Owning a McMansion gives you more of a voice in society

One Iowa resident suggests McMansion owners have more of a voice in society compared to the marginalized:

There are segments of our population that feel isolated and powerless because it seems no one is listening to their message. Unfortunately we even have a name for them, the marginalized. What exactly does that mean? These are the groups that are left out and not listened to. Examples abound such as the homeless, mentally ill, people with disabilities, inmates, children and the elderly.

For a country so rich in many ways, we have lost the luster by treating those without a voice as if they were not worthy. It speaks volumes about what we do honor.

Is it most important how much money one makes or how powerful they are? Who has the biggest McMansion and the most cars?

Who can boast that they have several vacation homes and multiple residences? Who has a golden parachute ready to be opened when the business goes under and many are left without employment?

There is one idea behind this reference to McMansions that is common but one that is not. First, the common idea: that owning a McMansion is about displaying wealth and status. Critics of the homes suggest those who buy them simply want to show off their money and do so by purchasing homes that are meant to impress. This ties in with images of Americans being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, consumption, and materialism.

The second idea is not as common. What if owning a McMansion is more about inequality and who has what resources in society? Even critics who argue McMansions are about people chasing status tend to argue that these people should buy more architecturally sound homes that are less garish. What if McMansions are part of a whole system that privileges those who can purchase homes, provide their children with plenty of support, and enjoy some luxuries in life? This idea does not come up very often. Perhaps this is because the idea implicates owning expensive single-family homes more broadly. Perhaps it is because plenty of Americans still like the suburbs and their private spaces. Regardless, thinking of McMansions more as part of the issue of inequality then could get into ideas how money should be spent, how we should build homes and neighborhoods, and what it means for more people to live the good life.

When Chicago suburbs disqualify candidates running for public office

Local government and control is a cherished part of suburban life. But, the Chicago Tribune highlights today on its front page how often Chicago suburban governments disqualify candidates running for local office:

For its investigation, the Tribune focused on races that critics say are the most troubling: suburban candidates running for city and village offices. Reporters canvassed every suburb in the Chicago region, reviewed scores of objections filed against candidates and interviewed dozens of those involved in the system. The newspaper found:

Widespread abuse. At least 200 candidates faced objections this year, with only a small fraction alleging serious matters, such as criminal histories, residency issues or outright fraud. Ultimately panels kicked 76 candidates off the ballot across three dozen suburbs.

Rampant bias. Of those knocked off, most fell at the hands of panels stacked with members who had a political stake in their own decisions. Conflicts also went beyond simple politics: Even relatives ruled on their own family members’ cases.

Wild inconsistencies. The rules are not evenly applied, with similar infractions leading some panels to remove candidates, but not other panels.

Costly tabs. The challenges cost taxpayers in some towns tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle, many times in suburbs that can least afford it…

The Tribune studied local election systems in the suburbs of the nation’s other largest metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia. None has Illinois’ combination of difficulty getting on the suburban ballot and ease in getting kicked off.

Local government is often thought to be more non-partisan than elections at higher levels of government. But non-partisanship does not necessarily mean that officeholders aren’t still looking to stay in office and will do what they can to keep challengers out. Local races can be particularly nasty even as very few people vote. I suspect most suburbanites would not like what the Tribune found but ironically probably wouldn’t be too motivated to vote on the issue, pressure politicians about their concerns, or run for office themselves to change the situation.

Underlying all of this in the suburbs is that suburban culture promotes letting people do their own thing and trying to avoid public friction. A great source on this is the book The Moral Order of a Suburb by M. P. Baumgartner. Here is how the Amazon book description puts it:

Drawing on research, observation, and hundreds of in-depth interviews conducted during a twelve-month study of an affluent New York City suburb, M.P. Baumgartner reveals that the apparent serenity of the suburb is caused by the avoidance of open conflict. She contends that although nonviolence, nonconfrontation, and tolerance produce a superficial social harmony, these behaviors arise from disintegrative tendencies in modern culture–transience, fragmentation, weak family and communal ties, isolation, and indifference–conditions customarily viewed as sources of disorder, antagonism, and violence. A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, a disorganized social order that, with the suburbs’ rapid growth in America, promises to be the moral order of the future.

This is a paradox of the suburbs: we tend to think of transience and fragmentation leading to social disorder but Baumgartner argues this is what actually brings suburbanites together.

The cities at the top of the global power hierarchy

The 2013 Wealth Report Global Cities Survey ranks the top cities in the world in terms of power:

The survey was launched in 2008 to monitor city-level power shifts. Its objective is to assess the key urban centres across the world in terms of investment opportunities and the influence they have on global business leaders and decision makers…

Our Global Cities Survey’s four-part assessment of performance is designed to give the most rounded picture of the places that matter to the wealthy and influential. The survey focuses on four categories: economic activity; political power; quality of life; and knowledge & influence.

While New York and London hold on to the top two spots, the Asia-Pacific region, with four entries, has the tightest grip on the top 10. Europe and North America also feature, with three cities each. The Middle East’s first entry, Dubai, is at number 29, while South America’s leading cities, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, only just scrape into our top 40.

New York’s strength is reflected in its consistent showing across all four of our categories. The city is particularly strong in economic activity (being the wealth and financial centre for the world’s richest economy undoubtedly helps) and knowledge & influence, where the power of US media firms shines through. Indeed, there is a close relationship between economic activity and overall ranking, with New York, London, Paris and Tokyo occupying the top four slots for both.

When we turn to political power, Washington DC unsurprisingly leads the field, followed by Beijing and then Brussels – a small city in many ways, but one that punches above its weight politically as the headquarters of the European Union. Berlin sits just one place lower down, highlighting the growing tensions within the world’s largest economic bloc.

Here is a chart of the top five cities in each category:

This list doesn’t seem too different from the one A.T. Kearney released last year.

What would be nice to see in addition to these rankings is the interaction between these cities. For examples, how much do the social networks of the wealthy overlap across these places? How many corporations and organizations do significant business in each place? How is wealth actually spread across these places? I assume there are some significant patterns here but the emphasis in these lists is to still see these cities as separate places representing different countries.

Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

Bury power lines to reduce outages

Amidst widespread power outages, David Frum argues that the United States should pursue a particular infrastructure goal: bury more power lines.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Cost matters.

But now reflect:

1. There’s reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.

2. U.S. cost figures are a moving target. American cities are becoming denser as the baby boomers age and opt for central-city living, as I discussed in a previous column. Denser cities require fewer miles of wire to serve their populations.

3. Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.

4. As you may have heard, we’re suffering very severe unemployment just at present. Joblessness is acute among less educated workers, many of whom used to work in the now severely depressed construction industry. Burying power lines is a project that could put many hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work at tasks that make use of their skills and experience.

I don’t think you have to make a stimulus argument to get power lines buried. You could also make an aesthetic argument: many would suggest power lines are ugly. In denser areas, power lines clog up the streetscape and in more rural areas power lines block natural views.

While Frum suggests costs are indeed an issue, couldn’t local communities take care of this in their ordinances and zoning? For example, a city could require that new developments have to have buried power lines. Perhaps the cat is already out of the bag on this one but how many new developments in the US have buried power lines?

Another note: I live in a neighborhood where the power lines are buried. I do think it looks a lot better. However, this is not a fool-proof solution. Last summer, our power went out four or five times, several of these more than one day. This required the power company to come out and dig up areas throughout the neighborhood. If you came to our neighborhood today, you can still see where they did their digging and sort of planted grass again. Second, our neighborhood is connected to several other neighborhoods by above ground wires. Therefore, we could still lose power as a neighborhood if these overhead lines all went down. Thus, you would need to pursue burying power lines on a broad scale for everyone to benefit.

“Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands”

This isn’t too surprising considering the number of women getting college and graduate degrees today, but a new statistic puts those education figures in a different light: “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.”

Reading Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy’s book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, out this March, was a genuine shock. Based on 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures hot off the press (a government economist slipped Mundy the stats before they were published, in fact), “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.” While that’s not the majority-grandiose subtitles definitely are the norm-it’s darn close to it. (For the record, my guess was 25 percent, the figure in the early ’90s.)

Luckily for my ego, Mundy tells me in an interview that she too was surprised at the 40 percent, and, better yet, she says, “Most of the expert readers I’ve given the manuscript to don’t believe it.” The lofty number of female breadwinners, or more accurately, female primary breadwinners, isn’t just a product of our devastating recession. As has been well publicized, largely male employment sectors such as manufacturing did contract the most during the recent economic downturn, accelerating the trend. But since way back in 1987, the slice of wives taking home more than their husbands has risen steadily, by a percentage point or so every year.

That’s principally because so many more women than men are getting undergraduate and postgrad degrees-by 2050, there will be 140 college-educated women in the U.S. for every 100 similar men-and because the economy is bifurcating between low-skill, low-wage jobs and high-skill, higher paying ones (that require a bachelor’s or more), with the middle emptying out.

Indeed, another title of Mundy’s book could’ve been The Big Flip. It’s the phrase she uses to denote the time not so far away-2025 is her hunch, based on her impressive research, which, in addition to a data dump, includes interviews with scores of ordinary people living the new reality-when more than half of the earners-in-chief in American households will be women. (Another factoid pointing toward the imminence of the flip: Nine out of the 10 U.S. job categories expected to grow most in the next decade-nursing, accounting, postsecondary teaching-are female dominated.)

While this is a weirdly casual account of these figures, the author is correct in suggesting this could lead to big changes in relationships and the established patriarchy.

One issue I haven’t seen raised when looking at data like this is while women may be making more money and be getting more degrees, will they really be in positions of power in society? While women may have relative power in the household (though having an economic edge doesn’t necessarily translate into more power), this doesn’t necessarily mean that these women have power in their workplace. You could end up with a situation where women’s status at home is up, which I think some would see as is a good thing, but they are still subordinates in male-led careers and workplaces, which would not be viewed as positively.

The sociology of cleaning out your closet

A wardrobe consultant with a PhD in visual sociology discusses how cleaning out a closet can lead to catharsis:

Akbari explains that we are emotionally attached to items of clothing and their history. Sorting out our clothes is a therapeutic process that goes beyond aesthetics. Her focus is on the relationship between the visual appearance and self-presentation and how this affects one’s ability to claim power. Clothing allows people to play with the different facets of their identity.

The people that reach out to wardrobe consultants are generally going through some form of transition. They could be wanting a new job or dating new people. It’s an identity construction, the shedding of an old self and embracing of something new…

“Our clothes are an extension of our bodies and our identity and our social success depends on our ability to communicate, our intelligence, and our appearance — we come as a package.”

This seems a Goffmanian take on closets and clothes.

Perhaps this also explains why people are unwilling to clean out a closet full of clothes – they are not just clothes but rather symbolic objects that say something about the individual and making decisions about such symbols can be difficult. Having a full closet implies that one has a lot of options about one’s identity while removing some of those clothes might close off some of those identities.