Today I handed in my monthly garage pass. It was the last step of a process that started in 2012, when I first started parking downtown on a daily basis. At that time, 10 Barrel — kitty-corner to the garage — was just an empty shell of a building, left vacant years earlier, with a horrific tan paint job.
Also at that time, the garage had two guys, Kay and Ray, one of whom would greet parkers every morning. Saying hello to Kay or Ray was a bright spot of every workday morning and afternoon. I still remember, vividly, Kay exclaiming on Wednesdays, “It’s hump day!” Ray or Kay would kick off my weekends as I exited the garage, and console me every Monday morning when I returned to go to work. It was great. It was very Boise-ish.
Things changed. One day Ray explained that the garage entrance was being automated, and that Ray and Kay would be relocated to another spot (I have not seen them since). For the next three years or so, I have been greeted with a short beep that says my dull white monthly pass card has been accepted, and a gate that opens to allow me in. The same beep sounds when I leave on Fridays and enter on Mondays.
Things changed again about a month ago. I was one of the lucky ones selected to get kicked out of the garage. The news came in a computer-generated form letter that said my parking privileges were being revoked and that I had 30 days to leave. Why? I have no idea. All I know is that I never missed a payment, have always followed the rules, and over time have had to park on Floor 6 instead of Floor 4 because of limited space.
Oh, the price of the garage also doubled over this time, from $75 per month to $150 per month — equating to an average annual inflation rate of 12 percent.
This article is not about the garage parking, as you might suspect. It is about the implications of economic growth. I might be labeled a heretic among my fellow economists for taking this position, but economic growth is not necessarily a good thing, especially on an individual basis. We are often fed all of the positive aspects of growth — higher property values, better jobs, better restaurants. But it all comes at a cost — congested roads that make it harder to get to those better restaurants, lost access to open spaces, and, yes, more expensive parking.
Perhaps more importantly, the benefits of economic growth are not uniformly distributed over the population. Far from it. Our ever-increasing levels of income inequality mean that many have missed out and continue to do so. Those who enjoy access to the foothills with quiet surroundings lose out. And those who enjoyed the friendly human interactions when entering the parking garage are now greeted with a beep.
The overall economic growth of a city also says little about the well-being of its inhabitants. What matters is per capita, or per person, economic growth. China might be generating economic output approaching that of the U.S., but it has three times more people, and, therefore, a dramatically lower standard of living than that of the U.S. Similarly, just because Boise’s economic output is growing, mainly through in-migration, doesn’t mean we are necessarily better off as individuals.
What entity is better off, and unambiguously so? Our government sector. They have larger budgets and more power. Think twice when you hear our public officials tout the economic benefits of growth. Or at least consider their own incentives for doing so.
As for this individual, am I better off with Boise’s rapid growth? Despite the tone of this column, I think the answer is, on net, yes. (My fellow economists will be pleased with that assessment.) Still, I pay twice as much for parking as I did in 2012 and, starting this month, I have to walk an extra block to get to the office.
Kevin E. Cahill, Ph.D. is a senior economist and partner with ECONorthwest in Boise. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECONorthwest.