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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Economics Professor William Fischel

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Bill Fischel1.jpgWilliam Fischel is Professor of Economics as well as the Robert C. 1925 and Hilda Hardy Professor of Legal Studies. His primary field of expertise is local government, which while usually lacking the fireworks and drama of national politics, oftentimes plays a much more significant role in how ordinary citizens lead their day-to-day lives. Land use regulation, or zoning, is of particular interest to Fischel. You’ve been affected by zoning laws and practices, whether you are aware of it or not, and Fischel’s pioneering work in the field explains much of why this is the case.

Fischel grew up near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he attended Hellertown High School before moving north to complete his undergraduate studies at Amherst. He finished there magna cum laude in 1967 and went on to Princeton for a Ph.D., which he received in 1973. That same year, Fischel joined the ranks of the Dartmouth Economics faculty, where he has been ever since with the exceptions of several year-long stints at institutions on the West Coast, such as UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and Berkeley Law School. Fischel credits his experience on the other side of the country with influencing his scholarship, and his time studying and teaching at Vermont Law School in South Royalton has also had an impact on the scope and depth of Fischel’s contributions (an h-index of 39 and 6816 citations) to what is often an intimidatingly legalistic subject.

Let’s say that you want to put a fence on your property. You do a little research to find out what type of fence you can install, how high it can be, and where it can sit in your yard. Eventually, you come across the zoning regulations for your town. After reading through them for the third time, you get the impression that the almost-impenetrable text must have been handed down from somewhere high above, much like God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. As Fischel explains in his most recent book, Zoning Rules!, the reality of zoning development is much more bottom-up than it may seem. Fischel argues that the spread of low-cost trucks and buses in the 1910s made it too easy for industry and apartments to invade residential neighborhoods and threaten single-family home values. Politicians responded to pressure from their homeowner constituents, and modern zoning was born.

American homeowners in the 1970s, according to Fischel, began to see their houses as investments rather than just simple consumer goods due to the inflation of property values that occurred during this time. Wishing to protect these investments from devaluation by further development, homeowners pushed for regulations that limited growth in and around their neighborhoods. The cumulative impact of such regulation accounts for the spiraling housing costs in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

The theme of local governments as important and influential actors was developed in Fischel’s 2001 book The Homevoter Hypothesis, which explains how and why property owners have an incentive to keep a tight handle on their local governments. Because municipal governments are able to enact policy that affects property values (through zoning laws, for example) more tangibly than state or national governments can, “homevoters” do whatever they can to ensure that local representatives are acting in the best interest of what is often their largest, non-diversifiable asset. This includes moving to nearby towns that may offer greater benefits to residents, such as better school districts. Fischel argues that municipal governments, who are therefore forced to be more responsive to voters’ concerns, are often more efficient creators of fiscal and regulatory policies than political bodies higher up the food chain. For many government services, political decentralization works better than uniform state or national policies.

Fischel’s duties in the classroom revolve around two courses: “Econ 38: Urban and Land Use Economics” and “Econ 2: Introduction to Economic Policy Issues.” The former is targeted at students further along in the Economics major who have a particular interest in Fischel’s general research interests, whereas the latter is a survey course directed at those who are perhaps just testing out the waters. Fischel is proud to be what he calls a “talk and chalk” professor; in other words, he does things the old-fashioned way — no laptops allowed, so students have to rely on pen, paper, and their eyes and ears in order to make the grade. One gets the impression that this method is effective, considering that Fischel has incorporated many Econ 38 term papers into his own work; Zoning Rules!, in fact, was dedicated to his students for this reason.

Addendum #1: An undergraduate whose path has been greatly shaped by Professor Fischel’s teaching and research has the following to say:

Prof. Fischel is a professor in the truest sense of the word. That is, he professes his own scholarship in the classroom, bringing together his unparalleled knowledge of land use regulation with the enthusiasm that has motivated his life’s work.

Addendum #2: Watch Professor Fischel discuss zoning practices at the Cato Institute, with examples drawn from a certain small town in New Hampshire:

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