The Metropole Calleth

This was a story a couple months back:


Chris Ingraham, one of the Washington Post/Wonkblog’s stable of data journalists, visited Red Lake County, Minnesota after writing about a federal ranking that placed it as the least scenic county in the country. He had a great time, thought about his horrific commute between DC and suburban Baltimore, and decided to move to Red Lake County with his wife and two kids for a year or two.

I think I saw this movie in the early 90s: maybe starring one of the Quaid brothers and Laura Dern, perhaps?

Of course, moving out to the sticks used to be more popular than it is now. As a recent NBER paper notes:

In 1980, housing prices in the main US cities rose with distance to the city center. By 2010, that relationship had reversed. We propose that this development can be traced to greater labor supply of high-income households through reduced tolerance for commuting. In a tract-level data set covering the 27 largest US cities, years 1980-2010, we employ a city-level Bartik demand shifter for skilled labor and find support for our hypothesis: full-time skilled workers favor proximity to the city center and their increased presence can account for the observed price changes, notably the rising price premium commanded by centrality.

Since men are not working more hours than they used to, “greater labor supply” is talking about women in high-income households working more and having fewer children.

The result is an interesting cycle.

That is, high-skilled workers want to be in the city rather than commute from the burbs because they’re working more (as a household) and having fewer kids. But high-skilled workers also want to be in the city because other high-skilled workers want to be there, and because it’s the place to be. Talking recently with people who do recruiting for an organization that hires almost exclusively people with fancy graduate degrees and has a bunch of hip downtown locations but is headquartered in a semi-hip suburban location, they remarked that it’s almost impossible to get people in their late 20s — the type of hypercredentialed people they’re looking for– to choose the suburbs, unless they’re already married or partnered up. Another friend who works for a boutique energy consulting firm, and posted a job the other day with locations in San Francisco, London, and Singapore, noted that they had no trouble attracting the type of workers they wanted, even though the salaries they were offering were probably nowhere near enough for a one-bedroom apartment in these cities.

The firms like being in places too expensive to raise a family– families are distractions, at least in the short-run.   And once the smart set is composed of people living with roommates in their late 20s and early 30s, in the kind of neighborhoods that Arab princes and Chinese tycoons use as credit mobility vehicles, in a metropolitan mating market that facilitates everything but commitment, one can’t help but feel that the concentration of economic activity in spots of white-hot unaffordability will intensify, rather than relax.

Chris Ingraham of course already landed the big job, and already had the two kids and endless commute that made moving to the sticks attractive, and had the colorful story that would make the Washington Post happy to let him work remotely for a year or two. I envy him a little– working for Wonkblog seems reasonably fun, but working for Wonkblog while living in Red Lake County seems like a blast. But if he’s a sign of things to come, I’d guess that it’s a sign of the increasing distance- physical and social- between high-skilled workers with and without children.

(There’s another story about the decline of local elites: the people who once upon a time would go to Harvard and then go back to Minnesota as the town doctor or DA or daily newspaper editor, rather than joining the Manhattan or DC rat race; the decline of local elites is, I also think, important in how divided and dysfunctionally hierarchical our country has begun to feel. Ingraham’s resume: Columbia U to Pew Research Center to the Brookings Institution to the Washington Post, suggests how within journalism and policy at least, upward mobility is more concentrated in the Beltline, or at least the Acela corridor, than ever before.)


4 thoughts on “The Metropole Calleth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s