Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Welcome to Yogichusetts!

We had to change our state's name due to its demographic crisis. As Lawrence Peter Berra once said, nobody comes here anymore, it's too crowded.

As part of its ongoing "Dude, Where's Our Subscribers?" series, last Sunday's Boston Globe did a front page story on the astonishing fact more folks are moving out of Massachusetts than are moving in. The major reason cited by expatriates from the Hub of the Universe, you'll be shocked to learn, was money. Either they got better jobs somewhere else, or had to move to find a less expensive place, i.e., a house they liked and could afford.

The article ignored its central paradox. No matter how liberal Massachusetts might be (not as much as outsiders think), it hasn't repealed the law of supply and demand. If life here is expensive, the cost must rest on a clamorous demand-lots of people who WANT to live in the state.

For openers, the state drawing the most ex-residents was New Hampshire. Sociologically speaking, that's not moving out of Boston at all. Those former citizens of the Bay State are exurbanites forced to the fringes of the greater metropolitan area, as evidenced by the Manchester, N.H. airport recently changing its name to the Manchester-BOSTON airport.
People who leave town, any town, for a better paying job are not news in our mobile, materialistic. competitive society. They reflect nothing on the city they just left or on the one they moved to, either. Our fair city has become pretty much another corporate branch outlet. Why worry that its residents act like it?

Nor is it a shock that salaries provide more bang for the buck in, say, Indiana than in New England. In the 32 years I've lived here, Boston has ALWAYS had one of the highest if not the highest costs of living in the USA. This has not changed through several boom and bust cycles.
(Dear Globe editors: Didn't the rush of people leaving the state from 2000-04 give any of you the notion to compare the NASDAQ averages during that time? Or was the memory of the tech frenzy too painful?).

The only difference in Boston's demographic puzzle in 1974, when the city's economy was in tatters, and today's that I can make out is at the other end of the residential telescope. Massachusetts is suffering a net outflow of people not because more are leaving, but because fewer can move in.

This fact is not the stuff of doctoral theses. People most often move at two times in their lives, when they start working for a living and when they stop. Retirees will always be more likely to leave a cold-weather, high-cost city like ours than to migrate here (a surprising number stay). But what was once a tremendous place for a young person is now a rotten one.
"Cambridge, " a golf partner of mine once said, "is where they'll sell you your old college apartment for $250,000."

That was 15 years ago. Now it's more like 500-750K. The city was wracked by crime, economic doldrums and the busing crisis in the '70s, but it had a superb surplus of affordable, more or less livable rental housing in pleasant locations for people in their 20s entering working life.
No longer. Unless they come from wealth, the graduates of the world's largest college town are well advised to take their dreams and energy somewhere else.

There's no room at the start of the demographic chain. Many of those who began life in Boston 30-some years ago prospered. Massachusetts being a terrific place to live, they stayed put, driving up the price of getting in on their good thing. As one of those folks, I absolve myself of guilt. The Baby Boomers can be criticized for any number of reasons, but it's surely not our fault there are so many of us.

That's why the population drain hereabouts isn't going to lead to parking on Newbury Street anytime soon. The in-town space kids can't afford, their parents can.

It's the genius of the market, however, that every trend becomes its own correction. As its name suggests, trickle-down economics works best when it leads an economy down, not up. In my beautiful, wildly overpriced western suburb, the most expensive, expansive homes on the market have had their "For Sale" signs up for months now. Boston's young entrepreneurs, artists, and dreamers of 2026 should find plenty of housing bargains in Cambridgeport and Jamaica Plain.


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