Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Gans says “public opinion polls do not always report public opinion”

Sociologist Herbert Gans suggests public opinion polls tells us something but may not really uncover public opinion:

The pollsters typically ask people whether they favor or oppose, agree or disagree, approve or disapprove of an issue, and their wording generally follows the centrist bias of the mainstream news media. They offer respondents only two sides (along with the opportunity to say “don’t know” or “unsure”), thus leaving out alternatives proposed by people with minority political views. Occasionally, one side is presented in stronger or more approving language — but by and large, poll questions maintains the balanced neutrality of the mainstream news media.

The pollsters’ reports and press releases usually begin with the asked question and then present tables with the statistical proportions of poll respondents giving each of the possible answers. However, the news media stories about the polls usually report only the results, and by leaving out the questions and the don’t knows, transform answers into opinions. When these opinions are shared by a majority, the news stories turn poll respondents into the public, thus giving birth to public opinion…

To be sure, poll respondents favor what they tell the pollsters they favor. But still, poll answers are not quite the same as their opinions. While their answers may reflect their already determined opinions, they may also express what they feel, or believe they ought to feel, at the moment. Pollsters should therefore distinguish between respondents with previously determined opinion and those with spur-of-the-moment answers to pollster questions.

However, only rarely do pollsters ask whether the respondents have thought about the question before the pollsters called, or whether they will ever do so again. In addition, polls usually do not tell us whether respondents have talked about the issue with family or friends, or whether they have expressed their answer cum opinion in other, more directly political ways.

Interesting thoughts. As far as surveys and polls go, they are only as good as the questions asked. But, I wonder if Gans’ suggestions might backfire: what if a majority of Americans don’t have intense feelings about an issue or haven’t thought about the issue before? What then should be done with the data? Polls today may suggest a majority of Americans care about an issue but the reverse might really be true: a lower percentage of Americans actually follow all of the issues. Gans seems to suggest it is the active opinions that matter more but this seems like it could lead to all sorts of legislation and other action based on a minority of public opinion. Of course, this may be it really works now through the actions and lobbying of influential people…

It sounds like the real issue here is how much public opinion, however it is measured, should factor into the decisions of politicians.

The social history of the food pyramid

With the unveiling later this week of a replacement to the food pyramid (it will be a “plate-shaped symbol, sliced into wedges for the basic food groups and half-filled with fruits and vegetables”), the New York Times provides a quick look at the background of the food pyramid:

The food pyramid has a long and tangled history. Its original version showed a hierarchy of foods, with those that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet, like grains, fruit and vegetables, closest to the wide base. Foods that were to be eaten in smaller quantities, like dairy and meat, were closer to the pyramid’s tapering top.

But the pyramid’s original release was held back over complaints from the meat and dairy industry that their products were being stigmatized. It was released with minor changes in 1992.

A revised pyramid was released in 2005. Called MyPyramid, it turned the old hierarchy on its side, with vertical brightly colored strips standing in for the different food groups. It also showed a stick figure running up the side to emphasize the need for exercise.

But the new pyramid was widely viewed as hard to understand. The Obama administration began talking about getting rid of it as early as last summer. At that time, a group of public health experts, nutritionists, food industry representatives and design professionals were invited to a meeting in Washington where they were asked to discuss possible alternative symbols. One option was a plate.

Two things stand out to me:

1. This is partly about changing nutritional standards but also is about politics and lobbying. Food groups are backed by businesses and industries that have a stake in this. Did they play any part in this new logo?

2. This is a graphical design issue. The old food pyramid suggests that certain foods should be the basis/foundation for eating. The most recent pyramid is a bit strange as the pyramid is broken into slivers so the peaking aspect of a pyramid seems to have been discarded. The new logo sounds like it will be a more proportional based object where people can quickly see what percentage of their diet should be devoted to different foods. Since this is a logo that is likely to be slapped on many educational materials and food packages, it would be helpful if it is easy to understand.

Lobbynomics v. empirical data

Ars Technica points to a UK report asserting that “lobbynomics” rather than empirical data drives much of the intellectual property policy debate:

There are three main practical obstacles to using evidence on the economic impacts of IP…[3] Much of the data needed to develop empirical evidence on copyright and designs is privately held. It enters the public domain chiefly in the form of “evidence” supporting the arguments of lobbyists (“lobbynomics”) rather than as independently verified research conclusions.

My own experience in dissecting IP developments supports this view.  It is surprisingly difficult to find “hard data” about copyright piracy, leaving any “debate” to a shouting match between proponents of bald assertions.

We need better data, and we all need to be more circumspect (and humble) before drawing sweeping conclusions from the little that is available.