How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

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While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.

Seeing into the megamansions of celebrities

The wealthy often live in large and lavish houses. Today, we have more access to some of these houses and the lives lived inside because the homes are part of what it means to be a celebrity:

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Sprawling celebrity homes exist across North America – like Drake’s 50,000 square foot Toronto mansion that’s large enough to house a regulation NBA basketball court (and does); John Travolta’s Ocala, Florida, property that makes up for its modest 6,500 square footage with two private airplane runways that lead straight to his front door; or Taylor Swift’s 11,000 square foot beachfront Rhode Island estate, which she immortalized in song-but the epicenter of celebrity real estate has always been Los Angeles. And homes there are only getting larger and more extravagant…

“American culture, to begin with, is unusually spacious, in the sense that people think of space as part of American culture,” Sonia A. Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning, told The Atlantic in 2019. “This is partially part of the American promise-that you can have more room.”

But in the age of COVID-19, witnessing celebrities cloister inside their obscenely large houses and pander with “Imagine” sing-alongs can provide new reasons to scoff at their out-of-touch lifestyles. “Seeing celebrity homes [in 2020] took on new meaning in a potentially negative way,” said Andreas McDonnell, co-author of Celebrity: A History of Fame. “The pleasure of voyeurism was overshadowed by those feelings of resentment by regular people who are going through a really difficult time and are also confined to the home a lot more”…

As Instagram Lives and Zoom interviews allowed a more unfiltered look inside celebrities’ daily activities at home, the New York Times speculated that 2020 would bring about “the swift dismantling of celebrity culture.” But it’s unlikely they’ll stop buying insanely large homes any time soon. Luxury home sales surged nationwide in 2020, and Oppenheim noted that L.A. buyers have been eager to shed properties in cluttered, central neighborhoods like West Hollywood and seek more space and privacy further afield.

Homes are part of a package of conspicuous consumption: people with means can buy and do things in ways that others cannot and they can also display that to the world. A celebrity living a modest life may not get as much attention as someone flouting their purchases and lifestyle.A big house in a particular location denotes money, status, an interest in living near other elites. With social media and reality TV, part of being a celebrity today is inviting people into your life in more intimate ways. Through different mediums, observers can see the home and household. Yet, this leads to different expectations from viewers who have the opportunity to comment and critique.

Along similar lines, inviting people to see your home is a different kind of celebrity or status than an ability to stay out of the public view and not be observed. Some powerful or famous actors prefer to stay out of the limelight and physical residences are part of this. Perhaps it involves never allowing cameras inside their large home. Perhaps it means finding a home that is secluded and away from public attention, whether the house has gates and security or the residence is a unit in a high-rise that very few people can enter. Celebrity can bring the option of keeping the world out to a certain degree or inviting the world in, including into their home, in a way that very few people could.

Is there a connection then between seeing a celebrity megamansion and wanting something similar? It is one thing to observe the homes of celebrities. It is another then to act on acquiring a larger home and the life that goes with it. If Americans do see celebrities and others in media as reference groups, people with whom they compare their lives, then the megamansions might not just be fun; it may be part of a larger system that Hirt references where people expect that a higher status equals a bigger house.

Suburbanites, backyard fences, and signaling status

I recently saw a request for users of a nearby park to stay on park property and not go into the yards of neighbors when there to attend sporting events. The particular area in question is surrounded on two sides by homes, one subdivision built roughly five decades ago and one roughly three decades ago. The earlier subdivision has more modest suburban dwellings – roughly 2,000 square feet, two car garages, split-levels, colonials, ranches, most homes with siding – and almost all of the yards backing up to the park have fences. See the image below:

Fences

The more recently constructed homes are larger: 3,500 square feet, a mix of two and three car garages, more brick, stone, and gables. Few of these homes have fences facing the park.

Residents, businesses, and communities use parts of the physical environment to demarcate boundaries. This park sits between several different kinds of communities. Even though it is located in a well-off suburb, there are clear gradations of social status in these dwellings.

With the fences, I wonder if this is a kind of conspicuous consumption on the part of the homeowners with more expensive properties: “We don’t need a fence to be separate from the park.” Indeed, multiple homes have nice patios, tables, and outdoor equipment near the park and very visible. In contrast, the older homes have deeper backyards and more cover – even without a fence. Could this simply be a legacy of a past era where fencing was more common or does it signal something about how suburbanites want to interface with a nearby park?

More broadly, suburbanites have multiple ways to signal their status without actively telling anyone anything. This can range from the facade of their home (with McMansions aiming to impress) to the vehicles parked in the driveway to the landscaping to the size of the lot. And near highly trafficked or public areas, the urge to look good may be hard to resist.

 

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

aerial photography of gray houses

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Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19

What people do and can do for recreation differs across racial/ethnic groups as well as social class:

people standing on beach during sunset

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The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done…

The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.

“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).

Four quick thoughts:

  1. That race and class matter for recreation is not a surprise. At the same time, how it continues to influence different aspects of American life – including what people do with their free time or to relax or for fun – and evolve over time is still worth considering.
  2. The article briefly mentions public spaces and I think it is worth paying attention to. Most of the activities discussed here are viewable by others. As sociologist Elijah Anderson argued, it can be difficult to find public spaces where Americans of different backgrounds regularly mix. Or, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, the United States could strengthen local public spaces and institutions with positive outcomes for all.
  3. The majority of the examples in the article come from cities. Does this play out similarly or differently in suburbs where private homes are emphasized and moral minimalism governs interactions?
  4. What is the flip side of this: what the wealthy doing for leisure during COVID-19? How possible is conspicuous consumption is an era of anxiety and pain for many?

Could giga-mansions relieve the negative attention directed toward McMansions?

The term McMansion is likely to stick around (even if is used poorly at times) but more interest may be shifting to the giga-mansion.  A Motley Fools podcast provides some information:

First we had mansions. Then we had mega-mansions. And McMansions. Now we have giga-mansions. Yes, it’s a growing trend of massive houses usually built in the LA area on spec. They are massive, expensive, and outrageously ostentatious. Let’s see if you two can answer some trivia around some of the most expensive pieces of residential real estate on the market…

The One will be America’s largest house on the market at 100,000 square feet. It will be the most expensive private residence when it comes to market. It boasts four swimming pools, a nightclub, a room where the walls and ceiling are filled with jellyfish. It will have a 30-car gallery. Because of this price you don’t call it a garage. Of the 20 bedrooms, how many are in a separate building just for your staff?…

Let’s move on and talk about the house called Billionaire. It’s 38,000 square feet. It was America’s most-expensive house on the market when it was listed for $250 million in 2017. The property is in the exclusive Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air. It has 12 bedrooms, 21 bathrooms, three kitchens, a 40-feet James Bond-themed cinema, six bars, two fully stocked champagne cellars, and the helicopter from what 1980s television series? Rick knows this. He can’t wait to say it…

Southwick: A $1 billion lot. Now we’re going to go to The Manor. The largest home in LA was actually built in 1988 by the TV show producer Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy. The 56,000 square foot, 14-bedroom, 27-bath home originally was built for $12 million. They sold it all in a cash deal for $85 million in 2011 to the 23-year-old daughter of someone wealthy. Don’t worry about it. She renovated much of the house, since it had some very quirky spaces, including a flower-cutting room, a humidity-controlled silver storage room, a barber shop, and three rooms for doing what common birthday and Christmas activity?

One of the major critiques of McMansions involves their symbolic nature: they are associated with sprawl, wealth, and conspicuous consumption. All of these appear to be in play with the examples from the Los Angeles area cited above: a region known for cars and highways, entertainment celebrities and executives along with other wealthy people, and a constant need to stand out from the rest of the area.

But, McMansions have key differences from this supersized homes. They are generally smaller – roughly 3,000-10,000 square feet – and more often found in “typical” neighborhoods. They are often mass-produced. They are often criticized for their architecture while megahomes take more flak for their size. Perhaps most importantly, McMansions are within the reach of more Americans. Depending on the housing market, an upper-middle class household can acquire a McMansion but these giga-mansions are only for the wealthiest.

If the ultimate concern behind critiques of McMansions is their unnecessary size and flaunting of wealth, then the spread of giga-mansion might relieve some of the pressure. Granted, there will always be more McMansions but it is easy to focus on these outsized homes and their owners. Why criticize the top 10-20% of American homeowners for their McMansion choices when the giga-mansions of tomorrow constructed and owned by the top 0.1% of homeowners are so ridiculous and unnecessary?

Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.

Citing religious reasons to give up a McMansion for a doublewide mobile home

Even with the criticism of McMansions, I don’t think many would follow the path of this chaplain/columnist to downsize from a McMansion to a mobile home:

The first thing I grappled with was, “Are you living within your means?”

While it sounds like a question from your financial adviser, it really gets at the spiritual issue of greed. If greed prevents you from reducing your spending, you’ll have a problem, since retirement will often cut one’s income nearly in half…

We sold our suburban home and moved into a doublewide mobile home at half the cost of our old two-story McMansion.

As the months passed, the numbers proved workable. Any greedy impulses that remained began to subside. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to do. We were ready. Our kids were out of the nest and finished with their schooling.

However, we couldn’t have addressed the first question if we had not answered the bigger spiritual question: How much is enough?

While there are plenty of proponents of downsizing, there are two ways that this path is unique:

  1. Downsizing to a mobile home. There are few housing options less liked than McMansions but this would qualify. People think of trailer parks and lower-class residents. They think of dirty homes and lower property values. Often, the discussions of downsizing involve moving to something tasteful and/or customized. The new home may be smaller – wasting less space than the McMansion – but it is not necessarily cheap nor sacrificing much in terms of location and neighbors. For another example, those portrayed on TV as interested in tiny houses are often middle class residents who want a lot of amenities and a calmer life but don’t really want the cheapest housing possible.
  2. The choice is guided by religious values with a wish to live simply in order to avoid greed. Rather than a secular impulse to consume less (for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns, saving money for other desires such as exciting experiences, and avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption), this McMansion move gets at an important religious question: how much is enough? I’ve seen very few religious approaches to McMansions. An unwritten stereotype of who owns these places probably puts a lot of southern conservative Protestants into McMansions. But, there are few American religious leaders telling people not to live in places like McMansions, even if they may generally caution people to live too lavishly. (Ironically, McMansions might seem like a good deal then to many religious people because you get a lot of square footage for your money.)

In sum, propose to McMansion critics that we should swap McMansions for doublewides for religious reasons and the idea may not be greeted favorably.

Satire: Hamptons residents tear down McMansions to build mini-mansions

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon:

The latest thing in the Hamptons are Mini-Mansions. People everywhere are tearing down their 15,000-square-foot McMansions and replacing them with little three-bedroom houses of 2,000 square feet. This trend is unprecedented in America. But here in the Hamptons, it’s the latest craze.

Alice Henderstreep did this. She’s married to the steel magnate Charles Henderstreep and they tore down their McMansion in Quogue for a Mini.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Some friends of ours in East Hampton did this. I call my husband, he’s in the next room and comes. We’re never far away from one another. And I love it. The dog runs around underfoot. The kids are in the kitchen. It’s family. And the room we now have on our five acres is just phenomenal. We have huge lawns, we now have tennis courts. The kids have parties in our new pool house. We even built a baseball diamond.”…

“This is the way the original settlers lived,” Fred said when we called. “We followed the plans for a saltbox pictured in the historical museum. And so did the Henderstreeps in Quogue. It’s not like that old split level that was here we tore down for the McMansion. This is a recreation of the early settlers. Hand-hewn beams. Wavy old glass in the windows. It wasn’t cheap. In fact, it cost more than the McMansion we tore down.”

The only way I could imagine this happening is if downsizing becomes the new marker of luxury. It would be the opposite of conspicuous consumption: you can afford to downsize your vacation home and live small for a few days. Or, the tiny house movement could go upscale, perhaps with gratuitous use of innovative yet expensive technology. Of course, such claims might be followed up by a pricey trip to another mini-mansion in another wealthy vacation spot…