Drudge Report gets in on the politicization of tiny houses

The Drudge Report yesterday featured this headline and photo regarding tiny houses:










While the headline links to a fairly bland story about the increased popularity of tiny houses in the Daily Mail, the tagline and the picture is intended to make another point: Americans are choosing tiny houses because the economy has pushed them into it. If the economy was doing better, assumed to be the case if there was a different president, they wouldn’t choose a tiny house. Perhaps this is what a future conservative president should run on: McMansions for all!

This isn’t the first time people have made political points with tiny houses. In the number of articles I’ve seen about such homes (and in the Daily Mail summary article), tiny house residents often make clear statements that they want to avoid consumerism and live greener lives. Generally, they seem to be favored by educated liberals. However, there is little reason that they couldn’t be supported by rural conservatives who want cheap and mobile housing on land or who want to build their own homes.

Given the relatively small number of tiny houses, perhaps the public discussion over tiny houses can’t help but be political as both sides try to use it to their advantage. If such homes were to become numerous and widespread across the population, the opposite might be true: neither party could risk alienating voters over their choice of a home.

Americans under 35 have lowest recorded homeownership rate; what does it mean?

The latest Census data shows Americans under 35 now have the lowest recorded homeownership rate for that age group:

In the second quarter of 2014, the rate of homeownership among householders who are under 35 dropped to the lowest number ever reported since the Census Bureau first started recording quarterly homeownership rates 21 years ago.

In a news release published this week, the Census Bureau said that the homeownership rate among householders under 35 was 35.9 percent in the second quarter of 2014. That number was not only lower than any quarterly rate going back to the fourth quarter of 1993 (the first quarterly rate reported) but was also lower than any of the annual homeownership rates for under 35s that the Census Bureau has published since 1982.

However, a Census Bureau official also said that the 35.9 percent homeownership rate for under 35s for the second quarter was not statistically different from the rate for the first quarter of this year (36.2 percent) or the fourth quarter of 2013 (36.8 percent).

These figures on their own could support a number of different arguments about the fate of homeownership in the United States. On one side, those promoting more urban lifestyles could say millennials aren’t buying more homes because they are moving to cities and looking to rent units in order to have more flexibility and take advantage of the urban lifestyle. On the other side, others might note that this data comes 5+ years into the bursting of a housing bubble and that millennials will show more interest in homeownership when the economy picks up. Yet, to make such claims with this data alone would be irresponsible. To be honest, we need a lot more data than this to support any argument and know whether younger Americans do or do not want to own homes in similar numbers to past generations.

See the full Census report regarding 2Q homeownership rates here.

Watching metropolitan sprawl from space

Check out a set of interesting GIFs showing sprawl in metropolitan regions:

A couple things jumped out at him while studying these animations. “It is interesting to see the ‘greening’ of the mid-ring suburbs of the ’70 to the ’90s as the tree canopies matured,” he says. “This is in contrast to the concrete jungles of prewar neighborhoods and the virgin developments of the 21st century.” (Look again at Dallas/Fort Worth for a good example.)

A few other trends he noticed: Some cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, grow lighter over time, an apparent consequence of newer, white-roofed buildings crowding out older ones with dark roof tiles. And the shrinking of water sources, whether manmade or natural, is a “sad site to behold,” Williams says. “On the other hand, the creation of artificial land in coastal metropolises is increasingly larger in scale (re: Shanghai).”

If one thinks that any sort of sprawl is bad because it takes up more land, leads to deconcentrated regions, necessarily leads to McMansions and more driving, or other reasons, the images of American cities may look bad. But, the animations of American cities show sprawl on a different scale than that of some global cities. The American regions show more filling in between existing settlements, particularly in more established Northaast and Midwest cities. Sunbelt cities may look more like cities in developing countries where cities have simply exploded rather than filled in.

It is also interesting to consider sprawl from this particular vantage point: via satellites. The average suburbanite might consider sprawl at a closer level; the nearby field that disappeared for a housing development, the increase in traffic as new residents add to the local congestion, the notices about cheaper houses on the metropolitan fringe. But, satellite images and maps help remind us of the broader nature of sprawl: if the region is a circle with the city in the middle, expanding sprawl moves out the outer ring of the circle, adding more and more square miles that is only generally bounded by a large body of water (or perhaps another metropolitan region).

Porches on new American homes increase by 21% between 1993 and 2013

More new American homes have porches:

As the Census Bureau reported in June, 63 percent of new single-family homes completed last year had this once-again-trendy feature, up from 42 percent in 1993. So what’s the cause of this major upswing? Well, as Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, revealed to the Wall Street Journal, the return of the porch is reflective of a desire for social connection. And as “a place between the privacy of the house and the public world of the street,” it’s perfect for just that.

See the official Census data here – the porch is up as well as the patio while decks have decreased.

But, the real question is whether this increase in porches is related to an increased use of porches. The quote above from Stern is paraphrased as “reflective of a desire for social connection” but not necessarily an actual uptick in that. This gets at an issue at the heart of some critiques of New Urbanism and other attempts at neo-traditional architecture: does building a porch change social behavior? Indeed, what if having a porch of the front of the house is more related to what is perceived as features that increase a home’s value?

All together, these new porches may be much more aspirational and about financial return than utilized for socializing.  We’ve all heard the story that people in the not-too-distant past used to sit on the porch all the time but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any data sources that consistently measure this in the American population at large…

Growth sector: catering to the wealthy

Here is one area for economic opportunity: providing goods and services for the wealthy.

Nathan Wilmers, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, looked at how the growing impact of wealthy consumers is reshaping the economy and wages. Others have termed this phenomenon “the plutonomy,” or an economy in which earnings and spending are dominated by those at the top.

Consumer spending by the top 5 percent of households has grown 5.2 percent a year since 1989, while spending by the bottom 95 percent has grown at 2.8 percent, Wilmers said. In the past, economists have estimated that the top 5 percent of consumers account for nearly 40 percent of consumption…

Wilmers said that “the increased influence of these consumers sets up big rewards for businesses that create and sell the sorts of products the affluent want.” Specifically, he looks at salaries for butlers, wine producers, Realtors, lawyers and bankers and found that those who are best at their professions and excel at skills valued by the wealthy have the highest wages.

Even within the same industry—say, law or household staff—people hired by wealthy patrons make more than those that serve the middle class or affluent. Companies favored by wealthy consumers also have higher margins (as anyone who’s looked at Hermes profits in Birkin bags can attest).

A few thoughts:

1. At what point does the market become saturated with people and businesses trying to sell to the wealthy?

2. Some historical context would be helpful here. How much does this differ from previous eras? It makes sense that the wealthy consume more but is this significantly different than a few decades ago?

3. Isn’t this a reasonable outcome for a capitalistic system? If you want to make money, you want to find consumers who can pay for your products. Having smaller profit margins may provide for a need or exhibit altruism but a purely profit-motivated firm would seek out the wealthy.

Horror film featuring dissertation writing sociology Ph.D. student does not end well

Sociologists don’t often make it into movies or TV shows but here is a new horror film that features the trials of a sociology Ph.D. student:

Matt Passmore (The Glades) and Huntingdon Valley native Katie Walder (Gilmore Girls) star as Las Vegas couple Josh and Sarah – he’s a croupier at one of the big casinos; she’s a Ph.D. candidate in sociology – whose quiet, cookie-cutter lives in a quiet, cookie-cutter housing development are turned inside out when the ultimate neighbor from hell moves in across the drive.

A scrawny, Norman Bates-ian creature with stringy, greasy hair parted in the middle, Dale (Nathan Keyes) is instantly, and most creepily, besotted with Sarah.

That’s because Sarah is the spitting image of Dale’s mom, who was viciously stabbed to death by Dale’s pop, as we see in a brief prologue…

The creepfest begins one afternoon when Sarah is jotting down some thoughts about the latest chapter in her dissertation, a study of the social effects of Internet porn. She falls asleep, only to wake up later that night dressed in an entirely different outfit.

Doesn’t sound like a good film. Also, it doesn’t sound like the sociology Ph.D. matters much for the plot. Could any graduate program have fit the bill here? Don’t sociologists get to do anything interesting in the media?

Report on Chicago manufacturing: “punching below its weight”

Chicago’s rise was aided by manufacturing but a new report says manufacturing in the region is lagging:

While the 14-county tri-state area was the fourth-largest exporter among the 100 top metro areas nationwide in 2012, it fell to the middle of the pack on gross domestic product growth, export growth and exports as a share of economic activity, according to “Revival in the Heartland: Manufacturing and Trade in Chicago,” a report to be released Wednesday by HSBC Bank and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“Manufacturing in Chicago is an old heavyweight slugger, punching below its weight,” the study stated, noting that it remains the second-largest economic driver in the region after government and social services…

Study authors and individual manufacturers cite a range of historical factors that have contributed to the weak performance:

•A lack of civic and government attention to the sector because of a perception that it was dying.

•An absence of intraregional cooperation on economic issues.

•Freight rail gridlock.

•Lingering wariness about expanding business within the state, given its fiscal problems.

The article notes the ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, even on top of the decline of such jobs in the 1960s and 1970s. The initial drop significantly impacted social conditions, as noted by William Julius Wilson in his writings. Even as Chicago has avoided the decline narrative associated with numerous other Rust Belt cities (Detroit as a common example but also including places like Cleveland, Buffalo, Youngstown, and numerous other cities), a steady decrease in manufacturing continues to present challenges.

The “McMansion Queen Bedroom Set”

Thought McMansion owners couldn’t afford any furniture for their new large house? If they have the money, they may need this bedroom set from The Great Western Furniture Company:

McMansion Queen Bedroom Set


Product Description

A version of our most popular bedroom (the Mansion) with less bulk and all the same beauty! Still solid wood and hand-crafted, this set comes at a great value and features the Queen headboard, footboard, side rails, slats and center support, dresser, mirror, and 1 night stand. The Chest is also available for an additional $265 if you have the room for it!http://www.greatwesternfurniturecompany.com/product/mcmansion-queen-bedroom-set/

Three quick thoughts:

1. This furniture set doesn’t look particularly special. But, attaching the name McMansion gives it certain meanings and many of these meanings are not good.

2. That this is a variant of the Mansion set makes sense but seems funny. Is there a smaller split-level set?

3. Is this the sort of furniture McMansion owners across America want?

The United States added nearly 17 million people from 2007 to 2014

In the middle of a story regarding the rising price of electricity, I found this surprising fact:

According to the Census Bureau, however, the resident population of the United States increased from 300,888,674 in April 2007 to 317,787,997 in April 2014.

Several quick thoughts:

1. I had a conversation earlier in the day with several colleagues about population stagnation in a number of industrialized countries around the world. The United States is unusual compared to Western Europe which has lower birth rates and lower rates of immigration.

2. It is hard to imagine 17 million people. In other terms, the United States added more than the metropolitan population of London.

3. I’ve had the thought lately that perhaps part of the political morass in the United States these days is due to a political system that is simply difficult to maintain with 317 million residents. Providing for all of these people adds to the difficulties of maintaining bureaucracies (and you need quite a few with the population). A two party system makes it very difficult to represent all of the competing concerns and interests. Reaching consensus can be difficult within a country that prizes individualism.

The workouts of the upper class aim to avoid “excessive displays of strength”

Workout goals and expectations about the ideal fit body type may just be related to social class:

Soon, however, I suffered a creeping insecurity. Looking into the eyes of a banker with soft hands, I imagined him thinking, You deluded moron, what does muscle have to do with anything?

One day, a skinny triathlete jogged past our house: visor, fancy sunglasses, GPS watch. I caught a look of yearning in my wife’s eyes. That night, we fought and she confessed: She couldn’t help it, she liked me better slender…

Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes—especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars—tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices—and dearly held self-definitions—of my social group.

I’ve never encountered this literature. But, I wonder how this might be related to historical social patterns, particularly the shift away from and the growing bifurcation between manual labor/unskilled jobs and the growing white-collar job force who often sit in offices all day. While the wealthy classes of the past may not have had to show any physical abilities, now the expectation is fitness across a wider range of classes. With less manual labor on the job, people today have more choices about exercise ranging from whether to do it at all, how much money to spend on what can become a very expensive activity, and what kind of path to pursue from older patterns to the latest trends.

h/t Instapundit