Behavioral economics is fascinating to me because I’m so often completely wrong about what will make me happy.
Sometimes people ask me why I’m so into land use policy, YIMBY, urbanism, etc. I’ve come to believe land use policy is the most pressing issue of our time. Bad land use policy exacerbates every other social problem we face, particularly inequality in education, employment, economic dynamism, innovation, equality, racial progress.
But for me personally, it began when I moved from a medium-sized town in Alabama (Birmingham, population ~200,000, 217 people per square mile) to Washington, D.C. (population ~700,000, 10,528 people per square mile).
I moved there in 2011 to be able to ditch my car and to work at Reason magazine, my dream job. Before then I saw cities as a lot of people do. They were dirty, crime-ridden, noisy, and crowded. It’s not so much that I longed for a city, though I did have dreams of being single in one when I was in middle school. I knew somehow that cities were better places for single women than suburbs. But recently divorced with a live-in boyfriend in 2011, it was more that I longed for a better job and to stop driving. Y’all really should be thanking me for letting my license expire.
Like many people, I’d been on the suburban hedonic treadmill. My husband and I bought a house, but I wanted a bigger one closer to town.
Moving to D.C. and actually navigating how to buy groceries, commute, see friends, etc. without a car completely changed my perspective on cities. I became a convert. Cities are much better for the environment and economic growth than suburban sprawl. But I think they’re also better for our souls. Being within walking distance of friends has made me much more social than I was when visiting required driving. It feels so much more human to pass by strangers while walking than feeling frustrated that their steel cage was keeping my steel cage from going as fast as I wanted it to.
Moving to D.C. made me fall in love with cities. Moving to San Francisco made me realize how and why not everyone can do what I did.
There is in America right now an epidemic of young men who still live with their parents and who are not employed or in school. Many, if not most, of these men live in suburbs and exurbs far from high-paying entry-level employment opportunities. The barrier to entry to living in a city with amazing opportunities is rent that is unaffordable to anyone but the most highly skilled workers. The obvious result of this situation is that it’s much harder to start out in a career.
So that’s really it. There will always be people who do genuinely prefer suburban life. But most of us, I suspect, don’t. “But what we actually like may come from investing in Bo-miljø, so that we can walk places and live close to current and future friends (remember college?).”
I am so passionate about land use policy because I want everyone who wants to live densely to be able to afford to.
The other reason I oppose zoning is this: That the fact that only the rich can afford to live close to economic and cultural opportunity is social injustice for which the only long-term, effective solution is stronger property rights.
I want everyone with an interest in doing so to be able to access the best education, employment, economic dynamism, and innovation this country has to offer. Because everyone has the potential to develop something they can offer others.
I firmly believe that the biggest regulatory impediment to progress in America right now is racist and classist land use policy. So that’s why I YIMBY.