Max Weber, Bernie Sanders, and a difficult revolution

Why not have more sociological theory applied to the 2016 election? Here is one application of Weber’s ideas to Bernie Sander’s chances for starting a revolution:

Max Weber, the great sociologist best remembered for coining the phrase “Protestant work ethic,” would have loved Sunday’s Democratic debate. Leaving aside the sad and quixotic figure of Martin O’Malley, the two main contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders perfectly illustrated a distinction Weber made in his classic 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay, Weber distinguished between two different ethical approaches to politics, an “ethics of moral conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.”

Sanders is promoting an “ethics of moral conviction” by calling for a “political revolution” seeking to overthrow the deeply corrupting influence of big money on politics by bringing into the system a counterforce of those previously alienated, including the poor and the young. Clinton embodies the “ethics of responsibility” by arguing that her presidency won’t be about remaking the world but trying to preserve and build on the achievements of previous Democrats, including Obama.

The great difficulty Sanders faces is that given the reality of the American political system (with its divided government that has many veto points) and also the particular realities of the current era (with an intensification of political polarization making it difficult to pass ambitious legislation through a hostile Congress and Senate), it is very hard to see how a “political revolution” could work.

Read Weber’s piece here and a summary here. As I skim through the original piece, it is a reminder of Weber’s broad insights as well as his occasional interest in addressing current conditions (political unrest in Germany). Wouldn’t Weber suggest that either Sanders needs (1) a ridiculous amount of charisma (which he has to some degree to come this far in politics) and/or (2) unusually large-scale support from the public in order to counter the power of  existing government? Reaching either objective this time around may prove too difficult…

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Anger at idea that suburban taxpayers should bail out Chicago Public Schools

The city-suburb divide can often be quite wide (and require therapy to overcome) and John Kass illustrates another dimension of this chasm:

In today’s angry class war politics, if you’re a suburban taxpayer in a blue state like Illinois, you might get the feeling you’ve done something wrong. But all you’ve really done is work your tail off and go without to take care of your family.

You might miss the city and ache for it, or you may be indifferent, but either way, you know you’re out there. My wife and I know. We did it for the kids. To send them to good, safe public schools. And many of you have done the same…

But the Democratic bosses of Illinois just told you that you’re going to pay some more, to bail them out of the fiscal mess they made of CPS…

But we don’t feel like bailing out a corrupt Chicago system that won’t change the way it does business.

This echoes one of the underlying reasons many Americans left cities in the first place: they didn’t want to pay/take responsibility/be party to/live near urban problems. The move to the suburbs was intended to provide a better home for their families and to pay taxes to a local government that could be more responsive to their own interests. And this move to the suburbs – particularly by wealthier white residents – left many cities in difficult situations with declining tax bases.

Does it matter that this argument is made in Illinois where political corruption is common? Arguably, taxpayers in Illinois should be suspicious of how all of their local and state tax dollars are used. Or, would typical suburbanites never want to contribute their hard-earned money to the city unless forced (and regardless of how well the money is used)? I suspect the second statement is fairly common among suburbanites – “my tax dollars should go to my community rather to other communities” – and this tends to get most loudly expressed when regional or metropolitan plans are suggested.

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The unusual development of Rosemont, Illinois

Rosemont is a different kind of suburb and the Daily Herald sums up its unique growth over 60 years:

Before it was an entertainment and business mecca of the suburbs, Rosemont was an oft-flooded swampy area with pothole-ridden, unpaved roads, no streetlights and taverns that became hangouts for the mob…

Today, the 2.5-square-mile town on the edge of O’Hare International Airport has 4,200 residents — many of whom live in a close-knit gated community and are employed by the village. But what drives Rosemont’s economy is its estimated 100,000 visitors a day, drawn to the town’s 14 hotels, a shopping mall, offices and village-owned venues including a stadium, theater, convention center and entertainment district…

Almost from the beginning, Rosemont linked itself to O’Hare, which was on its way to becoming the world’s busiest airport. As other suburban towns fought airplane noise and expansion plans, Stephens was feeding off it…

In 1958, Stephens brokered a deal with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley for access to Chicago water in exchange for a 162-foot-wide strip of Foster Avenue that would allow the city to connect to O’Hare. Rosemont got the right to 4 million gallons of water per day at Chicago rates.

Three features strike me as consequential in this story: (1) geographic proximity to O’Hare Airport; (2) a unique vision from the Stephens family who has largely been able to guide the community; and (3) the success the suburb has had in attracting businesses and visitors. Many suburbs would like to have some of the features that Rosemont has today – particularly the regular visitors who bring tax dollars into the local coffers – yet all of those same features – a convention center, an arena, proximity to O’Hare, years of seeking out a casino – would not fit the character of many communities nor would they necessarily all come together.

In other words, a suburb like this is rare as not every suburban community can develop an entertainment base and have it pay off. (Unfortunately, this article doesn’t delve much into the suburb’s finances. How much debt is there? What is the local tax rate? What happens if one of these major centers or projects crashes?) The lesson to be learned here may be that this is a rare suburb in the Chicago region and it cannot be easily emulated.

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The 21 remaining post-Chicago Fire buildings in The Loop

Gabriel Michael has a list of all the buildings in Chicago’s Loop that were built after the 1871 Chicago Fire:

Within Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, among the urban canyons of soaring glass & steel office buildings, there is a unique and rare collection of architecture: the commercial buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. These are commonly referred to as the “Post-Fire” era buildings, built from 1872 up until the advent of modern building materials and advanced construction techniques. These unprecedented approaches to commercial architecture facilitated the birth of the multi-story “skyscraper” in the early-mid 1880s, notably William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building erected in 1883.

Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery…

According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.

Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons.

The piece ends with a call for preserving more of these buildings. It would be interesting to have a broader discussion in Chicago regarding this: how many leaders and residents would support such preservation? Is Chicago so committed to economic and residential growth in the Loop that some of these buildings could be “sacrificed”? On the other hand, the preservationists could make a public case for why going beyond these 10 protected buildings is necessary. And would it be better to make a case one by one for the remaining buildings or to argue for all of them at once? Of course, the process of preserving buildings doesn’t just rest on the merits of individual structures but involves a social and political process.

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Therapy for those making the city to suburb move

For families that are having a hard time leaving the city behind, the move to the suburbs can be easier if others help:

People move for many reasons. Brokers, however, see a familiar thread: Couples move to the suburbs after having kids. And, as people marry later and live in the city longer, moving becomes more than just packing. Mentally and emotionally, experts say, people wrestle with changing from city dweller to suburbanite.

“I see this all the time with my practice,” said David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center, which has offices in Chicago and Skokie. “Where we live gives us a sense of identity.”

Swapping city life for the suburbs is different from moving to another town or neighborhood. Real estate agents say city-to-suburbs folks often need special hand-holding…

In September, Alison Bernstein launched Suburban Jungle in Chicago, which she started after moving from New York City to the surrounding area and feeling lost on which neighborhood would best fit her family. The company’s sole purpose is helping families transition from, for example, Lincoln Park to Lake Forest. Employees meet with shoppers, aiming to best match a town to their personality. They connect clients to suburb experts and locals at no cost, taking a commission from the sale.

“Our job is literally 98 percent therapy and not real estate,” Bernstein said. “It’s like, ‘Am I making the right move?’ It’s a lot of stress, and it’s a big change.”

Even as Americans move quite a bit (see evidence here and here), it can be a stressful process. However, two things strike me about this particular article:

  1. All the people cited here are on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The moves invoked include going from Lincoln Park to Hinsdale or Lake Forest. These are people who can afford to use a company like Suburban Jungle.
  2. Some of the fear of the suburban life might be driven by negative stereotypes of the suburbs. Some of these may have some truth – such as having fewer entertainment spots in the suburbs – but the typical suburban critiques (which have a long history dating back nearly a century) present a very one-sided view.

All together, being able to move to these kinds of suburban communities – wealthy, safe, good schools, clean, high property values – would be a dream for many people. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, people often move to the suburbs seeking necessities such as work or cheaper housing but can end up in suburbs that have many problems that cities feature.

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Maine towns dissolve local governments amid budget issues

Many Americans want more local control but what if the local government can’t pay the bills? A number of towns in Maine have dissolved their local governments:

At a time of rising municipal costs, local governments around the country are looking for ways to rein in tax bills, pursuing privatization, the consolidation of services, mergers and even bankruptcy…

But in northern Maine, as operating costs have increased, the economy has stagnated and the population has aged and dwindled, a handful of struggling towns have pursued the unusual process of eliminating local government entirely…

Under state law, dismantling a local government takes 12 complex steps, often over at least two years, including legislative approval and a series of local votes. When a town deorganizes, state agencies and the county administer its services, like snow removal, policing and firefighting. Children are assigned to appropriate schools, often in a nearby district. Town-owned buildings and land are sold or held in trust by the state or the county. And every local government job is eliminated…

Other states have unorganized or unincorporated areas, but in Maine about half of the land is Unorganized Territory. The area predates the state itself — it was laid out when Maine was still part of Massachusetts and new settlers were expected to flock there. But the harsh climes of Maine’s wild lands, as they used to be known, never filled out with enough people to self-govern.

This last paragraph may be key: because of particular settlement patterns in Maine (which may be largely due to ecological factors), it is difficult to maintain municipal government. Wouldn’t this be a perfect situation for townships or county governments? For example, the township structure in Illinois is used as an illustration of an unnecessary layer of government in a state that has the most governmental bodies in the country. But, a local government serving a broader geography could be a helpful middle ground that allows residents to feel like they can have input while dispersing the costs over a broader area.

If the local government is officially dissolved, what marks the community? An understanding among local residents? Are there even any municipal boundaries or are these decisions then left to other bodies (like the Postal Service)?

More broadly, it would be interesting to see how many communities have “disappeared” in the United States in recent decades. I have found a few of these in my research on suburbs but it tended to happen prior to the 1970s through annexations and mergers.

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New data collection tool: the ever-on smartphone microphone

One company is using the microphone in smartphones to figure out what people are watching on TV:

TV news was abuzz Thursday morning after Variety reported on a presentation by Alan Wurtzel, a president at NBCUniversal, who said that streaming shows weren’t cutting into broadcast television viewership to the degree that much of the press seems to believe. Mr. Wurtzel used numbers that estimated viewership using data gathered by mobile devices that listened to what people were watching and extrapolating viewership across the country…

The company behind the technology is called Symphony Advanced Media. The Observer spoke to its CEO Charles Buchwalter, about how it works, via phone. “Our entire focus is to add insights and perspectives on an entire new paradigm around how consumers are consuming media across  platforms,” he told the Observer…

Symphony asks those who opt in to load Symphony-branded apps onto their personal devices, apps that use microphones to listen to what’s going on in the background. With technology from Gracenote, the app can hear the show playing and identify it using its unique sound signature (the same way Shazam identifies a song playing over someone else’s speakers). Doing it that way allows the company to gather data on viewing of sites like Netflix and Hulu, whether the companies like it or not. (Netflix likes data)

It uses specific marketing to recruit “media insiders” into its system, who then download its app (there’s no way for consumers to get it without going through this process). In exchange, it pays consumers $5 in gift cards (and up) per month, depending on the number of devices he or she authorizes.

The undertone of this reporting is that there are privacy concerns lurking around the corner. Like the video camera now built into most laptops, tablets, and smartphones that might be turned on by nefarious people, most of these devices also have microphones that could be utilized by others.

Yet, as noted here, there is potential to gather data through opt-in programs. Imagine a mix between survey and ethnographic data where an opt-in program can get an audio sense of where the user is. Or record conversations to examine both content and interaction patterns. Or to look at the noise levels people are surrounded by. Or to simply capture voice responses to survey questions that might allow respondents to provide more details (because they are able to interact with the question more as well as because their voice patterns might also provide insights).

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Illegal wealth funneled through luxury urban housing?

The higher end of the real estate market is booming in many American cities but it may involve tainted money:

It is the first time the federal government has required real estate companies to disclose names behind cash transactions, and it is likely to send shudders through the real estate industry, which has benefited enormously in recent years from a building boom increasingly dependent on wealthy, secretive buyers.

The initiative is part of a broader federal effort to increase the focus on money laundering in real estate. Treasury and federal law enforcement officials said they were putting greater resources into investigating luxury real estate sales that involve shell companies like limited liability companies, often known as L.L.C.s; partnerships; and other entities…

Officials said the new government efforts were inspired in part by a series last year in The New York Times that examined the rising use of shell companies as foreign buyers increasingly sought safe havens for their money in the United States. The investigation found that real estate professionals, especially in the luxury market, often do not know much about buyers. Until now, none of them have been legally required to.

The use of shell companies in real estate is legal, and L.L.C.s have a range of uses unrelated to secrecy. But a top Treasury official, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, said her agency had seen instances in which multimillion-dollar homes were being used as safe deposit boxes for ill-gotten gains, in transactions made more opaque by the use of anonymous shell companies.

It would be fascinating to hear what local officials, developers, and real estate professionals have to say about this in private. I imagine few would be willing to appear to publicly condone illegal uses of money, yet such a move could threaten status and profits. If there are indeed numerous cases of this, does this taint particular developments or cities? Or is the wave of luxury building simply too strong (and advantageous) to be derailed by a few negative instances?

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“The most misleading charts of 2015, fixed”

Here are some improved charts first put forward by politicians, advocacy groups, and the media in 2015.

I’m not sure exactly how they picked “the most misleading charts” (is there bias in this selection?) but it is interesting that several involve a misleading y-axis. I’m not sure that I would count the last example as a misleading chart since it involves a definition issue before getting to the chart.

And what is the purpose of the original, poorly done graphics? Changing the presentation of the data provides evidence for a particular viewpoint. Change the graphic depiction of the data and another story could be told. Unfortunately, it is actions like these that tend to cast doubt on the use of data for making public arguments – the data is simply too easy to manipulate so why rely on data at all? Of course, that assumes people look closely at the chart and the data source and know what questions to ask…

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More Chicago suburbs hiring staff

Perhaps this is another sign of a more positive economy (and more tax dollars): some suburban governments are hiring again.

According to a Daily Herald analysis of 61 suburbs, 31 of them added the equivalent of 139 full-time jobs during the fiscal year that ended April 30, 2015, for most suburbs and Dec. 31, 2014, for others.

But 16 suburbs eliminated the equivalent of 46 full-time jobs and 14 towns held the line on the head count from the previous year, the analysis of the suburbs’ most recent audits show…

Still, the vast majority of towns are operating with much smaller staffs than just a few years ago. At its peak seven years ago, employment by the 61 towns was nearly 10 percent higher with the equivalent of 13,251 full-time jobs, compared to a low point of 11,977 full-time equivalent positions two years ago, according to the analysis…

According to the analysis of the audits, the 61 towns in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties first saw significant job reductions in 2010, when they reduced their workforces by 3.8 percent.

While this analysis is interesting, more background might be helpful. Suburban governments today have to balance efficiency (meaning keeping tax increases small or cutting the budget) and quality of life (the suburban life that many of the residents who moved to the community want to continue and enhance). This is not easy to do; residents tend to want more for their money and many might be convinced that government can always cut waste (or at least cut the money they don’t personally care about or benefit from). But, at some point, employees are needed.

This article suggests that a number of the new hires in suburban communities are part-time employees to limit the benefits costs. I’d be interested to see data on whether having more part-time employees in local government leads to better service and community outcomes.

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