Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Economics, Politics and Demographics: The Big Sort

There is a new book getting quite a bit of press coverage: The Big Sort. The very basic premise is that people are increasingly choosing to live near people with similar political and social views. The book is largely about the social and political implications of this phenomenon and I leave it to those experts to comment on this, but the economic undercurrent is interesting to me.

Modern economic organization has made us a country of drifters. We think nothing of applying for jobs across the country, or to move to where we want with some confidence of making a living. Part of this happens because we generally have had a very low unemployment rate so there is a lot of truth behind the belief that jobs can be found most places (at least in bigger cities). Part of this happens because it is so easy to do so. Improved information technology it is easier for firms to recruit across the country (and now the world - imagine the big sort on a international scale...) and for job seekers to find jobs across the country. Highly liquid credit markets make moving much less burdensome than in many other countries. With strong tax incentives to own homes, development of new homes and communities is very rapid, allowing for easier sorting.

So it may be that sorting is happening and threatens the fabric of our society, I don't know. What I am pretty sure of is that this is yet another phenomenon that could not have happened without the economic development and economic system we have developed in the late 20th and early 21st century. So it does not surprise me that this is a very recent phenomenon.

1 comment:

Dann Cutter said...

I would have to (and probably should before commenting) read the book to see how this is presented, but I am unsure if this isn't a self selection bias (i.e. people tend to move where their interests lie, not where their political and social views are similar - and averaged out, people with similar interests may tend to share similar social and political standing). I don't think the two things are the same though.

For example, if I am a parent of a young child (I am) I look for good schools, large yards and large homes - as I have some monetary stability. And it may be my neighbor thinks the exact same way. I may like to still go out at night, so I choose an area close to that type of recreation; I may get annoyed by traffic and crowds, and seek a more distant community (as I have done).

At no point have I consciously made an effort to find those who share my political or social views... yet in choosing an area within my means, I have done so regardless, to an extent. My neighbors have similarly aged kids, have a similar salary range defined by the housing market typically, and being of similar age generally have experienced the same life events and national history as I in a somewhat similar context. The cold war was a distant but real concern in our teens, 9/11 happened just when our life seemed to be falling into place reminding us of the fragility - and gas increases hits us in a similar pocketbook.

These surroundings tend to breed a similar approach, and arguably it is that rather than the perceived conscious selection which tends to form clusters. And to argue Patrick's point, this is not new.

If you were a Whisky maker in early 1700s, you lived near other whisky makers, as you needed the same resources... and coincidently, the British pissed you off in the same ways. If you are Jewish in the 1800s, you lived near temple... and yup, that also put you near lots of similarly minded folks.

If anything the economic system of the last century is breaking down this sorting. Movement is now fluid, and while we can choose our generic neighborhoods, more often, we can choose to very individualized likes and dislikes. That means the Southern Baptist and the Atheist can both choose 'I like golf' and live near a course. The historically large homogeneous populations can better spread their community ties nationally and even globally, allowing for greater dispersion. Historically 'Irish' or 'Asian' districts now tend to be more income and not socially or politically bracketed.

Which then leads to my original premise... the circumstances in the area you live in tends to dictate your social and political feelings more than the politically and similarly socially viewed choosing to live in the same area. We see clustering, but that probably has more to do with the tendency of homogeneity in lifestyle than a conscious choice. And clustering tends to be based on slight advantage. A candidate or measure wins 60/40 and it's a relative landslide... but in the scheme of things, change 1 in 10 peoples minds and now the issue is a dead heat.

So, I think the Big Sort might be a stretch.