Thursday, October 25, 2012

Behold the preferences

In recent years, I have started and ended the semester by showing this well-known graphic depicting long-term (200-year) average annual U.S. per capita GDP growth of 2 percent. Has the U.S. had incredibly good fortune?  Can it last?  Is it too soon to tell?

Two-hundred years is a long time and I am prepared to remain optimistic.  But at the same time, the increasing influence of the political coalitions and lobbies that Mancur Olson described is undeniable.

Which will dominate? The long term U.S. trend (e.g., all of the institutional, cultural and geographic phenomena that explain it)? Or the forces described by Olson?

Here is a related question.  Cities here and abroad keep spreading out in spite of widespread policy efforts to somehow stop or reverse the trend.  "Return to the cities" episodes keep being uncovered by advocates, but they are usually too minor to matter in the big picture.

Wendell Cox has assembled 33 case studies from around the world in his Evolving Urban Form series. All of them offer the same lesson:  cities growth by spreading out. Robert Bruegemann has made the case for the universality of "sprawl", as have many others. I have argued here that suburbanization is why and how urban growth can continue.  It represents the market's way of accommodating to the stresses and problems of bigness.  People manage to find the spatial arrangements that work for them.  This is how and why the net agglomeration economies that cities offer remain available.

There are two questions and they have the same answer.  Expressions of people's preferences are a thing to behold.