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.


“The moral self of bankers and brokers”

A recent article in American Sociological Review looks at how some bankers and brokers were able to help lead the country toward recession:

Those bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose actions helped cause the recession were able to act as they did, seemingly without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, said Jan E. Stets, a sociologist with the University of California in Riverside.
“To the extent that others verify or confirm the meanings set by a person’s identity standard and expressed in a person’s behavior, the more the person will continue to engage in these behaviors,” said Stets, co-author of “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality” in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. “If others have a low moral identity and do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from a person’s identity standard, then the person will continue to do what he or she is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”
Studying the moral self is opportune given the practices of bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose behavior, in some cases, helped facilitate the recent recession in the United States, said Stets and fellow researcher Michael J. Carter of California State University at Northridge.
“The fact that a few greedy actors have the potential to damage the lives of many brings issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust to public awareness,” they said. “To understand the illicit behavior of some, we need to study the moral dimension of the self and what makes some individuals more dishonest than others.”

This sounds like a good illustration of some basic sociological principles: personal aspects of the self can be heavily influenced by their context. Humans have agency but their options are constrained and influenced by the social environment in which they find themselves.

Here is what I wonder: can regulations alone successfully promote a higher personal identity standard?

Another question: are Americans angry/distraught/upset about moral lapses from individual actors within the financial industry or with the entire system? In other words, do Americans blame the context or the bad actors? In thinking about this, do most Americans even know who the main individuals involved in the economic recession are (beyond government officials)?

When only bad people live in McMansions

I doubt I will see the movie Wanderlust but this quick description of the film caught my eye:

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star in “Wanderlust,” the raucous new comedy from director David Wain and producer Judd Apatow about a harried couple who leave the pressures of the big city and join a freewheeling community where the only rule is to be yourself. When overextended, overstressed Manhattanites, George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston), pack up their lives and head south to move in with George’s McMansion-living jerk of a brother, Rick (Ken Marino), they stumble upon Elysium, an idyllic community populated by colorful characters including the commune’s alpha male, Seth (Justin Theroux), the sexually adventurous Eva (Malin Akerman), and the troupe’s drop-out founder, Carvin (Alan Alda).

This reinforces an idea I have seen hinted at in many other places: the people who live in McMansions are jerks or bad people. McMansion owners don’t care about the environment, love to consume, have little taste, and don’t want to interact with people unlike them. The converse would look like this: smart or nice or enlightened people would not live in the homes. This is a great example of drawing moral boundaries by attaching character traits to certain home choices. This could be tied to the idea that living in a large home is viewed as morally wrong by some.

I would love to get my hands on sociological data to examine this claim. Of course, this would require first determining whether someone lives in a McMansion and this itself would require work. But then you could examine some different factors: do McMansion owners interact with their neighbors more? Are they involved with more civic organizations? Do they give more money to charity? Do they help people in need more often? Do they have a stronger prosocial orientation? If there were not significant differences, how might people respond…

Someone finally says it: “Huge houses are morally wrong”

If you read enough about McMansions or mansions, you might get the idea that there is a moral dimension underlying the critiques. One commentator finally just comes out and explain this moral view: “huge houses are morally wrong.”

Which is to say, the rich are welcome to live well, but not ridiculously well. Aside from the hundreds of lives of poverty-stricken Bangladeshis or whatever that likely could have been saved had our nation’s billionaires deigned to downgrade from a massive mansion to a mere McMansion, the people, eventually, just won’t stand for it. Your monuments to excess will become beacons for the pitchfork-wielding mobs, rich folks.

Don’t be stupid. Or too greedy. Huge houses are immoral just like gold plated cars are immoral and massive private jets are immoral. Because you don’t need them, and the money you waste on them could actually save people’s lives. This is an ideal towards which we all need to strive; not buying a mall-sized home is the easiest possible way to adhere to it. You can save those starving peasants and afterwards you will still be rich. So do it. Or don’t complain when the raging poors finally rage onto you.

The moral basis of this argument is attributed to Peter Singer. The argument seems to be this: that money that was put toward the giant house could have been used for more good if it had been given to those who truly need it. It’s too bad we don’t see what Singer thinks is the “maximum wealth” someone should be able to hold onto. Interestingly, the argument cited above in the two summary paragraphs seems to be a little different: you shouldn’t have a big house because the masses will resent you and come get you. You can’t appear greedy as people will hold it against you. The difference in tone is between being able to help more people with the money you saved by not buying the huge house (positive) versus you had better not buy that big house because it will be taken away from you (negative).

Morally, what’s the biggest house you can/should have? Is this house too big while these houses are morally superior? Can the size or price of your house be mitigated by its features or what you do with it? Does it differ by region to adjust for cost of living? Does your profession matter or whether you acquired the money yourself or it is “old money”?

What should have happened earlier today at Penn State

Coming into the Penn State-Nebraska game that took place earlier today, a number of commentators said the game should be played. The current players aren’t responsible for any of the problems and so should not be punished and the football game itself could start the healing process. The ceremonies before the game, including a mid-field prayer with both teams participating, were shown live on ESPN.

Here is what I think should have really been done today at Penn State: the Penn State players and coaches should have come out onto the field like they would for any game. However, when the game was just about to start, all of the players and coaches should stop the action, kneel, and refuse to play. They could then issue a statement that would read something like this:

“Today is not a day for a football game. Our campus has experienced a tragedy and we are embarrassed since this involved a number of men that we thought were leaders and whom we respected. Although we were not personally involved, we realize that life is much bigger than football. The world will keep turning if this game is not played today. We need time to think, reconnect, and build up the trust for which this campus was once well renowned. We will play football again when these important matters have been taken care of.”

Imagine what sort of message this would send. In the midst of tragedy, this would be a statement that the billion-dollar (NCAA-wide) football machine plus its incredibly popular culture wouldn’t run roughshod over lives for a few hours. Football would be put on the backburner, which is arguably the primary issue here anyway.

I wonder what would have happened if the players would have really wanted to do this.

Moral successes or failures among academic disciplines

While some might measure the success of college majors by earnings, I was struck by a different measurement option after reading this information about Penn State’s former president Graham Spanier:

Graham Spanier, one of the most prominent college presidents in America who today is the center of a firestorm, has combined button-down tradition with the sort of moxie that led him to run with the bulls in Spain.

A sociologist and family therapist by training, Mr. Spanier has used his pulpit as Penn State University president to weigh in on national issues from campus drinking and illegal music downloading to eroding public support of higher education.

Here is a little more about Spanier’s academic background according to Wikipedia:

Spanier graduated from Highland Park High School (Highland Park, Illinois), and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Iowa State University where he was honored with the Distinguished Achievement Citation by the ISU Alumni Association in 2004. He earned his Ph.D.. in sociology from Northwestern University where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. While a researcher, he contributed to the publication of ten books and over 100 scholarly journal articles. As a family sociologist, demographer, and marriage and family therapist, he was the founding editor of the Journal of Family Issues. Spanier was also an author of a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior concerning the practice of mate swapping, or “swinging”.

Although I have seen a lot of coverage of this story in this past week, I haven’t heard anything about Spanier’s academic career. As a family sociologist and family therapist, should we expect that Spanier should be held to a higher standard in this matter?

More broadly, what can we expect in terms of moral successes and failures from different academic disciplines? Do certain disciplines contribute more to human flourishing? Do disciplines that deal more directly with human interaction, such as sociology or psychology, have more positive moral outcomes? Could the disciplines even agree on what would be positive and negative moral outcomes?

Lakoff on Obama: a progressive moral vision plus systems thinking

George Lakoff has an interesting take on President Obama’s April 13th speech. While the speech was ostensibly about the budget, Lakoff argues that Obama was making two larger points:

1. President Obama was laying out a progressive vision of democracy. Here is how Lakoff sums it up:

The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.

Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief… that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.

It would be an interesting public discussion to have over whether these three programs are a moral commitment. I suspect that a good number of Americans would see it this way but this is not the typical angle taken in public discourse.

2. President Obama highlighted the role of systems and how a budget cannot be isolated from other important needs and goals in society:

President Obama, in the same speech, laid the groundwork for another crucial national discussion: systems thinking, which has shown up in public discourse mainly in the form of “systemic risk” of the sort that led to the global economic meltdown. The president brought up systems thinking implicitly, at the center of his budget proposal. He observed repeatedly that budget deficits and “spending” do not occur in isolation. The choice of what to cut and what to keep is a matter of factors external to the budget per se.

Long-term prosperity, economic recovery, and job creation, he argued, depend up maintaining “investments” — investments in infrastructure (roads, bridges, long-distance rail), education, scientific research, renewable energy, and so on. The maintenance of American values, he argued, is outside of the budget in itself, but is at the heart of the argument about what to cut. The fact is that the rich have gotten rich because of the government — direct corporate subsidies, access to publicly-owned resources, access to government research, favorable trade agreements, roads and other means of transportation, education that provides educated workers, tax loopholes, and innumerable government resources taken advantage of by the rich, but paid for by all of us. What is called a “tax break” for the rich is actually a redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class whose incomes have gone down to those who have considerably more money than they need, money they have made because of tax investments by the rest of America…

Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ’em up, punish ’em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.

This sort of systems thinking sounds like sociological approaches to the world: the complex social realm can be difficult to understand and predict but settling on simple (often individualistic) explanations leaves much to desired.

I can imagine that conservatives might find holes with Lakoff’s argument, not the least that all of this explanation still doesn’t say much about how the United States could deal with its budget issues. But Lakoff highlights the cultural ideas and values surrounding political debate: speeches and political activities may be about budgets and practical matters but there are underlying values that guide such actions.