Scott Sumner  

Thanksgiving in Tesla Town

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International Adoption: The Pe... Giving Thanks...

After moving to Mission Viejo in late July, I frequently experienced brief moments of euphoria. Sometimes I would almost burst out laughing at how ridiculously convenient my life had become. Now that I've been here for 4 months, I've come to the view that southern Orange County has the highest living standards in the entire world, for any region of at least a million people. (Here I'm thinking of Orange County south of I-55.) As an aside, there are Tesla cars everywhere, at least 6 or 8 within a couple blocks of my house.

I base this claim partly on the fact that the region is affluent and very conveniently laid out. Other places that might have a similar claim to high living standards (say the northern suburbs of Dallas) lack the delightful climate and beautiful scenery of this area.

I'd guess that leaving Boston caused my living standards to improve as much as someone moving from middle class to upper middle class, or upper middle class to rich. It's amazing how much more convenient life has become.

Lessons:

1. It's not clear what lessons we should draw. California is ruled by Democrats, so perhaps their governance model is best. But this part of California is Republican (even compared to north Orange County), and this area is much more convenient than Democratic strongholds like LA and San Francisco.

2. This area is not very dense. Do the high living standards confirm the wisdom of that policy? I'd say no, as allowing more density in certain areas wouldn't actually have all that much impact. Southern California is just too vast to ever look like the dystopias you see in films like Blade Runner. You could fit all of America into LA county at Manhattan level density, and all of China into San Bernardino County. No matter how much density is allowed, 95% of southern California will always be single family tract homes, even with Houston-style non-zoning. It's just too big to ever become dense in more than a few localized areas. (Orange County seems to allow some dense development in Irvine, a southern OC city of 250,000 people, half of who are Chinese-Americans.)

3. Has all this convenience made me happier? That's hard to say. How can I tell if I'm happy when any self-evaluation changes hour by hour, with my mood? It's not obvious to me that I'm happier in the top income quintile than when I was in the middle quintile, or the bottom quintile. My hour-by-hour happiness level is mostly related to things unrelated to convenience (chronic intestinal pain, job frustrations, insurance companies, etc.). I'm now used to the ridiculous convenience of life here, and no longer think about it very much. Sometimes I wonder if my brain isn't simply hardwired to achieve a certain level of happiness.

4. If all this affluence isn't making me happier, why don't I give the money to you? Perhaps because I'd prefer a more convenient life, even if not happier. Or maybe I am happier, and just don't realize it. Maybe I don't see affluence mattering because I'm currently affluent--like a fish doesn't notice water.

I've always had a "revealed preference" view of utility. We can never fully understand something as amorphous as happiness, so let's just focus public policies on maximizing utility--defined as the things that people act like they prefer. That's why I prefer school vouchers, people act like they prefer choice in schools.

Speaking of vouchers, I strongly recommend this excellent Scott Alexander post on choice:

Because the whole "public food" argument hinges on a giant case of double standards.

Presented with evidence that corporations do bad things, it concludes that the inherent logic of capitalism demands badness.

Presented with evidence that governments do bad things, it concludes that if we just put some nice people in power, everything would go great.

Why is that? Could someone with the opposite bias propose that Coca-Cola Inc would be fine if it just got a socially responsible CEO? . . .

And "ability to go elsewhere" is probably the most important ingredient. If I really want, I can spend some time looking into the dangers of sugary fruit juice. In fact, I did this a few years ago and haven't bought any since; just like that, all of the horrors of capitalism lost their power over me. The last drink I bought was a sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories, because I personally preferred that to the two-thousand-or-so other options available within a five block walk of my house.

On the other hand, I also spent a long time looking into the dangers of Trump. I voted against Trump. I begged other people to vote against Trump. I wrote a blog post officially endorsing literally any person in the world who was not Trump. Despite all of this, Donald Trump is my president. I feel less satisfied with this system than with the other one, honestly.

Getting to choose my own food (and schools, and health care) works for me. I don't want poor people to have to settle for anything less.


The view from my bedroom:
Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 11.32.25 AM.png
No, I don't live close to the ocean (I'm 12 miles inland), that's a lake.

Happy Thanksgiving


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Chris writes:

"Convenience" is all relative. I grew up in southern Orange County, and now live in Hong Kong. To me, Hong Kong is infinitely more convenient than Orange County, because I can walk to 90% of things that I need, and take a pristine train that comes every 3 minutes to the other 10%. I nearly go crazy every time I go home, when I have to spend ten minutes in a car just to get a gallon of milk.

On the flipside, my parents nearly die of stress every time they come visit me. :)

Mike Sproul writes:

Welcome to Southern California Scott!
As a lifelong resident, I’ve apparently gone blind to the convenience of living here. So please elaborate. How, exactly, is Southern California more convenient than Boston?

Matthias Görgens writes:

Chris, I have a similar experience. I'm moving back to Singapore (where I spend about two years before). I really value not having to own a car, and that you can walk everywhere, and that shops are open until late at night. And the food is amazing, too.

I visited California, but it seems like a suburban dystopia to my urban sensibilities.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mike, I'd cite several things:

1. Our house is far more convenient that in Boston, in dozens of little ways. It's also far nicer--more spacious, more attractive, room for storage, a garage, a deck with a lake view, plenty of closet space, an eat in kitchen, etc. etc. In Boston our roof leaked during the winter (ice dams) and the shower was like a phone booth. The basement was horrible. Plus I had to deal with tenants (it was a 2 family).

2. My wife and I play tennis every day. In Boston that's 6 months a year, here it's 12. In Boston the court is often busy, or full of puddles, leaves, etc. No lights at night. Here it's never busy, it's clean, and there are lights to play at night. It's a 2 minute walk--in Boston we drove to the court.

3. Driving is immeasurably better. Far less traffic, clearly marked street signs, no potholes, wide streets, speed limits of 45 or 50 (instead of 30 in Boston). Better drivers. And best of all there is plenty of room to park, wherever you go. In Boston, parking was always a hassle. (Obviously these remarks do not apply to LA)

4. The stores are also far more spacious and less crowded, and the service is much friendlier. The Home Depot near me in Boston was a dump--here I have a wonderful hardware store (Orchards) nearby.

5. There is a beach just 100 yards from my house where we can swim, and it's usually empty, even on a hot day. Less than a mile away I can rent any type of boat.

6. Today I had a spectacular meal in a Szechuan restaurant in Irvine, just a few miles away. The prices are lower than in Boston as well. Lots of great Asian food.

7. Every Saturday morning we go hiking with a Chinese group, through beautiful scenery.

BTW, my daughter is a freshman at UCLA--taking econ.

Chris and Matthias, I also like those two cities. When I was younger I would have been bored by this area, preferring Manhattan or LA. Now I'm sick of hassles, and like it here. The only thing I miss is the Harvard Film Archive and the MFA, otherwise this has everything I need. But I still like visiting big (dense) cities.

Mark writes:

Do you mean your standard of living improved given the same expenditure? Or are you spending a lot more to live in Orange County than to live in Boston?

Personally I think San Diego (la Jolla particularly) may be the perfect place to live. Cost of living is ungodly, but the weather and the ocean may almost be enough to make up for it. Meanwhile, even if Manitoba were perfect in every other way and I could live like a king there, I still don't think I'd be willing to move there.

Weir writes:

Breakfast. There's a reference in the TLS to a lecture of Mary McCarthy's on the value of art. I google it. No luck. I'm going to have to wait until after lunch. The book's being brought out of storage for me.

Except that after lunch I have another concert to see. The woodwind department. Yet another delay.

Finally I read most of the lecture, until the last couple pages. I have to take a picture, because there's no time left before that night's double bill. The prints are scratched up, but both films are free.

Sometimes I buy old books to decorate my shelves. I'll never get around to actually opening them. I haven't finished reading everything I might read for free. That reading list is almost infinite. Which is frustrating too. Why put any one book higher up on the list?

More convenience actually equates to less time. And I could spend more money, but that would mean more travel time. My bicycle's good exercise, but I'd need a plane to get to every exhibition or screening or play.

Paul writes:

Scott, Orange County has limited job opportunities - much less than the Bay Area. It’s not convenient if you need to commute to work in LA. Great area to retire though.

Chris writes:

Those are all fair points, Scott, and I especially agree on the weather.

The ease of driving is a giant negative to me, as that correlates directly with crappiness of walking (other than for pleasure).

Echoing Paul, don't you think a lot of the convenience has to do with the not having to commute to a job thing? My dad had to commute from Laguna Niguel to Anaheim each day for 30 years (he retired this year), and he was regularly bumping an hour each way for the past 20.

Paul writes:

Also, South OC is not very unique in terms of urban layout, affluence, and convenience. The North East Bay Area has some towns like Lafayette, Danville, and Orinda that seem very similar to typical OC suburbs, but even wealthier and more expensive these days. These towns are also more conservative than the rest of the region (relatively, as the rest of the Bay is extremely liberal).

I’m not we’ll informed on the political roots of the regional planning and development of these communities. I have some aquantences who work for the Irvine Company who give a lot of the credit for the OC’s efficient design to that privately held corporation. I don’t think liberal democrats get to take the credit (or blame) for the characteristics of these communities.

One other point I would make about OC is that cost is high relative to income. I believe that the median household income in Santa Clara county is about 30% - 40% higher than Orange County with only slightly higher housing prices and similar climate (arguably nicer if you like a bit of rain). Now, on a whole different level is Houston which is pretty close on income but way more affordable (terrible climate unfortunately so I suppose irrelevant for some folks)

Todd Kreider writes:

The mountains are completely blocking the horizon but otherwise it seems OK.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

As one who was born and raised in San Diego, I would never, ever, think about living in the OC. Point Loma (where I lived) or La Jolla (where my dad wanted to build but Jews were excluded up to about 1959) are far more preferable places to retire to. It's weird that I left to go to graduate school in 1970 but the passing of Charles Manson last week reminded me that my brain was turning to mush from the easy carefree CA lifestyle. I have regrets every winter when we get crappy weather in Bethesda MD but other than that I don't miss it much.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, No, our expenditure did not increase.

San Diego is very nice--perhaps a close second, but southern OC is more affluent, AFAIK.

Paul, Good point. But I doubt whether very many southern OC residents commute to LA. It would be 2 or 3 hours each way. There are more jobs here than you might imagine--but it's so diversified that we don't associated OC with any given industry (unlike LA and Silicon valley.)

Chris, Good point, but I also didn't need to commute in Boston.

Paul, You said:

"The North East Bay Area has some towns like Lafayette, Danville, and Orinda that seem very similar to typical OC suburbs"

Yes, and there are others. But mostly the areas would either have fewer than a million people (like the region you cite) or hassles of congestion and high living costs. (Silicon Valley.)

I'm confused by your income claims. Perhaps northern/central OC brings down the average, but surely southern OC has far higher income than Houston. I think the affordability issue is bigger in northern OC (which is more similar to LA)

Mike Sproul writes:

Scott:
Thanks for the list. Very illuminating!

It looks like I just missed being your daughter's econ prof. by about 1 year. I'm exclusively at USC now.

Paul writes:

Scott, you are correct, incomes are higher in OC than in Houston. Based on 2010 census median household incomes: LA = 55K, Houston = 61K, OC = 72K, Santa Clara = 93K. My thinking was influenced by another data set I had reviewed based on PPP which put Houston second behind San Jose in the US and in the top 10 globally! So in absolute terms not so high but it really does feel prosperous to me, especially northern Houston suburbs. My house in Mountain View is not nearly as nice as my coworkers house in Woodlands which cost about one fifth as much (I am honestly not exaggerating on this point). Again, though, the sublime climate of So. Cal justifies the higher cost of living.

As a side note, those towns I mention in my previous note are 15-20 minutes from downtown San Fransisco (with no traffic). They would definitely qualify as being in the metro area of a million plus. Unlike Sillicon Valley, though, they have few jobs, those folks living there have to commute to the city which is no picnic.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

Top counties by median income are HERE. The OC does not make the list and there are only two CA counties that do. Highest levels of median income are in the suburban Washington DC area (as those of us who live in the region and see the exploding real estate prices well know).

Chris writes:

@Alan, that's really just because most California counties are so big, with areas of wealth mixed with other areas. Orange County is the sixth most populous county in the US - I'm sure that if you split it into several pieces to equal the sizes of those Virginia and Maryland counties there would be at least a couple in this list.

Scott Sumner writes:

Hi Mike, Thanks for the update. It's too bad she wasn't able to take your course.

Paul, Good points. And again, southern OC is more affluent than the northern part of the county.

I have a cousin in the Houston suburbs--and I agree that you can buy far more house for your money. And yet my house here in Mission Viejo would be 2 or 3 times as expensive in LA. So it's all relative.

Alan, I seem to recall that OC is like the 4th or 5th most populous county in America. Counties that big almost never make top ten lists of average income--they are too diverse. Agree that the DC suburbs are near the top, and I suppose they also have some of the highest living standards.

Ah, I see Chris made the same point.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

@Scott & Chris - yes, the OC population is large at just about 3M, but the Washington DC metro area is double that at 6.1M. It's hard comparing regions but the DC area has the highest science and engineering workforce of any area in the nation according to a rather dated report (2006). Of course a lot of this employment is government (NIST, NIH, NSA, DOD, etc.). It's a different economic paradigm than one sees in either the OC or the San Francisco area.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

That's a great Scott Alexander post (but they so often are), ta.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Scott, I think you misunderstand happiness. Happiness is an opportunity/correction signal, not a measure of welfare. When you are at your normal level of contentment, it signals that you perceive you are on track, there is little to be alarmed about and there are few opportunities to make things better. When you are very happy, it is a reward for having dramatically improved your lot (even if it was pure luck), or for working on a concrete plan to do so. This is nature's way of getting you to seek out opportunities - but, once they are captured, the signal returns to normal. When you are very unhappy, your brain is telling you that you need to take action to fix something that has gone wrong (even if, in fact, you can't) - and, once the situation has stabilized (either you fixed the situation, or have adapted to it), you return to your normal level again.

If your goal is to be unusually (for you) happy all the time, you need to constantly exceed your own expectations, which seems nigh on impossible - that's not how the system works.

This view also explains why people in very poor countries routinely report they are happy. In rich countries, we constantly perceive opportunities to improve our lot, which makes us at least a little unhappy. In a place with no such opportunities, but also few immediate threats, this opportunity-driven discontentment is less of an issue. But, happiness is not a measure of welfare: being discontented because you have opportunities to pursue is a very "first world" problem.

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