President Obama wants to turn American suburbs into Manhattan?

Conservatives continue to worry that President Obama is opposed to suburbs:

The most obvious new element of the president’s regionalist policy initiative is the July 19 publication of a Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation broadening the obligation of recipients of federal aid to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The apparent purpose of this rule change is to force suburban neighborhoods with no record of housing discrimination to build more public housing targeted to ethnic and racial minorities. Several administration critics noticed the change and challenged it, while the mainstream press has simply declined to cover the story.

Yet even critics have missed the real thrust of HUD’s revolutionary rule change. That’s understandable, since the Obama administration is at pains to downplay the regionalist philosophy behind its new directive. The truth is, HUD’s new rule is about a great deal more than forcing racial and ethnic diversity on the suburbs. (Regionalism, by the way, is actually highly controversial among minority groups. There are many ways in which both middle-class minorities in suburbs, and less well-off minorities in cities, can be hurt by regionalist policies–another reason those plans are seldom discussed.)

The new HUD rule is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars. Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced “economic integration.” The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in “stack and pack” high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse. To understand how HUD’s new rule will help enact this vision, we need to turn to a less-well-known example of the Obama administration’s regionalist interventionism…

The Plan Bay Area precedent makes it clear that HUD will use data on access to housing, jobs, and transportation to press densification on both urban and suburban jurisdictions. With the new HUD rule in place, municipalities will be under heavy pressure to allow multifamily developments in areas previously zoned for single-family housing. The new counting scheme, which measures access to housing, jobs, and transportation, will simultaneously create pressures to push businesses into the newly densified areas, and to locate those centers near transportation hubs. In effect, HUD’s new rule gives the federal government a tool to press ultra-dense Plan Bay Area-style “priority development areas” on regions across the country.

Housing discrimination is a real issue as is the lack of affordable housing. Leaving it to “the market” to sort this all out isn’t really working.

Also, there is some hyperbole going on here. See similar claims from conservatives about the US joining with the United Nations to push urban density. Pushing denser suburbs does not necessarily mean that all suburbs are going to be Manhattan. In fact, Manhattan is very unusual even among American cities for its density. Interestingly, the thriving cities of today are Sunbelt cities like Houston that tend to be less dense than traditional big cities in the Northeast or Midwest. Kurtz seems to be defending unmitigated sprawl, the idea that suburbs should have as little density as they like. This tends to be linked to greater local control as well as wealth – it is more expensive to have big lots/pieces of land. Additionally, less dense sprawl is viewed as the opposite of city life with its forced interactions with people different than you, less space, dirtiness, and urban problems (this perspective tends to ignores the benefits of urban life).

There are problems with unmitigated sprawl, even if people with means may desire it. Like any kind of development, there are tradeoffs involved. It is can be costly environmentally, tied to issues of land use and water runoff, among others. It leads to more driving which can be viewed as the ultimate expression of American independence but which also involves longer commutes, less walking, more traffic, and the expensive actions of owning and operating a car. It can be related to weaker communities and social relationships – see the discussion about sprawl in Bowling Alone. Its infrastructure is costly as roads, electric lines, gas lines, and local services are more spread out. Additionally, the fate of suburbs are linked to cities – the two areas are not independent (though they may appear to be so, say, when comparing Detroit with some of its wealthier suburbs) and problems in one area affect the other.

Having denser suburbs does not mean the American suburban way of life will disappear. It may mean smaller lots and less driving plus more mixed uses and new people in the suburbs but this does not necessarily equal Manhattan.

Three possible reasons why the harsh national spotlight is on Chicago

Whet Moser proposes three reasons Chicago has received negative attention recently from the national media:

It’s a big, easy target. Chicago’s “Big Shoulders” image—it was the city that “built the American dream,” to use the historian Thomas Dyja’s words—makes any fall from that perch seem that much more momentous. “We were the future,” says the Northwestern professor Bill Savage.

The Obama factor. Chicago’s problems never used to be much of a national story (unless a governor got indicted). But after a skinny Chicagoan became president—a man whose team has included a Daley, our current mayor, and one of the country’s most powerful political advisers—the light of press attention shone more brightly. “When you look at what’s wrong [with the country],” says Savage, “you look at Chicago.”

It’s our turn. In the 1970s, New York City “was collapsing,” the Reader media critic Michael Miner points out. “The Summer of Sam, ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead.’?” When Los Angeles hit hard times in the early 1990s, it “was just as much of a [media] whipping boy,” says Savage. Chicago is a logical third. It will be somebody else’s turn soon enough. Prepare yourself, Houston (which is projected to surpass Chicago in population by 2030): You may be next.

Some thoughts about each of these proposed reasons:

#1: Out of the three reasons listed above, I find this one the least plausible. Yes, Chicago was once the new American city (see the late 1800s) but it has been eclipsed by Los Angeles (perhaps Hollywood and the generally glitter of the city limits negative attention?) and Chicago has been suffering from the same kinds of problems as today (loss of manufacturing jobs, poverty, crime, inequality) since at least the 1970s if not all the way back in the early 1900s with the Black Belt and immigrant experience. Chicago may have once been the future (also see the 1893 Columbian Exposition) but that future disappeared a long time ago (and perhaps Chicagoans hold on to that 1893 fair a little too closely as well). This might be a longer story about Chicago representing the problems of the Rust Belt – a cycle of loss, rebirth (1990-2006 or so in Chicago), then problems again – than about the loss of a future.

#2: Chicago has never had a president so linked to the city. And, while Obama spent much of his adult life in Chicago, he isn’t originally from the city. While the Daleys are well known, their rule was much more provincial.

#3: This suggests that such negative attention is cyclical, either because different cities experience trouble at different times or there is a sort of revolving set of cities that receive attention. Houston might be next if people first learn about its growth and changes.

Plus, has Chicago received more negative attention recently than Detroit?

You can collect lots of Moneyball-type data but it still has to be used well

Another report from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference provides this useful reminder about statistics and big data:

Politics didn’t come up at the conference, except for a single question to Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight election oracle who got his start doing statistical analysis on baseball players. Silver suggested there wasn’t much comparison between the two worlds.

But even if there’s no direct correlation, there was an underlying message I heard consistently throughout the conference that applies to both: Data is an incredibly valuable resource for organizations, but you must be able to communicate its value to stakeholders making decisions — whether that’s in the pursuit of athletes or voters.

And the Obama 2012 campaign successfully put this together. Here is one example:

Data played a major role. There’s perhaps no better example than the constant testing of email subject lines. The performance of the Obama email with the subject line “I will be outspent” earned the campaign an estimated $2.6 million. Had the campaign gone with the lowest-performing subject line, it would have raised $2.2 million less, according to “Inside the Cave,” a detailed report from Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini and the team at Engage.

This is an important reminder about statistics: they still have to be used well and effectively shared with leaders and the public. We are now in a world where more data is available than ever before but this doesn’t necessarily mean life is getting better.

I recently was in a conversation about the value of statistics. I suggested that if colleges and others were able to effectively train the students of today in statistics and how to use them in the real world, we might be better off as a society in a few decades as these students go on to become leaders who can make statistics a regular part of their decision-making. We’ll see if this happens…

Evaluating the charts and graphics in President Obama’s “enhanced experience” version of the State of the Union

In addition to the speech, President Obama’s State of the Union involved an “enhanced experience” with plenty of charts and graphics. Here are some thoughts about how well this data and information was presented:

But sometimes, even accuracy can be misleading, especially when it comes to graphics and charts. On Tuesday night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address and the White House launched an “enhanced” experience, a multimedia display with video, 107 slides and 27 charts…

Overall, Few said Obama’s team created well-designed charts that presented information “simply, clearly and honestly.”

On a chart about natural gas wells:

“This graph depicting growth in natural gas wells suffers from a problem related to the quantitative scale, specifically the fact that it does not begin at zero. Although it is not always necessary to begin the scale of a line graph at zero, in this case because the graph was shown to the general public, narrowing the scale to begin at 400,000 probably exaggerated people’s perception of the degree in change.”

On a chart about “energy-related CO2 emissions”:

We found that the data behind this chart match up with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports in its table of U.S. Macroeconomic Indicators and CO2 Emissions. But the y-axis is too compressed and as a result the chart exaggerates the trend a bit.

On a chart about American troop levels in Afghanistan:

Annotating discrete data points as this chart does can be helpful to tease out the story in a bunch of numbers, but that’s not a replacement for properly labeled axes. And this chart has none.

It seems like the data was correct but it often was put into a compressed context – not surprisingly, the years Obama has been in office or just a few years beforehand. This is a basic thing to keep in mind with charts and graphs: the range on the axes matters and manipulating these can change people’s perceptions of whether there have been sharp changes or not.

Data suggests cities, suburbs, and rural areas divided about Obama

Recent data continues to suggest President Obama has quite different levels of support across cities, suburbs, and exurbs:

But the most important Obama divide to keep your eye on this year is the one between urban, suburban and rural places.

Urban America is still strongly in Mr. Obama’s corner, 66% say they are optimistic or satisfied. That’s down from 2009’s 74%, but not sharply. The suburbs have grown more skeptical with only 48% saying they are in the optimistic/satisfied camp. In 2009, 63% of the people in suburbs were feeling positive about Mr. Obama’s first term. And rural America is particularly gloomy about the next four years, with only 35% saying they are optimistic or satisfied. In 2009, 58% in rural America thought Mr. Obama would do a good job in the White House.

This is not a new split; Joel Kotkin, for example, has argued for years that the suburbs are the current battleground for voters as city dwellers tend to lean Democratic and people in rural areas tend to lean Republican. But the persistence of this divide goes beyond a red state, blue state divide that has been at the center of American political discourse for over a decade. It is not just about states, which matter particularly for Congress and electoral votes. Rather there are large divides even within states that lead to all sorts of more local issues about how resources should be allocated and who should be able to make decisions. President Obama is known for calling for a purple America bringing together red and blue states but perhaps he needs to call for an America that bridges the big divides between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

The closer look at how the Obama campaign used big data to wage an intimate and winning campaign

In MIT Technology Review, Sasha Issenberg has a three-part look at how the Obama campaign was effectively able to harness big data. Here are the concluding paragraphs from Part Three:

A few days after the election, as Florida authorities continued to count provisional ballots, a few staff members were directed, as four years before, to remain in Chicago. Their instructions were to produce another post-mortem report summing up the lessons of the past year and a half. The undertaking was called the Legacy Project, a grandiose title inspired by the idea that the innovations of Obama 2012 should be translated not only to the campaign of the next Democratic candidate for president but also to governance. Obama had succeeded in convincing some citizens that a modest adjustment to their behavior would affect, however marginally, the result of an election. Could he make them feel the same way about Congress?

Simas, who had served in the White House before joining the team, marveled at the intimacy of the campaign. Perhaps more than anyone else at headquarters, he appreciated the human aspect of politics. This had been his first presidential election, but before he became a political operative, Simas had been a politician himself, serving on the city council and school board in his hometown of Taunton, Massachusetts. He ran for office by knocking on doors and interacting individually with constituents (or those he hoped would become constituents), trying to track their moods and expectations.

In many respects, analytics had made it possible for the Obama campaign to recapture that style of politics. Though the old guard may have viewed such techniques as a disruptive force in campaigns, they enabled a presidential candidate to view the electorate the way local candidates do: as a collection of people who make up a more perfect union, each of them approachable on his or her terms, their changing levels of support and enthusiasm open to measurement and, thus, to respect. “What that gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign,” Simas says. “You know the people on your block. People have relationships with one another, and you leverage them so you know the way they talk about issues, what they’re discussing at the coffee shop.”

Few events in American life other than a presidential election touch 126 million adults, or even a significant fraction that many, on a single day. Certainly no corporation, no civic institution, and very few government agencies ever do. Obama did so by reducing every American to a series of numbers. Yet those numbers somehow captured the individuality of each voter, and they were not demographic classifications. The scores measured the ability of people to change politics—and to be changed by it.

Combining numbers and a personal appeal made for a winning campaign. Part Two has more on how the Romney campaign watched what the Obama campaign was doing and tried to react and yet couldn’t quite figure it out.

Since this appears to have been the winning formula in 2012, I imagine there will be plenty of others who will try to duplicate it. One way would be to get the Obama campaign database and information and it is not clear who might be able to access that in the future. Another way would be to hire some of the Obama campaign people who made this happen – I imagine they will get some lucrative offers moving forward. A third option would be to try to find another way but this could be tedious, require a lot of resources, and may not come to the same conclusion.

The real question after the 2012 presidential election: who gets Obama’s database?

President Obama has plenty to deal with in his second term but plenty of people want an answer to this question: who will be given access to the campaign’s database?

Democrats are now pressing to expand and redeploy the most sophisticated voter list in American political history, beginning with next year’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and extending to campaigns for years to come. The prospect already has some Republicans worried…

The database consists of voting records and political donation histories bolstered by vast amounts of personal but publicly available consumer data, say campaign officials and others familiar with the operation, which was capable of recording hundreds of fields for each voter.

Campaign workers added far more detail through a broad range of voter contacts — in person, on the phone, over e-mail or through visits to the campaign’s Web site. Those who used its Facebook app, for example, had their files updated with lists of their Facebook friends along with scores measuring the intensity of those relationships and whether they lived in swing states. If their last names seemed Hispanic, a key target group for the campaign, the database recorded that, too…

To maintain their advantage, Democrats say they must guard against the propensity of political data to deteriorate in off years, when funding and attention dwindles, while navigating the inevitable intra-party squabbles over who gets access now that the unifying forces of a billion-dollar presidential campaign are gone.

The Obama campaign spent countless hours developing this database and will not let it go lightly. I imagine this could become a more common legacy for winning politicians than getting things done while in office: passing on valuable data about voters and supporters to other candidates. If a winning candidate had good information, others will want to build on the same information. I don’t see much mention of one way to solve this issue: let political candidates or campaigns pay for the information!

What about the flip side: will anyone use or want the information collected by the Romney campaign? Would new candidates prefer to start over or are there important pieces of data that can be salvaged from a losing campaign?

Kotkin: Obama coalition now about urban professionals, not blue collar workers

Joel Kotkin writes about the shift in the Democratic coalition under President Obama away from blue collar workers and toward urban professionals:

The gentrification of the Democratic Party has gone too far to be reversed in this election. After decades of fighting to win over white working- and middle-class families, Democrats under Obama have set them aside in favor of a new top-bottom coalition dominated by urban professionals—notably academics and members of the media—single women, and childless couples, along with ethnic minorities.

Rather than representing, as Chris Christie and others on the right suggest, the old, corrupt Chicago machine, Obama in fact epitomizes the city’s new political culture, as described by the University of Chicago’s Terry Nichols Clark, that greatly deemphasizes white, largely Catholic working-class voters, the self-employed, and people involved in blue-collar industries…

The traditional machine provided him with critical backing early in his political career, but Obama owes his success to new groups that have taken center stage in the increasingly liberal post-Clinton Democratic party: the urban “creative class” made up mostly of highly-educated professionals, academics, gays, single people, and childless couples. It’s a group Clark once called “the slimmer family.” Such people were barely acknowledged and even mistreated by the old machine; now they are primary players in the “the post-materialistic” party. The only holdovers from the old coalition are ethnic minorities and government workers…

Focused on the “upstairs” part of the new political culture, the administration—confident in minority support—has done very little materially to improve the long-term prospects of those “downstairs.” Minorities, in fact, have done far worse under this administration than virtually any in recent history, including that of the hapless George W. Bush. In 2012, African-American unemployment stands at the highest level in decades; 12 percent of the nation’s population, blacks account for 21 percent of the nation’s jobless. The picture is particularly dire Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where black unemployment is nearly 20%, and Detroit, where’s it’s over 25 percent.

Fascinating. If correct, this could be a boon for the powerful in big cities, people interested in big ideas and big projects and big returns, but not necessarily for those in the struggling neighborhoods. It’s too bad Kotkin doesn’t link this approach to specific policies Obama and the new Democrats have pursued – what exactly does this look like? Have the first four years provided concrete evidence that these Democrats are opposed to the suburbs, as conservatives suggest? On the other hand, we might look at the lack of policies directly aimed at the urban working and lower classes and draw conclusions from that.

I’ve suggested before that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a pragmatic kind of Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton, liberal but clearly pro-business and interested in things like public-private partnerships. If Obama is more interested in the “upstairs” of the Democratic Party, does he approve of Emanuel’s moves and kinds of actions?

Chuck Todd: President Obama takes an anthropological view of the world

In an interview, journalist Chuck Todd explains how President Obama sees the world:

CHUCK TODD: I would say the real danger for the president on issues like this, is less about this, and more about–Paul Begala one time said this to me–he said, you know, the guy really is his mother’s son sometimes when it comes to studying society.  He’s anthropological about it.  Remember that time when he was studying people in Pennsylvania, and he said to that fundraiser in Pennsylvania, you know they cling to their guns.  He wasn’t meaning it as demeaning in his mind, but it came across that way.

ANDREA MITCHELL: It’s intellectualized.

TODD: He’s the son of an anthropologist, and I think sometimes he goes about religion that way, almost in this, as I said because he’s very well studied on, not just Christianity but on a lot of religions, but in that, frankly, anthropological way, and that can come across as distant.

As you can see from the link above, conservatives don’t particularly like this, particularly because they think intellectuals, and perhaps social scientists in particular (see this example regarding social psychologists), are against them already. But this is an interesting quote if correct: Obama then may see the world like a social scientist, looking at larger patterns and trends and making observations. Of course, an anthropological view may reveal unpleasant or unspoken truths, it may provide some insights, but it may also be unfamiliar to some and may be mixed up with political agendas rather than simply be “value-free” (a la Max Weber).

This also raises an intriguing question about what background Americans prefer a president to have. In the past, being a general was important or at least serving in the armed forces but this has declined in significance. Both parties tried a candidate who was a veteran in the last two presidential elections and both lost. Is a business leader better equipped? What about an academic? This is not simply confined to liberals; Newt Gingrich has a background as an academic historian. Hollywood or entertainment stars? Think Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. Perhaps the best way to look at this is to work in the other direction and focus on different traits that polling organizations have asked about. Here are the results of a Gallup poll from a few months ago:

While more than nine in 10 Americans would vote for a presidential candidate who is black, a woman, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish, significantly smaller percentages would vote for one who is an atheist (54%) or Muslim (58%). Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon (80%) or gay or lesbian (68%) candidate falls between these two extremes.

Lots of American cultural values on display in State of the Union speech

While State of the Union Speeches can contain specific information and plans, they are often great places to spot American cultural values and ideals. Democrat or Republican, the themes are often similar. (Of course some topics are more contentious than others but these speeches tend to try to appeal to a broad demographic.) Here is the text of the full speech.

Some of the ideas contained in the speech:

-Americans who work hard should be able to get ahead

-There is an American Dream of a middle-class lifestyle

(Here is a summary of these first two: “They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”)

-American will win out in the end

-American workers are the best in the world

-More and better education will help our country move forward

-Our troops are heroes and embody the best of America

-May God bless the United States of America

Any other big common ideas you can spot?