The Democratic debate included several minutes of conversation about housing!

The Democratic debate on Wednesday night included several minutes on the issue of housing. From the transcript:

WELKER: Mr. Steyer, millions of working Americans are finding that housing has become unaffordable, especially in metropolitan areas. It is particularly acute in your home state of California, in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Why are you the best person to fix this problem?

STEYER: When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state, but it also includes skyrocketing rents which affect every single working person in the state of California.

I understand exactly what needs to be done here, which is we need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units.

But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is, we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable, that, in fact, how we build units, where people live has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.

So we are going to have to direct dollars, we’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that and we’re going to have force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure that those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

WELKER: Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Senator Warren, I see your hand raised.

WARREN: Yes. Think of it this way. Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.

Also, private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two bedroom, one bath house that I grew up in, garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.

So I’ve got a plan for 3.2 million new housing units in America. Those are housing units for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.

But there’s one more piece. Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as red-lining.

When I built a housing plan, it’s not only a housing plan about building new units. It’s a housing plan about addressing what is wrong about government-sponsored discrimination, how we need to address it, and we need to say we’re going to reverse it.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Senator. Senator Booker?

(APPLAUSE)

BOOKER: I’m so grateful, again, as a mayor who was a mayor during a recession, who was a mayor during a housing crisis, who started my career as a tenants’ rights lawyer, these are all good points, but we’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

And so all these things we need to put more federal dollars in it, but we’ve got to start empowering people. We use our tax code to move wealth up, the mortgage interest deduction. My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.

And what that does is it actually slashes poverty, 10 million people out. And by the way, for those people who are facing eviction, it is about time that the only people when they show up in rentals court that have a lawyer is not the landlord, it is also low-income families struggling to stay in their homes.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator.

Quick summary of the conversation:

1. It was short – just a few minutes and only three candidates talked.

2. Two candidates, Steyer and Warren, talked about the need for more and cheaper housing units. They did not get into many details about how to fund those units or where they would be located.

3. Two candidates talked in more detail about the inequality in housing with Warren talking about discrimination in housing and Booker discussing tax credits for renters.

Quick thoughts:

1. It is good to have the issue addressed directly. However, the amount of time spent on it, the number of candidates who responded, the lack of follow-up questions, and the quick cut to a commercial suggests it is not an important issue.

2. This is a complex issue with many local variables. Hence, it is not easy to fit housing discussions into sound-bite driven debates. However, the candidates barely got to say anything about actual policy or dealing with thorny problems such as convincing wealthier communities to include cheaper housing. Is it better in the long run to over-simplify a complex issue or not address it at all?

3. Given all the ways that housing intersects with issues that Democrats care about, why couldn’t a candidate start their policy positions with housing? This is probably because it is unpopular to address it from a top-down level but who said politics was easy? Truly addressing inequality will require addressing all the ways it intersects with places and communities.

Fighting math-phobia in America

The president of Barnard College offers three suggestions for making math more enticing and relevant for Americans:

First, we can work to bring math to those who might shy away from it. Requiring that all students take courses that push them to think empirically with data, regardless of major, is one such approach. At Barnard — a college long known for its writers and dancers — empirical reasoning requirements are built into our core curriculum. And, for those who struggle to meet the demands of data-heavy classes, we provide access (via help rooms) to tutors who focus on diminishing a student’s belief that they “just aren’t good at math.”

Second, employers should encourage applications from and be open to having students with diverse educational interests in their STEM-related internships. Don’t only seek out the computer science majors. This means potentially taking a student who doesn’t come with all the computation chops in hand but does have a good attitude and a willingness to learn. More often than not, such opportunities will surprise both intern and employee. When bright students are given opportunities to tackle problems head on and learn how to work with and manipulate data to address them, even those anxious about math tend to find meaning in what they are doing and succeed. STEM internships also allow students to connect with senior leaders who might have had to overcome a similar experience of questioning their mathematical or computational skills…

Finally, we need to reject the social acceptability of being bad at math. Think about it: You don’t hear highly intelligent people proclaiming that they can’t read, but you do hear many of these same individuals talking about “not being a math person.” When we echo negative sentiments like that to ourselves and each other, we perpetuate a myth that increases overall levels of math phobia. When students reject math, they pigeonhole themselves into certain jobs and career paths, foregoing others only because they can’t imagine doing more computational work. Many people think math ability is an immutable trait, but evidence clearly shows this is a subject in which we can all learn and succeed.

Fighting innumeracy – an inability to use or understand numbers – is a worthwhile goal. I like the efforts suggested above though I worry a bit if they are tied too heavily to jobs and national competitiveness. These goals can veer toward efficiency and utilitarianism rather than more tangible results like better understanding of and interaction society and self. Fighting stigma is going to be hard by invoking more pressure – the US is falling behind! your future career is on the line! – rather than showing how numbers can help people.

This is why I would be in favor of more statistics training for students at all levels. The math required to do statistics can be tailored to different levels, statistical tests, and subjects. The basic knowledge can be helpful in all sorts of areas citizens run into: interpreting reports on surveys and polls, calculating odds and risks (including in finances and sports), and understanding research results. The math does not have to be complicated and instruction can address understanding where statistics come from and how they can be used.

I wonder how much of this might also be connected to the complicated relationship Americans have with expertise and advanced degrees. Think of the typical Hollywood scene of a genius at work: do they look crazy or unusual? Think about presidential candidates: do Americans want people with experience and knowledge or someone they can identify with and have dinner with? Math, in being unknowable to people of average intelligence, may be connected to those smart eccentrics who are necessary for helping society progress but not necessarily the people you would want to be or hang out with.

Both parties treat the President as too powerful and important

One of my takeaways from the long 2016 election season: both political parties put too much effort into electing a President who only has limited powers. The President is certainly an important symbol and they have a bully pulpit – and both parties in recent decades seem to be interested in increased executive powers, even if they want to exercise those powers in different areas – but they are only one part of the government. Voting for the right President is not a do or die affair: it is great for the media (and while they may not have liked Trump, they liked the attention he drew and the controversy around him) and perhaps more interesting to the public but I’m skeptical that a single good or bad leader can make all the difference.

I’d rather we view the American government as a complex system. Certain actors, like the President, may be more visible or powerful than others but they can rarely act unilaterally.

Dreaming of pres. candidates competing in other TV formats

As the presidential candidate debates continue, I thought of some other TV formats that might be both entertaining and tell us more than the repeated talking points. Americans like the drama of multiple candidates and they like TV so why not try some other options?

  1. A game show format. Want to see who is smarter? Jeopardy. How well they know Americans based on survey results? Family Feud. Want to see them all live together and who can form alliances? Big Brother or Survivor. Want to see some physical competitions? American Ninja Warrior. In any game show, we would see their competitive side and a particular ability.
  2. A reality TV format. How would they each get along with the Dance Moms? Or on The Biggest Catch? Or tracking down online personas in Catfish? Or looking for homes on a HGTV show? Though the show has particular setup, the candidates could act “natural.”
  3. A hidden camera show. The show could try to catch candidates in situations that push them to respond – like What Would You Do? – or it could be more of a comedy like Candid Camera. This could give viewers some idea of how candidates would react in particular situations.
  4. Some sort of presidential simulation. Lock them in a sound stage that mimics the White House or some other government facility. What would they do after two or three nights with little sleep in reaction to a military threat against the United States? How would they act toward a set of Congressional leaders who are tough negotiators? How would they treat their staff after weeks of tension?

I get why most candidates would be very hesitant about many of these. At the same time, debates where the candidates stand around talk/interrupt/respond to questions aren’t necessarily favorable to everyone. Additionally, we know what debates can tell us but these other TV options could offer very interesting (and entertaining) insights into the candidates. These don’t have to be a joke if they are well-designed and the candidates take them seriously.

Could Condoleezza Rice run for president…as a single women?

After her speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, some suggested Condoleezza Rice could make good presidential material. Some factors might not be in her favor: she is a woman (we have elected a black president but not a woman) and she has an interesting background that includes being a professor, provost, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State (not exactly a traditional path to the White House). However, I wondered about another factor: could a single person become President?

While more Americans are living alone and marriage might be pursued by some people more than others, Americans seem to prefer national leaders who are married and have families. Many might ask: how could a single president understand the plight of families? If the single candidate didn’t have children, what would they know about raising children?

Since at least the late 1930s, Gallup has asked about what kind of president Americans would be willing to vote for. A few of the results:

The results are based on a June 7-10 Gallup poll, updating a question Gallup first asked in 1937 in reference to a female, Jewish, or Catholic candidate and has asked periodically since then, with additional candidate characteristics added to the list. The question has taken on added relevance in recent years as a more diverse group of candidates has run for president. This year, Mitt Romney is poised to become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. However, Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon has changed little in 45 years.

Notwithstanding the Mormon trend, Gallup’s history on this question shows growing acceptance for all other types of candidates over time. That includes atheists, whose acceptability as candidates surpassed 50% for the first time last summer but have typically ranked at the bottom of the list whenever the question has been asked.

In 1937, less than half of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish or female presidential candidate; now 90% or more would. The same applies to voting for a black candidate compared with 1958. Over time, Americans’ acceptance of blacks and women as candidates has increased the most…

Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is gay, Muslim, or an atheist. Republicans, in turn, are more likely to say they would vote for a Mormon.

As far as this page suggests, Gallup has not asked about whether candidates should be married or have a family.

It would be interesting to see this play out…

Santorum claims college pushes people away from religion, experts push back

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently suggested that going to college pushes people away from the church and faith. Those who study the subject disagree:

Santorum told talk show host Glenn Beck on Thursday that “62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”

Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, a Nashville evangelical research and marketing agency, said, “There is no statistical difference in the dropout rate among those who attended college and those that did not attend college. Going to college doesn’t make you a religious drop out.”…

The real causes [of leaving the faith]: lack of “a robust faith,” strongly committed parents and an essential church connection, Rainer said.

“Higher education is not the villain,” said sociologist William D’Antonio of Catholic University of America. Since 1986, D’Antonio’s surveys of American Catholics have asked about Mass attendance, whether they rate their religion as very important in their life, and whether they have considered leaving Catholicism. The percentage of Catholics who scored low on all three points hovers between 18% in 1993 and 14% in 2011. But the percentage of people who are highly committed fell from 27% to 19%.

Recent research also disputes this: several 2011 studies found that those with education are actually more religious than those with less education.

So what was Santorum getting at with his statement? Three thoughts:

1. Conservative Christians commonly cite alarmist statistics to show that the church needs to redouble its efforts or to demonstrate that the church is under attack. See this classic article “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” a good article titled “Curing Christians’ Stats Abuse,” and the book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…

2. He is hitting back against “elitist academia,” responding to but also feeding the perception college classrooms are filled with atheists and agnostics who want to disabuse students of their faith. Of course, there are many people of faith in academia. This is a larger battle over a perceived liberal, atheist elite versus a faith-filled “average America.”

2a. If Santorum were correct, does this mean that people of faith should not send their kids to college? Or alternatively, do these ideas continue to boost attendance at religious colleges?

3. To compound matters, Santorum was talking to Glenn Beck and this argument was aimed at Beck’s audience. At the same time, it appears Santorum made this a more general argument on the campaign trail:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said Saturday at a campaign stop in Troy, Mich. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that [tries] to indoctrinate them.”

In the end, this seems like another plank in a moral argument, rather than a political or social argument, for Republicans.

What happens when Tim Pawlenty comes to your sociology class

Courtesy of modern technology, you could have been following a live Twitter stream chronicling what happens when former Minnesota governor and former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty visits a sociology class at the University of Kansas:

“23 minutes later and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” tweeted Ray. “Freedom, drugs, a kickass pool, meatpacking, MLK.”

It sounded interesting, so I called Ray for an after-action report. The room, he said, was somewhat full and somewhat interested.

“A few hundred students are enrolled in class,” he said, “but maybe a hundred show up. I figure that a lot of the people in the class are freshmen who are just taking it to take it. They probably know Romney, they know Santorum, but Pawlenty dropped out so early that they might not know him.”

But what did the great man say? “Somebody asked him what he thought about Santorum’s victories yesterday,” remembered Gray. “He congratulated him, but he brought up the fact that John McCain lost 19 states and still won the nomination.” Gray paused. “It sounded like a backhanded compliment. And he referred to Minnesota as one of the smaller states, in terms of political power.”

A few quick thoughts:

1. Should we trust a single student’s report in a large 100-level lecture class where roughly half the students don’t attend? I always find it interesting to hear what students remember or find noteworthy.

2. Politicians are now tracked at almost every turn.

3. What exactly does Tim Pawlenty know about sociology? The class is titled “American Identity”…was Pawlenty talking about what he thinks this identity is? I would be really curious to hear (1) what Pawlenty thinks sociology is and (2) whether he thinks sociology has any value.

4. It sounds like Pawlenty was on campus to talk about how the still-to-be determined candidate for President will run a campaign and govern.