Thanksgiving in Tesla Town
By Scott Sumner
After moving to Mission Viejo in late July, I frequently experienced brief moments of euphoria. Sometimes I would almost burst out laughing at how ridiculously convenient my life had become. Now that I’ve been here for 4 months, I’ve come to the view that southern Orange County has the highest living standards in the entire world, for any region of at least a million people. (Here I’m thinking of Orange County south of I-55.) As an aside, there are Tesla cars everywhere, at least 6 or 8 within a couple blocks of my house.
I base this claim partly on the fact that the region is affluent and very conveniently laid out. Other places that might have a similar claim to high living standards (say the northern suburbs of Dallas) lack the delightful climate and beautiful scenery of this area.
I’d guess that leaving Boston caused my living standards to improve as much as someone moving from middle class to upper middle class, or upper middle class to rich. It’s amazing how much more convenient life has become.
1. It’s not clear what lessons we should draw. California is ruled by Democrats, so perhaps their governance model is best. But this part of California is Republican (even compared to north Orange County), and this area is much more convenient than Democratic strongholds like LA and San Francisco.
2. This area is not very dense. Do the high living standards confirm the wisdom of that policy? I’d say no, as allowing more density in certain areas wouldn’t actually have all that much impact. Southern California is just too vast to ever look like the dystopias you see in films like Blade Runner. You could fit all of America into LA county at Manhattan level density, and all of China into San Bernardino County. No matter how much density is allowed, 95% of southern California will always be single family tract homes, even with Houston-style non-zoning. It’s just too big to ever become dense in more than a few localized areas. (Orange County seems to allow some dense development in Irvine, a southern OC city of 250,000 people, half of who are Chinese-Americans.)
3. Has all this convenience made me happier? That’s hard to say. How can I tell if I’m happy when any self-evaluation changes hour by hour, with my mood? It’s not obvious to me that I’m happier in the top income quintile than when I was in the middle quintile, or the bottom quintile. My hour-by-hour happiness level is mostly related to things unrelated to convenience (chronic intestinal pain, job frustrations, insurance companies, etc.). I’m now used to the ridiculous convenience of life here, and no longer think about it very much. Sometimes I wonder if my brain isn’t simply hardwired to achieve a certain level of happiness.
4. If all this affluence isn’t making me happier, why don’t I give the money to you? Perhaps because I’d prefer a more convenient life, even if not happier. Or maybe I am happier, and just don’t realize it. Maybe I don’t see affluence mattering because I’m currently affluent–like a fish doesn’t notice water.
I’ve always had a “revealed preference” view of utility. We can never fully understand something as amorphous as happiness, so let’s just focus public policies on maximizing utility–defined as the things that people act like they prefer. That’s why I prefer school vouchers, people act like they prefer choice in schools.
Speaking of vouchers, I strongly recommend this excellent Scott Alexander post on choice:
Because the whole “public food” argument hinges on a giant case of double standards.
Presented with evidence that corporations do bad things, it concludes that the inherent logic of capitalism demands badness.
Presented with evidence that governments do bad things, it concludes that if we just put some nice people in power, everything would go great.
Why is that? Could someone with the opposite bias propose that Coca-Cola Inc would be fine if it just got a socially responsible CEO? . . .
And “ability to go elsewhere” is probably the most important ingredient. If I really want, I can spend some time looking into the dangers of sugary fruit juice. In fact, I did this a few years ago and haven’t bought any since; just like that, all of the horrors of capitalism lost their power over me. The last drink I bought was a sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories, because I personally preferred that to the two-thousand-or-so other options available within a five block walk of my house.
On the other hand, I also spent a long time looking into the dangers of Trump. I voted against Trump. I begged other people to vote against Trump. I wrote a blog post officially endorsing literally any person in the world who was not Trump. Despite all of this, Donald Trump is my president. I feel less satisfied with this system than with the other one, honestly.
Getting to choose my own food (and schools, and health care) works for me. I don’t want poor people to have to settle for anything less.
The view from my bedroom:
No, I don’t live close to the ocean (I’m 12 miles inland), that’s a lake.