Fire-resistant homes, private firefighters, public goods, and inequality

Perhaps designing a home that can hold off wildfires is not the best way to go. Instead, just hire your own team of firefighters:

As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.

The prominence of celebrities in the story may attract controversy but the use of private firefighters is part of a larger trend:

The National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 250 private wildfire-fighting companies, who provide on-demand services to federal, state, and local governments. Budget cuts have forced privatization onto the Forest Service, as the NWSA itself explains. “The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution,” the NWSA media backgrounder says.

While Americans generally think certain public goods should be available to all or many (though this is notably missing in certain areas, such as a right to housing), those with wealth often can access different options or better versions of what the public can use. A historian puts it this way:

“Are the present examples (Kanye West et al.) the thin end of a wedge that will lead to the wealthy buying better services in all these realms: education, policing, healthcare, firefighting?” Bailey wondered. “Or are we already a long way down this path?”

I wonder if Americans feel differently about natural disasters, sometimes termed “acts of God.” It is hard for anyone to completely prepare or defend against major disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires. The wealthy can rebuild and recover more easily but only so much can be done in these situations. This differs from more typical goods or public services people can access where we have much less conversation about buying into higher levels of service or quality.

New study: “How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism”

A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:

I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.

I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…

In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.

But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.

Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”

This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.

These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?

 

McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

Defacing/correcting a LA highway sign for the public good

Defacing an interstate highway sign would not be seen favorably by many municipalities but what if a resident changed the sign for the better to help people get where they want to go?

In the early morning of Aug. 5, 2001, the artist and a group of friends assembled on the Fourth Street bridge over the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. They had gathered to commit a crime—one Ankrom had plotted for years.

Twenty years earlier while living in Orange County, Ankrom found himself driving north on the 110 freeway. As he passed through downtown Los Angeles, he was going to merge onto another freeway, Interstate 5 North. But he missed the exit and got lost. And for some reason, this stuck with him…

Since he was an artist and sign painter, Ankrom decided to make the I-5 North shield himself. He also decided that he would take it upon himself to install it above the 110 freeway…

Ankrom wanted his sign to be built to Caltrans’ exact specifications, which included designs able to be read by motorists traveling at high speeds. He copied the height and thickness of existing interstate shields, copied their exact typeface, and even sprayed his sign with a thin glaze overspray of gray house paint so that it wouldn’t look too new…

The whole installation took less than 30 minutes. As soon as the sign was up, Ankrom packed up his ladder, rushed back to his truck, and blended back into the city.

Sounds like there were no repercussions. Even so, wouldn’t the situation have been better if he had contacted Caltrans or local officials to get this done? I suppose that would not have been so thrilling. While this might be sold as doing public good, the riskiness sounds like it had its own attraction compared to just helping out California drivers.

Good question: “What Will Happen to Public Transit in a World Full of Autonomous Cars?”

The fate of mass transit is unclear in a world of all autonomous cars:

The question of what they’ll mean for transit was actually on the program this year at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, where several thousand transportation officials and researchers met to talk about state-of-the-art asphalts, biker behavior, and the infrastructure of the future. In one packed session, I heard Jerome Lutin, a retired longtime New Jersey Transit planner, say something that sounded almost like blasphemy.

“We’re just wringing our hands, and we’re going to object to this,” he warned the room. “But the transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for service to persons with disabilities.”…

The implication in this raises (at least) two more questions: Exactly where (and when) will it make sense for people to use buses or rail instead of autonomous cars? And if autonomous cars come to supplement these services, should transit agencies get into the business of operating them? In my initial daydream – where shared self-driving cars are whisking us all about – it’s unclear exactly who owns and manages them.

Lutin sounds skeptical that transit agencies will be able to move into this space. “They don’t adapt well to change,” he says. They’re also governed by rigid mandates that limit what they can do. A mass transit agency can’t overnight start operating something that looks like a taxi service. Public agencies also must contend with labor unions, and labor unions likely won’t like the idea of replacing bus routes with autonomous cars.

This does seem to trade a public good – mass transit paid for by taxpayers and users – for private goods, autonomous cars owned by individual users. While we haven’t seen prices for driverless cars yet, I can’t imagine they are going to be too cheap at the beginning. Even a less appointed driverless car, say a Chevrolet Aveo, is going to need more complicated gadgetry to be autonomy. But, as this planner notes, Americans do tend to like more private transit options if they can afford it.

Can Wikipedia rally the common good to improve?

MIT Technology Review gives an overview of the troubles at Wikipedia and how the limited group behind the website wants to improve it:

Yet Wikipedia and its stated ambition to “compile the sum of all human knowledge” are in trouble. The volunteer workforce that built the project’s flagship, the English-language Wikipedia—and must defend it against vandalism, hoaxes, and manipulation—has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking. Those participants left seem incapable of fixing the flaws that keep Wikipedia from becoming a high-quality encyclopedia by any standard, including the project’s own. Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-­ranking quality scores.

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

In response, the Wikimedia Foundation, the 187-person nonprofit that pays for the legal and technical infrastructure supporting Wikipedia, is staging a kind of rescue mission. The foundation can’t order the volunteer community to change the way it operates. But by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software, it hopes to steer the encyclopedia onto a more sustainable path…

Whether that can happen depends on whether enough people still believe in the notion of online collaboration for the greater good—the ideal that propelled Wikipedia in the beginning. But the attempt is crucial; Wikipedia matters to many more people than its editors and students who didn’t make time to read their assigned books. More of us than ever use the information found there, both directly and via other services. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has either killed off the alternatives or pushed them down the Google search results. In 2009 Microsoft closed Encarta, which was based on content from several storied encyclopedias. Encyclopaedia Britannica, which charges $70 a year for online access to its 120,000 articles, offers just a handful of free entries plastered with banner and pop-up ads.

So if Wikipedia was created by a collective, can it be saved by a collective? The story goes on to describe a common process for human groups: as they grow and over time, they tend to take on bureaucratic tendencies which then make it more difficult to change course.

The larger question may be whether modern humans can regularly pursue the common good on the Internet. If it can’t be done on Wikipedia, what other hope is there? The average comments section at a major news website? Reddit? YouTube? Are we at the point when we can say that big corporations have “won” the Internet?

American religious groups don’t pay $72 billion a year in taxes but religion saves America $2.6 trillion a year?

A study last year claimed governments lose $71 billion a year because of the tax exemptions of religious institutions but a new book by sociologist Rodney Stark suggests religion saves America $2.6 trillion a year:

The biggest by far has to do with the criminal justice system. If all Americans committed crimes at the same level as those who do not attend religious services, the costs of the criminal justice system would about double to, perhaps, $2 trillion annually. Second is health costs. The more often people attend religious services, the healthier they are. However, the net savings involved is reduced somewhat by the fact that religious Americans live, on average, seven years longer than those who never attend religious services.

So then religion in America is worth the money? The math on this would be mighty interesting. But, hopefully this is more information on this in the book.

It does strike me that this is a strange way to talk about religion or any social good: does it really come down to money? This strikes me as a very American conversation where we care about the value of things and bang for our buck.