William A. Fischel

Professor of Economics
Robert C. 1925 & Hilda Hardy
Professor of Legal Studies

Department of Economics
Dartmouth College
6106 Rockefeller Hall - Room 324
Hanover, NH 03755-3514
Telephone: (603) 646-2940  
Fax: (603) 646-2122

Curriculum Vita Working Papers

Autobiographical Essay and Links
July 2015

      I have been a professor in the Dartmouth College Economics Department since 1973 and am also the Robert C. 1925 and Hilda Hardy Professor of Legal Studies. The courses I teach are Economics 2 (survey for nonmajors) and Economics 38 (Urban and Land Use).

     Unlike most other economists, I have relied primarily on sole-author books to develop my scholarship. Their common theme holds that local governments should be thought of as active economic agents rather than passive “creatures of the state.” My most recent book is “Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation,” published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in July 2015. It is an update and extension of my 1985 book, “The Economics of Zoning Laws,” which argued that zoning is the product of rational, if not always admirable, economic calculation by voters in American municipalities. A prize-winning undergraduate thesis by Kihara Kiarie explored zoning in an inverted way by examining land use in Houston, Texas, the only large city that lacks zoning, and a copy of his work is available here.

     The centerpiece of  “Zoning Rules!” is its economic explanation of how zoning evolved. It shows that zoning’s goals shifted from municipal “good housekeeping”  to “growth control” as a result of inflation and environmental activism in the 1970s. The anti-growth shift accounts for the higher housing costs of the West and the Northeast compared to the rest of the United States. As a popular institution, however, zoning can only be reformed by mitigating homeowners’ concern about their major asset, which would best be accomplished by reducing the federal tax subsidies to owner-occupied housing.

      A general economic theory of local government behavior was the subject of “The Homevoter Hypothesis” (Harvard University Press in 2001). Because homeowners have so much of their net worth wrapped up in their houses, they pay close attention to the many things that local governments can do to enhance or detract from their value. This provides a political side for the famous vote-with-your-feet model of local government, the Tiebout hypothesis. The homevoter model explains why Proposition 13, the California voter initiative that limited property taxes, is actually consistent with the Tiebout model. I also organized a conference and edited a book of essays, “The Tiebout Model at Fifty” (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2006), that probes the implications of this durably famous model. 

     “Regulatory Takings” (Harvard University Press, 1995) investigated the constitutional ways by which the excesses of zoning might be curbed by the judiciary without infringing on the creativity and autonomy of local governance. Of special interest during this phase of my career were follow-ups on regulatory takings cases to see what happened afterwards, as in the photographic essays (Lucas Essay) (Lucas Update) on Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992). A rethinking of regulatory takings is in my 2007 investigation of the facts of Miller v. Schoene, the case of the cedar trees that made apples go bad. It has made me less optimistic about the doctrine’s viability.

    My 2009 book, “Making the Grade” (University of Chicago Press), explores the economic evolution of American public school districts, the local government boundaries that home buyers care most about. (The prepublication chapters, which contain some material not in the final book, are available as a large pdf here). The book explains the transformation of education from one-room schools, which were ungraded, to the age-graded schools we now reflexively think of as “real school.” There were over 200,000 districts in 1910, but they now number fewer than 15,000. (Here is a map of American school districts in 2000, courtesy of Sarah Battersby.) I regard their transformation as an example of market-like spontaneous order, the most subtle of which is summer vacation. Voters voluntarily surrendered one-room schools and their tiny districts because they retarded children’s access to high school. Inverted support for this is provided by the continuing embrace of one-room schools by the Old-Order Amish: “Do Amish One-Room Schools Make the Grade? The Dubious Data of Wisconsin v. Yoder” (University of Chicago Law Review 2012).

     My writing has been shaped by several year-long leaves at universities on the West Coast. My wife, Janice G. Fischel, (Moravian ‘71) and I have been at the University of California at Davis (1980-81); at Santa Barbara (1985-86 and 2005-06); and at Berkeley’s Law School (1991-92). We also spent a year in Seattle, where I visited the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington (1998-99).  Our permanent home is in Hanover, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood within swimming distance of Vermont. I served on the Hanover zoning board from 1987 to 1997, and Janice was on the planning board for several years. We are both natives of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, though I grew up in nearby Lower Saucon Township and attended Hellertown High School (class of 1963). I graduated from Amherst College in 1967 and got a PhD from Princeton University in 1973. I studied some law (but do not have a law degree) at Vermont Law School and at what its graduates fondly called “Henry Manne’s summer camp.”

     I enjoy back-road bicycling, cross-country skiing, and both city and rural hiking. Janice and I have for years followed Dartmouth men’s basketball, and I now serve as academic advisor to the team. A short memoir that relates my basketball experience to economics is available here. We are also architecture enthusiasts and enjoy walkabouts in New York and other cities. Janice makes and sells photographic note cards, which you can view at http://www.jgfischel.com. Our son, Josh, graduated from Amherst College (class of 2000) and received his master’s degree from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan in 2007. In 2008, he married Cameren Cousins, a 2003 Middlebury graduate who received an MBA in sustainability from Antioch in 2013. They live in Acton, Massachusetts, with their dog, Smitty, who sometimes visits Josh’s classroom at Shady Hill School but never Cameren’s at the Fenn School.

Fischel Family
Janice, Bill, Cameren, Josh and Smitty