Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 29, 2013

MICHAEL HICKS: Simple economic model

High-quality places to live key to regional growth.


Kokomo Tribune

---- — It is Christmas time again, and as usual I struggle to find good gifts for those I care about. To be honest, they are not much help. My lovely wife told me she might need a cleaning appliance of some sort, and my 9 year old confessed to wanting new underwear, socks and perhaps a few surprises.

About the only thing I know to give this year that might be honestly appreciated is a brief column on a subject that affects almost every community. Moreover, it is almost entirely free of the ill-informed ideology that seems to drive so much public policy these days. It is a simple economic model of regional growth.

Like any model, the regional growth model begins with some hypotheses. First, let us suppose households that are better educated and more skilled have more choices about where they choose to work and live. Second, let us suppose households are willing to make trade-offs between the quality of life in the place they live and their earnings. So, households must be compensated extra to live in less attractive places. Finally, let us assume businesses seek to maximize profits, a process which includes worrying about labor costs. None should any of this seem too much a stretch of common sense.

An astute reader might see four or more equations in the preceding paragraph. Solving these equations provides us some clear outcomes. Regions that are attractive places to live will attract households with greater location choices. These households will inevitably be better educated and command a higher income. However, all things being equal, workers in these places will not require quite as high a wage to live in these places as they would to live in a less desirable place.

The first result of solving this model is the not especially surprising result that nice places tend to attract more people, and these people tend to be of higher income. This alone would commend efforts to improve communities as an important economic development tool. Population growth is, after all, the chief worry for most places in Indiana. However, there is more to the story than just this.

The real magic of the model is trade-off between wages and amenities, and what that does to economic growth. In our simple model, we see higher income households are more likely to relocate to (or stay in) nicer places. But, they are also willing to accept a lower wage to do so. The result is a remarkable outcome.

Places with better amenities do tend to have higher income households, and of course all the benefits that accrue to them. But for a business looking for workers, the nice place will offer a wage advantage over less attractive locations.

This result has great meaning, for it means improving quality of place reduces business costs on the most costly of inputs; human capital. So, as we think about attracting business to Indiana, we ought to get better at thinking through these simple models.

Michael J. Hicks, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at mhicks@bsu.edu.