Monday, November 19, 2012

Inferring Migration

We see what we want to see. We have a mountain of data about nation states. How can we measure the impacts of globalization and world cities on sovereignty? Geographer Peter Taylor has made a career of trying to answer that question. Thanks to his efforts, we track the economic output of metros. Without such numbers, Taylor had to devise clever ways to track the rise of urban economies. As I blogged about on Saturday, I see the same challenges for assessing talent migration. Brian Kelsey (Civic Analytics) has a few words of caution for those of us trying to figure out the emerging trends:

“I don’t doubt that it’s happening,” said Brian Kelsey, principal of Civic Analytics, a local economic consulting firm. “But there’s not much hard data available to really understand what’s going on.”

The problem is that current data cannot paint a full picture of why more people choose to move from Travis to adjoining counties. The available numbers don’t conclusively show whether those outgoing residents were pushed out by rising costs or opted to move out in search of more space or the myriad other potential factors.

“The cost of living explanation is tricky,” Kelsey said. “It could be preferences about housing type—people of a certain income level can afford more house in Round Rock than Austin.” ...

... But that’s not to suggest the higher cost of living couldn’t have an impact on the region’s economy over the longer term. Over time, the outward flow of residents could add to Central Texas sprawl, traffic congestion and other infrastructure issues. And in theory, it could start to limit one of Austin’s most-popular recruiting advantages — its lower cost of living.

“That’s the sales pitch when technology companies here are competing for talent against companies in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley,” Kelsey said. “Come to Austin, where we work hard and play hard. And by the way, you’ll be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment downtown.”

There is a strong correlation between high cost of living and outmigration. But don't be too quick to draw policy conclusions from this observation. Teasing out causation is hard to do given the data lenses we employ. Outdated paradigms (mesofacts) still drive relocation decisions. We go where we know. The suburbs are a traditional aspirational geography.

For now, mesofacts work in Austin's favor. With only Houston trending better, the city is accelerating out of the recession. The Texas Triangle (DASH) is the place to be. Whatever is pushing out the people, they are likely to land in the Lone Star state. High rents in the urban core be damned.

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