Mexico v. America: Which Has Better Real Estate?
June 14, 2013, 01:13 AM
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The subject of geography has fallen out of academic favor. For example, fashionable economist Daron Acemoglu dismisses Jared Diamond's view that differences between landscapes matter in terms of the prosperity of the inhabitants in favor of his all-purpose explanation that "institutions" explain everything.

Yet, people are still extremely interested in thinking about real estate, as the popular success of Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel showed, and as any conversation with normal people quickly reveals.

A question I like to kick around is: Which country has better real estate: X or Y? 

This starts out pretty easy: France has better real estate than Chad, for instance.

But then it immediately gets hung up on tough comparisons: Who has better real estate: the Dutch or the Swiss? Well, the Swiss have more sublime real estate, but maybe the Dutch have more beautiful real estate (to use Edmund Burke's distinction)? 

So, the benefit of this exercise is mostly to get oneself thinking less about the answer to that question but about how to try to answer that question.

Still, I want to return to the general issue, and simply compare, per square mile, the United States and Mexico. It's generally believed in the U.S. that Mexico is, by nature, some kind of hell-hole. For example, Adam Gopnik wrote in an essay of above average-perceptiveness in The New Yorker:

The new space history has one great virtue. It forces upon historians, the amateurs we all are as well as the pros we read, a little more humility. American prosperity looks like a function of virtue and energy, but the geographic turn tells us that it’s mostly a function of white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate off the edge of the World Island, bordering a hot land on one side and a cold one on the other. Really, you can’t miss. Our geographic truth enters our songs and sagas even if it evades our sermons: O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain; this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the gulf-stream waters. The geographic truth beneath our prosperity is as naturally sung by our bards as the olive oils and wine-dark sea at the heart of Greek culture were sung by theirs.

That's not too bad, but I would quibble with the part about the U.S. "bordering a hot land on one side and a cold one on the other." That overlooks a key geographical advantage of Mexico, which is its quite pleasant combination of low latitude and high altitude. Thus, winters aren't very cold and summers aren't quite as hot as you'd imagine. Much of Mexico consists of a Central Plateau of around 1,000 meters in elevation in the north and 2,000 meters in the south. 

Mexico's main geographic lack relative to the U.S. are the now out-of-fashion advantages of our two great watersheds, the agricultural Mississippi and the industrial St. Lawrence / Great Lakes. Otherwise, Mexico's not such a bad piece of terrain.

Reading former Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castaneda's recent complaints about the general crappiness of Mexican culture, I wonder how much of it is a passive-aggressive effort to keep gringos out, both retirees less audacious than Fred Reed and enterprising American families (like the Romneys before they got kicked out during the Revolution). Castaneda argues that making reforms that would make Mexico more appealing to American retirees, such as installing more traffic lights, would make Mexico better for Mexicans, too.

But, perhaps Castaneda is missing the point. Gringo immigrants didn't have much trouble taking over Texas and California, so maybe the Mexican view has been that, say, a high rate of accidental death and dismemberment is a small price to pay to avoid being inundated by people from a more competent culture.

Of course, that would seemingly raise the question of what price Americans should pay to avoid being inundated by people from a less competent culture?