The Economist on Brain Workers, Boise, and Wide-Open Spaces

May 14, 2010 by Emsi Burning Glass

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In its latest issue, The Economist writes about industry clusters and cities becoming so popular that they get too expensive for some people’s taste. All of which “spurs some brainy people—especially those with children—to migrate to places that are not quite so hot but more liveable.”

Case in point: the Boise, Idaho, metro area.

The article profiles the booming mid-sized city, pointing out its desirable quality of life and roomy feel. More to the point, though, technology advances mean people don’t have to be in highly populated regions where particular industries have congregated (Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, etc.) to make a mark.

Brain workers like to live near each other. It is easier to keep up with the latest ideas if you keep bumping into other people who work in the same field. As Alfred Marshall, an English economist, wrote in 1890: in industrial clusters “the mysteries of the trade become no mystery, but are, as it were, in the air.” That is why geeks flock to Silicon Valley and financiers converge on New York. But such clusters can become victims of their own success. When a hotspot gets too hot, it becomes expensive to live there, which spurs some brainy people—especially those with children—to migrate to places that are not quite so hot but more liveable. The population of the Boise-Nampa metro area has nearly doubled in the past two decades, sparking a property bubble. Yet housing is still laughably cheap: $150,000 buys you a spacious house with a garden. In the nice parts of Palo Alto, it buys you a poky flat.

The internet lets people compare cities and neighbourhoods by whatever criteria matter to them, from house prices to commuting times. That gives a boost to remote but agreeable locales. Also thanks to the internet, people can now live far from the madding crowd and yet remain abreast of its ignoble strife. “What Karl Marx called ‘the idiocy of rural life’ no longer applies,” writes Joel Kotkin, a demographer, in a book called “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050”. A brain worker in Boise has the same access to technical and market information as her rival in San Francisco. In her leisure time, she can download the same books and films. She may not have the same choice of avant-garde theatre, but that is a sacrifice she may be content to make.

While Joel Kotkin argues that people can move to rural areas and know they can still be competitive, Edward Glaeser of Harvard argues that “improvements in transport and communications technology will make ‘idea-producing’ cities even denser,” the article notes.

Both Mr Kotkin and Mr Glaeser could be right. Some of the next 100m Americans will choose to live in towering mega-cities. Others will crave backyards big enough to play softball in. Who lives where will depend on public policy (zoning rules, petrol taxes, etc), on natural constraints (water, energy) and on individual tastes. But however birth rates and migration patterns change, America’s geographical size will be a huge advantage.

Read the full piece here and see more about Idaho in an Economist blog post.