Buy friends and families barrels of oil for Christmas

I’ve thought about this before…

Oil prices continued to fall today, with two different measures of the commodity’s price hitting five-year lows. Oil can currently be had for $64.10 a barrel in some circumstances.

A barrel of oil is 42 gallons.

Who do you know that could use 42 gallons of freshly drilled oil? Everyone! Oil is important for producing energy, which powers cars and flat-screen televisions through a scientific process known as “pushing the button on the remote control or turning the key in the ignition.”

And what season is it? Christmas season! The season for giving things to people. Do you see where I’m going with this? Oil is this year’s hottest and most affordable Christmas gift.

The practical issues are immense – how would an individual refine the oil? how many people could easily store the barrels? These barrels can’t exactly be bought and sold at Walmart – but it is hard to argue with giving people something they need. Why give superfluous gifts when every driver could use cheap oil?

When public anger can prompt the collection of better data

I’ve seen this argument several places, including this AP story: collecting national data about fatalities due to police would be helpful.

To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

“We have a huge scandal in that we don’t have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody,” says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. “That’s outrageous.”…

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides – there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 – but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren’t required.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters…

Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the “political and public will” to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.

A few quick thoughts:

1. Just because this data hasn’t been collected doesn’t necessarily mean this was intentional. Government agencies collect lots of data but it takes some deliberate action and foresight regarding what should and shouldn’t be reported. Given that there are a least a few hundred such deaths each year, you would think someone would have flagged such information as interesting but apparently not. Now would be a good time to start reporting and collecting such data.

2. Statistics would be helpful in providing a broader perspective on the issue but, as the article notes, statistics have certain kinds of persuasive power as do individual events or broad narratives not necessarily backed by statistics. In our individualistic culture, specific stories can often go a long ways. At the same time, social problems are often defined by their scope which involves statistical measures of how many people are affected.

What are the “dead giveaways” in landscaping outside a McMansion?

One forum generates ideas about what kind of landscaping clearly marks a McMansion:

Most mcmansions in this area (mind you that’s only upper-middle class, not very upper class) have one tortured looking weeping nootka falsecypress, one fat albert spruce, a weeping mulberry and/or a callery pear…

MULCH. Large expanses of mulch dotted with discrete plants. Screams modern, if not commercial…

I think black mulch is the 2014 version of red mulch. Any dyed mulch screems Mc mansion to me. Undyed mulch used for function is ok but any munch used as decoration looks unnaturally trendy to me…

Faux “outcroppings” of rock are another big millennial landscaping conceit to avoid. I am not aware of many spontaneous outcroppings of rocks and plants with a waterfall springing out of it in the middle of Indiana. The ones that are there are probably planted. Just say “no”…

Too many hydrangeas. But ultimately, I think the “McMansion” look is one that is too manicured, too perfect and planned out…

Basically, 98% of American McMansions (or even what pass for mansions these days) are ridiculously over landscaped, at least compared to the European manors and stately homes they are claiming as inspiration. Just as the building architecture itself is often a bad, ham-fisted copy, the “design on the land” descends into contrivance and excess. I’ve heard of more than one case now of a 10-20 year old planting of “foundation shrubs” being ripped out because it had become unmaintainable and was overpowering the facade of the house. I suspect we are at a tipping point where there is soon going to be an article about it and partial backlash.


Some interesting ideas throughout this long thread. McMansions tend to try to impress observers with their features – whether that includes turrets, big entrances and foyers, multi-gabled roofs, stonework (or fake stones), numerous windows, mish-mash of weighty older styles – but the landscaping may not get as much attention. One factor common across these comments is that McMansion landscaping doesn’t account much for long-term appearance and care of plants. In other words, the landscaping is also meant to impress or get the job done but may not serve the home and the owners well 10-20 years down the road. If this is true, then the McMansions are what critics suggest: homes with limited staying power once you get past the facade (or landscaping).

“Why Congress won’t raise the gas tax”

Gas prices are lower and the money is needed for highways but one writer suggests Congress is nowhere near raising the gas tax:

Fuel prices are plunging to their lowest level in years. The Highway Trust Fund is broke, and Congress faces a spring deadline to replenish it. The obvious answer—the only answer, according to many in Washington—is to raise the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t gone up in more than 20 years. Since prices at the pump have dropped more than a dollar per gallon in some areas, drivers would barely notice the extra nickel they’d be forced initially to pay as a result of the tax hike. That wasn’t true until recently: For years, the pocketbook punch of the Great Recession combined with gas prices that peaked above $4 made an increase both politically and economically untenable.

Yet even with prices at a four-year low, the odds of Congress touching the gas tax are as long as ever. “I think it’s too toxic and continues to be too toxic,” said Steve LaTourette, the former Republican congressman best known for his close friendship with his fellow Ohioan, Speaker John Boehner. “I see no political will to get this done.”…

Advocates on and off Capitol Hill are mounting a new push to lift the gas tax as Republicans prepare to assume full control of Congress in January. Funding for the Highway Trust Fund will run out May 31. On 60 Minutes last month, officials including former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell used the specter of a major bridge or highway collapse to warn of the need for new investments. LaHood, a Republican who was once rebuked by the Obama White House for suggesting a switch to a mileage-based tax, is now going public on the gas tax, in his typically colorful style. “The best argument for doing it is is that America is one big pothole,” he told me in a phone interview, “and America’s infrastructure is in the worst shape that we’ve seen in decades.”…

In a separate interview, Blumenauer said the administration had recently “dialed back” its opposition, with senior officials telling lawmakers that if Congress could somehow pass a gas tax hike, he would sign it. Yet just a few hours after his and Petri’s press conference, Obama himself seemed to put their plan back on ice. At a business roundtable at the White House, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith asked Obama why Congress couldn’t just raise the gas tax and solve the infrastructure problem. “In fairness to members of Congress, votes on the gas tax are really tough,” the president replied, after first chuckling that if it he were in charge on Capitol Hill, “I probably already would have done it.”

It sounds like Congress thinks that such a move would be very unpopular. Americans like driving (even if they have cut back in recent years), prefer cheaper gas, believe the country is still experiencing tough economic times, and many don’t want to personally pay more in taxes. Yet, it makes some sense that highways should be funded by the gas tax: if you use the highways and associated infrastructure, you should help bear some of the cost.

Is Congress responsible for this or the American people? The article suggests Congress won’t act but Congress suggests the American people wouldn’t want it. Are both groups pretty blind to infrastructure needs or long-term investments? In the short-term, few people want to pay the necessary costs but no one will like it if the situation becomes dire.

How Naperville can present its suburban sprawl in its proposed bicentennial museum

Naper Settlement officials suggested they want to build a museum for the city’s 200th birthday:

Naperville’s 200th birthday is still about 16 years away, but Naper Settlement officials already are thinking about what the city should give itself to mark the occasion.

Their answer is Scott’s Block, a history museum made to look like a downtown building that existed between 1854 and 1975 as a bank and a gathering hall.

Imagined as a 31,000-square-foot museum to be built on the Naper Settlement campus at 523 S. Webster St., Scott’s Block would give Naperville’s historical stewards space to tell stories beginning with the city’s founding era in the 1830s. Stories of war heroes, women business leaders, even iconic ice cream shops could be displayed in the new space the settlement hopes to build in time for Naperville’s bicentennial in 2031, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO…

Scott marked the nation’s 100th anniversary by building a gathering place, and the city marked its first 100 years in 1931 with the creation of Centennial Beach. Next for the city’s 150th anniversary came the Riverwalk, and Tamayo-Calabrese says now it’s time to think about what should commemorate the 200th year…

Having additional space would let the settlement bring many of the 55,000 artifacts it has in storage out for all to see in themed exhibits that could rotate throughout the year.

Naper Settlement primarily emphasizes the city’s early decades after the community was founded in the early 1830s. While these are important years, Naperville was quite small until after World War II. It is since then that the community grew to over 140,000 people and over 35 square miles. The Naperville of today is built on some of these early decisions but looks quite different now. So, what could Naper Settlement present about this era? I offer three key things Naperville residents and leaders like to discuss and one other feature that might be a bit harder to present:

1. The role of Harold Moser, known as “Mr. Naperville.” Moser ended up building dozens of subdivisions as the city expanded. The first major one was Moser Highlands just to the southeast of downtown. Moser was also involved in the community, giving lots of money and serving in a variety of roles.

2. The opening of Bell Labs in the mid 1960s just northwest of the intersection of Naperville and Warrenville Roads. The East-West Tollway opened in 1958 and Bell Labs announced the construction of a large facility in 1964. The arrival of high-tech white-collar jobs helped kick off a boom in such positions in Naperville. Today, the city is home to a number of notable companies.

3. The construction of the Riverwalk about the DuPage River. This park was part of a mid-1970s plan to help revive Naperville’s downtown that was facing stiff competition from areas like the newly-opened Fox Valley Mall (where the developer had sided with Aurora rather than Naperville). Volunteers and civic groups helped put together the first small stretch and the Riverwalk has expanded since then. It is a lively attraction during the summer and helped bring people and businesses to the downtown.

4. The one feature that might be harder to present because it doesn’t emphasize a particular person or event is the willingness of Naperville to annex land. After World War II, many suburbs across the United States had opportunities to expand. Naperville truly pursued this, annexing multiple large chunks and expanding to the north to encompass land around the interstate (capturing some of this white-collar job growth) and particularly to the south and west until finally running into other communities (Aurora in the 1970s, others in the early 2000s). One of the remarkable features of Naperville is its size and wealth; few communities its size have its level of wealth, good jobs, low crime, and low poverty.

Organizations can’t keep up with the statistics of how many people ISIS have killed

Measuring many things rests on the ability to observe or collect the data. But, a number of organizations have found that they can’t keep up with the actions of ISIS:

He and his colleagues have (alone among wire services) built up a detailed spreadsheet total of civilian and combatant casualties, but faced with the near impossibility of verifying multiple daily reports of massacres in provinces rendered inaccessible since the early weeks of ISIS’s June offensive, they now largely restrict its use for internal purposes.Officials in UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) are similarly downbeat about the accuracy of their records.

“Since the armed conflict escalated, I would say that our figures are significantly under reported,” said Francesco Motta, Director of UNAMI’s human rights office.

“We are getting hundreds of reports in addition to those we verify that we are just simply not able to verify owing to our limited access to areas where incidents are taking place,” he added…

It’s the sheer magnitude of the slaughter that’s overstretching these groups’ resources, but ISIS’s murderous approach to the media has compounded the problem. On top of the much publicized recent beheadings of two American journalists, ISIS also has killed dozens of Syrian and Iraqi reporters. Body counts rely heavily on local news articles for coverage of incidents in towns and rural pockets far from Baghdad, and the jihadists’ seizure of up to a third of Iraq has complicated attempts to report within their areas of control.

It may be a macabre task but an important one. As the article goes on to note, this matters for political ends (different sides will spin the available or estimated numbers in different ways) and for public perceptions. In fact, social problems are often defined by the number of people they affect. Higher numbers of deaths would tend to prompt more reaction from the public but overestimates that are later shown to be false could decrease attention.

Argument: Sociologists should learn more statistics to get paid like economists

A finance professor suggests the wage gap between economists and sociologists can be explained by the lack of statistical skills among sociologists:

Statistics is hugely valuable in the real world. Simply knowing how to run, and interpret, a regression is invaluable to management consultants. Statistics is now permeating the IT world, as a component of data science — and to do statistics, economists have to learn how to manage data. And statistics forces economists to learn to code, usually in Matlab.

As Econ 101 would tell us, these skills command a large premium. Unless universities want to shrink their economics departments, they have to shell out more money to keep the professors from bolting to consulting and financial firms.

If sociologists want to crack this bastion of economists’ “superiority,” they need to tech up with statistics. Sociologists do use some statistics, but in general it’s just much less rigorous and advanced than in economics. But there is no reason why that has to continue. Sociologists work with many quantitative topics. There are vast amounts of quantitative data available to them — and if there is a shortage, survey research centers such as the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research can generate more.

Using more and harder statistics will probably require more quantitative modeling of social phenomena. But it won’t require sociologists to adopt a single one of econ’s optimization models, or embrace any economics concepts. It won’t require giving one inch to the “imperialist” economics of Gary Becker’s disciples. All it will require is for sociologists to learn a lot more advanced statistics, and the data management and coding skills that go with it. The best way to make that happen is to start using a lot more sophisticated statistics in sociology papers. Eventually, the word “sociologist” will start to carry the connotation of “someone who is a whiz with data.” I’m sure some departments have already started to move in this direction.

I imagine this would generate a wide range of responses from sociologists. A few quick thoughts:

1. Using more advanced statistical techniques is one thing but it also involves a lot of interpretation and explanation. This is not just a technical recommendation but also requires links to conceptual and theoretical changes.

2. Can we statistically model the most complex social realities? Would having more and more big data make this possible? Statistics aren’t everything.

3. Any way to quantify this anecdotal argument? I can’t resist asking this…

Reactions “when your childhood home becomes a ‘teardown’”

A reporter describes seeing her childhood home make way for a teardown:

I understand why the house is being torn down. The stairs aren’t up to today’s construction codes. The bathrooms and kitchen are small. When someone slams the door in the garage, you can feel the vibrations upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom. The plumbing, windows and electric wiring haven’t been touched in decades. The metallic wallpaper with blue flowers in the bathroom my brother and I once shared says it all: The house is clearly outdated.

Still, I dread its rendezvous with a wrecking ball. When my childhood BFF’s century-old house was bulldozed last spring (goodbye high ceilings and ornate mantelpieces), the teardown trend in our old neighborhood suddenly became personal. Was some nefarious force—McMansion mania? Voldemort?—out to destroy my childhood haunts?

And what might explain such emotions?

Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, says teardowns can be more traumatic for former owners, and their children, than sales in which a house survives.

For one thing, she says, it’s hard to escape the finality of a teardown, which makes it all the more obvious “that you can no longer go back to the safety and comfort” of childhood. “It’s in your face,” she says.

There is also an obvious analogy to my aging parents. With new construction springing up all over the neighborhood, the house suddenly looks like a relic of another era. Still, when I came across the property records in my parents’ files last spring, the comparison that immediately sprang to mind was to myself. Although I had always assumed the house was older, it was actually erected just a few years before I was born in 1964.

For many people, childhood homes function like a psychological safety net, says Gerald Davison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable knocking on the door, it’s nice to know that it’s always possible to do so” and reconnect with childhood, he says.

Neighborhoods do change over time but homes often represent permanence. This hints at the broader ideology of the American Dream as well as childhood. The first refers to the emotional attachment to single-family homes on plots of land, places that people can call their own. The second involves the development of childhood as a sort of “golden age” in the lifecourses filled with good experiences and exploring the world.

It would be interesting to hear more about the expression of and limits to such emotions. Perhaps we can add “McMansion mania” to the list of childhood bogeymen…

The revival of big city downtowns not about recreating economic hubs?

Joel Kotkin suggests revived downtowns of big American cities aren’t exactly bringing back the old days where they served as economic hubs:

Instead what’s emerging is a very different conceptualization of downtown, as a residential alternative that appeals to the young and childless couples, and that is not so much a dominant economic hub, but one of numerous poles in the metropolitan archipelago, usually with an outsized presence of financial institutions, government offices and business service firms…

The better numbers reflect then not a mass “back to the city” movement but an uptick in the market appeal of city centers. And it’s unlikely that the old urban cores will ever come close to recovering the economic preeminence they once enjoyed. In American Community Survey data from 2006-08, the central business district of the New York metro area was the only one across the country that accounted for over 20% of regional employment; downtown’s share topped 10% in just six other metro areas: Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Richmond, Chicago and Hartford. This contrasts with the kind of employment dominance seen in the 1950s when Manhattan’s commercial core accounted for more than 35% of employment in the New York area. Of course, the decline is a natural outgrowth of the massive physical expansion of the New York area during the past half century, a pattern seen in other major regions.

From 2000 to 2010, the share of jobs dropped somewhat in the nation’s biggest urban cores, but employment declined far more in the inner ring suburbs, according to an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox. In contrast the fastest job growth was in suburban and exurban areas, paralleling their gains in population. This has become clearer since the recession ended; the consultancy Costar notes between 2012 and 2013 office absorption grew quicker in the suburbs than the core, accounting for 87% of new office demand. Overall suburbs account for nearly 75% of all office space in our metropolitan areas…

This resurgence in L.A., and elsewhere, is no mean accomplishment, but it also does not constitute sea-change in fundamental economic geography. Downtowns are back, but more as a lifestyle option than as a dominant feature of the metropolitan landscape.

Could big city downtowns be more urban lifestyle centers? Compared to suburbs, these downtowns offer more cultural options: museums, large urban parks, restaurants, theaters, non big box shopping. Suburbs have more cultural options than they did in the past – and the stereotypes that all suburbs were bedroom suburbs with no other activities was never true – but cities offer a higher concentration. And could city condos be a clear status symbol of today’s upper-middle or upper class?

Another piece of data that might help here are reverse commuting patterns. Looking at these downtown census tracts and blocks, how many residents work nearby or in the city compared to past decades?

How life stages affect decisions about housing

Life stages, including cohabitation or kids leaving the house, can trigger different housing choices:

Unmarried. Singles are more likely to rent and live in locations that are closer to entertainment and employment, which is why these areas are more in demand today than usual.

Togetherness. Cohabitation has been on the rise in recent decades, but homeownership rates for these couples are much lower than rates for their married counterparts.

Marriage. Marriage often increases the desire to own a home; many location and housing choices depend on income and nearby family.

Children. The addition of little ones makes owning a home feel like a necessity for many, given the desire for yards, good schools and social circles for the kids.

Children moving out. An empty nest often results in lifestyle changes, including different home-size preferences, social circles and floor-plan needs. Locational preferences also begin to shift.

The first two stages suggest a decrease in homeownership, the next two based around marriage and kids involve the more traditional American Dream, and the last seems to revert to the first two when more options are available. Are we headed toward a housing market where owning a home is primarily about kids? This has always been a key factor in moving to and living in the suburbs, which is closely linked to homeownership.

The flip side of this is to ask how real estate agents and builders will respond to these life stages. Can they afford to target each stage with specialized housing? Are there ways to have more flexible housing that can transition as the lifecourse changes?