Gov’t report on declining civic life

A new government report summarizes a number of findings regarding the declining sociability of Americans:

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier — especially thanks to the Internet — and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

This is not news to sociologists and others who have viewed the trends for a few decades now. For example, see Bowling Alone. But, perhaps it is more interesting now to consider what kind of society we will have if more Americans are not involved with social groups, tend to retreat to private spaces, and don’t trust institutions. I’m sure some would say we are already at this point with the Trump era at hand but it could both get worse as well as possibly settle into some sort of agreement to leave each other alone.

Self-driving cars will only enhance the private nature of driving

One reason Americans like driving is the private experience of being away from others. New autonomous vehicles may only enhance that:

Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers…

With autonomous cars, he’s found that privacy, the length of trips, and an ability to leave the car when you want to are what people want…

Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation…

What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi.

For those who don’t like the effects of the car, this may only make things worse as the daily commute could be come a more enjoyable or even fun. This could encourage suburban growth while discouraging the use of mass transit.

At the same time, it would still be worth thinking about how many resources it will take to fully switch over to all self-driving cars – from development to getting them all on the road and instituting the appropriate infrastructure – versus mass transit. This is not a cheap process and could be viewed as doing everything we can to provide Americans with a luxury good (while the money might have been better used elsewhere).

Why would we want to promote more HOAs with a tax break?

A new proposal in Congress would allow members of a HOA to deduct their association fees from their federal taxes:

Upward of 67 million people live in these communities — ranging from sprawling master-planned subdivisions down to individual condominium or cooperative developments. As of 2014, they contained nearly 27 million housing units. Their homeowners associations often provide the functional equivalents of municipal and county services, and residents nationwide pay roughly $70 billion a year in regular assessments to fund road paving and maintenance, snow removal, trash collection, storm water management, maintenance of recreational and park facilities, and much more.

The same residents also pay local property taxes to municipal, county or state governments. But unlike other homeowners, only their local property tax levies are deductible on federal tax filings. Their community association assessments that pay for government-type services are not.

Now a bipartisan group of congressional representatives thinks that’s inequitable and needs to be corrected. Under a new bill known as the HOME Act (H.R. 4696), millions of people who live in communities run by associations would get the right to deduct up to $5,000 a year of assessments on federal tax filings, with some important limitations…

The bill’s primary author is Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. Co-sponsors include Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va.. Though the bill has little chance of moving through the House or Senate during this election year, it sends a message to the legislative committees now working on possible tax code changes for next year: Congress needs to acknowledge the role the country’s community associations play in providing municipal-type services. The way to do it is to allow deductions on a capped amount of the money residents are required to pay to support community services.

It will be fascinating to see what sort of formula is used to calculate these deductions as the fees paid to associations do not cover all sorts of municipal services used outside of the association.

At the same time, won’t this promote more HOAs, or at least make them more attractive? And do we really want more? They certainly are popular but they continue a trend that is not necessarily good for society: privatizing municipal goods and helping neighbors guarantee their property values. For the first, instead of paying a municipal government, a new layer of private government is enabled to take care of certain services. Americans tend not to like more and more layers of fees and government. However, this might be outweighed by the second factor: the HOAs help keep the neighbors in line without owners directly having to interact with other neighbors. Instead of possibly having to live next to the neighbor who paints their house purple and starts a garden in the front yard, the HOA polices this. In other words, this tax break might help more and more Americans work out civic life through private associations that they see as a necessary evil.

Given all of the HOAs, is there any analysis that shows they pay off financially in the long run either for the property owners or the municipalities?

Google exploring constructing their own city

A new Google city would allow the company to test ideas:

The boss of Sidewalk Labs, the firm’s New York City firm described as an ‘urban innovation’ company mentioned the idea at a summit hosted by The Information. 

‘Thinking about a city from the Internet up is really compelling,’ Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the event…

Later he added that building a new city could help test solutions to cybersecurity and privacy issues: ‘If you could create a place, it’d be a laboratory to experiment with these problems.’…

‘Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage,’ chief executive Larry Page said in a post at the Internet titan’s Google+ social network.

On the one hand, it would be difficult to test certain products – like a self-driving car – without having your own city that mimics real life.

On the other hand, I could see certain issues arising:

  1. If people lived in this city, what kind of rights would they have?
  2. For those who are already worried about the lack of public spaces in many big cities, what about a big city owned by a globally powerful corporation?
  3. Could such a model of corporations building cities offer benefits such that they become more attractive than what we have now where cities are theoretically for residents?

See an earlier post about Google planning its own city.

Tool to help urban strangers converse, make eye contact

Several researchers are working on the Jokebox, an invention intended to promote social interaction in cities:

Mara Balestrini, an expert in human-computer interaction and director of research at Ideas for Change, has been investigating ways to bring shared experiences back into public spaces. She’s been working with researchers from the UK and Mexico on the Jokebox project – an installation that involves separate wooden boxes, each equipped with speakers, sensors and arcade-style buttons, that tell a joke when two people activate them simultaneously.

The key, Balestrini tells me, is that it’s impossible for one person to push both buttons. “The Jokebox is an ice-breaker, an excuse to get strangers to talk to each other or to share a laugh in public spaces,” she explains. “It is also a technology prototype that can help us understand how to design novel interfaces to foster social connectedness in urban settings by encouraging eye contact and co-operation between strangers.”

As part of their study, the researchers conducted a series of tests in the north-western Mexican city of Ensenada. Boxes were set up in a park, a shopping centre and a bus stop. According to the project’s findings, people in those settings reacted in different ways – kids and parents would be more likely to play with the boxes in the park, for example, whereas teenagers were more likely to engage in the shopping centre. Even when people avoided using the Jokebox directly, which was frequently the case at the bus stop, it still provided an excuse for interaction – as is the case in this moment of gentle warmth….

Balestrini tells me future cities will combine different types of technologies, from those that support efficiency by replacing the humans to those that try to foster shared encounters among people. She says it is crucial to enable playfulness and curiosity, particularly in a moment where the discourse around cities revolves around ideas of data-driven automation and efficiency.

It is interesting to consider that it might be technology that could help bring people back into conversation. Is this the best we can do in societies thrilled with technological progress and private space (even when we are in public)? How successful might this be in drawing people out of their private realms or will it primarily appeal to those who are already more interested in social interaction? I’m not surprised that this device uses humor, a social phenomena that can cut across all sorts of social divides. At the same time, the humor has to be broad and affirming rather than the critique and sarcasm that is very common today.

Trading the large yard and dining room for interior play spaces

Home buyers with young kids are looking for houses with certain kinds of spaces:

The biggest requirements for families with children, according to the National Association of Realtors, is what you’d expect: 62% of those with kids 18 and under say the quality of the neighborhood is important, while 50% are looking for a good school district and 49% want the home to be convenient to their jobs. Fewer said that lot size or proximity to parks and recreational facilities were a factor in choosing a home. The statistics come from the group’s 2015 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers report.

Yet once those top-level needs are met, families start to make more detail-level compromises. And being able to visualize a place for the kids to corral their stuff and play has become a priority, according to Blackwelder and others…

But in the Kansas City area, too, an indoor play area is a priority, Hines said, since parents want a separate space to keep toys from flooding the kitchen and family areas. “The volume of toys we have is much higher [than in generations past],” she observed…

Retailers are also suggesting the dual-use room as a trend. On the website for Land of Nod, a Chicago-based retailer of children’s furniture and products, there are tips on how to create a formal dining room and playroom in one.

How Americans choose and use their homes is often influenced by larger social forces. Based on this article, here are some of the larger forces at work:

  1. A move away from formality. Americans have often been said to be casual and informal people and this removes one of the more formal rooms of the house (along with the living room).
  2. An ongoing interest in private space. Play for children here is confined more to settings that are easier to control and within quick sight and sound of parents.
  3. The need for increased safety for children also contributes as kids are not only in private spaces but are also still within the home where others cannot reach them.
  4. A greater emphasis on the needs of children as opposed to other members of the family. Perhaps every child should now have a dedicated play room and parents should have no spaces off-limits to kids. (Think of the formal parlor of past decades where children were banned or very infrequent guests.)

Will the dining room completely disappear in the trend toward great rooms and open living spaces? Probably not, particularly if there are some easy solutions to split the use of the space between more formal dining and play areas. Yet, if fewer people have formal gatherings, perhaps the dining room will become a luxury item in homes with the extra space or for those who desire such segmentation.

Americans are good neighbors but have little interaction, knowledge

A Chicago Tribune article juxtaposes two survey findings regarding Americans acting as neighbors:

A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of Americans know most or all of their neighbors, and nearly one-third said they know none by name.

While 92 percent of Americans consider themselves to be good neighbors, 56 percent said that they interact very little with their neighbors, according to a 2013 study by Nextdoor, a San Francisco-based social network for neighborhoods.

That goes along with the fact that 56 percent of people believe that being a good neighbor means you should be respectful of personal space or boundaries, the Nextdoor study found.

While a good neighbor may be a quiet, unobtrusive neighbor, a really good neighbor is a friendly one, said Nextdoor spokeswoman Kelsey Grady.

This could be chalked up partly to the tendency to overrate one’s own skills – like most Americans saying they are above average drivers. But, it also fights nicely with the argument of The Moral Order of a Suburb. Baumgartner finds that suburbanites got along by staying out of the lives of others and avoiding public conflict. Whereas a traditional understanding of community requires consistent interaction and long-standing relationships, suburban residents have community marked by private lives and transience. If conflict arises, the community spirit is lost (see recent examples here and here). Thus, one can be a good neighbor by not knowing the neighbors, not provoking any sort of conflict, and retreating to the private space of the housing unit and/or yard.