College students see inequalities while doing classes from home

Video conferencing software allows colleges classes to go on during COVID-19 but they can reveal differences between lives at home:

But as each logged in, not everyone’s new reality looked the same.

One student sat at a vacation home on the coast of Maine. Another struggled to keep her mother’s Puerto Rican food truck running while meat vanished from Florida grocery shelves. As one young woman’s father, a private equity executive, urged the family to decamp to a country where infections were falling, another student’s mother in Russia couldn’t afford the plane ticket to bring her daughter home…

She added: “It’s possible to believe that we can bridge inequalities by coming together on the Haverford campus, or that we can at least soften the edges — and then there is this incredible rupture. I’m very worried about what comes next for them.”

I suppose there is an optimistic and pessimistic way to look at this. For the first, perhaps college campuses truly do offer opportunities for students to have a somewhat level playing field. At the least, they have similar accommodations on campus and face similar day-to-day pressures regarding school. For the pessimistic side, on-campus college experiences may simply gloss over stark differences and access to resources while in school (as well as before and after). The campus experience might even make the problem worse by suggesting everyone has similar resources and opportunities.

Going further, there is a possible research study here looking at how students – and others using conferencing software for a variety of groups and organizations – display their surroundings. What are markers in a Zoom tableau or background that indicate relative advantage or disadvantage? How aware are users that they are doing this? Does it get discussed in the class/meeting/session or is it talked about later off-screen? What are the accepted norms in these areas?

From my own areas of research, I wonder what could be found regarding homes and interior spaces. Particularly for college students, where are the best or most common spaces for them to participate? American home activity can tend to center around the kitchen but I assume this is not the optimal space for video conferencing. This creates an interesting contrast: there are parts of homes that are meant to be showpieces for visitors – updated kitchens, big open concept spaces, entryways, the front exterior – but these would rarely show up on video conferences. If extended isolation becomes more common, would this change how people design homes and interior spaces?

Argument: New York City getting little sympathy from the rest of the country

Dahlia Lithwick compares the responses to New York City after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the spread of COVID-19 in the city:

In the hours and days after planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the twin towers, America recalled with a ferocious tenderness how desperately it loved New York. America loved the gritty, multicultural melting pot that was New York; it loved the way New Yorkers pulled together, demonstrating heroic selflessness and service. America loved its burly firefighters and cops and rescue workers. And America loved that New York bustled on, that New York pledged to rebuild. The city and the twin towers became the national locus of grieving, sometimes in ways that elbowed out the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other scenes of 9/11 attacks…

Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020, which has, in its earliest days at least, walloped New York harder than anyplace else in the country. As of this writing, New York City has seen more than 1,500 people dead and more than 57,000 cases diagnosed. But this time, New York City has not received an outpouring of national love and support. Instead, it has been shunned and shamed…

It was always a fairy tale, but it was surely a nice one. Columbine’s tragedy was America’s tragedy. Las Vegas happened to all of us. Parkland, Florida, was everyone’s worst national nightmare. Regional differences were downplayed so we could grieve together. But Donald Trump came along to remind us that Puerto Rico is not really America, and Detroit is not really America, and California is definitively not America. It was an easy myth to puncture, and he has deftly and rapidly ensured that no city or state will ever be America’s battered sweetheart again. We are all on our own.

New York almost makes it too easy. The city has long been associated with unbounded greed and wealth, cultural elitism, and ethnic diversity. That encompasses Ted Cruz’s sneering dog whistle about “New York values” in 2016, and Trump’s newfound loathing of the city he called home for his entire life—a city he was maligning long before the coronavirus came along. Despite the country’s love affair with New York in the wake of 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s also always been the case that the city coexists uncomfortably with the fantasy of rugged cowboys, wide-open spaces, and manly white men dominating nature, an American story Trump and his acolytes seem to love above all things.

I would add to this in a few ways:

  1. This hints at America’s complicated relationships with big cities from the beginning of the nation. Should the United States be a rural, agrarian society or a urban, cosmopolitan one? Our “compromise” is that slightly over half of the population lives in suburbs, places that can hint at both open spaces and nature alongside easy access to urban centers and amenities. Across a range of urban crises, mobilizing American sentiment for cities and the issues facing them can be a tough sell.
  2. As noted by Lithwick, New York City, out of all the cities, is a unique case. It is the leading city in the United States in terms of population and influence. It is regularly recognized as the leading global city of the world. It is an economic, entertainment, and cultural center. Yet, it is not the capital (which gives Washington, D.C. a particular status). It is not necessarily the place many Americans would aspire to live in. It is anchored in one part of the country and associated with particular values. Across the full city (and not just focusing on lower and midtown Manhattan which tend to get an outsized amount of attention), it may be a great microcosm of the United States but there are numerous alternative visions.
  3. Lithwick highlights differences in the two cases and there are plenty to tease out. One I would say more about involves the threat – terrorism versus a pandemic – affects a relatively small number of locations versus potentially affecting everyone, respectively. In 9/11, a majority of attention could go to New York and the scale of tragedy there. With COVID-19, all American cities (and surrounding regions) are at risk. Is it possibly to rally around one city, even the leading city, when everyone is nervous and defensive? Creating enduring solidarity in this case may look less like pulling for other places and bonding around the common issue all locations face (even as this differs in magnitude).

McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

Models are models, not perfect predictions

One academic summarizes how we should read and interpret COVID-19 models:

Every time the White House releases a COVID-19 model, we will be tempted to drown ourselves in endless discussions about the error bars, the clarity around the parameters, the wide range of outcomes, and the applicability of the underlying data. And the media might be tempted to cover those discussions, as this fits their horse-race, he-said-she-said scripts. Let’s not. We should instead look at the calamitous branches of our decision tree and chop them all off, and then chop them off again.

Sometimes, when we succeed in chopping off the end of the pessimistic tail, it looks like we overreacted. A near miss can make a model look false. But that’s not always what happened. It just means we won. And that’s why we model.

Five quick thoughts in response:

  1. I would be tempted to say that the perilous times of COVID-19 lead more people to see models as certainty but I have seen this issue plenty of times in more “normal” periods.
  2. It would help if the media had less innumeracy and more knowledge of how science, natural and social, works. I know the media leans towards answers and sure headlines but science is often messier and takes time to reach consensus.
  3. Making models that include social behavior is difficult. This particular phenomena has both a physical and social component. Viruses act in certain ways. Humans act in somewhat predictable ways. Both can change.
  4. Models involve data and assumptions. Sometimes, the model might fit reality. At other times, models do not fit. Either way, researchers are looking to refine their models so that we better understand how the world works. In this case, perhaps models can become better on the fly as more data comes in and/or certain patterns are established.
  5. Predictions or proof can be difficult to come by with models. The language of “proof” is one we often use in regular conversation but is unrealistic in numerous academic settings. Instead, we might talk about higher or lower likelihoods or provide the best possible estimate and the margins of error.

Less restaurant and retail business, lower local sales tax revenue

The ongoing effects of COVID-19 on business activity, particularly restaurants, will impact communities:

Restaurant dining room closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are wreaking havoc on the industry’s bottom line and upending the lives of many working in the service industry. Those losses also will be felt by communities that rely on restaurant sales taxes and special food and beverage taxes to help fund municipal services. Some suburbs will feel the effects much more than others because of how heavily they rely on such taxes.

Sales taxes at restaurants and bars contributed more than $2 million a week to 83 suburbs, a Daily Herald analysis of 2019 tax records on the Illinois Department of Revenue’s website shows.

In a dozen suburbs, sales taxes from restaurants and bars represented more than 20% of all their sales tax revenue last year…

“It’s not just restaurants and bars, though,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, pointing out many sources of sales tax have had sharp drops. “Everybody in the retail sector has been negatively impacted, aside from groceries.”

With more Americans eating out in general, the ability of restaurants to draw visitors from other communities, and connections between eating and other recreational and cultural activities, eateries can be important sources of revenue.

Communities can aspire to have a diverse tax base where they draw tax revenues from a variety of sources, including sales taxes and property taxes. At the same time, some communities develop niches where they focus on one business sector or they have a historic strength. Diversification may be difficult to achieve and depend on a variety of forces including actions by local officials and leaders, the demographics of the community, historic patterns, and actions by business owners and larger economic forces. In other words, the character of a community’s tax base develops over time, can change, and at least in part depends on outside actions and forces beyond a community’s control.

It will also be interesting to see where the budget issues that municipalities face fall among the other economic concerns. Sales tax revenues are part of the picture but so might be property values if businesses need to close and there are not other businesses to take their place. If the federal government and states are also facing big hits to revenue, what might happen to municipal budgets?

The effects of social class, education levels on ability to work from home during COVID-19

Survey results from Pew Research show that whether American workers work from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic is affected by social class and education:

Four-in-ten working-age adults – those ages 18 to 64 – say they have worked from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Men and women in this age group are about equally likely to say they have worked from home.

About three-quarters of working-age adults with a postgraduate degree (73%) say they have worked from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, as do 62% of those with a bachelor’s degree. Far smaller shares of working-age adults with some college (35%) or with a high school diploma or less education (22%) say they have worked from home.

Similarly, working-age adults with higher incomes are more likely than those with lower incomes to say they have worked from home because of the coronavirus outbreak: 61% of those in the upper-income tier say they have done this, compared with 41% in the middle-income tier and an even smaller share (27%) of those with lower incomes.

In states with a high number of coronavirus cases, 45% of working-age adults say they have worked from home because of the outbreak; smaller shares in states with a medium or low number of cases say the same (38% each).

The knowledge economy is up and running. Those with more education and income have jobs and workplaces that can be done from home and other locations. This could have to do with the kind of work being done and the resources the organizations and/or workers have. The dividing line of a bachelor’s degree or higher does not just affect future earnings; it can affect exposure to particular diseases.

On the other hand, workers with less education and lower incomes are less able to work at home. This could put them in settings with more contact with others and present a tough decision between keeping a job and wanting to stay healthy. The reactions of workers in numerous facilities and companies suggests this is indeed a real issue. The dividing line of a bachelor’s degree or higher does not just affect future earnings or opportunities; it can affect exposure to particular social conditions.

In the longer run, I would guess there will be plenty of future research on the effects of COVID-19 by social class. Whether facing a pandemic or not, working from home is a luxury for those who have particular social statuses. Since the American economy is a long ways from making all or even most jobs doable from a distance (and there are likely other important considerations regarding this), this will continue to be an important matter.