Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Migration Myths: Voting With Your Feet

I reluctantly throw my hat in with all the analysis of Rick Parry's Texas jobs miracle. I take issue with the recycling of the positive migration story. Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) riding the "vote with their feet" meme:

I’ve read a lot of blog posts lately painting Texas as a low benefit, low Medicaid, not so great system of public education kind of state. Let’s take this picture and run with it. People are moving into the state, in fairly large numbers, and that suggests the state is doing something right (again, I’m not suggesting Perry has anything to do with this.)

Like Cowen, I assure you my post is not about Parry. I'm interested in the relationship between policy and migration. I question the suggestion that the numbers mean the state is doing something right. People are moving to parts of Texas "in fairly large numbers". Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) succinctly makes the point:

As you can see, population growth in Texas has been largely a “Texas Triangle” phenomenon – i.e., the cities of Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Much of the rest of Texas – at quick glance 119 counties – actually lost population.

Even here, we can see that many Texas counties actually lost jobs.

As Brookings would remind us, states aren't designed to enable metro economies. The dominant political geography hinders growth. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are likely thriving in spite of Parry. That's the unit of analysis problem with the vote with their feet meme.

Next up is conflating population with migration. I've written about weird demographics. Substantial inmigration can mask a dying county. Also, a shrinking city can experience a positive flow of people. Such sloppy accounting informs more bad policy than any politician would care to admit.

Finally, there are migration mesofacts. People go where they know. They follow the well-beaten path. A city remains an immigrant gateway long after the boom went bust. Unemployment is high but 1990s Portland is still cool. Migration can be a lagging indicator. The vote is on yesterday's policy (if that had any effect at all). Most battles against brain drain that I've cataloged are trying to fix something long since past.

Perhaps Texas did do something right. But a superficial look at migration isn't compelling support of such an assertion. Cowen lazily piggybacks on common misconceptions. Perhaps in the near future I will tackle a different Cowen post that muses on Brazilian migration to the United States.

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