The New American Landscape: Just Add Zombies

If, like Donald Rumsfeld and me, you sit up at night worrying about the unknown unknowns, you may enjoy the methodology argument over 24/7 Wall St. editor Douglas McIntyre's gallery of America's new ghost towns

The gallery lists counties with housing vacancy rates above 50 percent. Because most of the places on the list are vacation areas such as Martha's Vineyard, commenters at The Atlantic are arguing that McIntyre is picking up noise due to most-of-the-year vacancies at vacation homes. 

The introduction to the piece seems to take seasonal changes into account, arguing "that traffic has disappeared as the recession has caused people to sell or desert vacation homes and delay trips for leisure." Having grown up in a resort town, I can testify that the difference between an off-season vacation spot and the Zone of Alienation is not always clear. 

It is clear to me that you would have gotten a better read on the economy over the last four years by using common-sense fact-gathering or even intuition than by applying macroeconomics or expecting trends to follow precedent. (You can always tell who the real estate agents are on Facebook because when a grisly new statistic comes up for home prices or sales, they say things like, "This means the market for rentals is going to be hot, hot, hot!") 

But there's only so far that can get you. Much as I enjoy being the prince of darkness, it is just plain fact that nearly every day I see more closed-up storefronts and empty billboards throughout Los Angeles. But people in Washington, D.C., and Texas tell me their experience is quite different. Which experience is closer to the truth in a country where GDP keeps going up yet indicators of actual economic activity continue to be anemic, flat, or falling

Today’s seemingly good news on unemployment contains its own share of noise. There is no widely acceptable measurement of how much the decline comes from people getting jobs again and how much comes from people graduating from job-seeking to "marginal attachment to the labor force." The fact that the Labor Force Participation Rate remains unchanged at 64.2 percent suggests the modest rate of new job creation (reported by ADP yesterday) is not exactly putting people to work like a ward boss. Calculated Risk’s historic measure of percentage job losses, if I’m doing the numbers right, indicates it’s going to be 2018 or so before we get back to a 2007 level of employment:

Job growth, despite our leadership’s best efforts, can only follow business growth, so the pickup in jobs will be different throughout the country – with Texas vs. California giving the starkest and most popular contrast between growth and stagnation. The question isn't why we have ghost towns but why we don't have more of them. 

The desertion of unproductive or uncompetitive areas is part of the evolution of an economy. That's especially true at the level of local resorts: Cheaper air travel and the normalization of casino gambling throughout the country didn't help my place of birth. But it's true of other local economies too. Dig this fire insurance map of Tombstone, Arizona (with the Birdcage Theater and the OK Corral both indicated!) to see how thriving the Town Too Tough to Die was in 1888. And one county on The Atlantic’s list already contains one of the country’s most famous original ghost towns – Bodie, California. My sense of justice and order in the universe tells me Los Angeles should become America’s next ghost town, but I have a terrible feeling that won’t happen.

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  • Jim||

    Commenting from Texas:

    To be fair we do have a pretty massive budget hole. We cut a lot of everything to cover it though (resulting in my father being laid off, btw, and not too many companies are hiring 59-yr old men), and we should be fine after a couple of years of pain. From the perspective of the north Dallas suburbs, nothing seems to be terribly wrong here. Starbucks still has a huge line. There are some less people at the malls, but nothing dramatic. A few foreclosures here and there, but nothing like entire blocks being cleaned out. I think we'll get through this and come out stronger on the other end, like the last time our state faced hard times, in the 80s.

    California, on the other hand...we chopped something like 15 billion from our budget in one go, used some money from a "rainy day fund" to ease the pain, and will be alright. I don't see the Californians making any of the right moves. I'm afraid something terrible will have to happen to them to force them into a true reckoning with their problems.

  • Jim||

    Caveat: we could have had even more money, but our lt. gov. just killed the idea of legalizing gambling because it "isn't in line with traditional values". Texas: we're great for business, but hard-core on vice. Freedom to our Team Red does not include freedom to sin. Hell, not too many years ago we took our anti-sodomy laws all the way to the Supreme Court trying to preserve them. WINNING!

  • DRM||

    The big difference between Team Red and Team Blue isn't tolerance for a freedom to sin; it's a view of what counts as a sin.

    There is, for example, no state that voted for John Kerry that doesn't have a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants; all but one (Pennsylvania) ban smoking in bars, and all but one (New Hampshire) ban smoking in non-hospitality workplaces.

  • MNG||

    I think the idea behind smoking bans is not that smoking is a sin but that smoking negatively effects people around the smoker*. If that is the justification then it is an extension of Mills harm principle, not a general condemnation of an immoral act.

    *Sure the supporters may incorrectly gauge the harm, but that doesn't change the motivation

  • ||

    There's no evidence whatsoever that secondhand smoke has any negative health effects.

    If by "negative effects" you mean merely that people nearby find it unpleasant, then we can ban farting, non-use of deodorant, sneezing, annoying laughs, etc.

    And of course this doesn't explain the bans on outdoor smoking that are also prevalent in liberal communities.

  • ||

    "If by "negative effects" you mean merely that people nearby find it unpleasant, then we can ban farting, non-use of deodorant, sneezing, annoying laughs, etc."

    I guess I'm pretty much screwed.

  • MNG||

    I liked it better when people like Tulpa argued there was no evidence that smoking causes cancer. CAUSATION!!!

  • MNG||

    http://www.cancer.gov/cancerto.....cco/ETS#q4

    Of course you can, just like AGW, say you don't buy these studies and such yada yada, but at least admit that a reasonable person might think you are wrong and these people are right and legislate accordingly.

  • Otto||

    Since the studies reference "living with a smoker" causing a 20-30% greater chance of lung cancer (which I personally can believe), are the laws going to ban smoking inside people's houses? Because that's where people will have prolonged, repeated exposure to smoke. Also, it's for the kids.

    Since the deadly exposure is in households, it would be stupid to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, where people have only transient exposure, and can choose to visit or not.

  • Rrabbit||

    There's no evidence whatsoever that secondhand smoke has any negative health effects.

    Translation: Tulpa is unable to enter "second hand smoke" into a search engine.

  • tarran||

    My understanding is that there have been no clinical studies demonstrating a link between secondhand smoke exposure in the workplace or in restaurants with any mesurable increase in disease.

    As the report itself makes clear, there is no evidence that brief, transient exposure to secondhand smoke has any effect on your chance of developing heart disease or lung cancer. The studies that link secondhand smoke to these illnesses involve intense, long-term exposure, typically among people who have lived with smokers for decades.

    Even in these studies, it's difficult to demonstrate an effect, precisely because the doses of toxins and carcinogens bystanders passively absorb are much smaller than the doses absorbed by smokers, probably amounting to a fraction of a cigarette a day. Not surprisingly, the epidemiological studies cited by the surgeon general's report find that the increases in lung cancer and heart disease risks associated with long-term exposure to secondhand smoke are small, on the order of 20 to 30 percent. Among smokers, by contrast, the risk of heart disease is between 100 and 300 percent higher, while the risk of lung cancer is about 900 percent higher

    So to sum up, if I lived with a smoker for thirty years, I have 20% higher chance of getting cancer, while she has a 900% higher chance of getting cancer.

    Going to smoke filled restaurants? Disappears in the noise.

    The smoking banns are driven primarily by our old friend of progressive (nee Protestant pietist) concern for improving the health of lower classes by punishing them for their dirty habits.

  • Rrabbit||

    Come on. Just google for "second hand smoke cancer". That will give you dozens of reports on studies that concluded that second hand smoke is a significant cancer risk.

    Now, which of those studies and reports are correct is a difficult topic. But they exist, and anybody who claims they do not exist is either an idiot or a liar, possibly a liar paid by the tobacco industry.

  • MNG||

    Like I said, I liked this kind of stuff better when it was denying cigs caused cancer at all.

  • DRM||

    Oh, certainly people have pretended to justify it on those grounds, just like sodomy bans have been justified on the grounds that anal sex is more likely to transmit disease than other forms of sexual activity.

    Indoor smoking bans by definition only "protect" people from an environmental harm that they choose to expose themselves to.

  • MNG||

    Well, they would say they choose to eat or drink at the establishment but don't choose to be exposed to smoke while there...

    Also, sodomy doesn't equal only anal sex does it? In many jurisdictions it included oral sex which has less of a risk than vaginal sex, hence many courts finding the proferred rational basis to outlaw the former and not the latter on such grounds to be less than rational.

  • BradK||

    ^^^This^^^^

    Yes, sodomy is usually defined as anything except missionary-style sexual activity. Though I doubt anyone was ever prosecuted for receiving oral copulation from his good lady wife.

    The disease canard is simply a not-so-subtle riff on the "all gheyz have teh AIDZ" meme. Sodomy laws were in place long before AIDS or the modern gay rights movement. It's just more busy-body moralizing from the "Do as I say not as I do" set.

    Smoking bans initially were about public health risks. Does anyone really believe that sitting in the "Non-smoking" section of a restaurant for an hour or more breathing the same air as the smokers sitting across the room is any more valid than the smoking/non sections of the airlines of yore?

    Now, as the movement expands from merely banning smoking indoors in public spaces to forcing smokers stand an ever-increasing distance from the door or even attempts to ban one from smoking in one's own apartment, we see the same self-righteous moral grandstanding from the "concerned" left that have suffered from the faith-based puritans on the right.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Well, they would say they choose to eat or drink at the establishment but don't choose to be exposed to smoke while there...

    Well, they could say they choose to attend a football game at the establishment but don't choose to be exposed to noise while there.

    Yeah, they could say that. It wouldn't make it any less retarded, but they could say it.

    If they chose to stay after seeing that smoking was allowed, they chose to be exposed to smoke while there.

  • MNG||

    I guess they felt the way about smoking as they did about racial discrimination. I mean, if a place doesn't serve blacks they can always go to the next place, right? Some people think people shouldn't have to make that choice, ditto with the smoking. Either way it is silly to say they chose to eat around smoking, they may settle for that but that's not what they were looking for.

  • MNG||

    btw-I don't support smoking bans in private establishments, I'm just telling you that what the people I know that do say.

  • ||

    And if there's enough of them, that good old profit motive would lead to plenty of non-smoking restaurants, no Nanny State needed. Sorry, MNG, applying Occam's Razor cuts away the forest of bullshit and leaves the urge to run other people's lives exposed.

  • MNG||

    Just because they don't come to a libertarian solution to a percieved harm from one person to another doesn't mean they don't think they are addressing a harm.

  • DRM||

    Also, sodomy doesn't equal only anal sex does it?

    Texas and California precedent from the 19th Century is that only anal sex was sodomy per se; I can't speak to other jurisdictions.

  • MNG||

    Was oral sex sodomy per quod?

  • ||

    In North Carolina, oral sex was definitely considered at least a "crime against nature" and governed by the relevant state statute. Like the Texas statute (and incidentally like the Connecticut contraceptive law in Griswold), it was one of those things almost never enforced, but yet not repealed.

  • ||

    There's a bar in my current hometown that has openly avoided the smoking ban since it's enactment. They had not been asked once to stop the policy until about a month ago, when the state came in and issued him a $3,000 fine for "blatant disregard of the law."

    The odd thing was, it was two days after two cops were among a group of people thrown out for fighting. They demanded to be let back in because they were regulars and cops. The owner refused. The rest was predictable.

  • MNG||

    The new professionalism!

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Had I been the owners, I would have fired right back and said:

    "Considering that I have operated outside the confines of this supposed law with no enforcement of said law for ___ years, and that my customers included police officers during this time who likewise did not see fit to enforce the law, I am taking that to mean that following this law is strictly voluntary for establishments such as my own. Attempting to collect a fine from me at this time will result in an immediate liquidation of all my assets, a closure of the restaurant putting at least 20 people out of work during a recession, and my relocation to a state more amenable to my business. Revoke the fine or I'm going to send my FORMER employees straight to your office to air their grievances to you directly."

  • ||

    Ahh - but the beauty of bureaucracy is that the guy who gets that letter is most likely not the guy who'll have to deal with your disgruntled employees, so he won't give a shit who you send over.

  • LarryA||

    but our lt. gov. just killed the idea of legalizing gambling because it "isn't in line with traditional values".

    “Gambling is a sin! A sin I tell you. It entices the innocent, harms children destroys families, facilitates organized crime, corrupts government, and lures law enforcement into bribery.”

    “Worst of all, it competes with the Texas lottery!”

  • Jim||

    Sorry to keep commenting, but I had to throw this out there: I gave my state more credit than it deserved. I thought we let up on teh gayz back in the 90s, but Lawrence v. Texas was actually decided in 2003. So, my apologies to all the gays here from 2002 on back. Your reparation check is in the mail.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_v._Texas

  • yonemoto||

    I was in the courtroom for orals on that case. It was clear that texas was going to lose.

  • ||

    You were there for the orals on a case for gays? [titters]

    NTTAWWT

  • ||

    Giggity!

  • ||

    One thing that I noticed while looking at the cost of living difference between states is that the average Texan is already quite a bit wealthier than the average Californian. Also, even though the cost of living difference is less for organizations and the government than for individuals, the Texas government actually spends more money per student than California, and Texas kicks California's ass in 4th grade and 8th grade test scores broken down by every demographic. Texas teachers also make about the same salary as California teachers when adjusted for cost of living for individual, even though Texas has no teacher unions and has right-to-work laws.

    California's biggest problem is not taxes or progressivism per se, but its constantly rising cost of living. The states unions, private and public, constantly bid up their wages while the government consistently tries to pump value into California's asset classes (zoning restrictions and business restrictions and regulations that prevent competition and diversification). California also favors high cost/high skill labor industries (theorizing that those sorts of jobs will bring high spenders to California, which actually just raises the cost of living even more). Basically, California is making itself too pricy to be competitive in anything that isn't a high tech, high cost industry.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    I won't be surprised at all to see California turn into some dystopian nightmare of technocratic feudalism at some point, due to the issues you just outlined. You'll have gated mixed-use communities of extremely well-off individuals possessing fortress-like security, surrounded by a sea of subliterate, violent, ignorant peasants living in the increasingly dilapidated remnants of the late 20th century building boom, who will consider themselves fortunate to be hired as a nanny or gardener for one of these modern-day barons.

  • Iron Dave||

    Sounds like my visit to Honduras in 1990. Plausible, in other words.

  • ||

    Yep, California is probably becoming Mexico/Hondo/Argentina, fill in the blank. Cali is probably still the trend leader for the country that way, too.

  • ||

    "California, on the other hand...we chopped something like 15 billion from our budget in one go, used some money from a "rainy day fund" to ease the pain, and will be alright."

    Also, Texas has a much smaller state debt than California, so a few years of high deficits still wouldn't make Texas into California 2. Texas is also just now starting to make serious cuts, while California has been slashing its budget every year only to have a deficit the following year.

    California is now spending less adjusted for inflation than they were in 2006-2007 and they still have a large deficit. Had the budget increased at the pre recession rate, California would be spending 40 billion dollars more a year right now.

    Both Texas and California are tax donor states, but California is one of the biggest victims of a progressive tax system and the Federal government. The old folks who receive SS and Medicare move away from California to the cheaper southern states giving California a lower elderly population, and the high wage rate guarantees that money will be taken away from California and given to the other states.

    When California complains about its tax donor status, it is complaining about progressivism and entitlements. I believe that they should complain more.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Much as I enjoy being the prince of darkness, it is just plain fact that nearly every day I see more closed-up storefronts...

    This means the market for plywood is going to be hot, hot, hot!

    Let's stand back and get some perspective, okay? Here we are whining about real estate while Middle Easterners are fighting to get from under the thumb of their respective dictators and thousands of Japanese are homeless and in danger of being irradiated. So I say we move those two groups into these ghost towns to breathe life back into them. Sure we might have to subsidize them with sweet deals at first to get them started, but after a few years the mortgage rates reset to normal and boom Bob's your uncle, Grand Rapids is once again a city on the grow!

  • Otto ||

    GDP keeps going up yet indicators of actual economic activity continue to be anemic, flat, or falling?

    GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports) [Emphasis added]

  • ||

    Would I be correct to assume that inflation, even in areas not reflected in the CPI, would be another driver of GDP growth?

  • Binky||

  • ||

    Unfortunately the measure of inflation used for "correction" is the CPI, whose lowballing tendencies have been discussed ad nauseam in this corner of the Net.

  • JoshINHB||

    And since that is used as a deflator, the GDP growth is overstated.

  • ||

    Yes, that's what I was trying to say, perhaps not clearly enough.

  • ||

    I appreciate the clarification.

    The thought behind my question had to do with the inflation in food and energy prices. If these items are not used when calculating CPI, wouldn't that mean that the higher prices would be reflected in the GDP numbers, with zero effect on inflation? What I'm getting at, is the growth in GDP really just smoke and mirrors?

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    If they really wanted to get serious about solving the problem, they would add the rate of inflation to the rate of GDP growth and get 8 percent. Then we'd have strong growth!

  • Rrabbit||

    GDP=private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports)

    Incomplete in the US. The US GDP numbers contain a few trillion of fake components, for example for "hedonic pricin"

  • Otto||

    Well, I think it's a near-useless statistic. The (exports-imports) portion is mercantilist, and adding government spending as a "product" is silly. I think a better statistic would be: GNS (Gross National Surplus) = private consumption + gross investment + (exports − imports) - government spending...

  • Rrabbit||

    I wouldn't go that far. But maybe
    GNS (Gross National Surplus) = private consumption + gross investment + (exports − imports) - government budget deficit

  • Otto||

    You're right, since the wealth they get from taxation has to be created before it can be wasted.

  • ||

    Good comment Otto. Let's also consider that 1/3 of that gov. spending was borrowed and/or printed from thin air. It's inportant to remember > GDP =/ > prosperity.

    We're living by running up the credit card balance. When will it be maxed out? Hard to say. When it happens, we may get a dose of hyperinflation. Get ready!

  • Otto||

    ...we may get a dose of hyperinflation. Get ready!

    I have some Dec 2012 put options on IEF...

  • ||

    You know the deal! Good luck!

  • johnl||

    Californians will vote down Jerry's tax increase. I would like to see the $30B cut budget. Even a $40 billion cut one. It's government spending, more than taxes, that destroys society. I would like to see professional educators removed from primary instruction. 4th graders can teach 1st graders, 5th graders 2nd graders, and etc. Schools just needs to pay professional janitors. We could recruit Somali pirates to guard prisons for federal minimum wage. Sell the capitol and eliminate travel allowances for legislators. Fire all legislative staff, since those people are supposed to write their own darn bills. This place would be paradise again.

  • ||

    Sell it to Brawndo.

    Brawndo's got what plants need. It's got electrolytes.

  • ||

    There's that fag-talk again.

  • air max france||

    SO CUTE,SO FUNNY

  • bankruptcy||

    when things goes well, all goes well, when things get bad all will get bad. that the real truth of open economy. when you enjoy the taste of it you should be ready to taste it when it is soar

    bankruptcy

  • ||

    This is profound.

  • ||

    Reading those words almost made me slip into a Zen-trance.

  • Spoonman.||

    Things aren't fantastic in Texas, either. There's foreclosed houses, empty new condo buildings, mid-rise office buildings in nice neighborhoods in terrible shape with MS-13 graffiti on them.

  • ||

    Hmm... Not in Houston.

  • ||

    Not in the Dallas Metroplex.

  • ||

    The 'new ghost towns' piece is silly. I'm sure tourism business is down, but have significant numbers of vacation homes been foreclosed or abandoned? Only those should be included in a count of 'vacant' houses.

    In most of these kinds of places, I would say that in good times an increasing ratio of 'empty' houses is a measure of success, since so much of the economy depends on selling, building, and maintaining vacation homes.

  • Almanian||

    Comment from the Timmy's Home Town link, for the win:

    I miss Dip Stix Cheese Fries!

    Also - TIMMEH!

  • ||

    Dude, Zombies are just cool liek that. Wow.

    www.privacy-resources.ie.tc

  • MNG||

    You know, Andrew Cuomo has somewhat quietly done a fair job on his budget battle. He stood up to the left in his state on some big cuts and in rejecting a millionaire's tax and got the budget done pretty early. If Obama goes down in 12 because of his obstinate refusal to recognize the government belt tightening mood of the nation the Dems should seriously consider Cuomo in 16.

    The slogan could be "Cuomo: We Could Do A Lot Worse!"

  • MNG||

    Here's one reason to think Cuomo is doing a good job, that these folks so deride him. These "progressives" make me ashamed to call myself a man of the left, they seem to equate liberalism with taxing and spending and little else...

    http://progressivestates.org/node/27093

  • Otto ||

    Jesus, they even name-checked the Koches!

    The idea that government cuts immediately (and always) hurt "the poor - middle classes" is interesting. I wonder how they think eliminating TARP would have hurt those people...

  • Otto ||

    Grrrrr! Argle bargle Soros! Al Franken, Harry Reid, OBAMA!!! Hurr durr hurdur!

  • Xmas||

    Otto,

    Because progressives believe in trickle-down government spending. They pay Boeing a billion dollars for jets, that's 1000 poor and middle-class workers being paid. They give GE a billion dollar tax break for green energy programs, that's 1000 poor and middle-class workers being hired. The spend a billion dollars on a "staple food" programs, and that's 1000 poor and middle-class workers getting access to all the processed cheese food and white bread they "need".

    Don't get me wrong, I love a good grilled cheese sandwich. However, it's easy to define the poor and middle-class as the beneficiaries of a government program because the programs are presented that way. Just pay no attention to the intermediaries making billions of dollars, the market distortions, or the cost-to-benefit ratios.

  • Otto||

    Ah, I see. So we can't leave Iraq and Afghanistan and close our European bases because the military is a key employer of African-Americans, therefore stopping the wars would be racist.

  • ||

    I like what Cuomo is doing fiscally, though I'm not sure I trust him in the long run. He's certainly doing better than Republican and fellow freshman gubernator John Kasich, for example.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    I am so drunk on Jerry Brown Koolaid that I sometimes imagine he secretly wants the tax referendum to fail, so he'll have cover to make the all-cuts budget he secretly wants to make. Then human voices wake me and I drown...

  • Otto ||

    The suede/denim secret police got to you. Didn't they, Tim?

  • ||

    LA will never be a ghost town it will turn into mexico city, 8 to 10 million people.

  • ||

    The natural resources of LA make it improbable that it will ever be a ghost town, no matter how hard politicians try to screw it up. Even Detroit's excellent leadership hasn't managed to kill that city yet, but they are making progress. But something like Beirut is an achieveable goal.

  • ||

    Did you notice that the least rapid recoveries are the last recoveries? What did we forget between 1981 and 1990? I suspect that more government involvement is the key in the last three.

  • Syd Henderson ||

    It looks more like 1958/1960 and 1980/1981 were the dreaded double-dip recessions with a good quarter or two between the dips.

  • ||

    they seem to equate liberalism with taxing and spending and little else...

    duh.

    "We're progressives! Rewarding failure and punishing success is what we do!"

  • ||

    I've lived in the North Dallas suburbs for 20 years and at any one time there are always vacant houses and commercial real estate along with some people between jobs. It's part of having a dynamic economy. In California you have $100k houses sitting forever on $1M pieces of land. In Texas someone recycles the expensive lot, tearing down the small old house and building a big new one on the prime location. Nobody shopping at the mall? No problem. Just reuse the location for something else. Empty commercial real estate downtown? Convert it into lofts. A healthy economy allows success, failure, and constant change.

  • ||

    LA will not become a ghost town. A better analogy is Detroit west with better weather. Also, 8.3 unemployment in Texas ain't paradise. Face it, everyone, things suck all over.

  • Max||

    Economic forces are the will of God, and any attempts by the Satan State to contravene them will come to naught. Markethu Akbar!

  • Blake||

    Why is it bad if Los Angeles doesn't turn into a ghost town?

  • ||

    Because it is an epicenter of stupidity; as are San Francisco and Sacramento. An unholy trinity as it were.

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