Religious change: Americans identifying as Christian drops to 70.6%

New data from Pew Research shows a drop in how many American adults identify as Christians:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.1 But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the drop in religious affiliation will get a lot of attention, this report has other interesting information: American Christians have become more non-white; religious intermarriage is up; Black Protestants have been stable while Evangelical Christians are growing whereas Catholics and Mainline Protestants have lost large numbers; and non-Christian groups have grown but are still quite small.

Social scientists critique Facebook’s study claiming the news feed algorithm doesn’t lead to a filter bubble

Several social scientists have some concerns about Facebook’s recent findings that its news feed algorithm is less important than the choices of individual users in limiting what they see to what they already agree with:

But even that’s [sample size] not the biggest problem, Jurgenson and others say. The biggest issue is that the Facebook study pretends that individuals choosing to limit their exposure to different topics is a completely separate thing from the Facebook algorithm doing so. The study makes it seem like the two are disconnected and can be compared to each other on some kind of equal basis. But in reality, says Jurgenson, the latter exaggerates the former, because personal choices are what the algorithmic filtering is ultimately based on:“Individual users choosing news they agree with and Facebook’s algorithm providing what those individuals already agree with is not either-or but additive. That people seek that which they agree with is a pretty well-established social-psychological trend… what’s important is the finding that [the newsfeed] algorithm exacerbates and furthers this filter bubble.”

Sociologist and social-media expert Zeynep Tufekci points out in a post on Medium that trying to separate and compare these two things represents the worst “apples to oranges comparison I’ve seen recently,” since the two things that Facebook is pretending are unrelated have significant cumulative effects, and in fact are tied directly to each other. In other words, Facebook’s algorithmic filter magnifies the already human tendency to avoid news or opinions that we don’t agree with…

Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, calls the Facebook research the “not our fault” study, since it is clearly designed to absolve the social network of blame for people not being exposed to contrary news and opinion. In addition to the framing of the research — which tries to claim that being exposed to differing opinions isn’t necessarily a positive thing for society — the conclusion that user choice is the big problem just doesn’t ring true, says Sandvig (who has written a paper about the biased nature of Facebook’s algorithm).

Research on political echo chambers has grown in recent years and has included examinations of blogs and TV news channels. Is Facebook “bad” if it follows the pattern of reinforcing boundaries? While it may not be surprising if it does, I’m reminded of what I’ve read about Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions for what Facebook would do: bring people together in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise. So, if Facebook itself has the goal of crossing traditional boundaries, which are usually limited by homophily (people choosing to associate with people largely like themselves) and protecting the in-group against out-group interlopers, then does this mean the company is not meeting its intended goals? I just took a user survey from them recently that didn’t include much about crossing boundaries and instead asked about things like having fun, being satisfied with the Facebook experience, and whether I was satisfied with the number of my friends.

Paying for Austin’s permitting backlog which may be partly due to its McMansion ordinance

Several years ago, Austin enacted an ordinance intended to reign in McMansions. But, that ordinance may have contributed to a backlog of permits which the city is now trying to tackle:

The directors of the city’s planning and permitting departments estimate it would take $400,000 to hire temporary workers and pay for overtime to eliminate the current backlog in the next 90 days…

Next year the department plans to ask for $1.6 million in additional money to fund 11 new positions. This memo comes as the city is just launching its annual budget process. Over the next few weeks, every department is going to be compiling a budget wish list, which eventually is sent to the City Council…

Some of the blame for the three-week delay in residential planning and permitting was placed on the “complexity” of the city’s McMansion ordinance, which limits housing sizes in certain neighborhoods. “As such the department will recommend changes to the (land development code) that will simplify the McMansion provisions and will extend turnaround times for those types of reviews to ensure that there is sufficient time to perform a thorough review,” the memo states.

The planning and permitting departments, which used to be one department called Planning and Development Review, are responsible for approving all real estate development in the city, from housing remodels to new subdivisions.

It can take some time to see how ordinances actually play out and perhaps the initial ordinance can be “smoothed out” for this sort of process. Communities can also run into this problem if they have high rates of growth. Austin is a desirable place for construction so it may make sense that it has a lot of permits to deal with.

I wonder how much these decisions to speed up the permitting process are driven by builders and developers who generally want to move as quickly as possible. If there is a bit of a delay in the process, would these builders actually cancel their projects or go elsewhere? Builders and developers are often powerful and are viewed as important harbingers of economic growth. Yet, isn’t Austin so desirable that a delay won’t harm things much? Granted, lots of people might want more efficient government but that also may just require more government employees.

Tolls to “never” go away on Illinois tollways

The acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation recently discussed the ongoing presence of tolls on Illinois highways:

Acting Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn Friday answered the question that’s been on commuters’ minds since the state’s first three tollways opened in 1958: When will the tolls go away, as promised.

“Never,” Blankenhorn told a gathering of Kane County leaders. “The existing tolls are going to be on the tollway. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth is unless we are willing to put significantly more state and federal money into the system, tolls are going to be the way we fund the system. It’s not going to be the only way, but it’s going to be part of the package.”…

Blankenhorn, calling himself “a user fee kind of guy” stuck to his support for existing and new tolls throughout his answers. The history of borrowing money to fund all segments of transportation, including ongoing maintenance, must end, he said.

“We’ve got to be able to pay for maintenance as we go,” Blankenhorn said. “We need a stable funding source that grows. User fees, I think, have to be part of this solution. If we don’t do something soon, we will have 5,000 miles of roadway in Illinois that will be in need of immediate repair. How long do we want to fund infrastructure on cigarette taxes and gambling?”

Given that the federal government nor states seem particularly interested in big infrastructure/highway funding (and even if they wanted to, money isn’t exactly flowing these days), I would guess that tolls will continue to grow. You the driver want a road, particularly a new one that cuts through already-developed areas? Be prepared to pay tolls.

Self-driving semis to bring safety, limit unwanted jobs – and lower the costs of products?

Wired sums up some of the advantages autonomous semis might offer but leaves off a third possible advantages: cheaper shipping costs which leads to cheaper goods.

In 2012 in the US, 330,000 large trucks were involved in crashes that killed nearly 4,000 people, most of them in passenger cars. About 90 percent of those were caused by driver error. “Anything that can get commercial vehicles out of trouble has a lot of value,” says Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Group’s North America automotive division.

So it’s no surprise some of the country’s largest freight carriers have in recent years started equipping their vehicles with active safety features like lane control and automatic braking. The economic case for these measures—the predecessors to fuller autonomy—is clear, says Noël Perry, an economist who specializes in transportation and logistics…

Another point in favor of giving robots control is the serious and worsening shortage of humans willing to take the wheel. The lack of qualified drivers has created a “capacity crisis,” according to an October 2014 report by the American Transportation Research Institute. The American Trucking Associations predicts the industry could be short 240,000 drivers by 2022. (There are roughly three million full-time drivers in the US.)

That’s partly because long haul trucking is not an especially pleasant job, and because it takes time and money to earn a commercial driver’s license. The shortage will get worse, Perry says, thanks to a suite of regulations set to take effect in the next few years. A national database to collect company-performed drug and alcohol tests will make it harder for drivers who get in trouble at one job to land another. Speed limiters could keep trucks to a pokey 64 mph. Mandated electronic reporting of hours driven will make it harder to skirt rest rules and drive longer than allowed. These are all good changes from a safety perspective, but they’re not great for profits.

Safety is good and more meaningful jobs might be helpful – though losing a bunch of driving jobs won’t look good to many. But, what about the added benefit of cheaper shipping costs in the long run? Perhaps it will take some time for this technology to become cheap and widely adopted. Yet, if trucks can drive themselves and drivers don’t need to be paid, can’t these trucks run all day long making runs back and forth? And imagine if they could utilize greener technologies as well, limiting fuel costs. Americans like their cheap consumer goods and having everything shipped by semi just a little bit cheaper on store shelves may help Americans enjoy self-driving trucks even more.

Guatemalan McMansions built with remittances

There may be McMansions built in Guatemala with remittance funds but they require a lot of resources:

The paradoxical strength of Guatemalan migrants’ transnational dreams is nowhere more evident than in the clash between these McMansions — often decorated in red, white and blue — and below-subsistence everyday life in largely indigenous areas like Cabricán…

The remittances they send have increased nearly sevenfold since 2001, according to the International Organization for Migration. The money is projected to reach a record $5.9 billion this year, according to the Banco de Guatemala – over 10 percent of the country’s GDP…

Worse, many experts argue that big houses — unattainable with quetzales, the Guatemalan currency — are risky investments for remittance dollars, too, especially since most migrants already used what little assets they have — land and their existing homes — as collateral for the large loans necessary to pay smugglers’ fees.

A home like the one built from the money sent by the Rojas children’s in San Antonio costs around 500,000 quetzales ($64,000) to build there.

Critics of McMansions might note that such homes in Guatemala reflect the illusory nature of all McMansions: lots of space and an impressive facade but difficult to sustain in the long run with what they cost to build and maintain (and how that money might be better spent elsewhere) and their dubious quality. The Guatemalan McMansions illustrate the downsides of globalization where cultural tastes and spending habits (big homes, lots of features) may cross borders but not all the potential consumers are able to realistically purchase the goods they see.

At the same time, given the cheaper costs for such homes in Guatemala, how long before we see HGTV featuring American retirees looking at McMansion neighborhoods in Guatemala as they try to escape higher costs in the US but still want the private home of the American Dream?

Nate Silver: “The World May Have A Polling Problem”

In looking at the disparities between polls and recent election results in the United States and UK, Nate Silver suggests the polling industry may be in some trouble:

Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:

  • The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
  • Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantly underestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
  • Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)

At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obama beat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.

Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.

It sounds like there are multiple areas for improvement:

1. Methodology. How can polls reach the average citizen two decades into the 21st century? How can they collect representative samples?

2. Behavior across the pollsters, the media, and political operatives. How are these polls reported? Is the media more interested in political horse races than accurate poll results? Who can be viewed as an objective polling organization? Who can be viewed as an objective source for reporting and interpreting polling figures?

3. A decision for academics as well as pollsters: how accurate should polls be (what are the upper bounds for margins of error)? Should there be penalties for work that doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion?

DuPage County one of the best counties for poor kids to move up

A recent study by two economists shows DuPage County is one of the best in United States for social mobility for those who start toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

On the other extreme, poor children raised in DuPage, Illinois, have the best shot at climbing the economic ladder. The Chicago suburb is home to several large corporations, including McDonald’s and Ace Hardware, and is one of the nation’s wealthiest counties. Children from poor families in DuPage grow up to earn 15%, or $3,900, more than the national average by the time they are 26.

To conduct the study, Professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren looked at tax records for more than 5 million children whose families moved from one county to another between 1996 and 2012. Their analysis showed that where children are raised does have an impact on their chances of moving up economically. In addition, the younger a child is when he or she moves to a neighborhood with more opportunity, the greater the income boost. Neighborhoods matter more for boys than for girls.

Chetty and Hendren did not say why neighborhoods have such an impact on children’s success. But it did find that counties with higher rates of upward mobility have five things in common: less segregation by race and income, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower crime rates and more two-parent households.

The duo, along with Harvard Professor Lawrence Katz, also released Monday a second study that examined the impact of a federal program from the mid-1990s to move low-income families to better neighborhoods. It found that children who relocated when they were younger than 13 made 31% more, on average, than their peers whose families were not given vouchers to move. The relocated children were also more likely to attend college and less likely to be single parents.

DuPage County is not the most diverse place  nor is the most integrated but it is pretty wealthy, has a number of good school districts, and has lots of jobs (across a range of sectors). It also has a reputation of being quite conservative and wasn’t that open to non-whites in the decades after World War II. Yet, I don’t find it too surprising that it would be a good place for social mobility though I imagine this might differ quite a bit across communities within the county.

The second study mentioned above looks at the Moving To Opportunity program which didn’t have immediate influence for adults who move but may just have good long-term impacts for kids. Read more about the latest findings here.

When American communities try to limit the number of churches in city limits

This is a fascinating look at how American municipalities deal with the “problem” of too many churches. For example, here is the experience of Stafford, Texas which did not have a property tax and was located near highways outside Houston:

By 2006, there were 51 religious facilities in Stafford’s 7 square miles, according to city filings. And, at that time, the city had just a little over 300 acres that remained undeveloped.The costs in Stafford’s case were starting to outweigh the benefits…

Scarcella and city officials spent years poring through legal filings and spent a good dose of cash on attorneys to successfully craft a land use ordinance that would require a public hearing and process for new “places of assembly” — such as bowling alleys, dance halls, museums and religious facilities.To obtain a specific use permit under the regulation, applicants would have to address and adhere to a list of requirements related to elements such as acreage, parking and traffic mitigation.

The pushback was tremendous, Scarcella said, noting the town attracted national media and plenty of negative attention…

“I’m held in a fairly decent regard within my church, and I have a deep belief in Christ, and I believe in people’s right to worship, and I admire them for doing that,” he said. “But I also recognize that there needs to be a balance.”

 

Too many religious facilities that don’t pay property tax means that a community may not have a sufficient tax base to maintain all the infrastructure that religious facilities would use. One sociologist estimated that $71 billion in taxes is left on the table by religious institutions. Additionally, there is an opportunity cost involved where the land might have been used for purposes that would pay property taxes and perhaps even add sales tax revenues.

All of this could lead to a humorous situation: how about a suburban community near the nexus of multiple highways that zoned solely for industrial parks and churches/religious facilities? Given that many churches today have a tenuous connection to the community in which they are located, attendees don’t mind church shopping via car, and large churches want plenty of land and interior space for their campuses, this could minimize the pain for a number of other nearby communities.

Wheaton’s walkable shopping center…surrounded by parking lots

Renovations are coming to the Town Square Wheaton shopping center yet the picture of the complex shows it may just be as auto dependent as any shopping center:

It features 160,000 square feet of retail space, much of it filled with chain stores such as Banana Republic, Gap, Joseph A. Bank, Starbucks, Yankee Candle and Talbot’s. The property also includes two professional buildings that house medical offices.

Tucker Development plans to enhance the seven buildings arranged in a walkable loop primarily through signage and facade improvements.

Town Square Wheaton, a shopping center on the south side of the city, recently was sold for nearly $57.3 million. The new owner, Tucker Development, has plans for $1 million in renovations.

This shopping center embodies a lot of the features of newer lifestyle centers or New Urbanism-inspired shopping centers: it features a central plaza with a walkable loop around it, the scale is not huge, there are office spaces on the second floor plus numerous eateries (mixed uses), and it borrows from a local architectural style (Prairie School).

Yet, the overhead view highlights one of the problems that plagues numerous New Urbanist developments: they are often plopped right into car-dependent areas so that even if they are pleasantly walkable, one needs to drive there first. Walking or biking there is not easy; there are apartments adjacent to the center but there is not a permeable boundary between the spaces. You could walk or bike to the center from several nearby single-family home subdivisions (I was just biking near here recently) but that typically requires traveling along and/or crossing busy Naperville Road which funnels a lot of commuter traffic through south Wheaton (the primary path to Naperville and I-88) and isn’t exactly lined with beautiful structures.

Hence, just another shopping center surrounded by parking lots…