There's an old joke about economists that I've always liked. A junior professor goes to his senior colleague with a brilliant new idea. The older man dismisses it. "That may be fine in practice," he sniffs, "but it will never work in theory."
Economists are like that, at least many of them. They don't like to have reality intrude on their abstractions. One of the best examples has to do with mobility. Years ago, I read an article by a prominent economist downplaying the problem of a small-town factory that spews out pollution. What's the big deal, he asked. There must be another town nearby without a soot-belching factory. The residents of the first town could just move over there. Pretty soon the polluter would get the idea.
It works in theory. But it isn't the way most people behave. They don't like the idea of uprooting themselves. This may be because they don't want to leave their friends and relatives, because they cling to hometown memories and traditions, or maybe because they just don't feel like cleaning out the garage. In any case, they don't move. Or if they do, they don't go far away.
The question of mobility has come up a lot in the past year as the entire country has been forced to deal with the ravages of the coronavirus. Economists and their libertarian acolytes have forecast an outpouring of affluent Americans from virus-plagued cities to safer rural climes. Free-market polemicist Kristin Tate exulted recently about a flood of "fresh college graduates and new parents" lighting out for healthier territory. "Employees who were once tethered to corporate buildings downtown can now trade Brooklyn for Mayberry."
We have heard this before. Back in 1997, the British economist Frances Cairncross published her widely read book The Death of Distance, which suggested that breakthroughs in communication would allow knowledge workers to do their jobs at home and that the result would be an emptying out of urban downtowns and a stampede to smaller, quieter places. It didn't happen. Downtowns didn't shrink; they grew. As recently as 2018, the share of Americans working remotely was somewhere between 3 percent and 5 percent.
Nor did Americans do much relocating after the Great Recession began in 2008. Their most common response was to stay where they were, even if there might be a glimmer of an opportunity lurking somewhere in a distant corner of the country.
The pandemic situation, of course, could be different. Freshly minted college graduates, free to work at home, might have the option of giving up Brooklyn for Mayberry. But they wouldn't do it to escape the plague, at least not if they kept up with what was going on. COVID-19 infection rates haven't been any better in most of rural America than they have been on big-city streets. As of the end of February, Surry County, N.C., where the fictional Mayberry was located, had suffered 140 virus deaths in a population of just a little over 70,000.
WE ACTUALLY HAVE QUITE A BIT OF DATA on where people have been moving and why. There has been an outflow from many urban neighborhoods, but it hasn't been very large. Last June, a careful study by the Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of Americans reported moving permanently or temporarily for reasons related to the coronavirus. In November, the number was up to 5 percent. That's not a trivial number of people, but it's far short of a national exodus. A subsequent study by the Cleveland Federal Reserve reached a similar conclusion, reporting somewhat cautiously that the statistics on people leaving cities "probably would not fit most definitions of an exodus." (I'm grateful to the indefatigable Joe Cortright of City Observatory for pointing out the Cleveland study.)
The numbers vary considerably from one region to another. San Francisco, for example, does seem to have seen departures of substantial proportions. An estimated 80,000 residents left in 2020, a 77 percent increase from the previous year. But just as interesting as that number is the data on where they were going. By far, the largest destination of people leaving San Francisco last year was just across the bay, in Oakland and surrounding Alameda County. The three next most common destinations were all in the Bay Area as well. If you dig further down the list, you find Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas, as the most frequent targets of long-distance movement. But they were very far down — none of them even made it into the top 15.
What this strongly suggests is that these migrants weren't leaving because of the virus itself. You wouldn't move from San Francisco to Oakland to avoid getting sick. It's much more likely that you would make such a move because the San Francisco economy was in trouble and jobs were disappearing. And that's what the recent studies have tended to confirm. The Pew study concluded that on the national level, as of November, even among the subset of those who had moved during the year only about one in seven did so to avoid a higher risk of getting the virus.
BUT HERE'S SOMETHING ELSE THE STUDIES HAVE TOLD US: Most cities that lost population in 2020 didn't lose it because of people leaving. They shed population because newcomers weren't coming. In New York City, according to a McKinsey study, the ratio of arriving workers to departing ones was down 27 percent. This, too, is only common sense. Why would you move into New York when jobs were disappearing there? Similar numbers apply to Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.
This has the makings of a significant event. Nearly all the big cities that gained or held onto population numbers in the past decade did so because of immigrants arriving from outside the United States. If they stop coming for an extended length of time, big-city populations could drop significantly even if the mass exodus continues to be a myth.
Recent research also tells us something about just who the urban emigrants have been. They haven't been middle-aged people with families. For the most part, they haven't had middle-class incomes. They have been young people, unattached and economically stressed. Among Americans age 18-29, Pew reported, 11 percent said they had moved in 2020 for virus-related reasons. Within the low-income population cohort, the figure was 9 percent — roughly twice as high as the overall U.S. number.
But even these figures are misleading. Very few of these movers were uprooting themselves and striking out for new locales. Many of them were college students whose campuses had closed down due to virus concerns and who were moving back in with their parents on a temporary basis. In June, a full 61 percent of those who had relocated for pandemic reasons had moved in with one or more family members. In November, the number was 42 percent.
AS BIG A MISTAKE AS IT IS to take at face value windy speculation about a large-scale rearrangement of the American population, it is also a mistake to deny that what has been happening will have long-term consequences. As Richard Florida and others have pointed out, our big cities — even the successful ones — have been losing traditional working-class residents for quite a few years now. The most attractive cities have gradually become enclaves of affluent professionals and modestly paid service workers. This service class has largely been composed of immigrants. If the immigrants remain at least temporarily reluctant to move into cities, we are likely to face not only a shortage of urban workers but a decline in demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods.
In that case, we may see central-city-based corporations having to look harder for employees, even those in lower-level jobs, and to pay them significantly more than they did before the pandemic. Perhaps even more strikingly, we are likely to see — are already seeing in some places — an increasing number of residential vacancies and a corresponding reduction in rents designed to fill the units up.
That could tilt the urban landscape in a couple of different ways. Over the long term, it could make central cities more attractive to immigrants and restore the substantial in-migration numbers of the pre-virus decade. Or it could fuel a round of arrivals by a new crop of young professionals attracted by the newly available units and declining rents. For decades, one of the most attractive things about New York City was its affordability for young people from all over America who dreamed of plunking themselves down in Gotham, making it in journalism or publishing or show business and having a good time in the process. Over the past 10 years, that dream has largely died. New York has just been too expensive. In a post-pandemic America, it may become affordable again for the ambitious and starstruck.
Or perhaps the urban future will be something entirely different. I will leave it to the economists to make those predictions. But I won't bet any money on what they predict.