Catholic bishop in Germany removed after building new McMansion

Catholic priests living in McMansions are controversial and one German bishop was just removed from his post due to the uproar about his new large house:

Pope Francis on Wednesday permanently removed a German bishop from his Limburg diocese after his 31 million-euro ($43-million) new residence complex caused an uproar among the faithful.

Francis had temporarily expelled Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from Limburg in October pending a church inquiry.

At the center of the controversy was the price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection…

Francis has called on his priests and bishops to be models of sobriety in a church that “is poor and is for the poor.”

McMansions don’t get many favorable reviews for the average homebuyer so it is not too surprising they may be even more disliked for religious figures. But, this sounds like it could be more than just a personal McMansion in a suburban neighborhood and more about luxurious finishes and a larger complex. At the least, this is a good example of the term McMansion being used more in a moral judgment sense rather than strictly matching a home that has all of the typical American McMansion characteristics.

Sociologist argues hidden shame destructive in modern society

Sociologist Thomas Scheff argues that hidden shame is a large problem in modern society:

According to Scheff a society that fosters individualism (ours, for example) provides a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of shame because people are encouraged to “go it alone, no matter the cost to relationships,” he said. “People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame.”

Scheff noted that while shame is no less prevalent now than in previous years or decades or generations, it is more hidden. “Shame is a biological entity like other emotions, but people are more ashamed of it than they are of the others,” he said. “The hiding of emotions is more widespread in modern societies than in traditional ones.”…

The problem with that kind of thinking, however, is that shame is, in reality, a very useful emotion. “Shame is the basis of morality,” Scheff said. “You can’t have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn’t do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it.”

Scheff suggests that shame — or the reaction to it — can manifest itself in larger acts of aggression, such as wars and other military conflicts. “Especially for leaders, both shame and anger are carefully hidden behind a veil of rationality,” he writes in the article. “The Bush administration may have been deeply embarrassed by the 9/11 attack during their watch and their helplessness to punish the attackers. The invasion of Iraq on the basis of false premises might have served to hide their shame behind anger and aggression.”

I remember reading Scheff’s work in a microsociology course in grad school where he was cited as a key example of the growing body of research in the subfield of the sociology of emotions. While we tend to chalk up emotions to an individual’s psychological and physiological state, emotions that we feel and how we can express them are also dependent on social forces. Thus, if individualism is a key feature of early 21st century life, particularly for younger adults/millennials, displaying feelings of shame contradicts this individualistic approach. For example, one of the findings about younger adults in the National Study of Youth and Religion (with this particular finding discussed in Souls in Transition) is that they have very few regrets about their past actions. This is indicative of an individualistic approach to life: regrets may be based on the idea that the individual didn’t live up to some standard. But, to have shame or regrets, the individual has to be anchored to a particular moral system.

Scheff’s solution to hidden shame?

The answer, according to Scheff, is to have a good laugh. “That is, laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people. Most of the laughing we do in comedy is good. No matter the actors, we are really laughing at our own selves that we see in their foolishness.”

It would then be interesting to study who using humor laughs more than themselves than at others. Is most of our humor/comedy today compared to the past directed at others rather than exploring our own shame and embarrassing moments?

You don’t have to loathe McMansions to support tiny houses

An interview with New Zealand actor/musician Bryce Langston about his interest in tiny houses includes his response to growing up in a McMansion:

8. Describe your childhood home.

I grew up in a McMansion, really. My parents have a large house on the Shore, four bedrooms, two lounges, an office. It was a great family home. I actually don’t loathe McMansions at all. I have seen wonderful large homes that have been constructed with great thought and care for the environment around them. They are just not a practical solution for all the people on the planet in a world with limited space and resources. The main problem is the debt associated with owning them. And the lack of freedom that comes with that debt…

10. Are you an evangelist for minimalism?

What I want to do is let people know there’s a choice. If you’re happy with how things are in your life and the work you do to pay for that then that’s fine. But lots of people aren’t. They’re really hurting and unhappy in their jobs and they don’t see a way out of being in debt for 30 years or whatever. People say you have to live in the real world, but the real tangible world is one where food does grow on trees and water falls from the sky and everything is provided for you to survive…

12. Will tiny houses take over the world one day?

That really depends on the path of human consciousness. If we grow into a culture that focuses on fair distribution of resources, care of the planet and pursuit of non-material happiness, then I think downsized homes will become normal. If our society continues down the path of uncontrolled material and economic growth, then it’s unlikely.

Langston offers some of the common critiques of McMansions – they are about materialism, they use too many resources, they put people in debt – while also noting that he enjoyed the large home he grew up in. If you read some of the criticisms of McMansions, it may be hard to imagine anyone could enjoy living in a McMansion.

There are also some religious and moral overtones here. Langston ties living in a home to larger issues in human life including defining success and what it means to achieve something. This isn’t unusual in discussing McMansions (see another example here or this recent case of a Catholic archibishop): homes could be considered necessary structures but they can also be places of meaning as well as important symbols for others to see.

Argument: McMansions contribute to excessive American pride, sin

Here is a post-election argument that McMansions fed into the problem of American pride:

But along with all of the goods we manufactured and skyscrapers we erected, we cultivated immense pride—a pride that overfocused us on the material rather than the spiritual aspects of prosperity (to do for others) and freedom (to live for others) and military might (to defend ourselves and others). When we overtipped the scales and became weighed down with McMansions we neither needed (with our 2.5 children) nor could really afford, when we began to manipulate the stock market, when we began to make war with drones and shrug off human life as “collateral damage” we justified it by saying we were the greatest nation the world had ever seen; exceptional and indispensible.

The typical moral argument against McMansions (see here) doesn’t usually delve into the idea of spiritual sin. Is the main sin that Americans built such homes (degrading the environment as well as relationships with neighbors and communities), that Americans were too proud of such homes (which are intended to impress and opponents say are too garish), or that Americans saw the homes, and by extension the country that made it possible, as something to be idolized?

Thinking beyond McMansions, what homes then are more moral? Tiny houses? Not-So-Big houses? New Urbanist homes and neighborhoods? Green homes?

“McMansions making a comeback”!

Several sources picked up on the latest data from Trulia that suggested more Americans are interested in bigger homes. With a headline of “McMansions Are Making a Comeback,” here is what US News & World Report said:

After greed and excess torpedoed the housing market a few years ago, Americans understandably began favoring more modest homes instead of pricey palatial abodes.

But it seems old habits die hard.

Reverting back to a “bigger is better” mentality, interest in mega-mansions 3,200 square feet and larger has almost doubled from a year ago, according to new data from real estate website Trulia. About 11 percent of today’s house hunters say they want their own McMansions, up from just 6 percent last year…

About 16 percent of those surveyed said their ideal home was in the 2,600 to 3,200 square feet range, but according to listing data from Trulia, homes currently on the market skew much smaller, with only 10 percent of homes listed falling within that range. Nearly 60 percent of homes listed are 2,000 square feet or smaller, which means many house hunters’ hopes will be disappointed.

More from the Wall Street Journal as architects are also noting the trend:

Big homes are back in style.

That’s the headline from the American Institute of Architects’ first-quarter Home Design Trends Survey set to be released Thursday. Eight percent of the 500 architecture firms responding say square footage of homes increased in the first quarter, up from 5% a year ago. This change, the biggest year-over-year jump since the survey started in 2005, ends a multiyear march toward smaller homes driven by the housing implosion…

But today’s buyers are different from those seen during the buy-as-big-as-you-can boom. “People don’t want bigger homes just to have bigger homes,” says Steve Ruffner, present of the Southern California division for KB Home, one of the nation’s largest home builders. “Buyers show up with calculators. They actually calculate cost per square foot. They really understand what they’re getting for the money.”

Interestingly, 45% of architects reported more interest in single-story homes, up from 35% a year ago. The result is the largest percentage since 2005, according to the AIA. During the easy credit housing boom, builders quickly inflated home sizes to generate more profit. An easy way to do that was to tack on a second – or third – floor, making single-stories hard to come by in some communities. While more of today’s buyers seek more space, they don’t necessarily want to deal with stairs. Aging boomers are also more likely to seek a one-story address.

We will see how this plays out. Of course, the story is more complex than “Americans want bigger homes again” or “the housing recovery has begun.” And it will be fascinating to watch how these new, larger homes are marketed and perceived: if buying a McMansion is really a moral choice, can there really be a good defense for such a purchase?

Digging into the moral reasons the American middle-class doesn’t like paying taxes

A new sociology study looks at the moral opposition middle-class Americans have to taxes. Here are some of the main findings:

“In this study, we demonstrate how people associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded,” he added. “Our research has implications for how policymakers should frame fiscal issues. Because people intertwine fiscal issues with morality, approaches to tax policy that only emphasize economic benefits for the working and middle classes do not resonate with everyday understandings about what taxes mean to people.”…

Interview respondents saw themselves as morally deserving and hard-working people, whereas they perceived a tax structure that benefits the idle poor and the idle rich…

Respondents frequently associated their earliest memories of taxation with their first jobs, or wage labor, which in turn was associated with the absence of personal autonomy and dignity, or the ability to control one’s own time and work…

Hard work was viewed as a virtue, and respondents didn’t like idea of being taxed while they work, instead speaking in favor of a flat tax on consumption. “Tax whatever,” one respondent told the researchers. “Don’t take my paycheck.”

A note: the study is limited to a particular sector of the American public. Here is the study group: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” This study has a small N and a targeted group so this limits its generalizability but its value seems to be in hearing how people talk about and understand taxes.

This is another reminder that money is not typically exchanged in solely neutral economic transactions: there is a lot of social and moral weight in economic transactions. Thus, when talking about taxes, policy makers and citizens are making moral arguments in addition to straight-up financial arguments. This applies to some of the current budget debates in the United States: the two sides may be talking some about fiscal issues but there are also underlying moral issues about how money should be used, how it should be acquired, and more broadly, how social life should work.


McMansion owners are bike haters

I know the arguments between drivers and bike riders can become quite heated but I haven’t seen this twist before regarding bike-hating McMansion owners:

It takes just five minutes on top of this bike for me to know I am good for the environment, healthy, frugal, smarter than all of y’all.

Whoa! Slow your roll, Virginia boy. Can’t you see that I’m busy saving the Earth on my bike? That SUV of yours takes up half the city. I bet you live on a huge cul-de-sac, in a McMansion with your own septic system and sad little saplings planted by the developer who chopped down all the mature trees to build that monument to yourself. I bet you don’t even recycle.

I roll my eyes at you, shake my helmet head at your obvious ignorance.

Headline of this column: “Bike lover, bike hater: Depends on whether you’re on four wheels or two.”

I’m always intrigued by the propensity in our culture to label people based on one consumer item, whether it is a McMansion or a bicycle. Here we get a classic description of a McMansion owner: because a person lives in a McMansion, they hate the earth, drive an SUV, and are generally self-centered. Granted, buying a McMansion is a large monetary choice, a home probably the biggest single investment people will make in a lifetime, and large symbolic choice as Americans have long held that one’s home should reflect those who live in them. It would be interesting to see how these single choices, McMansion or bike, line up with other consumer choices: do bike riders live in the city, tend to drive a Prius (or even better, not own a car and utilize Zipcar), and shop at Whole Foods while McMansion owners are suburbanites who tend to drive SUVs and shop at Walmart?

This is a reminder that moral values are often attached to consumer goods. Buying items isn’t simply about functionality or desires but rather indicate how a consumer views the world and what they value. Additionally, certain items, such as McMansions, are clearly viewed as moral signals by others.