It’s not that I do everything Justin Wolfers tells me to do…

But I did find this fun. On the Freakonomics blog today Justin Wolfers uses the 1940 census–which was just scanned and all put online–to find who was living in his house in 1940. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with other US Census records from earlier years. At one point, while taking economic history in graduate school, I found my grandfather and his parents and theirs in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1930, 1920, and 1910 records. I didn’t actually need these things for class; I was supposed to be looking for saloon-hall dancers and prostitutes in the 1860s Colorado mining towns, but that’s a blog post for another day.

I’m in the process of searching for my great grandparents in the 1940 census, as I know they moved around quite a bit after the crash, and my grandfather had already left home by 1940, but I did look at my current address in the Pennsylvania records ala Wolfers. The plaque outside my house in Gettysburg says it was built by a doctor who served in the Civil War and stuck around after it was over. By 1940, however, the house belonged to Helen Culp, a 52-year old single schoolteacher who finished college, and her sister, Margaret, a 37-year old department store employee, who finished high school. Though entirely coincidental, it feels appropriate that I should spend my time in Gettysburg in an educated, female teacher’s house. Helen and Margaret were white, their parents were born in Pennsylvania just as they were, and they grew up speaking English at home*. Helen earned $1400 in 1939 and her sister, $700. Helen’s salary is worth about $22,000 in 2010 dollars if we use Purchasing Power Parity calculations, but could have represented a lot more if we measure it by ‘prestige’ or ‘economic power’. If you haven’t used www.eh.net‘s “How Much is That” tool, you should; it’s super fun.

Helen said the value of her house was $5000. This is almost three years’ salary for her, which tells me that either she was paid very well for the time, or that houses were much cheaper in Gettysburg in 1940. I’m fairly certain I could not purchase my house with three years’ salary (although, Helen, at 52, had likely been teaching for much longer than I have). Currently, houses in Gettysburg are pretty expensive, at least compared to surrounding areas, primarily due to historical value, laws governing historical buildings and their preservation or destruction, and limits on building height and density.

This particular exercise amuses me because I’ve never actually lived in a house that was old enough to be in any of these records. Even in Boulder, CO, which is a fairly old town for the Western US, none of the places I lived was more than 40 or 50 years old. And now, I live in a house that is 145 years old. As an American from a relatively recently populated part of the country, I think all this old stuff is so interesting. It’s how I felt in Boston, too; history just seems to weigh heavier.

I only skimmed the pages before I found my address, but in looking at all the people who lived on my street and neighboring ones, I’m also struck by how little migration there is in and out of Adams County. Most people on the page lived in the same place 5 years before. If they didn’t, they came from New Oxford and Ortanna and Cashtown, towns that are within 7-10 miles of Gettysburg. This internal migration map of the US in 2011 shows that not much has changed. Like the 1940 inhabitants of my house and their neighbors, people don’t really move to, or leave Gettysburg, particularly not when compared to Boulder.

Well, except me (and college students).

*Two respondents per page were asked some supplemental questions about their parents, marriage history, and veteran status. Helen happened to be #14 on the page, so she was asked those questions as well. Some of these questions were standard on earlier Censuses, which is part of how I traced my greatgreatgrandparents back to North Carolina.

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In which I review Matt Yglesias’ The Rent is Too Damn High

I caved last week and downloaded a Kindle App for my iPhone. It kind of killed me. I really love books–the bound, paper kind. I’ve been fighting the Kindle/iPad/tablet/Nook/e-reader thing for years now, and imagined I could still hold out for several more years. At least one publisher probably figured out that the best way to get me (and other holdouts like me) to convert was to offer certain desirable pieces solely on e-readers. I may be one of the few they got with this book, but surely there are others coming this way.

Matt Yglesias was a fellow at Think Progress and now writes a blog about economics for Slate. He’s thoughtful, smart, and perhaps even more important, concise. I’d followed him on twitter and through his various blog posts for awhile. When he released this e-book–too long for a magazine piece (still my favorite form of journalism) and too short to really be a book, book–called The Rent is Too Damn High, I felt like I had to read it.

I read the book (ebook, Kindle, whatever it is) in about an hour an a half when I arrived at a friend’s condo on Friday evening. I spent the entire next day talking about it and subsequently lent it to my ski buddy, who also devoured it in an evening. The skiing was terrible, might as well talk about economics, right?

Matt’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward. He argues that much of our housing and societal woes could be addressed–partly, certainly not entirely–by relaxing restrictions on building height and density and reducing implicit and explicit subsidies for single-family homes in the far-flung suburbs.

It’s a very convincing argument. Letting more people live in desirable places means more efficient transportation and other public services, reducing long average commute times, increasing the number of people walking and taking public transportation, increasing availability and variety of service providers, and more. Most importantly, perhaps, increasing density would reduce upward pressure on housing prices, which pushes people out of their homes, reduces variety and profitability of businesses, and likely contributed in some ways to the housing bubble.

At the center of the story is a profound disconnect in the way we think about houses. Hoping that a house will appreciate in value and constitute a sound investment is rather silly. Houses are made of wood and concrete and stone and steel, physical materials that will only degrade with time. The land a house sits on is an investment, and can appreciate based on the values of proximate amenities. But when housing prices increase rapidly, as they did prior to crashing a few years ago, they lose predictive power of the true value of the land and incorporate speculation. That’s how we get a bubble.

What I love about Matt Yglesias is that he is skilled at taking rather complicated topics in economics and making them perfectly accessible. He has a deep understanding of economic theory and relates those ideas in a clear, concise, and readable way. This book is no exception. It’s easy to read and clearly well thought-out.

My only real complaint is that I wanted more. Though there were places I wasn’t sure where he was going, it quickly came back to the point. The repeated discussion of elevators as technology was a bit amusing, but nothing more than a slight distraction. What I would have liked is to have seen additional discussion on the policy problems that additional density would create. No policy, regardless of how enticing it sounds, can change a rather significant trend in demographics without significant adjustment. This doesn’t mean that the costs aren’t worth it, but they are worth enumerating and discussing.

Water, for instance. While it’s cheaper per capita to get water to people who live in denser areas, it also means that pipes need to be replaced more often, and at least one person writing a book tells me NYC’s sewer system is in dire need of repairs. Direct re-use plants, increased sanitation, etc, are all things that belong in this discussion. Higher density housing also necessitates a stronger commitment to building more schools and park and hospitals. The ease of spreading diseases, access to sunlight, etc, etc.

There’s more, surely. In sum, though, read it. It’s quick, straightforward, and you might just learn something.