Argument: “the real civic religion of America, business at all costs”

Which values should guide decisions in a time of crisis? Here is one argument regarding how decisions are made in the United States:

These approaches are the horns of America’s corona-dilemma. Every society has reacted to COVID-19 according to its principles or, if no principles were to hand, its habits. It has been America’s misfortune that its principles and habits are ill-suited to managing an epidemic. The federal system, by functioning as it should, prevented the kind of nationwide shutdown that worked in smaller countries like Austria. The real civic religion of America, business at all costs, can accept the redirection of the economy by the Defense Production Act, but it cannot tolerate the suspension of all economic activity. Yet a powerful counter-impulse — averse to risk, trusting of authority, and hence likely to seek out niches in the economy which are immune to booms and busts — prefers to shelter in place.

It is hard to make sweeping claims about cultural values in the midst of significant social change. At the same time, understanding “patterns of meaning-making” (the definition of culture from sociologist Lyn Spillman) is invaluable for analyzing why certain actors respond as they do in such times.

This reminds me of two sociological works that get at the same issue:

1. Emerson and Smiley’s 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities examined cities around the United States and the world to see if they put markets or people first. On the whole, American cities privilege markets with their policies and rhetoric. In American communities, growth – usually measured as economic growth and/or population increases, is always good. (See an earlier post on this book here.)

2. Dobbin’s 1994 book Forging Industrial Policy suggests in the early decades of the railroad the United States pursued a public-private policy regarding develpoment compared to the laissez-faire approach of Britain and the top-down, centralized approach of France. Yet, in the last few decades, a growing chorus of voices argues the United States privileges the interests of corporations over the welfare of all residents.

There could be other contenders for the civic religion of Americans including individualism, the civil religion described by sociologist Robert Bellah, middle-class values, and the importance of private property and private spaces. But, in this particular situation, what exactly should be done regarding businesses and the economy is a particular hot point.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

A nation beholden to cars: a record number of pedestrians die in US in 2019

A new report highlights the dangers to pedestrians in the United States:

Based on data from the first six months of 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association predicts there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths that year, which would be a 5 percent increase over the 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018.

The 2019 figure is the highest number of such deaths in more than 30 years, according to the association…

While there’s been a significant increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade, the number of all other traffic deaths increased by only 2 percent…

“Following 30 years of declining pedestrian fatalities, there has been a complete reversal of progress,” Retting said in the release. “Pedestrians are at an inherent disadvantage in collisions, and we must continue to take a broad approach to pedestrian safety.”

While there are particular aspects of driving and pedestrian behavior that could be debated and addressed, there is a larger point that can be made with such data: the priority on American roadways goes to vehicles. This has been the case for decades and will continue to be the case for years to come. While efforts to make streets more amenable to walkers and bikers, these efforts are often limited to only a few areas. The goal of roadways in many places, included dense, populated areas, is to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible to where drivers want to go.  Tackling specific issues may help reduce the number of deaths but still leave the larger problem: Americans like cars and driving and our lives are often organized around driving.

Is Washington D.C. the center of the United States?

I recently heard a promo for a news show that claimed it was going to broadcast from the center of the United States: Washington D.C. Here are a few ways to think about the center of the United States:

-Washington D.C. makes the most sense in terms of government. With the federal government based here and the number of federal employees in the region, Washington D.C. could claim to be the center. (It is the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country and may claim to the current second city.)

-New York City makes the most sense in terms of population size and global influence. The New York City region has the most people by over six million and is a global center for finance, media, the arts, and more. (Yet, it is on the coast in the Northeast region with a particular culture.)

-The center of population has steadily moved west. According to the Census, it is now in Texas County, Missouri. By definition: “The mean center of population is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.”

-The geographic center of the United States depends on whether it is just for the 48 contiguous states or for all fifty states. If just the contiguous states, the location is just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. If for all fifty states, it is north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

-Is it possible to measure a cultural center? New York could lay claim to this as could Los Angeles (Hollywood, sprawl) while Chicagoans might hold to the claim that it is the most American of cities. Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans? Are the coasts more representative of America or the Heartland? Perhaps particular locations are less important and common spaces like McDonald’s or Walmart or local government meetings or religious congregations or local libraries are more indicative of the center of the United States.

If Washington D.C. is now the center of the United States, does it provide a hint that national politics has come to dominate American discourse and self-understanding?

When the problems of America come out in the education systems

Two recent articles reminded me of what I wrote in the headline: for many Americans, the problems the country faces are part of the day-to-day realities of the local schools.

First, a report on a recent controversy in the schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio:

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools…

But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were…

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

Second, on enrolling students in New York City’s public schools:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future…

New York’s distortions let you see the workings of meritocracy in vivid extremes. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American. True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

Many factors seem to come together in these circumstances:

1. The American belief that schools are the great equalizer or should be if they are not.

2. The expectation that parents should help ensure their kids do better than them.

3. The idea that the right education is needed to be successful in life (both for the kids and the parents).

4. A difference in opinion over whether American systems should provide equal opportunities or equal outcomes.

5. The public nature of schools where community tax dollars and identity come together in a local institution.

6. An American preference for local control thus that public schools can be responsive to local residents and leaders.

7. With declining trust in other major institutions, schools might be one of the few remaining institutions that provide hope.

8. Varying opinions on how schools should (or should not) address issues of race, class, and gender present in communities.

Put these all together and the stakes are high for local schools and conflict can arise. On one hand, this passion about a local institution may help guarantee its success. Even as Washington invokes depression, Americans can dive into and try to correct issues in their schools. On the other hand, all of these expectations plus larger social forces at work beyond the control of local districts or residents means flashpoints can be difficult to resolve. A number of the problems schools face are not just school issues; they are tough issues for the whole country to converse about and address. Every school district has to work to address community and national issues in ways that are desirable to local constituents while also considering wider standards and approaches.

A declining American belief in God, country, and family

Pollsters and sociologists find a shift away from three American values:

The nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride—family, God, and country—are a holy trinity of American traditionalism. The fact that allegiance to all three is in precipitous decline tells us something important about the evolution of the American identity…

But it looks like something bigger is going on. Millennials and Gen Z are not only unlikely to call themselves Protestants and patriots, but also less likely to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. They seem most comfortable with unaffiliation, even anti-affiliation. They are less likely than preceding generations to identify as “environmentalists,” less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and less likely to trust authorities, or companies, or institutions. Less than one-third of them say they have “a lot of confidence” in unions, or Silicon Valley, or the federal government, or the news, or the justice system. And don’t even get them started on the banks...

The older working-class men in the Edin, Nelson, et al paper desperately want meaning in their lives, but they lack the social structures that have historically been the surest vehicles for meaning-making. They want to be fathers without nuclear families. They want spirituality without organized religion. They want psychic empowerment from work in an economy that has reduced their economic power. They want freedom from pain and misery at a time when the pharmaceutical solutions to those maladies are addictive and deadly. They want the same pride and esteem and belonging that people have always wanted.

The ends of Millennials and Gen-Z are similarly traditional. The NBC/WSJ poll found that, for all their institutional skepticism, this group was more likely than Gen-Xers to value “community involvement” and more likely than all older groups to prize “tolerance for others.” This is not the picture of a generation that has fallen into hopelessness, but rather a group that is focused on building solidarity with other victims of economic and social injustice. Younger generations have been the force behind equality movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE, and Medicare for All, not only because they’re liberal, and not only because they have the technological savvy to organize across the Internet, but also because their experience in this economy makes them exquisitely sensitive to institutional abuses of power, and doubly eager to correct it. What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith, and national pride, but the trust that America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.

My first thought: I wonder if these three values have been consistent throughout American history or are more particular to the postwar era. It was in the prosperity of roughly 15-20 years after World War II that Americans became the most religious, the nuclear family became the ideal, and America saw itself as opposed to communism and the Soviet Union. Additionally, a number of societal institutions were relatively strong and well-regarded. Prior to this era, would the same values have held and/or would others have been in the top three? For example, I could imagine making a case for individualism as a core American value from the beginning. This would, to some degree, be in opposition to all three of God, country, and family which require loyalty to larger groups or beings.

My second thought: what comes next in a trinity of American values? Would something like self, community, and success work?

A reminder of the absurdity of sports

The MVP Machine is a good look at the data feedback player development angle in Major League Baseball today. Roughly two-thirds through the book, there is a reminder about what sports actually are:

It also strikes me as silly that I’m so excited about being a bit better at hitting a ball covered in cowhide with a wooden stick, an ultimately meaningless activity that American culture collectively decided would be worth many millions of dollars when performed with a certain skill. Rational or not, though, the fulfillment is real.

Similar descriptions could render all major sports as absurdist activities. And yet, they are viewed by millions, they are tied to local status and civic togetherness, and there are billions of dollars tied up in them. Sports today are big business, big entertainment, and big stakes for fans all rolled up into one. But, I imagine some sports moments could be made better with this reminder of what sports are at their most basic level.

Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).