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Nicest Places in America: Quality of Life v. Standard of Living

After our discussion yesterday of California, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution helpfully chipped in by citing an interesting paper about measuring the non-pecuniary quality of life (e.g., climate) by looking at things like housing costs v. wages (in other words, where do people sacrifice the most financially to live?):

Are Big Cities Bad Places to Live?
Estimating Quality of Life across Metropolitan Areas
David Albouy

This is basically what I calculated back in 2005 in inverted form. I came up with standard of living by state by dividing median income for a family of four by ACCRA’s cost of living index. My “Standard of Living” measures the cost of what you can buy anyplace (e.g., a 3,000 square foot house on a half acre lot) while Albouy’s “Quality of Life” measures what money can’t buy if you’re living in, say, Minnesota in a 3,000 square foot house on a half acre lot (e.g., mild Hawaiian trade winds blowing year round).

In my old count, Hawaii had the lowest standard of living, followed by California, while Minnesota had the highest standard of living. Of course, Hawaii and California have nicer weather and more scenery than Minnesota, so it all kind of evens out.

Albouy’s study measure the same dynamic, just flipping things upside down.

From his calculations, the nicest places to live in terms of people accepting depressed standards of living are:


Santa Barbara – Santa Maria – Lompoc, CA

Not the Salinas part of Greater Salinas

Salinas (Monterey-Carmel), CA — weighted more toward Monterey-Carmel than Salinas, I imagine

San Francisco – Oakland – San Jose

San Luis Obispo – Atascadero – Paso Robles, CA

Santa Fe, NM (warning: watch the 7200′ elevation)

Non-metro Hawaii

Barnstable-Yarmouth (Cape Cod), MA

San Diego

Grand Junction, CO (nice moderate altitude)

Missoula, MT

Naples, FL

Medford-Ashland, OR

Eugene-Springfield, OR

Corvalis, OR

Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, CA

In contrast, the lowest quality of life is found in:

Kokomo, IN

Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX

Decatur, IL

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX

Jamestown, NY

Victoria, TX

Saginaw-Bay City-Midland, MI

Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH

Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, TX

After skimming it, I’d say it’s a very good study.

Albouy finds that “Mild seasons, sunshine, hills, and coastal proximity account for most inter-metropolitan quality-of-life differences.”

I’ve long pointed out that hills lead to Not In My Back Yard politics that drive up housing costs by restricting development. Because current homeowners can see further from their backyards, they become busybodies meddling more in what other people are doing on their own property. For example, U2′s guitarist The Edge has spent a fortune trying to get permits to build five houses on a ridge overlooking Malibu beach, but his micro-development would be visible for miles and miles from the backyards of many of the most influential people in the entertainment industry.

In contrast, in flat Houston, it’s hard to see very far, so people mind their own business more.

One quibble, and I think Tyler beat me to it with his cryptic but insightful comments about marginalism: It’s interesting that big Houston comes out near the Rust Belt and Mexican border town rock bottoms while small California whitopias that intentionally restrict growth score very high.

My impression from the late 1970s was that, at least if you could live on the Rice campus, Houston was OK. But then I went back to L.A. from mid-May to late August, so I didn’t experience the full brunt of Houston’s summers. Still I know a few supersmart rich guys who live in Houston today specifically because the quality of life is good relative to the cost, so I’m skeptical that the quality of life in Houston is as low as it says in the paper based on housing costs.

My guess is that Houston’s super low score reflects a bit of a methodological problem in the study: Houston’s commitment to libertarian real estate development codes means its housing prices are lower, all else being equal, than more liberal places, such as Detroit, which ranks ahead of Houston in this paper (keep in mind that “Detroit” includes a lot of superb suburbs). In the long run, all that more or less washes out, but we don’t live in the long run, as Keynes pointed out.

For example, by way of contrast to Houston, Santa Barbara ranks #2 in Quality of Life in part because of the huge real estate prices that only people with trust funds can afford. Some of that is because Santa Barbara really is awfully nice.

But a lot of the premium people have to pay to live in Santa Barbara is due to the restrictions on development of the huge amount of almost uninhabited coastal land west of Santa Barbara along the 101 freeway. Santa Barbara has suburbs like Montecito and Goleta, but no exurbs even though lots of people would pay good money to have at least a vacation home on the empty coastline west of S.B.

Sandpiper: last golf course before 15 miles of emptiness

For example, the 101 Freeway runs alongside the Pacific for 47 miles through Santa Barbara County, but much of that that narrow but not insignificant sloping coastal plain west of UCSB is spectacularly underdeveloped: all you see is some cows grazing and a ranch house every quarter mile or so.

If Santa Barbara County had Houston’s political ideology, that virtually uninhabited ranchland west of Sandpiper golf course would be wall to wall ocean-view condos, which would lower the premium people had to pay to live in Greater Santa Barbara, which would in turn lower Santa Barbara’s ranking for Quality of Life.

Some of that lower ranking would be real. If Santa Barbara had not long ago refused to connect to the California Water Project in order to prevent exurban development, there’d be more traffic on the 101 in Santa Barbara, and the average person in the S.B. area would be fatter and more uncouthly dressed, which would, presumably, lower the Quality of Life of the current residents of Santa Barbara.

But, everybody in S.B. would still have the nice weather and some of the scenery so I suspect that places with anti-development ideologies rank overly high in these ratings.

For example, Vermont ranks behind only nice weather Hawaii and California in this ranking, but, is the quality of life really that high there when you take the weather into account? Or does Vermont use its supposedly liberal restrictions on development to stay up there with Maine as the whitest state in the country by being too expensive for anybody other than New York City and Boston affluent liberal white flighters?

This brings me back to a major question of ideological framing. In elite discourse, it is seldom questioned that the current citizens of Vermont or Santa Barbara or Marin County or Malibu have not only the legal right but also the moral right, perhaps even the moral duty, to erect barriers to entry in the name of preserving the environment and the architectural heritage and any other rationalizations they dream up to keep out masses of less desirable Americans.

The potential newcomers being kept out of Vermont would of course be much less white on average than the residents of these liberal bastions. But crimestop sets in at this point and pundits develop an overwhelming feeling of boredom and aversion toward the obnoxious person trying to get them to understand how the world works.

In contrast, the analogous idea that America is kind of the Santa Barbara or Vermont of the world, and that American citizens ought to have rights similar to those of the residents of these liberal whitopias to band together to enforce barriers to entry to foreigners wanting to move to America is increasingly seen in American elite discourse as obviously racist and, perhaps, downright genocidal.

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