For Americans, someone else is always a rich person

Perhaps this is not surprising in a country where almost all claim to be middle class: Americans suggest someone else is the one who is truly rich.

Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, who has made this quirk of our class identities into a hobby horse of sorts, recently put together a nice illustration of what he calls our national, “Me? I’m not rich!” problem. In 2011, Gallup asked Americans how much income they needed to be “rich.” In general, they answered some amount that was higher than whatever they made. Most people who earned $30,000 a year or less thought you could be rich making under six figures. A majority of those who earned between $30,000 and $99,000 thought you needed to cross the $100,000 threshold. You get the idea.



None of this is especially surprising. People don’t generally think about living standards in absolute terms. They think about them relatively, and tend to compare themselves with their peer group. And because most of us know at least a few jerks with a bigger house, nicer car, and more interesting-looking vacation photos, it’s easy to conclude that, no, we ourselves are not truly rich. I’m making fun of Americans for it, but my guess is it’s near universal. It just happens to be a problem in the U.S. because, as Reeves writes, those of us who think we should be paying taxes at all tend to believe the rich should be the ones shelling out. That’s a political problem when there are apparently no rich people to be found.

I’ve seen this at work in numerous settings where Americans fall over themselves to claim that they don’t have as many resources as it appears they might. This could involve a discussion of McMansions and how everyone knows someone else who lives in such a garish house while they would never consider such a thing. Or it could be in a discussion of students or staff at a private college where everyone acts like they don’t have any spending money. There are powerful social incentives to not declare oneself rich even when objective measures put people at the higher ends of the social class ladder.

I wonder how much particular actions of the wealthy could mitigate their own admittance at being rich. Take Bill Gates. Fabulously wealthy and well known for this but he has also spent a lot of money on philanthropic ends. Does this take away the negatives of being rich? Warren Buffett is cited in this article as someone who claims to be rich. Does he do anything to offset that image or is it okay if you became rich through building your own financial empire (just American hard work)?

Chicago area apartment market continues price increases

With homeownership still moving downward in the United States, the apartment market in the Chicago suburbs keeps going up in price:

The median net rent in the Chicago suburbs rose to $1.29 a square foot in the fourth quarter, another record, up 4.7 percent from a year earlier, according to a report from Appraisal Research Counselors, a Chicago-based consulting firm. The occupancy rate was 95.3 percent, versus 95.1 percent a year earlier.

Suburban rents have increased five years in a row—they rose 21 percent over that period—as more people have held off on buying a home, either because they can’t get a mortgage or are wary of owning after the housing crash. More recently, the improving job market has boosted demand for all housing, and apartment landlords are getting their share.

On the supply side, new developments are sprouting up from Naperville to Northbrook. Developers completed more than 3,300 apartments in the suburbs over the past year, the most in a decade, and another 2,700 are under construction, according to Appraisal Research…

Yet the revenue side of the equation is about as good as it gets for suburban landlords. Market revenue performance, a metric that combines the occupancy rate and median net rent, hit $1.23 in the fourth quarter, the highest it’s ever been, according to Appraisal Research.

An interesting housing market these days. Starter homes are not being built. New McMansions are back even as older McMansions sell briskly. People are considering disaster chic. The luxury market is booming in big cities like New York.

If apartments are indeed popular because they offer more short-term flexibility, how many suburbs will allow the construction of many apartments? Historically, wealthier suburbs in the Chicago area tend to avoid apartments and their more transient residents. So, I would guess most of these new suburban apartments are actually higher end, the kinds of places appealing to young professionals or the just retired and often located near cultural or transportation amenities like denser downtowns and train stations. If so, more expensive apartments don’t help many in the housing market who still need reasonably priced and conveniently located housing in the Chicago region.

Did we already pass “peak urban millennial”?

Joel Kotkin discusses the demographic data that shows the bulk of millenials are near their 30s – and possible lives in the suburbs.

Some of this simply reflects the aging of millennials. As Jed Kolko at the real estate website Trulia has pointed out, the proclivity for urban living peaks in the mid-to-late 20s and drops notably later. Over 25 percent of people in their midtwenties, he found, live in urban neighborhoods; but by the time they move into their midthirties, it drops to no more than18 percent.

The impact of the aging process – the maturation, however delayed, upon millennials – will soon become acutely obvious to all but the most emotional retro-urbanist. In 2018, according to Census Bureau estimates, the number of millennials entering their 30s will be larger than those in their 20s, and the trend will only get stronger, with the numbers tilting ever more in favor of the thirtysomethings. Kolko suggests that we may already have passed “peak urban millennial.”

And then Kotkin goes on to try to bust other stereotypes about millennials. Both he and the other side – such as those who tend to argue that smart growth will inevitable win out behind the tastes of younger Americans – can cite some data and make some predictions. Perhaps Kotkin has the easier selection: he suggests millennials will follow the geographic inertia of their ancestors (even if they do have some other social differences) while his opponents are looking for a big break from the past.

But, it is interesting to note that we may only be a few years away from settling this debate if the bulk of millennials are then in their thirties. Unless emerging adulthood keeps getting extended for this group, they will be expected to have made their “adult” decisions soon. Will they choose cities and denser suburbs or will they continue to prefer more space relatively far from dense population concentrations?

Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg collaborate on modern romance

Comedian Aziz Ansari is familiar with the work of Sherry Turkle and has done research with sociologist Eric Klinenberg:

While every other comedian — from Tina Fey to Amy Poehler — is writing a memoir, Ansari decided he’d team up with a sociologist to conduct studies on love in the age of technology for his first title. The comedian revealed his book cover exclusively to TIME and chatted about his research, his stand-up and the end of Parks and Rec

I had been starting to do this stand-up about dating and realized that the current romantic landscape is way different. All these very modern problems — like, sitting and deciding what to write in a text — that’s a very new conundrum.

Then I randomly met a couple people who were in academic fields that did work that vaguely applied to this stuff. Like, this woman Sherry Turkle who had done all this research about texting and found that you say things over text you would never say to someone’s face. So the medium of communication we’re using is kind of making us sh—ttier people. And then I thought if you take that and put it toward romantic interactions, that’s why people are so f—ing rude…

It ended up being a sociology book that has my sense of humor, but it also has some academic heft to it. I wrote it with this sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, and he helped me design this huge research project that we did. We interviewed hundreds of people all across the world — we went to Tokyo and Paris and Wichita to really get a wide scope. We also interviewed all sorts of academics. The resulting book is really unique. I can’t think of any book I would really compare it to.

I wonder how the two worlds involved here – those who read books by comedians and sociologists – will react to this book:

1. Will the general public be interested in a comedian utilizing more academic data to tackle a a popular topic? Could a comedian reach people in a way that a book written by a sociologist alone could not? Or, will the public still not really trust the data and continue to rely on their own anecdotes of online love?

2. How will sociologists view Klinenberg’s contribution? Is this data really any good or it is too impressionistic? While sociologists talk about public sociology, popular pieces of writing are often derided for not being serious enough. Was Klinenberg secretly conducting an ethnographic project on the lives of modern comedians?

No matter the critical reception from either camp, I imagine this book will sot a lot more copies than the typical sociology monograph…

Quick roundup of notable Chicago by drone

Many have seen famous Chicago sights in person or via photography but here are links to some impressive videos of Chicago by drone. The best thing the drone adds to seeing Chicago? Changing the level of sight so as to not just be on the ground or above everything. Now, where is the ultra-impressive promotional video or commercial for Chicago utilizing this technology?

Google and other tech companies continue HQ architecture race

Google just unveiled its plans for a new HQ design:

Apple is building a massive spaceship-like ring around a private eden dotted with apricot trees. Facebook is working on a forest-topped hanger, reportedly with a single room big enough to house 3,400 workers. Now, we have our first glimpse of what Google’s envisioning for its own futuristic headquarters: A series of see-through, tent-like structures, draped in glass, whose interior workspaces can be reconfigured on a massive scale according to the company’s needs.

In a new video released this morning, Google showed off an ambitious proposal for a future North Bayshore campus in Mountain View. The concept was produced by the firms of Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels, two of architecture’s fastest rising stars. Heatherwick Studio, based in the UK, was responsible for the torch at the London Olympics. The Bjarke Ingels Group, based in Denmark, is working on a trash-to-power plant in Copenhagen that will double as a ski slope.

The plan they came up with for Google is every bit as radical as one would expect. As Bjarke Ingels puts it, the structures proposed for the new campus would do away with rigid walls and roofs and instead “dissolve the building into a simple, super-transparent, ultra-light membrane.” Inside, giant layers could be stacked, Lincoln Log-style, into different work environments, using a fleet of small cranes and robots. Plant life is suffused throughout the campus, indoors and out.

It’s not an original idea but I was just struck by the juxtaposition of the tech companies more ethereal presence (online, information, brand status) versus their actual physical presence. The Internet may be revolutionary but how exactly do its architects and drivers translate it into physical form? Perhaps not surprisingly, into an open structure with lots of glass, light, life, and flexibility. Somewhere, however, there have to be tech companies operating in concrete Brutalist structures…

It will still be interesting to see how these buildings function. I’ve seen several articles lately about companies going to open floor formats (the anti-cubicle) even as workers don’t always like this lack of privacy. How much building flexibility is too much? Given Google’s plans, how will the architecture fit with the surrounding community of Mountain View? How many years is this expected to be used?

You’ve been warned (again): McMansions are back!

Newer American homes are bigger than ever:

New American homes were bigger than ever last year, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. After a few years of shrinkage in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the median square footage of newly-built homes last year tipped the scales at over 2,400 square feet. That’s nearly 1,000 square feet larger than the median home built in 1992. The death of the McMansion has been greatly exaggerated…

There are any number of explanations for this trend. Young first-time buyers, who are less inclined to buy big suburban houses, are largely sitting out of the market. Credit requirements are still much tighter than they were before the housing collapse, so much of the activity in the housing market is from wealthier families looking to trade up — and they’re looking for bigger and better.

Another, possibly overlooked contributor? Politics. A 2012 paper by Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica found that builders and construction firms were among the most politically conservative businesses in America, judged by their owners and employees’ contributions to political parties. And a Pew Research Center study last year found that conservatives overwhelmingly prefer communities where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.”

I don’t know how much of this is just political. To suggest so means that both sides can claim the other is trying to push a particular agenda: conservatives argue liberals are trying to force everyone into big cities and liberals can argue developers are politically connected people who only want to serve the wealthy. Either cities or McMansions become the big enemy. I would instead privilege two factors. First, an economic situation where many Americans don’t have the money to purchase a home (the homeownership rate is down overall) as well as a housing market that is primarily catering to wealthier buyers (there are more profits to be made in more expensive homes). Second, there is an American ideology that privileges individualism and private space, values that aren’t exclusively conservative or necessarily related to the exurbs. For example, the suburbs are not full of McMansions; suburbs range from inner-ring suburbs to exurbs with a wide range of housing and populations.

Sociologists walking every block not just in New York City

A sociologist who walked every block of New York City drew attention but can you also learn from walking every block of Tyler, Texas? One sociologist explains:

Because of his interest in the community, Moody said, he has walked every street in Tyler twice. “It took 12 years to do it the first time; 11 years the second time,” Moody said…

“It (walking) is part of my research interests in society,” Moody, who taught sociology and other subjects at different times in six area colleges, said…

“I’m sure there are people who have lived here all their life and never been in parts of this town. If we understand and love one another, we will have a better community and I believe we will have more unity. We should never turn down an opportunity to learn from someone, whether it’s a homeless person, a wino or a wealthy billionaire,” Moody said…

n his walks around town, Moody said he has attended services or toured every church, synagogue and mosque, although he is a Southern Baptist.

Moody added that he has toured every hospital in Tyler, day care centers, nonprofit agencies, television and radio stations, the newspaper office and nursing homes as well as East Texas juvenile correctional facilities, state mental hospitals and prisons.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Tyler may not be New York City but it is still a sizable city of around 100,000 people. Sociology has a long history of community studies and the experiences of people in places like Tyler may hold a lot of interesting research potential. Yet, I’m not sure the field is really interested in the sorts of Middletown studies that once were more common.

2. People who really want to know their communities could use this method. This may be a sort of fad but not for those really invested in their community. I’m thinking of local politicians who claim this but this is typically based on their social connections. While these certainly matter, it is another thing to physically walk everything.

Picking apart the top cities for singles rankings

Rankings of the top cities for singles may not be that valid:

“It doesn’t make much difference” where millennials live in terms of their marriage prospects, Andrew Cherlin, director of Johns Hopkins’ sociology department, wrote in an email. He said most major cities now have about the same rate of millennial inhabitants…

And indeed, most of the top cities for this category were near military installations. No. 2 on Wang’s list was San Luis Obispo, which is less than an hour from Vandenberg Air Force base, the third-largest air force base in the country. No. 4, in Hanford, Calif., has a large Navy presence…

So what does predict whether you’ll get married? The reigning champ of marriage indicators is Mormonism, even for millennials. Utah towns occupy the top three slots among 18-34 year-old marriage rates (nearly 2/3rds of millennials are already spoken for in western Utah County, Utah). And the U.S.’s top-three Mormon states, Utah Wyoming and Idaho, occupy the top three slots for states.

Surprise, surprise; rankings found on the Internet may not be that great. Sometimes this has to do with methodology: what is included in the rankings and how are the different dimensions rated? This is discussed here: do you want to look at millennial composition (where Washington D.C. leads the pack) or millennial marriage rate (Washington D.C. doesn’t do as well)? One lesson might be to have more specific rankings – do you really mean it is best for singles if your data is based on the marriage rate?

Additionally, two other issues arise. One, what if the cities aren’t that different from each other? Rankings are intended to differentiate between options but mathematical differences do not necessarily equal substantive significances. Second, why are the rankings in this order? Here, what related factors – such as the proximity of military installations – might be relevant? This may be hard to pick up at times because not all the cities may be affected by the same phenomena. Thus, the researcher has to do some extra digging to try to explain the rankings rather than just simplistically report them.

Even with the argument from Richard Florida about the creative class seeking out cities with enticing culture and entertainment, how many people move where they do because of such rankings?

When Silicon Valley communities have too many tech jobs, new residents

Many communities would love to have a tech company headquarters in town but what happens if that company is Google and it brings many residents and employees?

Google owns or leases about 7.3 million square feet of office space in Mountain View — roughly equivalent to three Empire State Buildings. That includes most of the property around its headquarters on the north side of the city near Highway 101, which cuts the length of the valley, according to Transwestern, a commercial real estate brokerage.

That success has brought Mountain View loads of tax dollars and a 3.3 percent unemployment rate, as well as skyrocketing home prices and intolerable gridlock. Good and bad, tech is responsible for most of it: Technology companies account for 27 percent of the jobs in the Silicon Valley region, compared with 7 percent in California and about 5 percent nationally, according to Moody’s Analytics.

The result is an existential argument that pits residents who want to halt the city’s growth against people who think Mountain View needs to grow up and become a real city.

Mountain View, about 40 miles south of San Francisco, has close to 80,000 people; with its strip-mall thoroughfares and streets of single-family homes, it looks like a sleepy suburb. But since hiring has boomed, the city’s roads swell with commuters during the morning and evening rush.

While this may get extra attention because it involves Google (does that do no evil pledge apply to the communities in which its offices are based?), this is a question that many suburbs face at one point or another. When new developments are proposed, whether commercial, industrial, residential, or something else, how might these change the existing character of the community? Jobs are often seen as good things: they provide employment and the buildings for employees generate property tax dollars, reducing the dependence on residential property taxes. Yet, what if those same jobs lead to new office parks that take up a lot of land, new infrastructure needs such as roads, water and sewer lines, and schools, and an influx of traffic? Or, what if such jobs require tax breaks or special deals for a single business or industry?

Two possible outcomes here (and this is not an exhaustive list):

1. Why aren’t urbanists calling for companies like Google to move to large cities? A lot of the issues with infrastructure and space could be more easily absorbed by a major city. Three Empire State Buildings worth of space is still hard to come by but Granted, this hasn’t gone smoothly recently in San Francisco but developing new land leads to particular challenges, especially in places used to a smaller population.

2. At some point, Google could go the way of other companies and organizations and start making demands to push Mountain View to accept what they want. The end of the article hints at this; if Google brings in a lot of new employees, they could even sway local elections. Could Google hold the suburb hostage to get what it wants?