Is “outside” overrated?

by on August 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm in Education | Permalink

People are going to read this as a kind of #Slatepitch but as I live my life I see that despite all the talk about how great it is to be outside, people don’t really put their money where their mouth is. Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space. Even in places like Southern California where there’s really great weather all the time, the landscape is covered with buildings and people spend a very large sum of their income on purchasing or renting inside space in which to live over and above the inside space in which they work.

Here is much more, from Matt Yglesias, who explains why “inside” has “crucial advantages.”  For a useful discussion on this matter I thank also Claire Hill.

Dan Weber August 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Also, there are bees outside.

William August 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm

+1

dirk August 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm

And bears.

Mark Thorson August 16, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Bees don’t scare me. I love bees. But I’ve heard about chiggers. I will never live anywhere that has chiggers. Or those amoebae that eat your brain. Or mosquitoes so rampant that they blacken the sky over your so-called Great Lakes.

Andrew` August 17, 2013 at 3:19 am

The instant they took the class outside the kid got stung, cue allergic reaction. Screw outside.

Will August 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Some immediate observations:

1. The premise is flawed. People say outside is nice mostly as a change of pace from inside, but they don’t actually prefer outside over inside when it comes to an apples to apples comparision.
2. Inside is (usually) more private.
3. Building more inside space allows for more creativity ala a new room can be converted into many more things than a lawn or pool space can.
4. People do enjoy being outside, but not on their own property relative to substitute goods (beaches, parks, ski slopes, etc…)
5. Related to the above, as more people move to cities, measuring “outside” consumption via lawn size or a similar measurement is becoming increasingly outdated and erroneous.
6. Most leisure is derived from internet/television these days I imagine. Even with mobile, people still want to consume these items in an indoors setting.
7. Property values often stem from total square footage [of the home] and modernized real property, so removing these things as opposed to adding them would be doublely counterproductive.
8. Zoning regulations? Not sure about this one, definitely a case by case basis, but just throwing it out there…

Michael August 18, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Don’t forget 9. Political Arbitrage. People first moved to live where the weather is nice. Then Democrats took over these places and ruined them. Now, people have to move to locations with worse weather (the humid south, the arid southwest) to find jobs. These locales keep people inside.

Honestly though, the whole article smacks of condescinding, left wing urbanism. Find a pack of Republicans, and you’ll find a group of people far more likely to spend their time outside (more likely to have kids, go hunting, etc). Surprisingly enough, they are more likely to report being happy too.

prior probability August 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Weather too plays a big role in the optimal mix of “outside”/”inside”

Andrew August 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Homeostasis. Or, home is where the stasis is.

Marty August 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm

People pay a premium so that they can walk (outside) to amenities instead of drive (inside their cars). They also pay a premium for nicer neighborhoods, which are nicer to walk in.

Claudia August 16, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Good point. The outdoors is best enjoyed in motion. I prefer a walk on the farm or hiking, but even a walk to the metro or a loop in the neighborhood can be a good transition or recharge time. All I hear Yglesias complaining about is a lack of creature comforts outside relative to inside, duh. I also suspect we invest more in private spaces, even my deck I share with the gang of neighborhood squirrels so I don’t put as nice stuff outside. Sitting in the dirt some may even help him appreciate his AC office with a cushy chair, I know I do in DC swamp summer.

George August 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm

The biggest advantage of being outside which Matt didn’t consider is the fact that being outside provides new and variable stimulus for the brain. (It’s not as boring as being inside all day and the opposite is true for people who spend all day outside.)

People spend most of their lives indoors so it makes sense to want to spice things up from time to time. So what do they do? The lowest hanging fruit is eat lunch outside.

Also, I think a better proxy for how valuable people find outside time would be to look at what sorts of vacations people take, or how they spend their “free” time. For example some people really want a bigger house for whatever reason so they build an addition but this doesn’t change the amount of time they spend outside since there is a community garden a couple blocks away.

babar August 16, 2013 at 5:05 pm

making more inside actively destroys the outside.

jseliger August 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm

When I taught English Comp at the University of Arizona students often wanted to go outside, but the one or two times I tried it I ran into all the problems Yglesias enumerates. Classrooms are optimized for discussion and students and teachers are optimized for classrooms in terms of dress and so forth. Yet every semester some students would propose moving outside on a nice day.

Marie August 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Habit. Unfortunate habit.
Moved four years ago out of the suburbs, and my goal for my kids these days is outside 2 to 5 hours each day. Don’t always make it, but that is my goal and we average it.
Found an old list in the shed a week ago, on it was goals for the kids at our old house in the suburbs. I’d written, “Outside 1 hour each day” and I’d crossed the “1″ out and put “1/2″.
There’s a huge vitamin D fad going on these days, particularly with pediatricians and geriatrics specialists. They talk a lot about sun block, but no one really mentions that it’s simply not our habit to live outside.

Therapsid August 16, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Yglesias tries to tackle too wide an array of issues in economics, sociology, politics, popular culture, etc. He also writes at too prodigious a pace to have time to more carefully consider his conclusions. He’s a clever chap but he’s spread himself too thin. He strikes me as the policy wonk’s version of Jonah Lehrer.

Jim Buffett August 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

So is the better question: “is ‘Yglesias’ overrated?”

ChrisA August 16, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Actually I was just thinking that Yglesia was getting better and better recently. This post is exactly what I want from a blogger, a contrarian approach that I don’t necessarily agree with but had to think a moment or two why.

The Other Jim August 18, 2013 at 9:12 pm

>So is the better question: “is ‘Yglesias’ overrated?”

Not by me. I rate him a dope. And I am spot on.

Even when he has a decent point — that outside is overrated — he has to resort to irrelevant information in a flailing, pathetic attempt to back it up. People spend their money on additions to their home rather than subtractions? Wow, Matt! Case closed!

Turkey Vulture August 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I just started paying higher rent in order to move to a place that, while smaller than my former residence, actually has a reasonably-sized yard. If everyone else wants to move further into the city and avoid dealing with the outdoors, I’d be happy to buy up this and surrounding homes on the cheap, knock a bunch down, and plant some trees.

Affe August 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

Sounds like Detroit is in your future.

Willitts August 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Economists say the darndest things.

No, outside isn’t over rated. It is properly rated as ‘sucky.’ That’s why manking invented both portable and semi-permanent inside.

Sun, insects, rain, animals, snow, wind, pollen, heat, cold…everything that we don’t want in large quantities is outside. The characteristics of inside that enable us to enjoy limited pleasures of outside are strictly controlled: doors, windows, shades, sunroofs, screens, heat lamps, etc.

Considering though how much outside there is compared to inside, our marginal utility for inside is very high.

The homeless live outside, and they don’t like it very much.

Needless to prove, we would have a far stronger preference for inside on the moon.

skh.pcola August 17, 2013 at 2:27 am

Yglesias is an economist like a platypus is a wine steward.

Marie August 17, 2013 at 8:09 am

But we like to look at it through big windows.

Gene Callahan August 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm

“Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space.”

That a silly remark that completely ignores marginalism would be cited as clever on… Marginal Revolution is a little bit puzzling.

Steve Sailer August 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Ah, another salvo in Matt’s campaign to prove that the way he grew up — in that Greenwich Village housing project for NYU professors’ families — is the right way for everybody to grow up.

He’s a loyal son.

Dismalist August 16, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Space costs money.

Andreas Moser August 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm

In my experience, it depends how close you are too outside. (1) In Germany, I lived in a small village. Behind the house there were some fields and after a few minutes the forest began. I went jogging every day or for long walks. On warm summer nights, I sat on the porch with a cigar and a book. (2) Then I moved to London. To see something green, I had to travel by bus or walk for a long time. I really only enjoyed the outside on weekends. (3) Now I live in Vilnius, but very close to a beautiful large park. I go for runs or walks every day, sometimes several times a day. I even go there to do my reading.

Michael B August 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I wonder whether a prisoner would prefer a larger cell or more time outside.

Willitts August 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm

It depends on the prisoner, silly.

The marginal benefit of time outside is high, but the total consumption of cell is involuntarily high. Which one is preferred is ambiguous without seeing a utility function. At that point, the answer is trivial.

However, that would make an excellent intermediate micro homework question if the utility function were given.

Enrique August 17, 2013 at 12:43 am

+1, Like, Etc.

RM August 17, 2013 at 6:25 am

Hmm… I was think that inside the home is also involuntary some of the time: staying away from bugs, pooping, access to ac/heating (notwithstanding NorCal weather), plugging the computer in, light to read that does not attract bugs, etc. Setting up these facilities on the outside can be expensive. (Indeed, that is why people expand their homes).

Willitts August 17, 2013 at 11:24 am

You raise an interesting point, that if it is 100 degrees outside the heat is involuntary. But that should be a parameter of the utility of outside, not considered forced consumption. At a particular point in time, the conditions of outside are fixed and a choice of inside or outside is made on the expected conditions. If I told you that there was a plague of frogs, locusts, and the Angel of Death outside, your utility of outside would be low, and the relative utility of inside would be high.

There is a reason we call it shelter and allow people to defend it with deadly force in many states.

Brendan Perrine August 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm

I find suburbs don’t have much interesting stuff to look at and take pictures of while areas with more open space have more interesting things to take pictures of. Cameras and outside are complements.

Chris Hansen August 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I live in a town where people with any kind of money have pretty big houses and are willing to drive an hour to spend 100 dollars for a day outside in the middle of winter. Not all insides and not all outsides are created equal.

Andrew' August 17, 2013 at 5:44 am

Yes, I suspect we get our X-axes labeled right it becomes more intuitive. Rather than inside to outside, I propose controlled to uncontrolled.

Faze August 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm

The value of inside rises with the heinousness of outside. Any space, however small, that separates you from the NYC streets commands a good price, and the farther from the street you are, the pricier it gets. The ultimate price is paid for the space station or space shuttle, which preserves you from ultimate and ultimately deadly outside: space. Outside gives inside its meaning. Outside is free. We must eat lunch outside every so often to remind ourselves of why we pay money for inside.

John Faben August 16, 2013 at 8:57 pm

As far as I remember, the evidence suggests people underestimate the value of outside: http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2011/09/would-you-feel-better-if-you-were-walking-in/

Dylan August 16, 2013 at 9:38 pm

For someone who’s always preaching about diversity, Yglesias doesn’t seem to believe that it exists.

Does he not realize that he’s from probably the most urbanized ethnic group in the world, and that his comfort with urban environments is not going to be shared by everyone nor and that urban environments aren’t going to good for everyone? Urban areas are novel environments for most of the world’s population.

And doesn’t he realize that there’s a conflict of interest here?

Ricardo August 17, 2013 at 1:52 am

Huh? I don’t see anything specific to urban living in the article. The vast majority of Americans (hell, let’s just say the vast majority of the world’s population) live in places that are either too hot, too cold or too rainy to make eating outdoors pleasant most of the year. Places like New York and San Francisco have rather nice public parks where it is feasible to have lunch on nice days and many of them are walking distance from workplaces. In the suburbs, you would have to count on your workplace having some decent outdoor seating (e.g. something a bit more scenic than a couple of benches out by the parking lot) as it would be difficult to motivate people to drive to a park just to sit down and eat. When I worked in an exurban office park, going anywhere for lunch wasn’t really feasible.

Thanatos Savehn August 16, 2013 at 9:59 pm

“I don’t want all the land; I just want any land that’s next to mine.” I’ve known very few people who, once they had access to the real outdoors, didn’t want more of it and who didn’t buy more contiguous land when they were flush. About 5 yrs out of law school I bought 117 acres (thx! savings and loan fiasco) for $90k (didn’t buy mineral rights because field was depleted decades before so why pay the extra $20k? – memo to self: recall mineral owner’s $2k/acre bonus plus royalties 20 yrs later the next time you decide to be pennywise). Anyway, it wasn’t long before I started looking to add to it even though the house on it is, to be very generous, very modest. I could go on but at the farm (where we live about a third of the time, down from 100% 15 yrs ago) inside is for sleeping and (occasionally) eating. I do my best thinking on my tractor and have the most fun doing something like taking down a spindly twisted pine to allow a bit more room for the biggest dogwood I’ve ever seen down in the woods.

The only house I’ve ever added on to is the one I bought 18 miles from Houston so I could be closer to the office on busy days. It’s on a little more than 4 acres and was perfect until civilization arrived. With 5 houses on the other side of the north fence and hundreds more behind them suddenly outside didn’t seem so much fun. There’s always someone outside, someone playing music, talking, looking at me. They invaded what was our space so we added on to get away from all the inside that was suddenly all around us outside.

Personal anecdotes, I get that; but most of the folks I know who are fortunate enough to own some of the real outside soon come to love the land more than the house on it.

Turkey Vulture August 17, 2013 at 10:57 am

I hope to be able to say, in about 3.5 years, that I bought 117 (or more) acres of land 5 years out of law school. Mineral rights, trees, and all.

Slim August 16, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Outside is wasteful.

I grew up near nature, but I spent more time in computer game forests than in real ones.

We should migrate into the Matrix instead of wasting space on real trees.

Benjamin August 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Outside is wasteful.

I grew up near nature, but I spent more time in computer game forests than in the real one.

We should migrate into the Matrix instead of wasting space on real trees.

Scrutineer August 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Neo: “Oh…deja vu.”
Trinity: “What did you just say?”
Neo: “Nothing, just had a little deja vu.”
Trinity: “What did you see?”
Cypher: “What happened?”
Neo: “A comment appeared, and then another that looked just like it.”
Trinity: “How much like it – was it the same commenter?”
Neo: “Might have been, I’m not sure.”
Morpheus: “Tyler, Alex!”
Neo: “What is it?”
Trinity: “A deja vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix – it happens when they change something.”

Steko August 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm

OTOH, if MY hadn’t eaten outside he wouldn’t have written this excellent post so that’s a big point in favor of eating outside. He’d probably tell you I’m violating the anthropic principle or something but the whole thing is just a ruse to get some Bayesian analysis done where Matt will find out that he gets slightly more permanent readers after outdoors lunches and the long term effects of this are substantial.

JohnC August 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm

“Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space.”

(Forgetting for the moment the huge chunk of the population that purposefully choose to live by mountains, on acreage, etc. (viz. flyover country)) Is Yglasias really confused why people don’t willy-nilly alter the load-bearing features of their homes? (Another reason: minimum sq. ft. restrictions.)

Given that people probably prefer free outdoor amenities to paying for them, the helpful question is probably: “Compared to other factors, to what extent does walkability, access green spaces, etc. affect the proximate properties’ prices?” (The answer: apparently, quite positively, especially since the current trend is to trade square footage and access to malls for the former.)

JohnC August 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm

“Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space.”

Let’s forget for the moment the huge swaths of the population that purposefully choose to live by mountains, on acreage, etc. (viz. flyover country). is Yglasias really confused why people don’t willy-nilly alter the load-bearing features of their homes? (Another reason: minimum sq. ft. restrictions.) So, given that people probably prefer free outdoor amenities to paying for them, the helpful question is probably: “Compared to other factors, to what extent does walkability, access green spaces, etc. affect the proximate properties’ prices?” The answer: apparently, quite positively, especially since the current trend is to trade square footage and access to malls for the former (to-wit: the 1,000 sq. ft bungalows along in Naples (FL), Malibu).

JohnC August 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm

“Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space.”

Let’s forget for the moment the huge swaths of the population that purposefully (really!) choose to live by mountains, on acreage, etc. (viz. flyover country).

Is Yglasias really confused why people don’t willy-nilly alter the load-bearing features of their homes? (Another reason: minimum sq. ft. restrictions.)

So, given that people probably prefer free outdoor amenities to paying for them, the helpful question is probably: “Compared to other factors, to what extent does walkability, access green spaces, etc. affect the proximate properties’ prices?” The answer: apparently, quite positively, especially since the current trend is to trade square footage and access to malls for the former (to-wit: the 1,000 sq. ft bungalows along the beaches in Naples (FL), Malibu….).

Ricardo August 17, 2013 at 2:32 am

“Let’s forget for the moment the huge swaths of the population that purposefully (really!) choose to live by mountains, on acreage, etc. (viz. flyover country).”

Not really. About half of the U.S. population lives in about 72 Census-designated “Urban Areas.” These are — as one would expect — overwhelmingly concentrated on the coasts, the Great Lakes and in Texas. In so-called “flyover country” (not a term I prefer), population is heavily concentrated in sprawling urban and suburban areas just as surely as it is in New Jersey. Indeed, if you are a frequent flier, you can write down a list of busy airports you have flown through from memory and you won’t be too far off the Census’ list of most heavily populated urban areas in the country. Which is not surprising if you think about the logic of building airports in places — including, of course, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver, etc. — where people actually live.

JohnC August 16, 2013 at 11:42 pm

“Property owners are much more likely to build an addition to their house (thereby increasing the inside/outside ratio of their property) when they’re feeling flush than to orchestrate a subtraction in order to get more open space.”

Let’s forget for the moment the huge swaths of the population that purposefully choose to live by mountains, on acreage, etc. (viz. flyover country). is Yglasias really confused why people don’t willy-nilly alter the load-bearing features of their homes? (Another reason: minimum sq. ft. restrictions.) So, given that people probably prefer free outdoor amenities to paying for them, the helpful question is probably: “Compared to other factors, to what extent does walkability, access green spaces, etc. affect the proximate properties’ prices?” The answer: apparently, quite positively, especially since the current trend is to trade square footage and access to malls for the former (to-wit: the 1,000 sq. ft bungalows along the beach in Naples (FL), Malibu).

Andy August 16, 2013 at 11:52 pm

I don’t know, with the iPad and wifi having evened out the playing field a little when it comes to technology, I find myself spending a pretty high percentage of my “leisure” time outside. I find that all else equal, I would generally rather watch TV or surf the web outside than inside — the exceptions being in winter, or if it’s raining.

KruGer August 17, 2013 at 12:31 am

Oscar Wilde is making a very convincing case againts the outdoors
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/steen/cogweb/Abstracts/Wilde_1889.html

Foobarista August 17, 2013 at 1:04 am

Not so sure about this thesis, although I guess if I grew up in DC (or some other Gawdawful place with insane humidity and zillion-degrees every day for six months weather). We live in the SF Bay Area, and spend pretty much every weekend outside, and do lots of entertaining at picnics, camping, etc. It’s pretty much the only way you can deal with the million-dollar, 1400 square feet houses of the sort we have here: go outside as much as possible.

OTOH, the weather in places like Houston, Atlanta, DC, etc would probably make me an un-lover of the outside. I spent a couple summers in Shanghai and Beijing, and they definitely aren’t “outdoor” places, especially in the height of the summer in the daytime (although we did spend a lot of time outside at night, especially in Shanghai).

mulp August 17, 2013 at 1:21 am

Well, we now know that Matt will father the Morlocks; the surfers will bear the Eloi.

Shane M August 17, 2013 at 2:35 am

Not all “outside” is created equal. In the city, it’s mostly the whir of air conditioners, neighbors dogs barking, cars motors going up/down the street, airplanes flying overhead, not to mention the general feeling of being surrounded by neighbors. Contrast that to living in the country (or “sticks” if you prefer) and “outside” has an entirely new meaning. Perhaps the correct comparison would be people who would move out into the country to escape the claustrophobic feeling of “outside” that exists in many locations in the city.

Andrew' August 17, 2013 at 5:27 am

OTOH, I wish I could attach a picture of the dime-sized black widow I found in a perfectly toddler-grabby area ‘outside’ my house? Or how ’bout the copperhead snake? Or the arbor viruses? Or the coyotes? I did an unwitting experiment by simply moving from a relatively new subdivision to one that they recently cleared a woods to create. The range of “outsideness” is nearly continuous.

Andrew' August 17, 2013 at 4:55 am

One is designed for our body, the other the body is evolved for. Ask Homo Erectus what he thinks of outside? He might enjoy the park, but even that outside is very nearly as controlled as what we think of as inside.

BenSix August 17, 2013 at 7:11 am

To have such a fondness for being inside is to declare oneself to be a control freak. The crucial point about “inside” areas, at least for prosperous men and women like Matt Yglesias, is that one can adapt it to suit one’s preferences. Too cold? Well, crank up the heating. Too hot? Open a window. Smells a bit? Get a can of Febreze and go to town. Those of us who enjoy the outside are more prepared to adapt to the unfamiliar, and enjoy the chance to expand our minds and souls. And, besides, it is the only place to get a spot of exercise without wholly embarrassing oneself in the gym.

Slocum August 17, 2013 at 7:16 am

The lack of appeal of ‘outside’ is no doubt the reason that apartments on Central Park cost about the same as those found several blocks away.

RM August 17, 2013 at 9:57 am

Is there evidence of positive correlation between nice outdoor climates and more public parks, walking paths, bike paths, etc. I suspect that this is the case. (I am not counting swamps and mosquito-infested open spaces, so don’t mention all the open space in the tropics. I am also counting only public recreational spaces, so don’t mention the verges in Florida). If so, this may suggest that society has organized itself to provide public open spaces in places with nice climates, thus permitting people to expand their interior spaces.

Turkey Vulture August 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

Anchorage, AK has a better bike trail system than most cities, I think.

libert August 17, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Convex preferences, diminishing returns, whatever you want to call it…I generally prefer apples to bananas, but that doesn’t mean I will never choose a banana over an apple.

Hopaulius August 18, 2013 at 2:19 am

Gotta love these big city libs who love to live in an environmental wasteland where they live to regulate those rural hicks who provide for them everything they need to live.

Urso August 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Jesus, talk about playing into the blogger’s mother’s basement stereotype.

Anyway, Matt Yglesias has a hammer, and he spends his entire life looking for nails. The hammer is that everyone should live in skyscrapers in densely packed urban centers on the Eastern seaboard, and that we should arrange our entire cultural, governmental, and economic systems to make this possible (or inevitable!). A nail is anything that might contradict that sentiment.

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