August 4, 2020

If you’re smart, why waste your life living outside of San Francisco?

I’ve railed plenty on what I call “latte kingdoms,” those hyper-progressive cities overly abundant with college-educated people swimming in booming economies, eating weird foods, and speaking with weirder vocabularies.

Yes, San Francisco-ization is real.

Even in my exurban residence where our finest local restaurant is Red Lobster, I have some too-thin jeans. I love good coffee. I return from traveling with my share of bougie things.

I don’t hate the affluence or the liberal inclinations of progressive cities as much as I confront them for falling short of their declared egalitarian ideals. Isn’t it troubling that income equality, educational inequality, and racial segregation are ironically well-suited to places full of people who say they are warriors against all those things?

Years ago I bought into the Richard Florida’s trendy ideas about how cultural centers that are open to all lifestyles would eventually win the competition for brain gain. The more creative cities with the best amenities would attract the smartest populations, and rural areas like mine would die.

Well, now that idea comes back to bite me. Hard.

A new working paper (below) from Princeton researchers and the Federal Reserve suggests our economy would be better off if high-skilled workers weren’t wasted by living in small towns; and if the metros became hubs for “non-routine” cognitive workers (i.e. cities for smart people, thus, towns for the dumb).

Steve Melendez from Fast Company writing about the study says:

It would be more efficient if big cities like New York and San Francisco were transformed into “cognitive hubs” for white collar work, even if that meant paying other workers to stay away, according to a new study from economists at Princeton University and the Federal Reserve.

“Our analysis underscores that while CNR workers are extremely useful, they are also scarce,” the economists write, referring to “cognitive non-routine” workers like doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, and managers. “Furthermore, their productivity is tremendously enhanced by living with other CNR workers. So attracting them to smaller towns with more mixed populations represents a waste of resources. CNR workers are too valuable for society to be used in this way. A better policy is to reinforce existing trends and let them concentrate in cognitive hubs while
incentivizing non-CNR workers to move and help smaller cities grow.”

While big cities would need to have some non-cognitive workers, and small towns would still need some professionals like doctors and lawyers, they say, overall the economy would be more efficient if brain workers were concentrated in big cities, which would become smaller and less congested after economic incentives were delivered to send workers to the designated type of community. Essentially, cognitive workers would be taxed to provide payments to other workers to live outside of the hub cities.

That smart-citites-will-subsidize-small-towns pitch is a story that writes itself. It would mean political, racial, spacial, and social divisions that would impact love, marriage, economics, and the structure of society.

To see a more pointed critique of the working paper, Melendez points to Jillian McGrath, an economic policy analyst who dressed down the researchers in a Twitter thread.

Here’s a couple of choice tweets:

And, she says the seemingly sound rationale behind the paper hides its lack of humanity.

I’ve added the working paper here for you. Please read it and then fly to my Minnesota badlands so we can grab lunch at the Olive Garden to discuss it.

I’ll pay (for the free breadsticks).

Cognitive Hubs and Spatial Redistribution by Citizen Stewart on Scribd

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