Fuzzy Thinking by Famous Economists


Edward L. Glaeser, in an end-of-year piece for the New York Times, claims that generous housing supply is the reason that Texas’s economy is performing so well. As he says in his final paragraph:

“Housing regulations, more than those that bind standard businesses, explain the Sun Belt’s population growth. If New York and Massachusetts want to stop losing Congressional seats, then they must revisit the rules that make it so difficult to build. High prices show that the demand would be there if the supply is unleashed.”

This can’t be true.

If it were true, Fresno, Modesto, and other cities in California’s Central Valley would be booming. They are not. Instead, six of the ten worst U.S. Metro Areas for joblessness are in California’s Central Valley.

It is not just California. There are lots of places where housing is abundant and inexpensive and economic activity is dismal, Michigan for example. Maybe bringing up Michigan is a little unfair, Glaeser does mention demand for housing in the essay, and there is clearly little demand for Michigan housing. Still, it brings up the question of where demand for housing comes from. It’s a question Glaeser does not address.

We’ll get back to the question of demand for housing.

Glaeser claims that building homes causes prosperity, but Michigan’s housing abundance is not because of recent construction. He mentioned Georgia and Arizona, but those economies have been performing worse than the national average in terms of jobs and unemployment since the crash of the housing bubble. Now Nevada leads the nation in the AP’s Economic Stress Index, the sum of unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy rates.

As it turns out, Texas is the only state among the ones that Glaeser discusses that has outperformed the national average since the recession. Something else is going on, and that something is opportunity, but Glaeser makes a fundamental mistake early in the paper:

“If economic productivity – created by low regulations or anything else – was causing the growth of Texas, Arizona and Georgia, then these places should have high per capita productivity and wages. Yet per capita state product in Arizona in 2009 was $35,300, 16 percent less than the national average. Per capita state products was $36,700 in Georgia and $42,500 in Texas.”

It is a mindboggling mistake for an economist to claim that business decisions are made based on productivity, without consideration of costs. If productivity was all that mattered, little manufacturing would take place in China, as United States factory workers are about five times more productive than their Chinese counterparts.

Paul Krugman, in another New York Times piece, takes up where Glaeser leaves off and makes another amazing mistake:

“Part of the answer is that reports of a recession-proof state were greatly exaggerated. It’s true that Texas job losses haven’t been as severe as those in the nation as a whole since the recession began in 2007. But Texas has a rapidly growing population — largely, suggests Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, because its liberal land-use and zoning policies have kept housing cheap. There’s nothing wrong with that; but given that rising population, Texas needs to create jobs more rapidly than the rest of the country just to keep up with a growing work force.”

Krugman goes on to say that people move to cheap housing, and economic growth follows.

People make locational decisions based on far more factors than housing costs, factors like job prospects and opportunity, climate, cultural amenities, taxes and the like. In economic terms, we say that job growth and population growth are jointly determined. There is nothing sequential going on at all. Instead, population growth (and housing demand) reflects job growth prospects, housing costs, and other factors. Job growth reflects population growth prospects (and housing supply), productivity, wage rates, and other costs and resources.

Krugman also asserts that Texas’s economy is not exceptional among the large states, citing unemployment rates equal to New York or Massachusetts. But he ignores the fundamentals here – like higher job growth and more in-migration. During its boom period, California often suffered higher unemployment because so many people were coming there. In contrast, the workforces in both Massachusetts and New York are among the slowest growing in the country. New York, in particular, competes with California and Michigan for the highest rates of domestic outmigration. People would stay if there was opportunity.

In his rush to denounce Texas, Krugman exaggerates or dismisses facts. Yes, Texas has a twenty billion deficit now, but that the Lone Star State budget is for two years, something he neglects to mention. These estimates may soon be downgraded, as the price of oil rises. In addition, he fails to acknowledge Texas’s stellar performance in creating both high-tech and middle skill jobs at many times the rate of such favored blue states as Massachusetts, New York and California. People are not as stupid as many Nobel Prize winners might think; they move for opportunity, not just for cheap houses or low-paid work.

You do not have to be a free market fundamentalist to recognize that, in relative terms, we can see a band of prosperity from North Dakota to Texas. In general, economic performance declines as you move from this Heartland band to the coasts, particularly the West Coast. People who want to believe that policy doesn’t matter give oil and agriculture as the two major reasons for the Heartland’s relative prosperity. Krugman suggests that high oil prices are a key reason for Texas’s economic performance.

No doubt, oil is important to Texas, but prices have been generally low throughout the recession, while the oil companies’ domestic capital budgets have been small. Similarly, agriculture is booming nationwide, not just in the Heartland, a result of high prices caused by growing global demand. California certainly has lots of oil and agriculture, and no one would claim that California is booming. There is more to the Heartland’s growth than agriculture and oil, and that includes states which are governed by Democrats, such as Montana.

A region’s job growth is a result of business locational decisions. A business moves to or expands in a region based on a whole host of reasons. These include available infrastructure, resource availability, market size and location, labor supply and costs, worker productivity, facilities costs, transportation costs, and other costs. Those other costs include what I call DURT (Delay, Uncertainty, Regulation, and Taxes).

There is no reason for every location to have the same DURT. On the contrary, a location blessed with an abundance of the other factors of business locational decisions could afford to have more expensive DURT, while locations less blessed need to have cheaper DURT to attract businesses.

This is what we see. The coasts tend to be more intrinsically attractive than the Heartland, but they also tend to have more expensive DURT. But now many of these states – driven by such factors as public sector costs or environmental regulations – have raised the price of their DURT so high that they have driven business to expand more to less attractive locations with cheaper DURT, demonstrating once again that policy matters.

Bill Watkins is a professor at California Lutheran University and runs the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting, which can be found at clucerf.org.

Photo by Dean Terry

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great post to read

Good post, but a quick fix

Overall, I liked this article - it's fair, and refutes some other posts I've seen that tie growth solely or largely to cheap land and cheap building.

I do have one caveat with your statement:

"but that the Lone Star State budget is for two years, something he neglects to mention."

From the Krugman article:
"in the form of a deficit expected to run as high as $25 billion over the next two years."

Ok, that one isn't exactly, clear, so let's move further down:

"The only thing that let Gov. Rick Perry get away, temporarily, with claims of a surplus was the fact that Texas enacts budgets only once every two years"