old economy” northeastern banking centers like New York continuing to lose population volumes to “new economy” states like Florida, Nevada, and the smaller retiree havens. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, though, this trend has turned upside down during the past twelve months.

If I Can Make It There …

Apparently, during the past year, net domestic migration has slowed dramatically in Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina, Montana, and other southern and western states.  Furthermore, Florida and Nevada actually experienced negative net domestic migration. That’s right … on a net basis, Americans actually fled the magical lands of Miami Beach, Disney World, the Golden Nugget, and Caesar’s Palace in favor of states with more economic opportunity.

So which states increased in population in absolute terms? Texas was the biggest gainer, and that’s no surprise; its warm weather, tradition of limited business regulation, and industry concentrations in energy, technology, higher education, and health care continue to give the Lone Star State one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. And the Bureau named California as the second largest gainer, though the Golden State’s Finance Department projects that it will lose residents to other states through 2015, and will only manage to increase its population through international immigration.

But only three states lost population in absolute terms: Michigan, Maine, and Rhode Island. Although overall population growth was relatively slow in the old northeastern power centers of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, it was still positive.

A World Of Benefits

But why does it matter? Well, it’s a question of international competition: namely, is America better positioned to confront its global rivals in established megalopolises like New York City, or in fledgling suburban oases like Fort Myers, Florida?

Reasonable people may certainly differ on their answers to that question. Nevertheless, on many pressing issues of our time … energy efficiency, cultural diversity, and global education, just to name a few … New York would seem to possess natural advantages over Fort Myers. Thus, by voting with their feet and fleeing former growth regions like Florida, Americans might again be positioning themselves for eventual success against their global competitors.