Advantageously framing a teardown McMansions debate

A story on Burbank, California residents opposing teardown McMansions illustrates one way to frame the debate:

Put a six bedroom, five bath, mansion, next to a 1940’s three bed, one bath.  Sound a little mismatched?

A group of Burbank residents think so, and they’re urging Burbank officials to regulate “McMansions” from defacing the character of their neighborhoods…

Her dutch colonial home has been carefully remodeled to stay in line with the character of the neighborhood.

Right across the street from her, a historic house was demolished, oak trees were uprooted, all to make way for three huge six bedroom mansions, two sit empty for months at a time and are up for rent.

Here is what is emphasized in this framing: the lives of long-time residents of an established neighborhood are being disturbed by outsiders constructing big homes that serve their personal interests rather than those of the community. Modest homes next to gargantuan homes. A quaint neighborhood character versus a super-sized, garish character. This is a common rhetorical technique utilized by those opposed to teardown McMansions. (This argument may also include financial pitches as older residents have a hard time keeping up with increased property taxes.)

The counterarguments can include:

(1) Individual property owners should be able to do what they want with their property. This includes the rights of current property owners to cash out on their once-modest homes and for new owners to be able to use their resources to build the kind of home they desire.

(2) Neighborhoods are going to change over time. Suburban residents can be guilty of trying to “freeze” their neighborhoods in time, preserving the features they liked when they moved in. (This isn’t just limited to teardown situations. See NIMBY.) However, this limits the “natural” change that might take place in neighborhoods as new residents move in and social conditions change.

Even this article mainly provides the viewpoint of those opposed to McMansions, it also hints at the common divide in teardown discussions: the rights of owners in a neighborhood to preserve what is there versus the rights of individuals and outsiders to change features of the neighborhood. However, this framing as presented here can be quite effective as it suggests outsiders threaten good neighborhoods.

See an earlier post on Burbank and McMansions here.

Data suggests urban residents in some cities leaning toward bicycles and away from “war on cars”?

Some recent data from Seattle, New York, and Toronto leads one writer to suggest the “war on cars” is over:

Here are some of the poll’s findings:

  • 73 percent of the 400 Seattle voters surveyed supported the idea of building protected bike lanes.
  • 59 percent go further and support “replacing roads and some on-street parking to make protected bicycle lanes.”
  • 79 percent have favorable feelings about cyclists.
  • Only 31 percent agree with the idea that Seattle is “waging a war on cars.”

The “war on cars” trope has long been a favored talking point for anti-bicycle and anti-transit types. But this survey and others seem to indicate that it might, at last, be wearing a bit thin, no matter how much the auto warriors try to whip up their troops.

Last year, a Quinnipiac poll of New York City residents showed that 59 percent support bike lanes, up from 54 only a few months earlier. Quinnipiac also found that 74 percent support the city’s sadly delayed bike-share plan. A New York City Department of Transportation poll about the Prospect Park Bike Lane – supposedly a bloody battleground of the war on cars that the New York Post insists the DOT is waging – found 70 percent of respondents liked the lane.

Toronto has also been a major front in this fight. The city’s embattled mayor, Rob Ford, famously declared that his election would mean an end to the city’s supposed war on cars. (He also said that when a cyclist is killed by a driver, “it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”) On Ford’s watch, Toronto removed some downtown bike lanes last fall, prompting protests and even an arrest for mischief and obstructing a police officer.

But the aftermath has been more constructive than martial. Tomislav Svoboda, the physician who was arrested for his act of civil disobedience, was recently joined by 34 of his medical colleagues in a call for faster construction of new bike infrastructure, asking the city council to “change lanes and save lives.” Even Ford seems to be feeling less combative. He came out the other day talking about a 2013 budget that will include 80 kilometers of new on-street bike lanes, 100 kilometers of off-street bike trails, and 8,000 new bike parking spaces.

Based on the data presented here, it sounds like these urban residents are moving toward a position where both cars and bikes can coexist in cities. This relationship is notoriously hostile as people have made zero-sum arguments: more bikes means less room for cars and vice versa.

But we could also look at why people have these opinions. Here are a few options:

1. Are bike advocates getting better at marketing or framing their cause (this is the suggestion at the end of this article)?

2. Are people generally less interested in cars (and this could be for a variety of reasons including cost and environmental impact)?

3. Are residents tired of paying for road improvements without little change in congestion (those new lanes just don’t help)?

4. Is there a genuine interest in shifting away from cars in cities and toward other forms of transportation (bicycling, more walkable neighborhoods, etc.)?

American language about government policy and economic life shifts from community to individualism

Here is an interesting argument about how common American discourse about public policy and economic life has shifted since the 1930s:

In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live. If a moral concept plays a role in today’s debates, it is only the stern proselytizing of forcing the government to live within its means. If the effect of government policy on average people is discussed, it is only as providing incentives for the sick to economize on medical costs and for the already strapped worker to save for retirement.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, as the Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates in his recent book, “The Age of Fracture,” American public discourse was filled with references to the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history. Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

This is a fascinating line: “The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.” This reminds me of the findings about how public opinion changes when asked about “welfare” versus “assistance for the poor.” The concepts are similar but the connotations of the specific terms matter.

Is the end argument here that changing the language will lead to more communal understandings or does reversing the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon have to come first? It would be helpful to know what exactly these commentators think happened in this period beyond simply the change in language. Could we argue that the success of the community-oriented policies of the mid 1900s that led to a booming economy, rising incomes, suburbanization, and homeownership was “too successful” in that it led to these shifts in language and focus?

Hard to imagine the complex, modern world without bureaucracy

It is common these days to hear complaints about bureaucracy, often related to the amount of time it takes to get something done or the waste involved in completing a large project. But it is hard to imagine the world we have today without bureaucracy:

For instance, as a student sociologist, I was taught that bureaucracy was essential to an ordered society. A system of administration, based on a division of labour, designed to undertake a large body of work in a routine manner, was deemed essential to advanced economics.

Yet the term is now used to denote obstruction, complication and sheer bloody-mindedness to produce the opposite outcome.

I guess the modern image is one of an army of pen-pushers, or more accurately, dedicated e-mailers, committed to frustrating the desired outcomes or value for money of any project…

We all need the right skill mix, effective teamwork and the most efficient use of defined resources to serve the public well. In that sense, strategic planning is as essential to the desired outcomes as the obvious contribution made by good service delivery.

So, there is a case for bureaucracy, although it is wise to avoid that term. Demonising particular roles and functions is dangerous. It must be always the quality and quantity of product that counts.

Max Weber wrote about how bureaucracy made modern society possible. It is remarkable to think how large societies are actually able to function. Take the United States: it has its problems but considering that it has over 300 million relatively wealthy people from all around the world, has a large land mass, and has undertaken numerous major projects over recent decades, things still get done and life is decent or good for many residents.

This commentary also hints at what Weber suggested was the possible problem with bureaucracy: a soulless, “iron cage.” The term today has a negative connotation often linked to the reduction of individual freedom. Thus, battles about bureaucracy are all around us: how much should you have to pay for your license plate? Should the government require restaurants to put calorie counts next to the menu? Should you be required to have medical insurance? And so on. It’s not bureaucracy that is really the issue: it is how it runs.

It then becomes a “framing” issue as people seek to avoid the “bureaucracy” label. The trend in recent decades has been to suggest governments, large or local, should be more business-like. Businesses are still bureaucracies – any organization can be a bureaucracy – but they have different goals and different methods of operation. Additionally, they are perceived as being less wasteful and more able to change course (both which are not necessarily true). In the current era of tight budgets, all levels of government are looking for ways to trim costs while maintaining service levels. As the commentator suggests, government needs to be more efficient and cost-effective.

What are the first three things you learn in high school sociology?

To start an article about the darker side of social networking, an Esquire writer suggests that there are three things that one learns first in a high school sociology class:

The first three things you learn in high-school sociology are:

A. Sociology is the study of people in groups.
B. The more people in a group, the more powerful the group.
C. The more people in a group, the worse the decision-making abilities (or collective intelligence) of the group will become.

There are few places better equipped to learn that lesson firsthand than high school. Or the Internet. But for all the praise dumped upon social networks after they (sorta) helped Egyptians shape their country’s destiny, we’re still missing something. There’s still an aspect of Twitter just as dark as the “dangerous element” that put Lara Logan in harm’s way recently: The Mob Mentality.

I generally agree with A, particularly in order to differentiate sociology from psychology. But B and C would not be what I would jump to on Day 1. Actually, this would be an interesting question to ask sociologists: if you had three statements in which to start an intro level course, what would you say? How would you want to frame the rest of your course?

And it would be interesting to know how many high schools currently offer classes in sociology. I know that sociologists would like to see this more in high schools as many students come to college with little or no knowledge what sociology is. The American Sociological Association has a site with some resources regarding teaching sociology in high school. Having more of these classes would also promote public sociology.

Where are the social scientists to explain the global warming debate?

Amidst all of the political discussions regarding climate change and global warming, one social scientist suggests a sociological analysis of this public issue has been lacking:

But something is missing: academic explanations of why people flout reams of scientific conclusions, bristle at the notion of cutting carbon and regard climate change as a sneaky liberal plot.

“The social sciences are glaringly missing,” says Andrew Hoffman, an expert on the sociological aspects of environmental policies at the University of Michigan, for which he’s researching climate denial. “That leaves out critical questions about the cultural dimensions of both defining the problem and finding solutions.”

He provides unvarnished reasons for that. One concerns his colleagues’ dismissal of the conservative movement. They deny the deniers, he seems to say, by tending to “ignore the far right.” More broadly, social scientists — like sociologists, psychologists and communication researchers — are generally disengaged from public policy debates.

The story goes on to suggest that some research suggests that this debate may be similar to the debate over abortion: both sides attempt to frame the issue and then influence enough lawmakers to make their side heard. This seems like easy pickings for sociologists interested in social problems. Notwithstanding the science, how have both the supporters and skeptics’ movement been formed, framed, and publicized?

If this social scientist is correct, this means there are some real opportunities for sociologists to provide some overarching analysis of this important public debate.