Where are Americans moving, and why? Timothy Noah, writing in the Washington Monthly, professes to be puzzled. He points out that people have been moving out of states with high per capita incomes -- Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland -- to states with lower income levels.
"Why are Americans by and large moving away from economic opportunity rather than toward it?" he asks.
Actually, it's not puzzling at all. The movement from high-tax, high-housing-cost states to low-tax, low-housing-cost states has been going on for more than 40 years, as I note in my new book Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics.
Between 1970 and 2010, the population of New York state increased from 18 million to 19 million. In that same period, the population of Texas increased from 11 million to 25 million.
The picture is even starker if you look at major metro areas. The New York metropolitan area, including counties in New Jersey and Connecticut, increased from 17.8 million in 1970 to 19.2 million in 2010 -- up 8 percent. During that time, the nation grew 52 percent.
In the same period, the four big metro areas in Texas -- Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin -- grew from 6 million to 15.6 million, a 160 percent increase.
Contrary to Noah's inference, people don't move away from opportunity. They move partly in response to economic incentives, but also to pursue dreams and escape nightmares.
Opportunity does exist in the Northeastern states and in California -- for people with very high skill levels and for low-skill immigrants, without whom those metro areas would have lost, rather than gained, population over the last three decades.
But there's not much opportunity there for people with midlevel skills who want to raise families. Housing costs are exceedingly high, partly, as Noah notes, because of restrictive land use and zoning regulations.
And central city public schools, with a few exceptions, repel most middle-class parents.
High taxes produce revenues to finance handsome benefits and pensions for public employee union members in the high-cost states. It's hard to see how this benefits middle-class people making their livings in the private sector.
Moreover, Noah's use of per capita incomes is misleading, since children typically have no income and many in the Northeast and coastal California are childless. If you look at household incomes, these states are far closer to the national average.