Google With Me!

An intimate first-person account of mental model-building

I read a lot of books, papers and studies. I’m always a little curious about how the research gets done. Not just the stuff that shows up in the methods sections of academic papers, but the thinking behind it, the Googling, the rabbit-hole spelunking, the false starts, the dead ends, the “aha!”s, the infuriated book tossing and all the rest. What we get is where the author got. We’re rarely afforded a glimpse of how they got there. What’s the thought process like?

Well, here’s how it went for me for a few hours yesterday and today.

So… I’ve been working on a proposal for a book version of my paper on the ways that urbanization over time has polarized the American electorate along the lines of population density, “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization and Populist Backlash.” A big part of this story is the growing concentration of economic output and wealth creation in large cities and the attendant economic stagnation or decline of the rest of the country. The declining economic fortunes of rural areas, smaller cities, and small towns shows up in lots of ways other than falling real wages. Average lifespans in many areas have fallen, there’s more opioid addiction, more obesity, more depression, etc. Measures of both “economic vitality” and Democratic vote share decline with declining population density. That means that a hearty majority of the economically downcast places in America are also pretty heavily Republican.

Here’s a chart a New York Times’ data visualization wizard made to illustrate this pattern of relationships for a column I wrote about it:

Anyway, in the book version of the Density Divide, I want to be able to say more about the subjective side of all this. How does it feel to live in these all these objectively struggling, low-density, heavily-Republican counties? Well, for a few years, back in my Cato days, I was deeply immersed in the “happiness research” literature and what it could tell us about politics and policy. I know a good deal about it, but I haven’t exactly kept up. So I figured I’d go look up some stuff on urban/rural differences in happiness (or “subjective well-being” or “self-reported life satisfaction” or whatever you want to call it) expecting to find more evidence of rural/small town malaise.

The first thing I ran across was this:

For a second I was, like, “Uh oh. What gives?” I despaired.

But then I started to turn the crank. Ah, inequality. Of course! Much, much higher in cities. Then I vaguely recalled some literature on black-white happiness inequality and thought that must be it. White supremacy truly ruins everything! Then I thought about astronomical urban housing costs and how, when combined with high levels of urban income inequality, they imply that there are loads of city-dwelling folks with next-to-nothing real wages forced into crowded living conditions and/or miserably epic commutes. It’s the god damn NIMBYs again! Build more fucking housing! This nut was definitely cracking.

Then I read the actual text above the graph. What actually gives is that this chart visualizes the average of 80 countries. Oh.

So I went to the appendix to look at the U.S. in particular. Turns out that there is no statistically significant urban/rural happiness difference in the latest data. Well, okay, that’s better. I guess.

But then, given the general international pattern and my ace armchair empiricism, why aren’t rural folks happier? Well, it must be that I was right in the first place, but it was just silly of me to expect that cities would do clearly better in the happiness data, given what I already knew urban inequality, the black-white happiness gap, and the horrors NIMBYs have wrought. Alternatively, maybe I don’t understand this at all?

So I poked around a bit more and … oh hell:

No, it’s okay. Check out the Y axis. These are wee differences. There’s pretty clear convergence from the late-90s up until the Great Recession. And the new data in the World Happiness Report I started with suggests urban/rural happiness converged to par in the subsequent twelve years. This is fine.

Also, it’s an interesting paper.

I knew it. The black man can’t catch a break.

Google, Google, Google. What have we here? Well … la dee dah.

Now we’re cookin’ with gas!

Okulicz-Kozaryn and Valente have an interesting discussion of why it is that Millenials like cities a lot. I figure they get a lot of it right, but I think they might be overlooking some of the obvious stuff. Cities may not have gotten any better on the whole, but rural areas and small towns are definitely getting shittier. There are fewer opportunities than ever in those places. And Millenials are less white than every preceding cohort, so more of them are more likely to prefer less white places. Maybe it’s not very complicated.

I can sense an interesting story shaping up here about the closing and prospective reversal of the urban/rural happiness gap. But, at this point, I’m not sure what it is.

And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed this episode of the phenomenology of confirming your priors with Will.


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