Comparing “Trickle-Down America” (urban) and “Stagnant America” (rural)

Recent comments from Hillary Clinton praising American “places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” leads to this comparison between “trickle-down” and “stagnant” Americas:

Over the past 40 or so years, the U.S. has been fragmenting into two parallel societies, which I’ll call Trickle-Down America and Stagnant America. Each one looks upon the other with suspicion and hostility. Trickle-Down America is the America of our biggest metropolitan areas, and it is defined by comparatively high levels of density, diversity, and economic inequality. Importantly, the richest people in Trickle-Down America are typically white, while the service-sector workers who enable them to work longer hours are disproportionately brown and black. Stagnant America can be found in rural regions, small cities and towns, and outer suburbs across the country. This America is largely white and relatively equal, though it too is scarred by poverty, particularly among Hispanics and blacks. America’s most and least educated workers are concentrated in Trickle-Down America, while Stagnant America is home to most of America’s working- and middle-class white voters.

Is Trickle-Down America morally superior to Stagnant America? A good starting point is to reflect on the sources of Trickle-Down America’s wealth. In New York City, my hometown, the local economy has long been dominated by the financial-services sector, which has grown mightily in recent decades. Has the financialization of the U.S. economy been an unadulterated good for the country as a whole? There are many thoughtful people who’d argue otherwise. Indeed, some argue that rents flowing to the financial sector have badly distorted the U.S. economy, and have contributed to the devastation of tradeable sector employment in Stagnant America. Corporations headquartered in America’s cosmopolitan cities have profited immensely from the emergence of a globalized division of labor. Yet many of these same multinationals have pioneered tax-avoidance strategies that have made it harder for the federal government to compensate those who’ve lost out with globalization, all while deploying their considerable influence to get the U.S. government to pressure other countries to adopt intellectual-property protections that serve their interests. And then there is the federal government itself, and its vast, growing army of private administrative proxies—contractors, non-profits dependent on public subsidies, and the like—that has helped make Washington, D.C., and its environs one of the country’s most affluent and educated regions. It’s hard to disentangle exactly how much of Trickle-Down America’s success relative to Stagnant America is a product of straightforward rent-seeking. I certainly doubt that it accounts for all of it, or even most. But surely it accounts for some, and that should give Trickle-Down America’s champions pause.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Trickle-Down America is, overall, characterized by more stringent land-use limits than Stagnant America. These limits have raised housing costs in affluent coastal regions, which has redounded to the benefit of incumbent homeowners. Yet high housing costs have deterred inward domestic migration while driving out large numbers of working-and middle-class residents…

For now, though, Trickle-Down America’s affluent professionals find themselves in a sweet spot, which surely accounts for some of Clinton’s triumphalism. The food is better. Beautiful old houses are being renovated everywhere you turn. An abundance of low-wage immigrant labor adds diversity and dynamism to cosmopolitan cities, yet the noncitizen working class isn’t in a position to press for a more egalitarian social order—one that could prove discomfiting for local elites. Best of all, opposition to Trump is helping to obscure simmering discontent over Trickle-Down America’s business model.

This is a different way of categorizing the stark urban and rural political divides of recent years. Yet, it also highlights a key issue simmering within the leading cities and metropolitan areas that are so important to American life: who really benefits in the major cities? Are the high levels of innovation, growth, development, and cultural excitement accessible to all urban residents or do the spoils disproportionately go to the top?Inequality cuts across multiple strata of society. Certainly there are stark differences within cities as well as between urban and rural areas. I’ll add a third area that complicates the story above (though these are likely lumped in with the Trickle-Down America segment): the inequality present in American suburbs. Even as the majority of Americans live in suburbs and seem to have achieved the American Dream of suburban life, life outcomes can differ dramatically across suburban communities.

What makes this suburban inequality more interesting for the realm of politics is how is affects voting: areas generally closer to the big city or with demographics more like the big city vote Democrat and wealthier communities and areas further out in regions vote Republicans. Will these same sort of voting cleavages arise in rural areas in cities as various inequalities receive more attention?

Countering gerrymandering in Pennsylvania with numerical models

Wired highlights a few academics who argued against gerrymandered political districts in Pennsylvania with models showing the low probability that the map is nonpartisan:

Then, Pegden analyzed the partisan slant of each new map compared to the original, using a well-known metric called the median versus mean test. In this case, Pegden compared the Republican vote share in each of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts. For each map, he calculated the difference between the median vote share across all the districts and the mean vote share across all of the districts. The bigger the difference, the more of an advantage the Republicans had in that map.

After conducting his trillion simulations, Pegden found that the 2011 Pennsylvania map exhibited more partisan bias than 99.999999 percent of maps he tested. In other words, making even the tiniest changes in almost any direction to the existing map chiseled away at the Republican advantage…

Like Pegden, Chen uses computer programs to simulate alternative maps. But instead of starting with the original map and making small changes, Chen’s program develops entirely new maps, based on a series of geographic constraints. The maps should be compact in shape, preserve county and municipal boundaries, and have equal populations. They’re drawn, in other words, in some magical world where partisanship doesn’t exist. The only goal, says Chen, is that these maps be “geographically normal.”

Chen generated 500 such maps for Pennsylvania, and analyzed each of them based on how many Republican seats they would yield. He also looked at how many counties and municipalities were split across districts, a practice the Pennsylvania constitution forbids “unless absolutely necessary.” Keeping counties and municipalities together, the thinking goes, keeps communities together. He compared those figures to the disputed map, and presented the results to the court…

Most of the maps gave Republicans nine seats. Just two percent gave them 10 seats. None even came close to the disputed map, which gives Republicans a whopping 13 seats.

It takes a lot of work to develop these models and they are based on particular assumptions as well as methods for calculations. Still, could a political side present a reasonable statistical counterargument?

Given both the innumeracy of the American population and some resistance to experts, I wonder how the public would view such models. On one hand, gerrymandering can be countered by simple arguments: the shapes drawn on the map are pretty strange and can’t truly represent any meaningful community. On the other hand, the models reinforce how unlikely these particular maps are. It isn’t just that the shapes are unusual; they are highly unlikely given various inputs that go into creating meaningful districts. Perhaps any of these argument are meaningless if your side is winning through the maps.

“[T]he federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”

The recent changes to the American tax code signal a shift toward homeownership:

It may be a few years before experts can accurately assess how the new tax reform law will affect each city’s individual housing market, but one thing is clear: For the first time in a century, the federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”…

“It’s very hard to come up with how this is helpful to housing,” said Jonathan Miller, President and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm “It’s either neutral or negative; there’s no positive, at least that we’re aware of at the moment. All this does is make everything more expensive, at least in high-cost housing markets.”

As a result of the bill, Moody’s Analytics estimates that housing prices will drop about 4 percent nationwide relative to projections in which the law doesn’t exist, and those drops are more pronounced in high-cost housing markets.

A lower sale price is good news, though, right? Not necessarily. Average home prices will drop because of the lowered cap on the MID (from $1 million to $750,000), and a new cap on SALT deductions. These two tax deductions were baked into the price of homes-for-sale, so without them, prices will seem lower. But homeowners and buyers could end up with less mortgage interest to deduct, and a potentially astronomical property tax bill. Previously, there was no cap at all on property tax deductions.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The context – the specific address of the residence – matters a lot for this bill. And, local communities and states can respond uniquely to how the changes affect local homeowners.
  2. A lot of urbanists have criticized the subsidies from the federal government for single-family homes and suburbanization. Might these tax code changes help encourage more density in certain locales (and these high-price/high-tax locations are also ones where affordable housing is sorely needed)? Of course, since context matters here, some of those who prefer more sprawl could move to cheaper states where the disappearing SALT deductions matter less. But, isn’t this good for limiting Americans deducting mortgage interest?
  3. Could this help some communities move away from such reliance on property taxes? As one example, some have argued for decades that school funding needs to be more equitable and this is directly tied to property values and taxes: wealthier communities can draw in more tax revenue. (I would argue this is a red herring to as there are bigger issues at work.) Could these federal tax changes encourage more revenue sharing within counties, regions, and states?

Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is the first sentence of the article quoted above: it could take years to see how this all plays out.

Many Americans are in the muddled political middle of the suburbs

A CNN digital vice president describes how the American suburbs defy easy categorization:

Most Americans are neither coastal elites nor inhabitants of flyover country (both objectionable tropes on their face). Most Americans live in the suburbs, a geographic term the US government is curiously loath to define. But suburbanites are not; a survey by an economist at Trulia, the online real-estate site, finds that 53% of Americans say they live in one. The suburbs mirror US demographic trends; minorities represent 35% of suburban residents, and in 2010, the share of blacks in large metro areas living in the suburbs surpassed 51%, meaning the majority of black Americans are suburbanites, according to Brookings.

Political scientists talk about the rural-urban divide as the defining issue of the 20th century, but the suburbs in America defy this simple categorization. Some areas exhibit the same traits of cities, where neighbors don’t know each others’ names, let alone their politics. Schools in urban areas are more segregated than ever, some worse than before Brown vs. Board of Education. Suburbs, in contrast, have created more diverse spaces, from schools to soccer leagues to the local Olive Garden…

But America does not live on Facebook, even if it sometimes feels that way. Americans live in places that care about jobs and schools and taxes. Issues such as health care and anti-corruption efforts seem to matter to suburban voters more than immigration. Brookings also reports the suburbs are growing faster than urban areas, partly because of the lack of affordable housing in cities, making them younger, more diverse. Their outlook — and values — feel increasingly cosmopolitan.

The implication at the end of this is that suburbanites are a reasonable lot who just want good things for themselves and their communities. But, although they are a majority of Americans, they are stuck between polarized far-right/left groups that dominate the conversations.

Is this true? My quick answer is yes and no. Indeed, American suburbs are quite different from the stereotype of white nuclear families living in the 1950s mass-produced housing. The demographic changes have been impressive. At the same time, the suburbs are not an ideal landscape where residents always want the best for others: they are often marked by limited interactions and relationships, hoarding of resources, and exclusion.

There is little doubt that the suburbs are the battleground for American politics right now. But which way they will lean, which parties and candidates will be able to appeal to them, and how they will continue to change remains to be seen.

Don’t forget that American residents can collectively help decide what houses mean for Americans

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell ends a commentary piece several months ago by arguing Americans need to redefine the meaning of the home:

We need a cultural re-examination of what a home should do for us. Are we building our homes to cater to the communal needs of a family or to accommodate items or signifiers that will impress others? Will a home inspire its inhabitants to spend time with one another or isolate themselves in myriad rooms? Are we building a home to live in, or are we preoccupied with the idea of selling it even before the first brick is laid? Do we want to remodel or redecorate, or do we feel we have to because we’re constantly flooded with content that makes us feel inadequate if we don’t?

It’s time we as space-inhabiters break this unsustainable, unnecessary, and wasteful cultural cycle of consumption and reclaim our homes as our proverbial rocks, the spaces that make us feel safe and content. Who gave industry-funded media like HGTV or Houzz the right to dictate the proper and best ways to inhabit our spaces, to ridicule or diagnose as wrong those of us who lack the desire or the means to constantly consume in precisely way they want us to? A home isn’t an investment vehicle where cash goes in and more cash comes out, or the “After” segment of a television show. A home is, above all, an intimate, personal place; a haven where our intricate lives as human beings unfold. Grey paint be damned.

This names several actors who are defining what Americans want in homes. This includes:

-Media like HGTV.

-The housing industry.

Both certainly have power and influence. The housing industry through the National Association of Home Builders has a powerful lobbying presence. Just see their actions in the latest debates over the mortgage interest deduction. For decades, various media outlets have pushed the image of single-family homes filled with consumer goods; they needs advertisers after all. HGTV has a limited audience but their viewers may be the same upper-middle class Americans that feel like they are not doing well and are very vocal about this.

But these are not the only actors influencing what Americans think of homes. This list should also include:

-The government.

-American residents.

Histories of how the American suburbs developed in addition to overviews of federal housing policy (see this recent example) suggest that federal government in the last century or so is set up to help people obtain homes in the suburbs.

Often missing in these analyses is the role of American residents themselves. What kinds of homes do they truly want? More Marxist analyses suggest Americans have been duped or led into wanting large homes in a capitalist system. Thus, we should help Americans find homes that truly fit their needs rather than mindlessly giving in to what the housing industry and government want them to have. (Wagner’s paragraphs above sound very similar to Sarah Susanka arguments in The Not-So-Big House.) “Re-claim our homes” could involve fighting back against the capitalist system that insists our homes are true markers of who we are (and distracts us from the real issues at hand). In contrast, historian Jon Teaford suggests these sorts of homes are what Americans do truly want because they highly value freedom and individualism. Others like Joel Kotkin have made similar arguments: Americans keep moving to the suburbs because they like them, not because they are forced into them or are not smart enough to fight the system.

Regardless of where these ideas about homes came from (and it includes a mix of institutions as well as ideologies), American residents still have the ability to reject the typical narratives about single-family homes. They do often have options available to them. What kind of home they chose is a very consequential decision. And, perhaps even better, this does not have to be an individual effort or solely about personal empowerment: Americans could collectively vote for candidates and parties that would have a different image of housing. But, oddly enough, housing rarely comes up in national politics and local politics seems full of zoning and housing disputes but few large-scale efforts to provide alternatives. If Americans want housing options to change, they do not have to just turn off HGTV; at both the federal and local level, they should vote accordingly and/or insist that political candidates talk about these issues.

Ideologies and behaviors regarding housing do not just happen: they develop over time and involve a multitude of actors. To have a new vision of housing in America will likely take decades of sustained effort within multiple structures and institutions. These are not new issues; those opposed to McMansions today are related to those opposed to the mass suburbs of the 1950s and to the social reformers of the early decades of the 1900s who promoted public housing. The efforts can be top-down – changes need to be made at the highest levels – but could be more effective if they start at the bottom – with average voters – who demand change of businesses and governments.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

Three questions for political leaders as suburbs offer key to 2018 elections

The suburbs may continue in 2018 to be the true political battlegrounds in the United States:

The mounting backlash to President Trump that is threatening his party’s control of Congress is no longer confined just to swing districts on either coast. Officials in both parties believe that Republican control of the House is now in grave jeopardy because a group of districts that are historically Republican or had been trending that way before the 2016 election are slipping away…

From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican-held seats filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats, some of them nonwhite, who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Mr. Trump.

“If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who as a member of Congress in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House. “The president’s conduct has basically given voters this permission slip to go against the Republicans.”…

The suburban revolt, which began in a handful of little-noticed special elections and then exploded last month in governor’s and state House races in Virginia, was on display again on Tuesday in Alabama, where Doug Jones, a Democrat, claimed a stunning Senate win thanks to African-Americans and upscale whites.

This is not a new thing to watch: the suburbs have contained the real swing voters for at least the last few election cycles. These voters in middle suburbs, between inner-ring suburbs and the exurbs, can be swayed by either party depending on the situation.

A few thoughts about the upcoming 2018 elections:

  1. While this almost certainly means a lot of money will be spent in these districts, it will be interesting to watch how many political leaders visit such locations. For example, if you are a Democratic leader trying to woo voters in DuPage County (who voted pretty strongly for Hilary Clinton in what was considered a solidly Republican county), will you actually visit places like Villa Park and Carol Stream or will you stick to Chicago and hope you get enough attention in the big city?
  2. In wooing suburban voters, will sprawl be an issue on the table? Many metropolitan areas have large regional problems including inequality across communities (the residential and class segregation of big cities has been replicated to some degree in suburban areas) and congestion. Will Democrats push for more metropolitan initiatives and reducing the growth further out from the city or is this a losing pitch in a country where many Americans still seem to like the idea of a suburban home?
  3. How will Democrats approach wealthier suburban voters in blue states that have significant state issues? I’m thinking of places like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois that have massive budget issues. What can Democrats offer on a national platform that would suburban voters could find attractive for helping their state? Or how would suburban candidates address affordable housing, another major issue in many regions, and who exactly should help or sacrifice to help such housing be built?