June 13, 2013

Mexico v. America: Which has better real estate?

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 Dimaond'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? 

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

Baja has become the land of 40-60 year old second home surfers. In the past 10 years since I have been surfing there, every summer I go back, there are a few more houses at each break.

Anonymous said...

Completely neglecting the human impact, Mexico is an excellent piece of real estate. Generally the climate is quite mild, and it has varied terrain, including mountains, canyons, and jungles.

I doubt American retirees would go there en masse though. They might be able to get cheap servants, but they're going to miss Medicare dearly.

fernando said...

American retirees would be thinking of the stability of land titles and bank accounts before traffic lights, wouldn't they?

Anonymous said...

OT: Rupert Murdoch divorces Chinese wife Wendi Deng. I wonder if this will have any impact on the heretofore pro-immigration slant of the Murdoch press.

Veracitor said...

Before the Industrial Revolution the question of "better real estate" was perhaps more about "carrying capacity" than "natural beauty." The lower latitudes were more populous because long growing seasons produced more food (whether by hunting and gathering or by farming). Technical advances like the heavy moldboard plow enabled population growth in the temperate and sub-arctic regions in historical times, enabling more people to wax poetic about the beauties to be found in those less hospitable climes.

By the very important standard of "easily supports a large population" Mexico is a winner, Canada rather a loser, and the continental US a tweener. Only the extreme technical prowess of people in the US makes it seem more hospitable than Mexico. (Much of the most productive farmland in the US was desert until irrigated and developed by technical means.)

All of North (and South) America is probably healthier for humans than Africa or Eurasia even now because the pathogen situation is less dire, though pre-Columbian populations diminished considerably when Old World pathogens reached them five centuries ago after millenia of isolation.

Of course technology has enabled people to reorder their priorities; if your tools let you get plenty of food and keep yourself warm enough in the winter/cool enough in the summer for comfort, then you can settle in beautiful spots of relatively less fertility.

Like, say, Palm Springs.

One reason we pay so much attention to the stories of those who dwelt around the Mediterranean Sea thousands of years ago is that they enjoyed (and still do enjoy) a climate both productive and salubrious, enabling them to develop advanced civilizations. The California seaboard has a similar climate and briefly hosted an analogous civilizational flowering, but from 1840 to 1980 rather than from 3000 BCE to 1900. Sadly, the advance of technology seems to have accellerated the decline of California civilization as much as it accellerated its rise.

Dave Pinsen said...

Norman Borlaug did a lot of his ag research in Mexico because he could get two growing seasons in one year, IIRC.

Anonymous said...

A large fraction of Mexico is intolerably hot and malarial coasts.

The entire Yucatan peninsula is flat steamy lowlands without a single surface watercourse, very much like the stifling and intolerable state of Florida.

And the Altiplano Central is desert in the north without enough water to support the thin population it has. The southern Altiplano has perfect weather and enough water but mostly has too many mountains to support a civilization sized agricultural breadbasket. Sure, Morelos is full of well-watered warm volcanic soil and Michoacan similarly matches up well with Illinois or Ukraine for the best farmland in the world but that's about a fifth of the land people want to live on. The Mexicans feed themselves well and export food, so they somehow make it work.

Access between the Altiplano and the coasts involved some of the world's heroic railway and highway projects. Still, through the Seventeenth Century the fastest route between Europe and China was across the Atlantic then up from Veracruz over the mountains through Tlaxcala and Mexico City and then down through Cuernavaca to Acapulco and across the Pacific. That brought a lot of bits of Chinese and European culture to Mexico that still persist. The swamps of Tehuantepec or mountains of Panama looked easier to cross but proved impassible for cargo.

In the 12,000 years before European contact, the natives of America built a series of civilizations and the ones that invented writing and hybridized corn and chocolate and left their stamps on world culture even today all arose in the Altiplanos of Mexico and the similar geography of Mexican Chiapas and western Guatemala. That argues in favor of it being the best land in the Americas.

As for American migration, I don't expect Americans will ever learn any foreign languages en masse. But net migration between Mexico and the USA has been in the southerly direction for almost a decade now. That happened mostly because Mexicans are returning for the better opportunities. Illegals in the US mostly come from El Salvador and Guatemala and even China and other farther away places. Mexico has instituted much harsher immigration laws to keep them from stopping there and staying before they get to El Norte.

And already today, the average college graduate in Mexico has a better material quality of life than the average college grad in America. The quality of Mexican education is rising and the birthrate is falling so there are fewer and fewer of the illiterate peasant class that has been migrating north.

Anonymous said...

Also, please keep your Gringo traffic lights to yourselves. We like it here just the way it is.

And keep Jorge CastaƱeda, too, and his prissy elite ways. Mexico City is a nicer place to live than any major city in the USA. Enjoy New York, Jorge.

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

My standard rejoinder to devotees of right-wing political correctness who think that we owe our safety and freedom to our extra-ultra-awesome military is that it has more to do with being bordered by two oceans, a placid government to the north and an incompetent one to the south.

Anononymous said...

Much of USA is buried under snow during the winter. Half of the settlers at Plymouth colony starved during the first winter. Growing seasons are short in the northern latitudes. Much of the area is only inhabitible with the use of industrial-age technology (transportation of tons of coal for heating fuel, snowplows etc.). Before colonization the land had a very low population density.

Most of Mexico has an average last frost date later than southern Florida.

Mexico City never gets below freezing all year and sometimes has a high of 80 in February.

2Degrees said...

I am in Costa Rica at the moment and nowhere has a more idyllic climate than the Central Valley. The coast is OK if you can sit on the beach all day. this is a beautiful and fertile land.

Everything Steve says is true, but why would they want more gringos. They are not attracting our finest, you know.

The local gringos consist of the following subgroups.

1). gay couples
2). people who see the meaning of life in getting high.
3). boomer retirees - the generation that grew old but never grew up. Watching them mince around town with their grey ponytails is pathetic.
4). Lecherous old men slobbering over girls 1/3 their age. I'll stop there.
5). White girls slobbering over short (usually) black guys.

Lewis and Clark said...

As some guy posted here recently, the USA won the global geography contest with the Midwest, a massive fertile contiguous farmland with abundant navigable waterways allowing you to float your crops to market. I believe the conclusion was, sans subsidies, Midwestern grain was the world's cheapest calorie and has the scalability to feed the planet. That, my friends, is the better real estate.

Anonymous said...

From T. R. Fehrenbach's "Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico."

"There were cogent reasons why magic was to take such an enormous hold on the Meso-American heart and soul. When the farming populations began to explode, latent disaster always lay over the land and the people. Even the deep and sheltered valleys of central Mexico were subject to killing frosts, unseasonal snows, and prolonged, disastrous droughts. These freakish events came at irregular times. ... The primitive mind could not accept such events as random, accidental, without human meaning. History shows that in areas of irregular weather or rainfall natural forces have made men more concerned with invisible omnipotent cosmic powers than with the reality they perceived on earth."

I pay less than $10 a month for power down here, not needing a.c. or heat - 6,000 feet high in the mountains. But Mexico's limited arable land and its dry v. rainy seasons explain a lot.

Lesley Byrd Simpson's classic "Many Mexicos" begins similarly with a chapter on geography and Mexico's fate. I don't take seriously any history book that DOESN'T begin with geography.

Anonymous said...

Relocation, relocation, relocation.

Anonymous said...

2Degrees:"Everything Steve says is true, but why would they want more gringos. They are not attracting our finest, you know."

On the plus side, at least their foreigners are not reproducing themselves, unlike ours...

SYON

Anonymous said...

Much of USA is buried under snow during the winter. Half of the settlers at Plymouth colony starved during the first winter. Growing seasons are short in the northern latitudes. Much of the area is only inhabitible with the use of industrial-age technology (transportation of tons of coal for heating fuel, snowplows etc.). Before colonization the land had a very low population density.

Yes even the colonists much further south in Jamestown, in the southern part of Virginia, which has a milder climate than Plymouth, had severe trouble and faced starvation and may have even had to resort to cannibalism:

www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/science/evidence-of-cannibalism-found-at-jamestown-site.html

Note that the southern US was fairly unbearable as well in the summer before air conditioning. You really couldn't do anything for much of the day except sit around because it was too hot and muggy.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:"Much of USA is buried under snow during the winter. Half of the settlers at Plymouth colony starved during the first winter. Growing seasons are short in the northern latitudes. Much of the area is only inhabitible with the use of industrial-age technology (transportation of tons of coal for heating fuel, snowplows etc.)."


Uhhh, no. New England was rather definitely "habitable" to the English colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries (people using pre-industrial age tech). Indeed, it was a healthier environment than they enjoyed back home. Just check the population growth rates.

SYON

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:"Also, please keep your Gringo traffic lights to yourselves. We like it here just the way it is.

And keep Jorge CastaƱeda, too, and his prissy elite ways. Mexico City is a nicer place to live than any major city in the USA. Enjoy New York, Jorge."

Does that mean that Mexican immigrants in the USA will be flooding back to live in Mexico City?

SYON

Anonymous said...

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.

Note that the Latin American elite culture is a hacienda culture i.e. a land baron culture where you centralize land and resources and have cheap labor work them for you. So the elites down there would be threatened by a middle-class yeomen culture which is about working the land yourself instead of relying on cheap labor.

Inane Rambler said...

If you look at the northeast, a lot of what is now covered in forest was at one point cleared farmland back around the time of the ARW.

Once the US picked up the Midwest from the Treaty of Paris and then the rest of it from the Louisiana Purchase, it is the US all the way. One advantage the US has the Mexico is lacking in comparison is river access.

Anonymous said...

This post was just babbling. And dumb babbling. Mexicans do no sub-consciously make their country's quality of life lower than the first world to deter American retirees.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:"Yes even the colonists much further south in Jamestown, in the southern part of Virginia, which has a milder climate than Plymouth, had severe trouble and faced starvation and may have even had to resort to cannibalism:"

The difficulties faced by the initial Jamestown colonists had more to do with their singular lack of proper preparation than with the environment.

SYON

Anonymous said...

If New England is uninhabitable, Norway is moreso. So, no civilisation ever took off there, right?

Right?

Anonymous said...

The difference between San Diego and Tijuana ain't the real estate, it's the management...

Dave Pinsen said...

"If New England is uninhabitable, Norway is moreso. So, no civilisation ever took off there, right?"

Norway has something New England doesn't (but Mexico does): oil. Somehow, Norway survived the dreaded "resource curse".

Edo Lasani said...

"but maybe the Dutch have more beautiful real estate"

A good portion of the Netherlands is reclaimed land from the sea. There is a saying in Holland:
"God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands"

Whiskey said...

David Hackett Fischer recounts mortality rates for New England, Tidewater, and the Delaware Bay colonies. For the first 100 years, averaging out the disastrous first years of settlement, New England was far healthier.

Why?

Because the cold winter killed malaria. Deaths from malaria and yellow fever were highest in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of the Tidewater, lowest in New England, and in the middle in the Delaware Bay colonies. Yes harsh winters are brutal. But they kill disease, malaria can't survive a freeze.

Generally speaking, the healthiest places for Europeans are places where snow happens, enough to kill disease and not let it reside year round. Europeans also love snow, just look at the love letters to Winter that was the Harry Potter books and movies, despite JK Rowling's near freezing when she wrote the first book.

Anonymous said...

The difficulties faced by the initial Jamestown colonists had more to do with their singular lack of proper preparation than with the environment.

It was a difficult environment. Swampy land infested with malaria.

sunbeam said...

I've said something on this site before, about temperature and humidity.

I'll say it again. It is hard to be "intelligent" in a hot humid environment. You just don't feel like thinking, like doing much of anything really.

It'd be a really hard experiment to pull off, but I'd love to see if effective IQ drops in an environment like Louisiana or Florida in the summer. None of this pansy 20th century air conditioning, you have to do it old school. Effective IQ might be a dumb term, but I don't have a better one.

It is my belief that you need a cool climate and low humidity for the best performance in intellectual pursuits.

A lot of you know what I'm talking about, but when you rub your hand over your body and there is a continual sheen of light sweat that never goes away, when it is in the 90's at night...

You just don't feel like doing that Quantum Electrodynamics thingie you should be working on.

Jeff said...

"I'll say it again. It is hard to be "intelligent" in a hot humid environment. You just don't feel like thinking, like doing much of anything really. It'd be a really hard experiment to pull off, but I'd love to see if effective IQ drops in an environment like Louisiana or Florida in the summer. None of this pansy 20th century air conditioning, you have to do it old school. Effective IQ might be a dumb term, but I don't have a better one."

This is dead-on accurate. Colder climates are better for civilization. There was a post at gnxp about lower IQs in the South, and I recall reading something about CT having the ideal climate for prosocial growth.

I live in Florida. It is a complete hell hole. Nearly everyone is an idiot, I swear that it is true. One thing about Florida, at least in modern construction, is that the homes are anti-social. All the homes in Florida are tile on concrete slab. This makes the floors very uncomfortable to stand on and makes rough-housing with the kids or laying in front of the television, impossible. Compare that to a home in PA, where the substrate is wood, and the changes in human behavior become stark. Moreover, the colder climates force families to live together for greater periods of time. When I lived in SoCal, it was easy to see how the great weather could loosen familial bonds. The sunshine was always competing with family dinner. In Pittsburgh, the weather sucks so family dinner is easy to make happen. In these moments of rough housing and family dinners, stories are shared, bonds are made and wisdom is passed on.

The USA has the far better geography than Mexico. Our big alpine mountains are priceless.

Anonymous said...

Sunbeam, you're on to something.

I live in Hong Kong, and the summers here are pure tropical. But although HK is at the same latitude as Havana, we get genuine seasons, with an almost Mediterranean autumn and winter.

This respite from the heat makes an enormous difference. There is a reason the word 'enervating' typically appears in association with tropical heat and humidity. It is indeed very difficult to stir oneself to accomplishing much when the heat index is 115, and you're sweating essentially non-stop.

Robert Kaplan, in his recent book *The Revenge of Geography* (which I recommend, especially in the context of this thread), notes that Singapore is really the only tropical city on earth you could classify as 'industrious' (I'm not sure he uses that word, but it gets at the gist of what he's saying.)

Kaplan isn't always right, but it's refreshing seeing someone approach geopolitics with the 'geo' at the forefront for a change.

Dave Pinsen said...

"It is my belief that you need a cool climate and low humidity for the best performance in intellectual pursuits."

Noam Chomsky was interviewed by the FT last winter and the subject of the Cambridge winters came up. He said he liked the cold weather, because it was conducive to getting work done.

Anonymous said...

OT: Rupert Murdoch divorces Chinese wife Wendi Deng. I wonder if this will have any impact on the heretofore pro-immigration slant of the Murdoch press.

A micro-aggression! Help, help! I'm being oppressed!

Dahinda said...

"What price Americans should pay to avoid being inundated by people from a less competent culture?"

Maybe we should grow more of our food, especially vegetables, locally andy buy from small farmers who do the farm work themselves. It costs a little more but it cuts down on the amount of Mexican labor needed and it helps cut down the amount of oil we need to import.

Dahinda said...

The only good real estate that Mexico had was taken by the US. California with its coasts and its agricultural potential; Yosemite; the redwood forests, the Grand Canyon, parts of Colorado, the Texas oil fields etc..

Cail Corishev said...

I'll say it again. It is hard to be "intelligent" in a hot humid environment. You just don't feel like thinking, like doing much of anything really.

That's true. On the other hand, many people get depressed and low-energy in the wintertime when there isn't enough sunshine. But at least if you have winter, you have spring and fall. And winter blues can probably be treated with nutritional supplements and making an effort to get outside on sunny days. When it's 95 with 90% humidity, there's not much you can do about that except hide inside in the A/C. If your work requires you to be outside, you push through it, but it does seem like your mind takes a break.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:"It was a difficult environment. Swampy land infested with malaria."

Yeah, Jamestown was located in a difficult environment, but the factors that led to the "starving time" had more to do with the fact that the colonists were simply not properly prepared for agricultural labor.Frankly, too many of the initial colonists were gentlemen and their servants, not yeoman farmers.

SYON

Anonymous said...

The difficulties faced by the initial Jamestown colonists had more to do with their singular lack of proper preparation than with the environment.

This is just anti-white propaganda.

David said...

Just to chime in, Mexico City, yes, is very nice weather-wise.

But the traffic light thing isn't completely accurate. The problem isn't that there aren't enough traffic lights here, it's that the ones that do exist (and there are enough) are sometimes considered "optional." Stop signs, too.

And forget about 4-way stops. Mexicans are supposed to be more socially sensitive than Americans, but they navigate 4-way stops here in D.F. like road-ragers in a roller derby. In this one case at least, the cooperation vibe is distinctly inferior to that in America.

Oh, and back to the stop light/sign point. Motorcycles are evidently exempt from stop lights and stop signs. They insouciantly blow through them almost as frequently as bicyclists do in America. Look both ways, gringo!

Do they poor-mouth their motherland to keep the fat, arrogant gringo crowd out? Dunno, but strikingly, the guide books are wrong when they say "Mexicans are very proud of their culture and very sensitive to any slight" or whatever. The ones I talk to delight in telling horror stories about their accursed country like a cat delights in catnip. How they were robbed, how unusually stupid their politicians are, how Mexicans are always late (not in my admittedly brief experience), how they were kidnapped and dumped on the side of the road - twice.

Anonymous said...

The US has better real estate because it has the rule of law, Mexico does not. Jamaica has far better "real estate" than cold miserable Finland but its a hell hole where no one will live. The character of the population is everything.

jeppo said...

North America is like Goldilocks' 3 bowls of porridge:

Mexico is too hot.
Canada is too cold.
The United States is just right.

Dr Van Nostrand said...

Interesting when Scots Irish lot take over large portions of land which belongs to another nation, they get a playful slap on the wrist by Steve and this lot here but when the "Scots Irish" intend to annex some barren piece of rock half the size of New Jersey, suddenly its Lebensraum II

Dr Van Nostrand said...


Generally speaking, the healthiest places for Europeans are places where snow happens, enough to kill disease and not let it reside year round."

Silliness. Diseases can thrive even in cold conditions-ever heard of Black Death or the Spanish flu?




Europeans also love snow, just look at the love letters to Winter that was the Harry Potter books and movies, despite JK Rowling's near freezing when she wrote the first book."

And so do the mostly tropical Indians if Bollywood songs constantly set in Kashmir and Switzerland and Hindu mystical affinity for the Himalayas are any indication

Dr Van Nostrand said...


This respite from the heat makes an enormous difference. There is a reason the word 'enervating' typically appears in association with tropical heat and humidity. It is indeed very difficult to stir oneself to accomplishing much when the heat index is 115, and you're sweating essentially non-stop."

Havent any of you hbd clowns familiarized yourself with the concept of "acclimatization".

People living in hot countries such as say India for centuries have achieved a great deal such as built empires, conducted war ,maintained peace, trade,metallurgy,math,chemistry,medicine,sculpture,architechure to name just a few.
They didnt sit around all day saying fanning themselves manana,manana inshaallah.
What plagues them now is not weather but a culture of corruption.

I have lived in cold climates(Michigan) as well as hot desert(UAE) and hot tropical(India)
I can walk out in the peak of summer in the latter countries and barely break a sweat (discounting humidity).And this goes pretty much for most Indians.
Furthermore, modern architecture in these countries pretty much DEMANDS air conditioning due to the confined,closed nature of space and lack of ventilation.
The genius of traditional housing ensures that no matter how hot it gets outside, it always is room mate in the interiors. Of course we are talking about technology that is millenia old so no electric fans, air conditioning etc.

If you whiteys don't have the capacity to work in the heat don't assume that others cant either.

Dr Van Nostrand said...

OT: Rupert Murdoch divorces Chinese wife Wendi Deng. I wonder if this will have any impact on the heretofore pro-immigration slant of the Murdoch press.

A micro-aggression! Help, help! I'm being oppressed!"

LOLL nice!

Anonymous said...

"they're going to miss Medicare dearly (in Mexico)."

Health care in Mexico is dirt cheap and pretty good. Many pay out of pocket so the market isn't nearly as distorted.

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