Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.

 

Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago; conservatives for cities?

A Chicago Tribune story on the troubles facing President Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois includes some interesting information about where else Reagan lived when he was young:

However, Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said presidential birth and boyhood homes aren’t often historically significant, with the possible exception of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Historians tend to favor places that were central during periods of power.

He pointed out that presidents often have several homes they lived in during childhood, including Reagan, who even lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago.

Instead, it is the local communities that generally push for a historic designation for birth and boyhood homes.

According to WBEZ, Reagan lived with his family in Chicago for a little more than a year:

Before Barack Obama, only one U.S. President had called Chicago home. As a boy, Ronald Reagan lived on the first floor of the building at 832 East 57th Street.

The Reagans moved into their apartment in January of 1915. They’d come to the city from the western Illinois village of Tampico. Jack Reagan, Ronald’s father, got a job selling shoes in the Loop. His wife, Nelle, stayed home with the two boys, 6-year-old Neil and little Ron–called “Dutch”–who was going on 4…

Sometime in 1916 the Reagan family left Chicago and moved to Galesburg. It’s not clear whether Jack quit his Loop job, or was fired. But their time in Hyde Park was over.

Reagan lived more of his younger years outside of the big city; but, imagine he lived there longer. Or, he chose to remember the Chicago experience as more formative. Or, the Chicago neighborhood put more effort into remembering him as living there.

Perhaps the biggest issue (besides the length of time the family lived in Chicago) is that this image of a big city boy does not match Reagan’s own politics or how he was perceived. Can a Republican leader in the United States claim to be from a big city, not from the metropolitan region but from the big city itself? Given the voting breakdown of recent elections as well as the anti-urban inclinations of conservatives, this does not sound likely. In a country that still idealizes small town life, claiming to represent those parts of the country can go a long ways.

Current President Donald Trump presents an alternative to this conservative small-town vision. Born in and still a resident of New York City, Trump is hardly a small-town or even a suburban conservative. As a real estate developer, he aims to bring large buildings with his name on them to big cities around the world. His policies do not align with a pro-urban vision even as he is clearly a city person. And, I would guess this big-city conservative is an anomaly rather than an ongoing trend for Republicans.

Ronald Reagan as a Chicago native is far-fetched but it does suggest an alternative vision: conservatives who are from and for big cities. This would require a massive shift in ideology but it is not unprecedented nor impossible. Perhaps it would just take a mythical icon of the party would saw the city as their home and priority.

Democrats want suburban voters!

(And so do Republicans but this ABC News story details the efforts of Democrats🙂

The effort, which will target areas that will likely define the 2020 presidential contest, kicks off on Thursday with a roundtable event, hosted by Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, alongside local Texas residents in the suburbs of Harris County…

“Suburban voters sharply rejected Republicans in 2018 and they’re ready to hold Trump accountable in 2020,” said David Bergstein, DNC Director of Battleground State Communications. “They’re fed up with his toxic health care agenda, failure to support commonsense gun safety measures and endless string of broken promises on a number of issues.”…

Exit poll analysis following the 2018 midterms completed by Langer Associates for ABC News shows that the suburban voters comprised half of the American electorate. While Democrats won over urban residents and Republicans won over small cities — the suburbs were split evenly, 49-49%…

“The theory is that former Republicans in the suburbs were content with Republican policies on the economy, maybe even immigration to an extent,” she continued. “But some of the rhetoric that the president uses and some of the policies that Republicans have embraced, are maybe not in line with the Republican Party of George Bush.”

A few responses to this article (and similar ones):

  1. That suburbanites are monolithic in their political views (and in other parts of their lives). I assume campaigns know this but this generally does not come out in the media much. The stereotype of white wealthy families living in the suburbs does not always hold.
  2. Everyone is looking for trends among suburban voters. It can often be difficult to see trends when we are in the middle of changes. For example, the article wonders if the trend away from Republican suburban voters is a trend that is here to stay or could be reversed. Either could be true? (Though we can make educated predictions; but see #1 above for the ongoing changing population composition of American suburbs.)
  3. A relatively clear pattern in suburban voters seems to be a divide between suburbanites living closer to cities who lean toward Democrats and suburbanites closer to the metropolitan edges who lean toward Republicans. This leaves a middle suburbia that can go either way. But, again, see #1 above regarding a much more diverse and unevenly settled suburbia.
  4. The American electorate should be slightly more than half of the voters since the percentage of Americans living in suburbs is roughly 52%.

Analysis suggesting suburban women could decide 2020 election

The suburbs continue to be a key geographic battleground in national politics. Analysts suggest suburban women may decide the 2020 presidential election:

Many professional, suburban women — a critical voting bloc in the 2020 election — recoil at the abrasive, divisive rhetoric, exposing the president to a potential wave of opposition in key battlegrounds across the country.

In more than three dozen interviews by The Associated Press with women in critical suburbs, nearly all expressed dismay — or worse — at Trump’s racially polarizing insults and what was often described as unpresidential treatment of people. Even some who gave Trump credit for the economy or backed his crackdown on immigration acknowledged they were troubled or uncomfortable lining up behind the president.

The interviews in suburbs outside Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Denver are a warning light for the Republican president’s reelection campaign. Trump did not win a majority of female voters in 2016, but he won enough — notably winning white women by a roughly 10 percentage-point margin, according to the American National Election Studies survey — to help him eke out victories across the Rust Belt and take the White House…

The affluent, largely white and politically divided suburbs across the Rust Belt are widely viewed as a top battleground, the places where Trump needs to hold his voters and Democrats are hoping to improve their showing over 2016.

If large numbers of suburban women are turned off by the action and rhetoric of the current president, it will then be interesting to see if his opponents craft messages to specifically target these same voters. If parties and candidates generally think they know what urban and rural voters want to hear, how will they adjust to suburbanites who are living in fairly complex and varied settings?

For example, the concerns of residents in more affluent suburbs may not match that well with larger political and cultural issues parties and candidates want to address. What if these voters are more akin to “dream hoarders” who want to secure their own positions more than they care about larger issues?

Six Democrat candidates push new housing policies and it does not register at the latest debates

I have asked when the candidates for president will address housing and homeownership. Apparently, six Democrat contenders have – but it does not come out in public very often.

Last week, Amy Klobuchar became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to say out loud that cities and towns need to let people build more housing. She joined Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren in proposing a more active federal role in getting state and local governments to loosen zoning rules—a topic that, up to now, has not figured prominently in campaigns for the White House…

Most proposals advanced by Democratic candidates do not fit neatly along the traditional ideological spectrum from “laissez-faire” to “activist government.” Some of Warren’s proposals could be described as classic Democratic tax-and-spend policy making—she would use proceeds from raising the estate tax to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development substantially. Yet Warren’s plan to address “state and local land-use rules that needlessly drive up housing costs” is decidedly pro-competition—in keeping with her stated philosophy of making markets work better through stronger rules. Booker, Castro, and Klobuchar likewise balance more government spending with calls to reduce anticompetitive regulations. Only two candidates, Harris and Buttigieg, call for more demand-side subsidies without addressing supply constraints.

One idea notable for its absence among the candidates’ plans is the furthest-left option: an expansion of traditional public housing. Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, would seem the most likely to call for building more public housing, as some left-leaning think tanks have suggested. So far he has leaned toward fairly modest housing interventions, emphasizing local government tools such as community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.

There is still an opportunity here for at least one candidate to really push on this issue. As the article notes, the cost of housing is one that many voters consistently think about, particularly in higher-cost cities and regions. Even in markets with lower housing costs, the price of a mortgage or rent is one of the biggest expenses a household will face.

Perhaps the issue is that no candidate has found a simple tagline or slogan regarding housing that could apply everywhere? Since so much about housing and regulations is local, even large-scale government programs might require some complicated explanations. In the current debate format, this might be hard to relay. At the same time, these candidates are making plenty of speeches where they could hone a pitch about housing.

One way to do this would be to introduce housing as an inequality issue on multiple fronts. Where people can afford to live affects all sorts of life outcomes as well as long-term wealth. There is not a free market in housing: housing outcomes are the result of federal policy, local decisions made by municipal officials and business people, and the actions of consumers.

Which 2020 candidate will set themselves apart by promoting homeownership?

Homeownership is at relatively low levels in the United States. There is a disparity in homeownership between different racial and ethnic groups. Affordable housing is hard to come by in many housing markets. So why is homeownership not an issue more 2020 candidates are talking about?

Several possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Policy options regarding housing on a national scale are not easy and/or may not be popular. Homeownership gets at a whole set of thorny issues including meritocracy, unequal distribution of resources, the power of local government, and exclusion from certain communities.
  2. Federal policy has done less subsidizing of homeownership in recent years (even as the general policy over the last century or so has been to do so). Other areas of policy are more attractive or pressing (see #4 for example).
  3. Many Americans desire to become homeowners at some point (including millennials) and they assume it will happen at some point, even if they face obstacles now. Perhaps they don’t see a big role for the federal government to play in this. Perhaps many Americans think housing is a free market operation (despite evidence to the contrary).
  4. Debates about college loan debt and free college may be proxy issues for homeownership. No shortage of ink has been spilled writing about how possible young homeowners cannot purchase a home because of college debt. Provide a cheaper or less-debt-inducing college experience and homeownership rates might climb again.
  5. Economic and social conditions have changed to the point where although many Americans still plan to own a home, it is no longer the same marker of success it was in the past. Success now may be no college debt or a fulfilling career or a funded retirement.

Even as American politicians for roughly a century have appealed to voters with arguments about expanding homeownership (for example, see Herbert Hoover in 1931 or George W. Bush in 2002), this election cycle may few such arguments.