National political leaders’ connections to cities, urban areas, and population centers

In thinking over the (dwindling) 2020 Democratic field for president, I wondered whether national politicians on the whole come from big cities and metropolitan regions. Some (somewhat incoherent) thoughts on the possible connection:

1. The United States is an urbanized country with a little over 80% of residents living in metropolitan areas. Most people live in these places, more politicians come from these places.

2. Politicians need to connect to large pools of voters before they hit the national stage. They can do that in sizable regions/cities and build a base before seeking a larger presence.

3. If national politicians do not necessarily connect with cities, it still seems to help to come from a more populous state where they have appealed to more voters and can make a stronger case about facing complexity before addressing a national stage. I’m thinking of George W. Bush who had numerous connections to Dallas, came from Texas, yet seemed to prefer more rural life in Crawford. He may not have been an urbanite but he had enough connections and experience in one of the most populous cities and states. In contrast, politicians like Bill Clinton or Nikki Haley might have to work harder to reach the national scene coming from less populous states or communities or those operating in second tier cities or regions like Jay Inslee in Washington state or Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota.

4. Does social media help candidates breakthrough an urban/rural divide? If the ultimate outcomes still come to votes, probably not.

5. Is there a major candidate or figure in any party who truly exemplifies a suburban lifestyle? I can think off the top of my head of numerous figures from big cities and others from more rural areas but who is a suburbanite in an era when political elections are decided by suburban voters?

What politician would kill the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage?

The second to last chapter of Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants includes this summary of the American housing industry:

But there is widespread agreement among policy makers on at least this element of investors’ argument, which is that you cannot keep a cheap, long-term, fixed-rate mortgage available to the wide swath of Americans through big economic ups and downs without some sort of government backstop. There is a reason no other country has such a product. For all the supposed ideological purity in today’s Washington, no politician wants to be responsible for the loss of something Americans have come to see as a right. Indeed, despite Alan Greenspan’s admonition years ago that many Americans would do better with adjustable-rate mortgages, in November 2014 a stunning 87 percent of Americans who took out a mortgage to buy a house chose a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, according to data from the Urban Institute.

As the rest of the book argues, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage today the result of particular arrangements involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Americans after World War II may have thought they were after owning a single-family home but less attention was paid to what was undergirding all of this: a particular financial instrument – the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage – that made some people a lot of money and helped dictate other areas of policy and social life.

Homeownership continues to drop, housing costs rise

Twin trends in American housing: homeownership is down while housing costs increase. First, on homeownership:

Only about a decade ago, in 2004, 69.2 percent of all homes were occupied by their owners; the home ownership rate has since fallen to 63.4 percent, the lowest in almost fifty years despite some of the most attractive mortgage interest rates on record. In part this is due to the difficulty young couples have in qualifying for a mortgage, as once-burned, twice-fined and increasingly risk-averse banks, looking over their shoulders at their regulators, raise their lending standards.

But even a further loosening of credit standards that have already been relaxed for “jumbo” loans (in excess of $417,000 and $625,500, depending on the region) is unlikely to change the trend towards renting rather than owning, last month’s increase in construction of single-family homes notwithstanding. Jordan Rappaport and Daniel Molling, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, find that adults in their 20s and early 30s, so called millennials, are not alone in preferring to rent rather than buy. Ageing baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, have tired of mowing, hunting for plumbers, fixing leaky roofs and coping with the nightmares that accompany realization of the one-time American dream of home ownership. They have accounted for the bulk of new renters, and are likely to continue to “be the main drivers of multifamily [apartment] construction as they age through their senior years,” conclude the Bank’s economists.

Second, on housing costs:

Consumer prices rose modestly in July, and according to the U.S. Labor Department those gains were largely due to a 0.4 percent increase in the cost of shelter—the government’s measure of housing costs. This was the largest increase in the shelter index since 2007.

While inflation for other Consumer Price Index (CPI) basket items has been decelerating, the inflation of shelter has only been going up since 2010. Compared with July of last year, shelter prices are up by 3.1 percent. In the coming months, shelter inflation is expected to continue…

Rising housing costs, paired with stagnant wages, are a big concern for most Americans because not only is rent often already the largest part of monthly expenses—it is increasingly becoming more expensive. One study found that half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Interestingly, this is getting very little attention from politicians. Let’s say a politician wanted to appeal to the masses in the United States. One traditional way of doing this has been to push homeownership, a strategy pursued from Presidents since the 1920s. Owning a home might be the modern equivalent of a chicken in every pot for Americans. Since owning a home has been viewed as an essential part of the American Dream, most politicians want to be viewed as in favor of expanding this opportunity. (Of course, there are other reasons for pushing homeownership including boosting the economy and fighting communism.)

Perhaps other issues are more pressing at the moment. Or, I suspect few leaders really know what to do about reviving housing given the efforts in the early 2000s to expand homeownership that contributed to a big economic bust. Yet, since most major politicians today want to appeal to the middle class (and they don’t pay much attention to the poor – another story for another day), this would be one easy way to go if they could just figure some sort of plan.

Canadian PM says 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women “crime,” not “sociological phenomenon”

Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper makes a distinction between “crime” and “sociological phenomenon”:

Rejecting a formal inquiry into the more than 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada, Harper said the issues are “first and foremost” crimes and should be dealt with by police.

“I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime,” Harper told a crowd at Yukon College in Whitehorse on Thursday.

“It is crime, against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such. We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect, in terms of crimes of violence against not just aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally. And we remain committed to that course of action.”

Harper was responding to a question about renewed calls for a formal federal inquiry in the wake of the tragic death of 15-year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. Fontaine had been missing since Aug. 9, after running away from her foster home.

Harper made similar comments involving sociology regarding terrorism last year. He seems to have two general purposes by invoking sociology negatively. He want to look tough on crime. This is a matter that should remain with the police and larger discussions about the implications of these missing and murdered women aren’t welcome. Cracking down on crime is a positive point for conservatives and even more liberal politicians usually can’t afford to be seen as soft on crime. But, this also seems like odd shorthand for trying to cut off concerns of political liberals who see larger forces at work here, perhaps broader patterns including violence against women as well as a against native populations. Sociology here represents liberal concerns. Is there any sort of deviant behavior that Harper thinks would benefit from a sociological perspective? It doesn’t sound like it and this inability to see the larger picture surrounding sets of events may just prove to be shortsighted in the long run.

Analysis suggests fake Twitter followers common among Washington political leaders

A new analysis of political leaders in Washington D.C. suggests many of them have a lot of fake or inactive Twitter followers:

Of the president’s 36.9 million Twitter followers, an astonishing 53 per cent – or 19.5 million – are fake accounts, according to a search engine at the Internet research vendor Just 20 per cent of Obama’s Twitter buddies are real people who are active users.

Overall, the five most influential accounts linked to the Obama administration – the first lady has two – account for 23.4 million fake followers.

Biden’s nonexistent fans make up 46 per cent of his Twitter total, with 20 per cent being ‘real’ followers. The White House’s followers are 37 per cent fake and 25 per cent active; the first lady’s primary account is 36 per cent fake and 29 per cent active…

The difference between fake followers and ‘real’ ones is comprised of ‘inactive’ accounts, which may relate to real people but no longer send tweets with any regularity.

If this analysis can be trusted, this appears to be a bipartisan problem. But, it would be helpful to hear more about how inactive or fake users are determined: shouldn’t we expect that there are some people on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook who have set up profiles but then don’t use them regularly? At least there is one infographic that helps provide more detail regarding this phenomena. Plus, you can use this app to analyze your own account.

And, once we have such numbers, we should then think through what it means: is it dishonest for politicians to have a lot of fake or inactive Twitter followers? Should the standards for having fully active followers be different for politicians as opposed to other public figures? Does having more followers really translate into a more positive public image or more votes?

UPDATE: This is not a problem just relegated to well-known figures. See this story from this morning on fines levied against companies that posted fake reviews:

The New York Attorney General has slapped 19 companies with a $350,000 fine after his office unearthed fake review writing for Google Local, Yelp, and others in a yogurt shop sting.

Eric Schneiderman revealed that a raft of search engine optimisation (SEO) companies created dummy accounts and paid writers from the Bangladesh and the Philippines $1 to $10 per review after his office set up a fake yoghurt shop in Brooklyn, New York and sought help to combat negative comments.

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” said Schneiderman in a statement.

“This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”

Plus, this is an online concern at sites like Amazon where reviews provide important information for potential buyers.

Look to the NFL for taypayer funded stadiums, sweet tax deals

Gregg Easterbrook provides a reminder of the amount of public money funneled to NFL owners in recent decades:

Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners. Many cities, counties, and states also pay the stadiums’ ongoing costs, by providing power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements. When ongoing costs are added, Long’s research finds, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans have turned a profit on stadium subsidies alone—receiving more money from the public than they needed to build their facilities. Long’s estimates show that just three NFL franchises—the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jets—have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs.

Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would…

The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations, which means that ordinary people must pay higher taxes, public spending must decline, or the national debt must increase to make up for the shortfall. Nonprofit status applies to the NFL’s headquarters, which administers the league and its all-important television contracts. Individual teams are for-profit and presumably pay income taxes—though because all except the Green Bay Packers are privately held and do not disclose their finances, it’s impossible to be sure.

It is more difficult to justify such public spending when it is laid out like this. But, the money spent is complicated by two factors:

1. Americans like football. What if they wanted to provide taxpayer dollars for football? The assumption Easterbrook and others make who point out the public money spent on football is that people who read the stories will get outraged and demand change. But, football is the most popular sport and the money problems aren’t just present in the NFL – look at how college football continues to be a financial juggernaut even as it struggles with issues of amateurism. If the money isn’t spent on football, would the public be confident that money would be spent effectively elsewhere?

2. Individual cities, states, and other bodies of government are put in tough spots when teams threaten to leave unless they get a good stadium deal. Even with studies that show the economic benefits tend to be primarily in the direction of the team owners and not the taxpayers, losing the team might be even worse. Who wants to be the politician who let the team go? On one hand, spending tax money on sports might be unpopular but so would be politicians who let a source of civic pride walk away.

Just thinking out loud, it seems like the main way politicians and local governments could fight back is to all band together and refuse to spend public money this way. In a time of tough economic competition between communities for jobs and prestige, all it takes is one city to be the escape hatch for teams. Look at how NFL teams in recent years have used Los Angeles as a bargaining chip. Even though no one has moved there, they can all say plans are in the works in Los Angeles unless you give us a better deal. At the same time, politicians across the board could examine cities without major football teams and how they “survive” the lack of a team. How does Portland make it? What about Los Angeles? San Antonio? Las Vegas? In other words, having a football team is not a necessity and there are other ways to spend the money that might go towards sports teams. Individually, cities have a hard time standing up to teams but collectively they might have the ability.

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.

Samuel Barber asks what might happen “If Mayors Ruled the World”

Richard Florida interviews Samuel Barber about his forthcoming book titled If Mayors Ruled the World. Here is why Barber thinks mayors are increasingly important:

The problem here is that political sovereignty has passed to the economic sector, where global financial capital and multinational corporations exercise an undue influence on both domestic and international affairs. Cities share jurisdiction over the economic resources of the city — where commercial, financial and information capital are concentrated — but that jurisdiction is limited by the emerging sovereignty of economics over politics.

Where the city is able to exercise control of economic resources it must live with the superior jurisdiction of nation-states, who may interdict cities trying to collaborate across borders. A city boycotting goods made by child labor in a developing country may be held in violation of the WTO’s fair trade rules (which bar certain kinds of boycotts); or a city trying to control guns may be ruled in violation of the right to bear arms, as happened recently when the Supreme Court invalidated the District of Columbia’s gun control rules…

What I want to suggest is that these myriad global networks, and the inherent disposition of cities to cooperate, exemplify the deep capacity of cities to work together across borders, and justify my claim that a global “parliament of mayors” could achieve a good deal of concord voluntarily both on common policies and on common actions. This is what the networks are already doing, and what a formalization of the process could achieve. The key is a “soft” bottom-up approach to cooperation organized around “glocality” rather than a top-down “legal mandate” approach of the kind we associate with (and fear from) “world government.”…

While the details of a parliament of mayors would be worked out at an inaugural convening of interested cities, I propose some guidelines that could be considered. That there be three parliaments/audiaments per annum, each in a different (voluntary) city, and each representing 300 cities chosen by lot from a list of all cities wishing to attend. This would allow up to 900 cities per annum to participate. Given that all common actions would be voluntary.

The starting point for this conversation is the growing power, particularly economic, of the top global cities. While these cities operate within nation-states, they have economies and populations that rival nations.

Several thoughts about this:

1. While national leaders also talk about the economy and jobs, it seems like mayors may have more direct influence on bringing jobs to their domain. I would guess that overall, mayors are more pro-business and are always looking to attract top corporations and new firms. Perhaps mayors have to be more pragmatic about jobs and business climate as their connections to the business interests in their city are very important.

2. Let’s say Barber’s ideas about a “parliament of mayors” come to pass. What might actually come out of this? Mayors in the largest cities already meet and try to share best practices. Perhaps Barber thinks the mayors can forge stronger economic ties between their respective cities? Perhaps mayors can band together to put pressure on national governments?

3. I would be interested to know how the political clout of mayors around the world compares. Certain mayors in the United States are well-known but is this primarily because of the size of the cities in which they were elected or are their dynamic movers and shakers from smaller cities as well. Are mayors in different parts of the world more important or less important compared to US mayors? I could imagine that in countries with weaker governments mayors might have more relative influence.

Do politicians understand how polls work?

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed 80% of Americans do not think their family is financially better than four years ago:

Just 20 percent of Americans feel their family’s financial situation is better today than it was four years ago. Another 37 percent say it is worse, and 43 percent say it is about the same.

When asked about these specific results, Harry Reid has this to say about polls in general:

“I’m not much of a pollster guy. As everyone knows, there isn’t a poll in America that had me having any chance of being re-elected, but I got re-elected,” he told TheDC.

“I think this poll is so meaningless. It is trying to give the American people an idea of what 300 million people feel by testing several hundred people. I think the poll is flawed in so many different ways including a way that questions were asked. I don’t believe in polls generally and specifically not in this one.”

The cynical take on this is that Reid and politicians in general like polls when they are supportive of their positions and don’t like them when they do not favor them. If this is true, then you might expect politicians to cite polls when they are good but to ignore them or even try to discredit them if they are bad.

But, I would like to ask a more fundamental question: are politicians any better than average Americans in understanding polls? Reid seems to suggest that this poll has two major problems: it doesn’t ask questions of enough people to really understand all Americans (a sampling issue) and the questions are poor which leads to biased answers (an issue of how the questions are worded). Is Reid right? From the information at the bottom of the CBS story about the poll, it seems pretty standard:

This poll was conducted by telephone from March 7-11, 2012 among 1009 adults nationwide.

878 interviews were conducted with registered voters, including 301 with voters who said they plan to vote in a Republican primary. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The margin of error for the sample of registered voters could be plus or minus three points and six points for the sample of Republican primary voters. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

Yes, the number of respondents seems low to be able to talk about all Americans but this is how all major polls work: you select a representative sample based on standard demographic factors (gender, race, age, etc.) and then you estimate how close the survey results are to the actual results if we asked all American adults these questions. This is why all polls have a margin of error: if you ask less people, you are less confident in the generalizability of the results (which is why there is a larger 6% gap for the smaller Republican primary voters subgroup) and if you ask more people, you can be more confident (though the payoff of asking more people usually diminishes between 1200-1500 respondents so it is not worth asking more at some point).

I don’t think Reid sounds very good in this soundbite: he attacks the scientific basis of polls with common objections. While polls may not “feel right” and may contradict anecdotal or personal evidence, they can be done well and with a good sample of around 1,000 people, you can be confident that the results are generalizable to the American people. If Reid does understand how polls work, he could raise other issues. For example, he could insist that this is a one-time poll and you would want to measure this again and again to see how it changes (perhaps this is an unusual trough?) or you would want other polling organizations to ask the same question and triangulate the results between the surveys (like what Real Clear Politics does by taking averages of polls). Or he could suggest that this question doesn’t matter much because asking about four years ago is a rather arbitrary point and philosophically, does life always have to get better over time?

“85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports”

The Freakonomics blog has a discussion about whether cities and states should help pay for professional sports arenas and the weight of academic evidence says no:

So we have two perspectives and one question: Do sports generate jobs and economic growth?

This is a question that has been addressed numerous times by economists.  And these studies – summarized by economists Rob Baade and Victor Matheson — tend to reveal two answers.  When the study is completed by paid consultants prior to the public money being spent, the benefits from sports are numerous are large. However, when independent researchers – who are not paid by professional sports teams or leagues – look for these benefits after the fact, evidence of more jobs and economic growth are hard to find…

Given these three effects, the empirical evidence suggests quite strongly that sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth.  And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive.  In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports. Mankiw also notes that only five issues have more agreement among economists.

But with all of this evidence, why would the city of Sacramento recently vote to spend money to build a new arena so that the Sacramento Kings would stay in the city?

Such a story clearly suggests that the Kings used the threat of re-location to elicit a substantial subsidy from the people of Sacramento.  Although the Kings do not have much economic impact on Sacramento, the Kings do make basketball fans happy.  And if they departed, those same people would be very unhappy with Kevin Johnson.  Consequently, the Mayor has an incentive to do what he can to keep the Kings in Sacramento (although it not entirely clear if making the non-basketball fans unhappy is good politics).

I think this is correct: no one want to be the politician that allows the popular local sports franchise to leave town. The stakes are even higher in places like Sacramento where the Kings are the only professional franchise so if they left, the city isn’t even on the professional sports map. A politician who let this happen might be punished by opponents and by voters (though they too would then have to go against all of the evidence from studies). I think this is similar logic to what happens in tax breaks debates like the one recently in Illinois: while it is hard to justify giving wealthy corporations a tax break to stay in Illinois, who wants to be the politician who let several thousand good jobs go to another state?

I also think that while this can be studied in economic terms, i.e., does helping to build a stadium lead to economic benefits for the city, or in political terms, this misses some of the point: having a sports team is also about status. It makes a city feel like a major league city. While perhaps we could argue that Sacramento has enough going on being the state capital of the country’s largest state, the average citizen might connect more to the sports team. When national TV crews come to televise a game, fans feel like they are being recognized (see this post as an example of this). With a sports teams, politicians and business people can take big wigs to games, signalling that their city is really part of the big time, even if the economic data doesn’t necessarily bear this out. While I am skeptical of arguments that people in Cleveland are worse off because their sports teams haven’t won, having a big sports team can mask other issues or at least help people ignore them. This is more difficult to measure than economic benefits but this cultural dimension still matters when these decisions are made.

(This post was prompted by part of a TrueHoop post from yesterday.)