Mean population center of US shifts west and south; Midwest may no longer be the heartland

Geographically, the Midwest is a broad US region between the two coasts and north of the South (as it was constituted in the Civil War). But symbolically, the Midwest is often referred to the as the “heartland” or as where “mainstream” America is, an idea illustrated by a journalist’s claim that a Nixon policy would “play in Peoria” in 1969.

A little-referenced geographic measure, the mean center of population in the United States, is moving west and south again, suggesting that the Midwest will no longer be the American center within several decades:

When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers believe it will be placed in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the present location in Phelps County, Mo. That would put it on a path to leave the region by midcentury.

“The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America’s new heartland,” said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who regularly crunches data to determine the nation’s center. “It’s a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth but also as a swing point in American politics.”

The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation’s cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.

In my mind, the best use of this measure is to track its changing path over time: it has consistently moved West though hasn’t moved that far South. In terms of showing where the “center” is, it is less clear. I would see this type of measure as similar to National Geographic’s recent “most typical face“: it tells us something but is best useful for tracking changes over time.

As for whether this moving mean center of population really means that the Midwest will not be considered the mainstream, this remains to be seen. Could the West really be the new heartland in the eyes of the American people? This would involve a shift in symbols, particularly about what it means to be the “heartland.” Is it where most of the people are, where the swing states are, where there is the most history, where there is the most agriculture, where people are most traditional, or where the people are the most “normal”?

 

Potential expansion for domain suffixes

Even amidst discussions that the Internet has run out of addresses, there is talk about expanding the list of available domain suffixes beyond the current 21 options. It sounds like these proposals would allow for all sorts of suffixes and this, inevitably, leads to questions about who would get to control certain domains:

This massive expansion to the Internet’s domain name system will either make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. No one knows yet. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.

Who gets to run .abortion Web sites – people who support abortion rights or those who don’t? Which individual or mosque can run the .islam or .muhammad sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free speech grounds, or will a Jewish organization run the domain and permit only educational Web sites – say, remember.nazi or antidefamation.nazi? And who’s going to get .amazon – the Internet retailer or Brazil?

The decisions will come down to a little-known nonprofit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.

Sounds like we could have some battles on our hands for particular suffixes. Perhaps the companies or organizations with the most money will win.

But many of the options in this article are set up as “good” options versus “bad” options. If given a choice, how many people would want the .nazi domain to be controlled by the Ku Klux Klan? And some of the other options presented in the story, such as whether someone who wants musicians and agents to be able to get .music addresses while the music industry wants to control this for their larger purposes, are less clear. ICANN, the organization who controls the domains, says they have considered this: “For people who might propose controversial domains – such as .nazi, which ICANN officials have worried about – approval will be based on the applicant’s identity and intentions, and on the grounds of “morality and public order.” How in the world will they be able to do this in a way that is satisfying to multiple parties? Is there a way to decide this before the domains are sold or are we simply in for long rounds of litigation?

Patriotism at the Super Bowl

If you want to see what Americans think about their country, sporting events are good places to find out, particularly the Super Bowl, the sporting event of the year.

This year, the pregame featured a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Football players, surrounded by military personnel, read the main parts though we didn’t hear all the grievances regarding the tyranny of the English king. Colin Powell and Roger Goodell finished off the reading.

The two patriotic songs, God Bless America and the Star-Spangled Banner, seemed overwrought. God Bless America had an interesting arrangement at the end while Christiana Aguilera tried her own take on the National Anthem.

Some of this is standard fare at American sporting events. But I’m still trying to figure out how the Declaration of Independence fits with football. It did offer an opportunity to support our military, a cause that often is invoked in big sporting events. But is the idea that because we have freedom and strive for equality as a nation that we therefore should sit together for the next four hours and watch football? Perhaps a little more text could have been added: “We are not red or blue states, Republicans or Democrats: we are united together on this day like no other in our desire to watch football and many commercials.”

This mix of patriotism plus the military plus explicit values plus football seems to have been done in a uniquely American way. The next step sociologically is to discuss this as American civil religion.

The morality of going to the gym

The adult life is often made of up little tasks that must be done to live: go to work, prepare and eat meals, do laundry, and various other activities. Perhaps there is another activity that must be added to this list: getting exercise and/or going to the gym.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

And the pectoral is political. The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness…

To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.

An interesting commentary. More broadly, these ideas seemed tied to American ideals of youth and health. We like politicians and athletes and movie stars who are physical specimens. We argue that disciplining the body is indicative of discipline in other areas of life. Being healthy is not just being an appropriate weight or eating right or limiting stress: it should include muscles and toning.

Some questions follow:

1. Do other cultures have similar ideas or are we unusual in this regard?

2. When or where did the emphasis on muscles, beyond just “being fit,” arise?

3. For the average American, how much of this judgment regarding exercise and going to the gym comes from people around them versus comparing themselves to media produced images?

4. How much have professional sports contributed to this? If you look at athletes in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not train as much. Today, being an athlete is a full-time, full-year job in order to stay in shape.

The possible housing bubble in China

While the American housing crisis continues, FinanceAsia takes a look at the current housing situation in China:

Many homebuyers nowadays in China consider their property assets as part of their long-term savings plan, as well as a hedge against inflation.

Why property? China’s tightly run financial system leaves only three places for its zealous savers to put their money. Bank deposits are one option. But they yield 2.25%, less than the 3.1% rise in May’s consumer price inflation. The equity markets are a second choice. But stocks have been performing poorly; Shanghai’s benchmark index was one of the world’s worst performers in the first half of 2010. (And the bond market is underdeveloped.) Even with its high transaction costs and manic price moves, property has become the preferred investment choice for everyone from young married couples to middle-aged factory workers trying to ensure their retirement.

Recent statistics show that there are about 64 million apartments and houses that have remained empty during the past six months, according to Chinese media reports. On the assumption that each flat serves as a home to a typical Chinese family of three (parents and one child), the vacant properties could accommodate 200 million people, which account for more than 15% of the country’s 1.3 billion population. But instead, they remain empty. This is in part because many Chinese believe that a home is not a real home unless you own the flat.
And so people prefer buying to renting, and as a result, the rental yield is relatively low.

That’s a lot of vacant property. This is a testament to the power of cultural norms regarding housing: since renting is less desirable, a large percentage of the housing stock goes unoccupied. Also, savings behavior seems partly driven by these norms (and perhaps also by limited economic returns elsewhere) – houses have developed into investments rather than just places to live.

I don’t know much about the Chinese housing market but it is intriguing to read about non-American norms and values attached to housing. I wonder how these norms and values developed over time.