Thursday, December 08, 2016

Game changers?

Wendell Cox points us to this essay by Walter Russell Mead: "The Path to Mt. Rushmore? Trump's Third Ring of Suburbs."

Mead is a smart man and always worth reading. While it's pretty clear that Barack Obama's people like high population densities and public transit while they hate fossil fuels and cars, and that these sentiments are less held by whoever Trump brings to Washington, it is also true that unbundling and local NIMBYism are forces to be reckoned and will go on in spite of what happens in Washington.

Richard Balwin's The Great Convergence tells the unbundling stories. He studies the history of location (his interest is globalization) and cites two great unbundlings. He notes three spatial barriers, high trade costs, high communications costs and high face-to-face costs. His “1st unbundling” refers to lowered trade costs. Producers did not have to be near consumers. Shipping costs had fallen dramatically. This changed the world in terms of the comparative advantage of world’s various regions. The “2nd unbundling” lowered communications costs; he cites lower ICT costs. This had an equally profound effect. Much of labor could be offshore. He sees no 3rd unbundling; face-to-face-costs remain high – and we will still have clusters and cities. Baldwin recognizes the special nature of exchanging tacit information. This is beyond ICT.

Back to Mead, would a bunch of bullet trains have made a any difference in all this? They would have accelerated national debt growth a bit faster but that is the only plausible effect.

Public transit was never the game-changer that advocates had promised. Will Uber-type services be the game-changer? Yes and no. Unlike transit, they will cause some households to forgo one or more cars. Look for cars per household to plateau. But, here is the difference: will these services draw people to a residential location closer to the place of work -- as transit was supposed to? Uber is OK only for commutes over relatively short distances -- where you are already close to the office. It complements walking and biking, depending on the weather.

Here Sam Staley speculates on what a Ben Carson-led HUD will and will not be doing. Interesting but I do not see how any of this weighs for or against Mead's argument. The spreading out of cities is very old and will continue no matter who is elected and who is appointed.