Friday, April 12, 2013

Pittsburgh And Migration Mesofacts

I stumbled over the term "mesofacts" about two-years ago. Samuel Arbesman is the person behind the concept. He wrote a book about it, "The Half-Life of Facts." The intersection between mesofacts and Pittsburgh:

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

Emphasis added. No one wants to move to Shittsburgh. It's a shrinking city in the dying Rust Belt. Southwestern PA is a region of inbred hilljacks who have been unemployed for three decades. Those are the mesofacts. Mesofacts impact migration. See Ann Arbor and the long shadow of Detroit.

The concept of mesofacts is useful. I used it to coin the term "ironic migration" as an indicator of things to come. Migration numbers are a notoriously lagging indicator. Frans Willekens:

Why is it not possible to do long-term [migration] forecasts?

The data from statistical offices are not suitable for long-term migration forecasts. The reason is that these data document the outcome of migration flows – not the reasons behind them. Predictions on the basis of past behaviour are reliable when the system is stable, i.e. when conditions do not change and people respond to these conditions in the same way as people in the past. But conditions change, for instance when regulatory measures are taken to prevent migration flows, or events occur, like political changes in the country or natural disasters.

When we read a story about the exodus from 1980s Shittsburgh, we project that past into Pittsburgh's future. The caricature on our mental maps screams, "Beware of sea serpents!"


U-Haul National Migration Trend Report that reflects the nation’s top growth areas for families that moved during 2012. The U-Haul 2012 Top U.S. Growth Cities Report indicates that for cities with more than 5,000 families moving, Pittsburgh takes the No. 1 spot with the highest percentage of growth, at 9.04 percent.

“The report, reflective of growth patterns in the United States during 2012, was compiled based on nationwide trends in cities of all sizes and reflects communities with more than 5,000 families moving in or out of the area,” stated John “J.T.” Taylor, president, U-Haul International, Inc. “Growth cities were then determined by calculating the percentage of inbound moves vs. outbound moves for each area.”

The U-Haul 2012 Top U.S. Growth Cities Report was compiled from more than 1.6 million U-Haul one-way truck transactions occurring during a recent 12-month period.

Emphasis added. Because of mesofacts, Pittsburgh as the market with the highest percentage of growth for inmigration is ironic. People aren't fleeing Pittsburgh. They are moving there in droves. That last sentence is hyperbole. But you get the point.

Pittsburgh has undergone a mesofact makeover. The old story is so 1980s, legwarmers, and Cold War. The U-Haul press release will reinforce the trend, a virtuous circle. Migration will beget more migration, current economic picture be damned. See Portland.


Paul Wittibschlager said...

I'm always suspicious of percentages, they have the ability to make a small town look great because they are working with small numbers. I like to compare simple raw numbers, so it gives me an idea on the comparable size of the datasets.

What about Pittsburgh's recent job performance? A small bump in the road?

duker said...

Beware of any numbers. especially percentages, proffered by newspapers...I don't think math is taught or appreciated by journalism students. getting a catchy headline trumps the facts quite frequently