Book forum: Tim Harford’s chapter six on Schelling’s segregation model

Tim Harford has the best exposition of Tom Schelling’s segregation model I have read.  Maybe no one prefers segregation, but if you mind being a minority in a neighborhood an invisible hand process can lead to segregated outcomes.  Individuals will move closer to their compatriots, giving rise to an overall separation of groups.  This paper has some good models and fills out the main conditions behind the result.

But is it true?  Schelling would be the first to admit he created only a partial model.  Human genetics show more and more out-breeding over time.  Those first cousins just don’t cut it any more.  No, the earth isn’t flat but outmigration is increasing and many more people are choosing to live as minorities in foreign lands, most of all in the EU.  I live in Northern Virginia, one of the most successfully integrated regions of the United States, whether it be along lines of race, religion, or nationality.  Latino arrivals are concentrated in the American Southwest but over time they are spreading out to many other states.  What is the segregation model missing?

Gains from trade, in a nutshell.  If I’m the first Mexican to arrive in North Carolina, yes maybe I feel lonely.  But I also can fill some empty economic niches and overall it may beat East L.A.  Other immigrants will follow, but if too many come some of them will move on to South Carolina.  And so on.

High levels of inequality often bring more integration, at least in terms of spatial proximity.  Even with high rents there is a large community of Latinos living just outside of Aspen, Colorado.  Guess why.  They don’t live right next to the very rich but they do live among non-Latinos.  And the greater availability of cheap services is one reason I prefer life in the United States to Western Europe.  Cheap shipping of goods means I still can get French cheese and German books.

It is harder to ship services.  The more we become a service economy, the more you have to live near the people you trade with.

So what’s the problem in Newark, NJ or for that matter Northeast Washington?  Schelling’s model seems to work better there perhaps because of high unemployment and fewer services.  That said, both areas have seen considerable Latino integration over the last twenty years, as well as outmigration to the suburbs.

Thus the more general model starts with the idea of gains from trade and then asks when those gains won’t be especially strong, or when they won’t require much physical proximity.  Note that Schelling’s original paper, published in 1971, very much represents a 1960s perspective on its topic.

Addendum: Tim Harford also discusses urban crime and its control; here’s a good new paper on that topic.


Please note that the comments section on this post is for a discussion of segregation and integration and not for a treatment immigration policy per se. You get plenty of other opportunities to debate the latter.

Integration may reflect gains from trade but the most parsimonious model would start with entropy as the baseline factor. Random shuffling alone will lead to mixing of groups. If transportation and relocation costs fall (due to technology, more flexible institutions, or more accepting culture), then groups which started out segregated would be expected to be more and more intermingled over time.

Is the Schelling Model limited to race? What if we apply it to tastes in general? I'd imagine that in more sophisticated societies, skin color is only one of the many factors in picking peers/neighbors.

Regarding Latinos, despite being somewhat better integrated than
African Americans in major US cities, many do have substantial Latino
neighborhoods, pretty well-defined and segregated. Think East LA.

Much of elite media opinion on immigration and integration is formed by the unusual diversity and quality of immigrants to the Washington DC area. In contrast, in the Sunbelt, such as in an obscure little place called Southern California, our immigration policy has led to enormous regions dominated by Hispanics. Take a look at LAUSD school-by-school demographic statistics if you don't believe me.

Check out:
John H. McWhorter

Party of Chains
The greatest oppressors of blacks have been Democrats, says Bruce Bartlett.

Isn't this Chapter 5 you are talking about, not Chapter 6?

The Pew Center today projected that the Hispanic population, under current immigration rates, will increase from 41 million to 127 million from 2005 to 2050. So, it's pretty hard to imagine how those 86 million additional Hispanics will find enough white people to live near to make Tyler's vision come true. The country will increasingly look like the LA Unified School District, without enough whites to bus around to integrate much of anything.

Tyler, may I ask you a serious question? In all your thinking about immigration, have you ever made a single numerical calculation?

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