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  • 06/06/13--22:38: Suburbs and Sacred Space
  • Suburbs are often unfairly maligned as lacking the qualities that make cities great. But one place that criticism can be fair is in the area of sacred space. There most certainly is sacred space in the suburbs, but usually less of it than in the city both quantitatively and qualitatively.  In fact, the comparative lack of sacred space is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the suburb that makes it “sub” urban, that is, in a sense lesser than the city.

    Lewis Mumford put it this way:

    Behind the wall of the city life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself: the city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town….To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man’s true home, the great cosmos itself.

    Mumford was onto something here in positing how great temples and such distinguished the city as unique.

    What Is Sacred Space?

    Mumford also hints at what makes something truly sacred space. We should clearly distinguish between what is merely public space and truly sacred space. The key to sacred space is the linkage to the transcendent.  That is, sacred space connects us to something beyond or bigger than our surroundings, our present existence, and even ourselves.

    Here are three ways sacred space can do that. It can:

    1. Connect us to a larger spiritual or religious reality, as in our Mumford example.  This is the most obvious case.
    2. Serve as a locus or repository of the culture and traditions of a people.
    3. Be a temporal connection between the present and the past and/or the future.

    As one example, consider the Indiana World War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.

    This building is of course a symbol of the bedrock American values of that community and the willingness of its people to die to defend them yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thus it is both a cultural repository and a temporal linkage.

    Also note the use of neoclassicism. The use of neoclassical architecture anchors Indianapolis and Indiana firmly within the 2,500 year history of Western Civilization, as a link in a chain of peoples connected by shared, timeless values and extending backwards and forward throughout time, thus achieving a sort of immortality.  This building is a statement of the permanence of this community, its people, and their values.

    We can also think of a radically different space such as Times Square, and how it has played host to so many civic celebrations and traditions over the years such that it has become not just a local but a national repository of our culture. The ball dropping on New Year’s Eve is an obvious example. But consider also this iconic photo.

    This is one of the most famous pictures from the war era and I don’t think it’s any surprise it was taken Times Square.

    How Suburbs Are Comparatively Lacking in Sacred Space

    Let’s apply the definition of sacred space to the suburbs. Yes, suburbs do have war memorials and culture and traditions and churches, but in general these are qualitatively different from what is found in the city core.  Here are three reasons why.

    1. Suburban traditions and spaces are often ephemeral and generational. When I was in high school, everybody liked to go to a place called Down Home Pizza in Corydon on the weekends. And that was something kids from every high school in the area did, not just those from mine. Today that place is long gone. And the kids are doing something else, whatever that may be.  In fact, it’s amazing how many of the places and traditions from my high school days are already gone after only 25 years because of physical and economic changes in the community such as restaurants and stores going out of business.

    This happens in the city too, like when the department stores went under, taking their white-gloved tea rituals and the like with them. But to a much greater extent than the city, suburbs rely on commercial establishments as focal points of shared experience, and by their very nature those tend to come and go. And suburbs have not to nearly as a great a degree established truly trans-generation rituals and spaces.

    2. Lack of transcendent scale. This is also something Mumford hints at. The “human scale” is a big buzzword in urbanism today. Contrary to what many say, the suburbs actually do a pretty good job of the human scale, especially from an automobile era perspective. But a unique essence of urbanity and often of transcendent experience itself is what we might call the “anti-human scale.” British writer Will Wiles put it this way:

    The “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, this can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole.

    The sheer scale of something like the Indiana War Memorial, which is a very imposing structure inside and out, renders it qualitatively different that your average small scale suburban memorial. This is true not just physically but also in terms of the humanity represented. That memorial stands for an entire state, not just a single town. Which is the same reason there may be more suburban school kids who have visited their state capital or the US Capitol than their local village hall.  There’s a reason the US Capitol and Lincoln Memorial and such have such powerful resonance. They represent an entire nation and a vast sea of humanity. Cities also participate in this scale effect.

    3. Low quality religious architecture. When it comes to the most obvious category of sacred space, the religious building, the suburbs also fall flat. That’s because Protestant Christianity, the largest suburban religious strain, has itself become unmoored from the transcendent. This is clear, for example, from the rise of what has been dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as a dominant worldview, especially among the young.

    The average suburban megachurch is an architectural horror show. The best of them generally rise to the level of an upscale corporate conference center. The worst are like “That 70’s High School”.

    Someone once said that all sin results from failing to believe one of the “4 G’s” about God, namely, God is great, God is good, God is gracious, and God is glorious. Applying that to religious life generally, in modern Evangelical churches, God may be very good and gracious, but He’s doesn’t seem all that great, and He’s certainly not very glorious.  This is religion that can inspire good works, but not great ones. There’s no trace of the overwhelming glory of God in nearly any of these structures. There’s no longer a faith like the Lutheranism of Johann Sebastian Bach that can inspire the greatest works of human artistic achievement.  Because modern suburban church architecture is so poor and so disposable, it diminishes the impact of sacredness in the space.

    The recent stories about the sale of Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral, designed by Philip Johnson, brings to mind an exception that proves the rule.

    Unsurprisingly it was the Catholic Church that bought it. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism has always had a theology of place. And they’ve always used architecture and art as a way of telling the story of the gospel. Though obviously not in this case, they’ve also used Gothic sort of like neoclassical architecture as a way creating a sense of permanence and linkage to an everlasting, eternal church.

    So sacred space is one area where the suburbs really are deficient versus the city. But how important is this? Metropolitan areas today are mosaics. In an ever more complex and competitive global economy, every part of a region, city and suburb, needs to know its role on the team and bring it’s A-game. Just as there’s no need for every job to be located downtown, there’s no need for every major piece of sacred space in a region to be replicated in every suburb. Downtown does just nicely. However, this is one reason that while economically the core may no longer dominate a region, a healthy center still plays a key role in overall regional vitality. That’s because it remains home to things like the major pieces of sacred space such as war memorials and cathedrals that bind a region together and give it civilizational permanence, meaning, and purpose beyond the mundane.

    This article was adapted from remarks at the No Place Like Home conference on June 3, 2013 in Anaheim, CA.

    Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.

    Suburbs photo by Bigstock.

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    Where I live is where most Californians live: in a tract house on a block of more tract houses in a neighborhood hardly distinguishable from the next, and all of these houses extending as far as the street grid allows.

    My exact place on the grid is at the southeast corner of Los Angeles County, between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. But my place could be almost anywhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

    My suburb may seem characterless, but it has a complex history of working class aspiration, of assumptions about social hygiene, of urban politics, and the decisions of many who imposed their imagination on the landscape.

    Where I live is a tract of wood-framed houses on a 5,000-square-foot lot at a density of about seven units per acre, where houses are set back 20 feet from the sidewalk and a street tree the city trims, and where neighborhood businesses are clustered at intersections so that anyone can walk to the store or a bar or to a fast food place.

    It’s also a place with 10 parks of 20 or more acres each so that everyone is about a mile from supervised open space with playgrounds, ball diamonds, picnic tables, and bar-b-cues.

    There is a persistent belief that suburban places like mine must be awful places they must be inhuman and soul-destroying places. That belief persists partly because of these photographs, taken by a brilliant young aerial photographer named William Garnett who worked for the developers of Lakewood between 1950 and 1952.

    The historian and social critic Lewis Mumford used Garnett’s photographs in 1961 to indict the post-war suburbs which, he said, had become “A multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers … .Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”

    The architectural historian Peter Blake used these photographs in 1964 to define the post-war suburbs as “God’s own junkyard.”

    In 1969, Garnett’s photographs were part of Nathaniel Owings’s The American Aesthetic, a passionate critique of 20th century urban planning.

    Today, you can go to the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles and see these photographs used as defining images of the suburbs of Los Angeles.

    They are beautiful and terrible photographs.

    With no little irony, these images of Lakewood became emblematic of the suburbs at the moment when Lakewood no longer was the eerie and empty place Garnett had photographed only a few months before. Between 1950 and 1953 – in less than 33 months – 17,000 houses had been built, sold, and made someone’s home. Nearly 100,000 people lived there, including my parents. In 1954, Lakewood had even become a city in the political sense, having completed the first municipal incorporation in California since 1939.

    Listen to Lakewood Blvd by Sara Lindsay

    We can presume that the developers of Lakewood – Mark Taper, Ben Weingart, and Louis Boyar – saw Garnett’s photographs mostly as a record to be filed with work logs and construction accounts when the project ended. But I also imagine that they looked at Garnett’s photographs and read into them a grandeur, a collective heroism that still attaches itself to the great construction projects of the 1930s and 1940s.

    And we know that Boyer, Taper, and Weingart and Fritz Burns and Joseph Eichler and Henry Kaiser understood that the Progressive era model of low-cost housing they had adapted to mass production would result in new relationships to the idea of place. Garnett’s photographs of deeply shadowed forms on a titanic grid would for some critics and many Americans permanently define that relationship as dread.

    In a memorable speech by James Howard Kunstler at the 1999 Congress for the New Urbanism, the kind of place where I live was described as a perversion of a place. “It is the dwelling place of untruth,” Kunstler told the New Urbanists. The title of his speech was “The place where evil dwells.”

    My parents and their neighbors more generously than Mumford or Blake or Kunstler understood what they had gained and lost in owning a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood connected to square miles of just the same.

    Despite everything that was mistaken or squandered in making my suburb, I believe a kind of dignity was gained. More men than just my father have said to me that living in my kind of place gave them a life made whole and habits that did not make them feel ashamed.

    As far as I could tell by their lives, my parents did not escape to their mass-produced suburb. They never considered escaping from it. Nor have I.

    I’ve lived my whole life in the 957-square-foot house my parents bought when the suburbs were new, when no one could guess what would happen after tens of thousands of working-class husbands and wives – so young and so inexperienced – were thrown together without an instruction manual and expected to make a fit place to live.

    What happened after was the usual redemptive mix of joy and tragedy.

    The suburb where I live is a place that once mass-produced a redemptive future for displaced Okies and Arkies, Jews who knew the pain of exclusion, Catholics who thought they did, and anyone white with a job. Left out were many tens of thousands of others: people of color whose exclusion was not just a Californian transgression.

    Today, futures still begin here, except the anxious, hopeful people who seek them are as mixed in their colors and ethnicities as all of southern California.

    I continue to live in Lakewood with anticipation because I want to find out what happens next to new narrators of suburban stories who happen to be my Latino, black, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese neighbors.

    There are Californians who don’t regard a tract house as a place of pilgrimage, but my parents and their friends did. They were grateful for the comforts of their not-quite-middle-class life. Their aspiration wasn’t for more but only for enough despite the claims of critics then and now who assume that suburban places are about excess.

    I actually believe that the place where I live is, in words of the Californian philosopher Josiah Royce, a “beloved community.” The strength of that regard, Royce thought, might be enough to form what he called an “intentional community” – a community of shared loyalties – even if the community is as synthetic as a tract-house suburb or the Gold Rush towns that Royce knew in his boyhood. I believe Royce was right: At a minimum, loyalty to the idea of loyalty is necessary, even if the objects of our loyalty are uncertain.

    Urban planners tell me that my neighborhood was supposed to have been bulldozed away years ago to make room for something better, and yet the houses on my block stubbornly resist, loyal to an idea of how a working-class neighborhood should be made.

    It’s an incomplete idea even in Lakewood, but it’s still enough to bring out 400 park league coaches in the fall and 600 volunteers to clean up the weedy yards of the frail and disabled on Volunteer Day in April and over 2,000 residents to sprawl on lawn chairs and blankets to listen to the summer concerts in the park.

    I don’t live in a tear down neighborhood, but one that makes some effort to build itself up. All this is harder now, for reasons we all know.

    The suburbs aren’t all alike, of course, and there are plenty of toxic places to live in gated enclaves and McMansion wastelands. Places like that have too much – too much isolation and mere square footage – but, paradoxically, not enough. Specifically, they don’t have enough of the play between life in public and life in private that I see choreographed by the design of my suburb.

    With neighbors just 15 feet apart, we’re easily in each other’s lives – across fences, in front yards, and even through the thin, stucco-over-chicken-wire of house walls. When I walk out my front door, I see the human-scale, porous, and specific landscape into which was poured all the ordinariness that has shaped my work, my beliefs, and my aspirations. Out there, I renew my “sense of place” and my conviction that a “sense of place,” like a “sense of self,” is part of the equipment of a conscious mind.

    We often find it difficult to talk coherently about these issues or to make coherent policy choices for places to which our loyalty is only lightly attached.

    It seems to me that the abiding problem of southern California indeed of the entire West is the problem of home. We long for a home here, but doubt its worth when we have it. We depend on a place to sustain us, but dislike the claims on us that places make. Each of us is certain about our own preference for a place to live, but we’re always ready to question your choice.

    How do we make our home here, in new and sudden and places like Lakewood, like Irvine, like Santa Clarita? We’ve been asking that question for a very long time sometimes in despair. At almost the beginning of California, a disillusioned 49er named Thomas Swain wrote in 1851, “Large cities have sprung into existence almost in a day. . . The people have been to each other as strangers in a strange land ….”

    And too many of us are strangers still in a place that too many regard as uniquely perverse. And because much of southern California looks roughly the same too many of us see all these suburban places as aesthetically, politically, and morally perverse as well. And no place – however well crafted – is immune from the peculiarly American certainty that something better – something more adequate to the demands of our desire – is just beyond the next bend in the road.

    The question of “home” is increasingly acute because there’s hardly anywhere left to build another Lakewood or Irvine or Santa Clarita.

    The closing of the suburban frontier in southern California ends a 100-year experiment in place making on an almost unimaginable scale. The experiment was based on a remarkably durable consensus about the way ordinary people ought to be housed, beginning with turn-of-the-century beliefs about the power of a “home in its garden” to ameliorate the lives of working people and ending in the 1950s with tract houses turned into an affordable commodity.

    Today, most of southern California is what it will continue to be: uniformly dense and multi-polar, urbanized in fact but suburban in appearance, characterized by single-family homes in neighborhoods with a strong – but provisional – dependence on more “urban-like” nodes.

    This is a form for living and working, but it is neither “incoherent” nor “mindless sprawl.” That form in the future will, of course, be somewhat more dense – but our evolving suburbs cannot deliver mere density. In tandem with greater concentration of housing types must come what working-class people have always sought in southern California: a home with enough private space around it and enough public space adjacent to it so that this assemblage of house, lot, street, and transportation grid form the neighborhood-specific space that answers our desires.

    We can lament that too many suburban places are less than they some wish them to be, but I see no perfect way to bring “utopias” out of these suburban habits both good and bad. I see only a persistent longing to make fit places in which to live.

    Many of these places will look an awful lot like Orange County – dispersed, uniformly dense, and embedded in a metropolitan region in which historic downtowns function as “nodes.” The contest for the soul of our suburban region hinges on whether this constitutes enough to make a place where memories might be unblighted and desires assuaged.

    The author and environmentalist Barry Lopez considered some years ago what might be needed to make a durable life for ourselves in southern California. And in considering the problem of home, Lopez asked a challenging question: “How can we become vulnerable to the place where we live?”

    If that might be a goal if that tenderness were possible we might ask different questions when we build or approve a development project. We could ask, "What aspects of its design encourage loyalty to this place? What is built into this place that might evoke someone’s sympathy? Would anyone ever become vulnerable to this place?”

    What I have been speaking of is the acquisition something more than an idiosyncratic sensibility but a communal achievement that requires something from all of us. Built-out, maximally diverse, and more grown up, southern California requires courage to extend one’s imagination across its whole, tragic, human, and humanizing body.

    As for me, my suburb’s modesty keeps me there. When I stand at the head of my block, I see a pattern of sidewalk, driveway, and lawn, set between parallel low walls of house fronts that aspires to be no more than harmless. We live in a time of great harm to the ordinary parts of our lives and I wish that I had acquired all the resistance that my neighborhood offers.

    What I hope we might gain is a larger “moral imagination” … the imagination by which we might write ourselves into the story of our place and negotiate a way from the purely personal to the public.

    I don’t really know how (or perhaps I do only dimly). But faithfulness to what can be found in our history – to what can be found in our shared stories – impels me forward.

    It may surprise you to learn the object of Lopez’s meditation on vulnerability was the place where he grew up – a tract house neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. And Lopez had this additional insight while contemplating his Valley home. He wrote . . . “Always when I return there, I have found again the ground that propels me past the great temptation of our time to put one’s faith in despair.”

    Despair or regret: “There once was a perfect Eden,” the conventional story goes, “to which gullible people were lured and as a result this Edenic place declined into the horrors of suburbanization.” And the moral of that story is “people ruin places.”

    I believe that people and places form each other … the touch of one returning the touch of the other. What we seek, I think, is tenderness in this encounter, but that goes both ways, too. I believe that places acquire their sacredness through this giving and taking. And with that ever-returning touch, we acquire something sacred from the place where we live. What we acquire, of course, is a home.

    It’s a question of falling in love … falling in love with the place where you are; even a place like mine … so ordinary, so commonplace, and my home.

    # # #

    D. J. Waldie is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times and a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine. He is the author most recently of California Romantica with Diane Keaton. He blogs for KCET TV at

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    After being elected New York City’s mayor in 2002, Michael Bloomberg quickly expanded on the city’s progress during the 1990s. He combined predecessor Rudolph Giuliani’s reforms in welfare and policing with his own. He rezoned land for needed housing, reduced public school inefficiencies, and advanced major transportation projects like the 7-train extension and rapid buses. Along with these, he pioneered changes in the urban fabric—from the High Line Park to an automobile-free Times Square—that may have seemed insubstantial to outsiders, but were appreciated by New Yorkers.

    These and other measures supported Bloomberg’s reputation as a pragmatic-businessman-turned-public-servant who could generate economic dynamism in a city often hostile to it. Journalists described Bloomberg as, for example a “centrist” and data-driven “technocrat” who was “beholden to no one.” The mayor quickly gained national credibility, and was even mentioned as a possible independent presidential candidate.

    Now, as Bloomberg nears the end of his third term, the thought of him having this platform seems far less attractive. Just as the term itself violated local term limit legislation (that was overturned before his election), the policies he’s enacted show that his ideal model of government is not just one that spurs growth and delivers services, but that excessively polices private behavior, setting a dangerous precedent for urban America.

    The best-publicized of these was Bloomberg’s recently-defeated measure to ban large sodas. But this only echoed other products the board of health has targeted, including trans-fat in cooking oils, Styrofoam containers, and salt. He extended New York's decade-long ban on cigarette smoking in bars to some other public spaces.

    These measures may seem like benevolent ways to protect New York’s citizens from themselves. But they underlie a broader willingness to intrude in other ways. For example, following the Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case, Bloomberg enthusiastically supported eminent domain for land transfers in both Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards and by Columbia University in Harlem.

    Bloomberg has also expanded New York’s unpopular stop-and-frisk policy, which allows police to search people not after arrest, but based on “reasonable suspicion.” The policy was begun in the 1970s as a way for police to intervene in overtly threatening situations. But under Bloomberg it has been used reflexively five million times. It overwhelmingly targets minorities, and has proven to be poor at accomplishing its stated goal of collecting illegal guns. According to an analysis by Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan, the first 4.4 million stop-and-frisks under Bloomberg yielded under 6,000 guns, (just over 0.01% of stops).

    Some of the same behaviors discouraged by Bloomberg are violated in his personal life. His insistence that New York rigorously combat global warming is ironic, given that he frequently flies private jets to homes in Bermuda, London, and Colorado. He blasted attempts by businesses and unions to roll back campaign finance reform, even after forming his own super-PAC for favored Congressional candidates, and using hundreds of millions of his personal fortune on his own mayoral campaigns. This same chutzpah is evident in his endless bloviating on national issues. While sometimes refreshing, it seems inane coming from a jet-setting mayor who, in lusting for national attention, ignores his own city. Although unemployment has decreased recently, it still remains over 8%, above the national average. The city continues to suffer from high taxes and slow job growth. Income inequality in Bloomberg’s New York has also risen at well above the national rate.

    Bloomberg doesn’t necessarily have control over all of this. But he can at least control what appears as his administration’s priorities. Over the course of his mayoralty, they seem to have shifted from addressing practical aspects of city management to pet peeves about citizen behavior. This has brought New York City negative publicity, and grown offensive to many of those who value personal freedom, with all its flaws, over the tedious and destructive encroachment of “technocrats.”

    Flickr photo from Be the Change, Inc. by Gillooly/PEI.

    Scott Beyer is traveling the nation to write a book about revitalizing U.S. cities. His blog, Big City Sparkplug, features the latest in urban news. Originally from Charlottesville, VA, he is now living in different cities month-to-month to write new chapters.

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    Our tepid economic recovery has been profoundly undemocratic in nature. Between the “too big to fail” banks and Ben Bernanke’s policy of dropping free money from helicopters on the investor class, there have been two recoveries, one for the rich, and another less rewarding one for the middle class.

    Viewed in this light, the recent run-up in home prices, the biggest in seven years, offers some relief from this dreary picture. Home equity accounts for almost two-thirds of a “typical” family’s wealth (those in the middle fifth of U.S. wealth distribution); there is no other investment by which middle-class families can so easily grow their nest eggs.

    But the housing recovery’s benefit extend beyond owners. The housing industry drives a significant portion of the nation’s economy, accounting for millions of jobs. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average single-family detached house under construction results in an additional three jobs for one year. This includes the employees working on the house, and those employed in producing products to build the house.

    Overall, residential construction and upkeep generates between 15% and 18% of GDP. If the economy is to expand in a sustainable way that helps a broad section of Americans, suggests Roger Altman, a Clinton administration deputy Treasury secretary, “a housing boom will be the biggest driver.”

    Perhaps even more important, the growth of housing sales also revives something many have written off as obsolete: “the American dream” of owning a home. Since the great recession, some economists have argued that the future of America will be a “rentership” society.

    Others such as Richard Florida have argued forcibly that home ownership is “over-rated,” maintaining that America’s fixation on it has fostered“countless forms of over-consumption that have a horribly distorting affect on the economy.” Workers, he argues, are better off as renters since this allows them to change jobs more nimbly. If anything, he suggests, the government would be better off encouraging “renting, not buying.”

    Greens have also embraced this downscaled future, with people living cheek to jowl in some urbanized form of ecological harmony. They envision a new generation that will reject materialism, suburbs, single-family homes and other expressions of acquisition. In other words, forget ambition and save the whales. One writer at Grist argues, the fact the millennial generation can’t afford homes is a good thing, since it will lead to “a rejection of the mindset that got us into this mess.”  Welcome back to the green Age of Aquarius: “we’re looking for ways to avoid that ladder altogether — maybe by climbing a tree instead.”

    Perhaps this is true for some, but overall the desire to own a home is far from dead. A 2012 study by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that over 80% of Americans associated homeownership with the American dream. A 2012 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, found “little evidence to suggest that individuals‘ preferences for owning versus renting a home have been fundamentally altered by their exposure to house price declines and loan delinquency rates, or by knowing others in their neighborhood who have defaulted on their mortgages.”

    Some predict that changing demographics — and attitudes — will erode such sentiments. Yet homeownership seems to be embraced by two groups who will dominate our future: the emerging millennial generation and immigrants . Between 2000 and 2011, there has been a net increase of 9.3 million in the foreign-born (immigrant) population, largely from Asia and Latin America. These newcomers have accounted for roughly two out of every five new homeowners.

    What about millennials? Despite the hopes of the counter-culture enthusiasts, a full 82% of adult millennials surveyed said it was “important” to have an opportunity to own their home. This rose to 90% among married millennials, who generally represent the first cohort of their generation to start settling down. Another survey, by TD Bank, found that 84% of renters aged 18 to 34 intend to purchase a home in the future. Still another, this one from Better Homes and Gardens, found that three in four saw homeownership as “a key indicator of success.”

    Over time, these demographics could provide the basis for a new and more widely distributed economic boom hopefully healthier than that which accompanied the last housing boom. For one thing, there are far fewer dubious loans, and lending standards are somewhat stricter. And building activity, although bouncing back, is not as fevered as last time, except perhaps in the somewhat over-hyped multi-family sector. Two-thirds of all housing starts, now at the highest level since June 2008, are single-family homes, a sure sign that the traditional buyer is back.

    Yet there are some disturbing aspects of the current housing boom. In much of the country, much of the activity has been fueled by investors; in states such as California they account for roughly one-third of buyers. Large players such as Blackstone and Colony Capital have been particularly active in buying distressed properties in places like Tampa, the Inland Empire and Phoenix, in the process boosting prices.

    This has set up what could become a potential conflict between prospective middle-income homeowners and the very deep-pocketed investors who have been the primary beneficiaries of the age of Obama. Although investors have indeed set a “floor” that has prevented a further deterioration of prices, their investment appear to be threatening to push homes out of the reach of middle-income buyers. Some local officials also worry that when the investors tire of their new properties, they may leave them to languish on the market.

    This can be seen even in California, which has experienced a weak recovery in jobs and income, but a decisive and escalating increase in housing prices, largely due to the prescence of investors, domestic and foreign, as well as the resurgent flippers. Over the past five years inventory has dwindled from 16 months supply to less than three months. Prices are up over 30% from 2008 in San Francisco and over 17% in the Los Angeles area, driving down affordability.

    But, still, the housing recovery is the best news to hit the American middle class in at least half a decade. Some investors seem to be realizing there are limits to rental income and might be persuaded to start selling homes to individuals. Already in Phoenix, a hotbed of investor interest, the percentage of homes sold to investors dropped to about 25% in March from a high of 36% last summer.

    If this trend takes hold, investors, rather than undermining the market, could be seen as having played a critical role in maintaining housing during a very hard time. If they start an orderly withdrawal, or start selling their homes to families, the speculators, not always a lovable group, could end up being among the unlikely saviors of the American dream, particularly for the next generation.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

    This piece originally appeared at

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    Let me stipulate that I think Toronto’s Rob Ford is a terrible mayor. In fact, while I might not go so far as Richard Florida, who labeled Ford“the worst mayor in the modern history of cities, an avatar for all that is small-bore and destructive of the urban fabric, and the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city,” I’m willing to say he’s probably in the running for the title.

    The roots of Rob Ford lie in “amalgamation,” the forcible merging of the city of Toronto government with various of its suburbs by the Ontario provincial government. The idea was cost savings, but of course costs went up. Also, it created a Mars-Venus situation that ultimately led to Ford, a former city councilor in Etobicoke, being elected mayor. This would be like a consolidation of Chicago with Cook County in which a member of the Schaumburg city council ended up mayor. Not good. The urban intelligentsia that despises Ford now find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to explain to their friends that they are in total agreement with Wendell Cox, an implacable foe of government consolidations, who predicted these results.

    But there’s a big difference between Florida’s bashing of Ford, which falls within the principles of democratic discourse as we’ve come to know it, and what appears to be an effort by some to subvert democracy by finding any pretext to run Rob Ford out of office.

    I’m not sure where the idea that the loser in an election tries to undermine the legitimacy of the government of the winner came from. But in the modern era it could be the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton that launched it. This quickly proved to be standard fare. There was the brouhaha over the “selected not elected” George W. Bush as well as the more passionate strain of “birthers” when it comes to President Obama. Given that, especially in the big leagues, there is always some dirtiness in politics, it’s easy to find things to seize upon to claim someone’s holding of an office is invalid. After all, it appears that Clinton really did commit perjury and there was shall we say some murkiness down in Florida. However, these aren’t truly what the people raising a ruckus cared about. What they cared about was the man in office they didn’t like – and getting him out of it.

    Canada has a reputation as a kinder, gentler nation, but they now appear to have imported from America what Clinton labeled “the politics of personal destruction.” Rob Ford has been the target of a series of vicious attacks, generally aided and abetted (if not outright instigated) by the old city Toronto media that clearly don’t like him, designed to drive him out of office.

    One was a lawsuit that claimed he should be tossed out of office because of events related to his using official letterhead and such to raise $3,500 for a charity. Believe it or not, the trial judge actually agreed with this and ordered him removed from office. If that’s the threshold for getting someone kicked out of office, I dare say every major politician in America would be gone. Yes, politicians do often use affiliated charities as a, shall we say, lubricating mechanism. Yes, there’s the appearance or even the reality of some impropriety in these things. But this is such small fry stuff that to throw the mayor of the biggest city in the country out of office over it defies belief. If you think this is removal worthy, I’m confident I can find something just as bad in almost any politician that you actually like. Fortunately, saner heads at the appeals level prevailed and the ruling was overturned.

    Recently we’ve also seen reports originating from, I kid you not, Gawker, in which some shady Somalis supposedly showed a reporter a cell phone video of Rob Ford smoking crack. Shortly thereafter the Toronto Star got in on the act, saying their reporters had seen the video in the back seat of the car, though with the CYA proviso that they had “no way to verify the authenticity of the video.” Other media that may not have directly originated such a story have piled on and thus there’s a firestorm awhirl.

    Where is the video, you might ask? Good question. Supposedly it’s for sale for $200K but oddly no one snapped it up, not even one of the extremely wealthy Ford haters that Toronto has in abundance. So you want to buy it? Oh, Gawker now tell us it might be “gone.” Hmmm…..

    I’m not saying there’s no video. Rob Ford has certainly acted like he’s guilty of something. But it seems amazing to me that in this era in which all types of tapes and documents spontaneously get loose, this one is no where to be found. Also, the idea of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack with a bunch of Somalis while they film him falls into the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” category. The still photo is interesting, but I’ve seen many compromising photos of mayors, who are routinely snapped with all sorts of random people who they may find out later are unsavory characters. I can’t imagine this sort of media feeding frenzy over say, similar allegations against Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel.

    The Toronto Globe and Mail is a serious newspaper that’s roughly Canada’s New York Times. Though they didn’t break the video story, they did follow-up with a rather tabloidesque article about the history of Rob Ford’s family with drugs. Ford’s brother Doug, the focus of the piece, is on the city council himself, so is a legitimate investigative target so to speak, but the piece also digs into other family members.

    Not only is the Globe and Mail digging up dirt on Rob Ford’s family, this piece did it entirely with anonymous sources. They claimed to talk to no fewer than ten people who called Doug Ford a drug-dealer, but curiously none of them were willing to talk on the record. That didn’t stop the Globe and Mail from reporting:

    Ten people who grew up with Doug Ford – a group that includes two former hashish suppliers, three street-level drug dealers and a number of casual users of hash – have described in a series of interviews how for several years Mr. Ford was a go-to dealer of hash. These sources had varying degrees of knowledge of his activities: Some said they purchased hash directly from him, some said they supplied him, while others said they observed him handling large quantities of the drug.

    The events they described took place years ago, but as mayor, Rob Ford has surrounded himself with people from his past. Most recently he hired someone for his office whose long history with the Fords, the sources said, includes selling hashish with the mayor’s brother.

    There’s nothing on the public record that The Globe has accessed that shows Doug Ford has ever been criminally charged for illegal drug possession or trafficking. But some of the sources said that, in the affluent pocket of Etobicoke where the Fords grew up, he was someone who sold not only to users and street-level dealers, but to dealers one rung higher than those on the street. His tenure as a dealer, many of the sources say, lasted about seven years until 1986, the year he turned 22. “That was his heyday,” said “Robert,” one of the former drug dealers who agreed to an interview on the condition he not be identified by name.

    Upon being approached, the sources declined to speak if identified, saying they feared the consequences of outing themselves as former users and sellers of illegal drugs.

    The Globe also tried to contact retired police officers who investigated drugs in the area at the time. One said he had no recollection of encountering the Fords.

    The article is full of innuendo about the Ford’s such as the idea that Rob Ford recently hired a drug dealing associate of Doug’s from the old days (highlighted above), along with curious mentions and links to beatings, killings, and white supremacy/KKK. (Rob Ford is a white supremacist who likes to smoke crack with Somalis???) It’s capped off by having various anonymous sources given pseudonyms so that they appear to be actual people on the record. As this excerpt notes, the police record and police contacts don’t back up the story, which just adds to the general notion of dubiosity and suggests this is a very exaggerated piece that tries to throw things to the wall to see what sticks.

    All it all, given the extreme reactions to financial dealings that, even if they were proven, would have been a non-issue almost anywhere else, along with a firestorm of allegations about smoking crack and so much more with no actual proof, the Rob Ford affair has thus far generated much more smoke than fire.

    Rob Ford is the price Toronto is paying for the foolishness of the provincial government and the failure of an urban candidate to offer a compelling vision for the entire amalgamated city. But it strikes me very much that a group of old Toronto city partisans, who are incensed a guy like Ford had the temerity to win an election, are determined to use any means necessary to correct what they see is that injustice. But just as with what happened in America and its politics in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, Canada may come to rue the day a group of its citizens decided to try to overturn an election by destroying the winner rather than waiting for their next opportunity at the ballot box.

    Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

    Photo by Wiki Commons user MTLskyline.

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  • 06/12/13--22:38: The Unexotic Underclass
  • The startup scene today, and by ‘scene’ I’m sweeping a fairly catholic brush over a large swath of people – observers, critics,  investors, entrepreneurs, ‘want’repreneurs, academics, techies, and the like – seems to be riven into two camps.

    On one side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P: clean energy, poverty, famine, climate change, you name it.  I needn’t replay their song here; they’ve argued their cases far more eloquently elsewhere In short, they contend that too many brains and dollars have been shoveled into resolving what I call ‘anti-problems’ –  interests usually centered about food or fashion or ‘social’ or gaming.  Something an anti-problem company  might develop is an app  that provides  restaurant recommendations based on your blood type, a picture of your childhood pet, the music preferences of your 3 best friends, and the barometric pressure of the nearest city beginning with the letter Q.  (That such an app does not yet exist is reminder still of how impoverished a state American scientific education has descended.  Weep not! We redouble our calls for more STEM funding.)

    On  the other side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that there are too many folks resolving anti-problems… BUT  just to be on the safe side, the venture capitalists should keep pumping tons of  money  into  those anti-problem entrepreneurs because you never know when some corporate leviathan – Google, Facebook, Yahoo! – will come along and buy what yesterday looked like a nonsense app and today is still a nonsense app, but a nonsense app that can walk a bit taller, held aloft by the insanities of American exceptionalism.  For not only is our sucker birthrate still high in this country (one every minute, baby!), but our suckers are capitalists bearing fat checks.

    On the other other side, a side that receives scant attention, scanter investment, is where big problems – little b, little p – reside.  Here, you’ll find a group I’ll refer to as the unexotic underclass.  It’s rather quiet in these parts, except during campaign season when the politicians stop by to scrape anecdotes off the skin of someone else’s suffering.  Let’s see who’s here.

    To your left are single mothers, 80% of whom, according to the US Census,  are poor or hovering on the nasty edges of working poverty.  They are struggling to raise their kids in a country that seems to conspire against  any semblance of proper rearing: a lack of flexibility in the workplace; a lack of free or affordable after-school programs;  an abysmal public education system where a testing-mad, criminally-deficient curriculum is taught during a too-short school day; an inescapable lurid wallpaper of sex and violence that covers every surface of  society;  a cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect;  a cultural imperative to look hot, spend money and own the latest “it”-device (or should I say i-device) no matter what it costs, no matter how little money Mum may have.

    Slightly to the right, are your veterans of two ongoing wars in the Middle East. Wait, we’re at war? Some of these veterans, having served multiple tours, are returning from combat with all manner of monstrosities ravaging their heads and bodies.  If that weren’t enough, welcome back, dear vets, to a flaccid economy, where your military training makes you invisible to an invisible hand that rewards only those of us who are young and  expensively educated.

    Welcome back to a 9-month wait for medical benefits.  According to investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who was embedded in Iraq, and has now authored The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, 9 months is the average amount of time  a veteran waits for his or her disability claim to be processed after having filed their paperwork.  And by ‘filed their paperwork,’ I mean it literally: veterans are sending bundles of papers to some bureaucratic Dantean capharnaum run by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs,  where, by its own admission, it processes 97%  of its claims by hand, stacking them in heaps on tables and in cabinets.

    In the past 5 years, the number of vets who’ve died before their claim has even been processed has tripled. This is America in 2013: 40 years ago we put a man on the moon; today a young lady in New York can use anti-problem technology if she wishes  to line up a date this Friday choosing only from men who are taller than 6 feet, graduated from an Ivy, live within 10 blocks of Gramercy, and play tennis left-handed…

    …And yet, veterans who’ve returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait roughly 270 days (up to 600 in New York and California) to receive the help — medical, moral, financial – which they urgently need, to which they are honorably entitled, after having fought our battles overseas.

    Technology, indeed, is solving the right problems.

    Let’s keep walking.  Meet the people who have the indignity of being over 50 and finding themselves suddenly jobless.  These are the Untouchables of the new American workforce: 3+ decades of employment and experience have disqualified them from ever seeing a regular salary again.   Once upon a time, some modicum of employer noblesse oblige would have ensured that loyal older workers be retained or at the very least retrained, MBA advice be damned.  But, “A bas les vieux!” the fancy consultants cried, and out went those who were  ‘no longer fresh.’  As Taylor Swift would put it, corporate America and the Boomer worker  “are never ever getting back together.”  Instead bring in the young, the childless, the tech-savvy here in America, and the underpaid and quasi-indentured abroad willing to work for slightly north of nothing in the kinds of conditions we abolished in the 19th century.

    For, in the 21st century, a prosperous American business is a soaring 2-storied cake: 1 management layer at top thick with perks, golden parachutes, stock options, and a total disregard for those beneath them; 1 layer below of increasingly foreign workers (If you’re lucky, you trained these people before you were laid off!), who can’t even depend on their jobs because as we speak, those sameself consultants – but no one that we know of course — are scouring the globe for the cheapest labor opportunities, fulfilling their promise that no CEO be left behind.

    Above all of this, the frosting on the cake,  the nec plus ultra of evolutionary corporate accomplishment: the Director of Social Media.  This is the 20-year old whose role it is to “leverage social media to deliver a seamless authentic experience across multiple digital streams to strategic partners and communities.”  In other words, this person gets paid six figures to send out tweets. But again, no one that we know.

    Time and space and my own sheltered upbringing  defend me from giving you the whole tour of the unexotic underclass, but trust that it is big, and only getting bigger.


    Now, why the heck should any one care? Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be.  Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be whose trajectory of nonstop success has placed him or her leagues above the unexotic underclass.  You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing  the startup scene right now: the flood of  (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own (or, because  they suspect no one will invest in what they really want to do).  The unexotic underclass has big problems, maybe not the Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that get ‘discussed’ at Davos.  But they have problems nonetheless, and where there are problems, there are markets.

    The space  that caters to my demographic – the cushy 20 and 30-something urbanites – is oversaturated. It’s not rocket science: people build what they know.  Cosmopolitan, well-educated young men and women in America’s big cities are rushing into startups and building for other cosmopolitan well-educated young men and women in big cities.  If you need to plan a trip, book a last minute hotel room, get your nails done, find a date, get laid, get an expert shave, hail a cab, buy clothing, borrow clothing, customize clothing, and share the photos instantly, you have Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Manicube, OKCupid, Grindr, Harry’s, Uber, StyleSeek, Rent the Runway, eshakti/Proper Cloth and Instagram respectively to help you. These companies are good, with solid brains behind them, good teams and good funding.

    But there are only so many suit customisation, makeup sampling, music streaming, social eating, discount shopping, experience  curating companies that the market can bear.  If you’re itching to start something  new, why chase the nth  iteration of a company already serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter?If you’re an investor, why revisit the same space as everyone else?  There is life, believe me, outside of NY, Cambridge, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, L.A. and San Fran.

    It’s where the unexotic underclass lives.  It’s called America.  This underclass is not some obscure niche market.  Take the single mothers. Per the US Census Bureau, there are 10 million of them  today; and an additional 2 million single fathers.  Of the single mothers, the majority is White, 1 in 4 is Hispanic, and 1 in 3 is Black.  So this is a fairly large and diverse group.

    Take the veterans. (I will beat the veteran drum to death.) According to the VA’s latest figures, there are roughly 23 million vets in the United States.  That number sounds disturbingly high; that’s almost 1 in 10 Americans.  Entrepreneurs and investors like big numbers.  Other groups you could include in the underclass: ex-convicts, many imprisoned for petty drug offenses, many released for crimes they never even committed.  How does an ex-convict get back into society?  And navigate not just freedom, but a transformed technological landscape?  Another group, and this one seems to sprout in pockets of affluence: people with food allergies.  Some parents today resort to putting shirts and armbands on their kids indicating what foods they can or can’t eat.  Surely there’s a better fix for that?

    Maybe you could fix that.


    Why do I call this underclass unexotic?  Because, those of us, lucky enough to be raised in comfortable environs – well-schooled, well-loved, well-fed – are aware of only 2 groups: those at the very bottom and those at the very top.

    We have clear notions of what the ruling class resembles – its wealth,  its connections, its interests.  Some of you reading this will probably be part of the ruling class before you know it.  Some of you probably already are.  For the 1% aspirants (and there’s no harm in having such aspirations), hopefully by the time you get there, you will have found meaningful problems to solve – be they big, or Big.

    We have clear ideas of what the exotic underclass looks like because everyone is clamoring to help them.  The exotic underclass are people who live in the emerging and third world countries that happen to be in fashion now -– Kenya, Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa. The  exotic underclass are poor Black and Hispanic children (are there any other kind?) living in America’s urban ghettos.  The exotic underclass suffer from diseases that have stricken the rich and famous, and therefore benefit from significant attention and charity.

    On the other hand, the unexotic underclass, has the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.  These are the huddles of Whites – poor, rural working class – living in the American South, in the Midwest, in Appalachia.  In oh-so-progressive Northeast, we  refer to them as ‘hicks’ and ‘hillbillies’ and ‘trailer trash,’ because apparently, this is the one demographic that American manners have forgotten.

    The unexotic underclass are the poor in Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, who just don’t look foreign enough for our taste.  Anyone who’s lived in a major European city can attest to the ubiquity of desperate Roma families, arriving from Bulgaria and Romania, panhandling in the streets and on the subways. This past April, the employees of the Louvre Museum in Paris went on strike because they were tired of being pickpocketed by hungry Roma children.   But if you were to go to Bulgaria to volunteer or to start a social enterprise, how would the folks back on Facebook know you were helping ‘the poor?’  if the poor in your pictures kind of looked like you?

    And of course, the biggest block of the unexotic underclass are the ones I alluded to earlier: that vast, suffocating mass right here in in America. We don’t notice them because they don’t get by on $1 a day. We don’t talk about them because they don’t make $1 billion a year.  The only place where they’re popular is in Washington, D.C. where President Obama and  his colleagues in Congress can can use members of the underclass to spice up their stump speeches: “Yesterday, I met a struggling family out in yadda yadda yadda…” But there’s only so much Washington can do to help out, what with government penniless and gridlocked, and its elected officials occupying a caste of selfishness, cowardice and spite, heretofore unseen in American politics.


    If you’re an entrepreneur looking for ideas, consider looking beyond the city-centric, navel-gazing, youth-obsessed mainstream.  That doesn’t mean you need to fly to the end of the world.  Chances are there are more people addressing the Big Problems of slum dwellers in Calcutta, Kibera or Rio, than are tackling the big problems of hardpressed folks in say, West Virginia, Mississippi or Louisiana.

    To be clear, I’m not painting the American South as the primary residence of all the wretched of the earth. You will meet people down there who are just as intelligent and cultured and affluent as we pretend everyone up North is.

    Second, I’m not pitting the unexotic against the exotic.  There is nothing easy or trendy about the work being done by the brave innovators on the ground in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Some examples of that work: One Earth Designs which helps deliver clean energy and heating solutions to communities in rural China; Sanergy, which is bringing low-cost sanitation to Kenya’s poorest slums;  Samasource, which provides contract work to youth and women in Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and India.  These are young startups with young entrepreneurs who attended the same fancy schools we all know and love (MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc.), who lived in the same big cities where we all congregate, and worked in the same fancy jobs we all flocked to post-graduation.  Yet, they decided they would go out and  tackle Big Problems – capital B, capital P. We need to encourage them, even if we could never imitate them.

    If we can’t imitate them,and we’re not ready for the challenges of the emerging market, and we have no new ideas to offer, then maybe there are problems, right here in America for us to solve…The problems of the unexotic underclass.


    Now, I can already hear the screeching of meritocratic,  Horatio Algerian Silicon Valley,

    “What do we have to do with any of this? The unexotic underclass has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps!  Let them learn to code and build their own startups!  What we need are more ex-convicts turned entrepreneurs, single mothers turned programmers, veterans turned venture capitalists!

    The road out of welfare is paved with computer science!!!”

    Yes, of course.

    There’s nothing wrong with the entrepreneurship-as-salvation gospel. Nothing wrong with teaching more people to code.  But it’s impractical in the short term, and misses the greater point in the long term:   We shouldn’t live in a universe of solipsistic startups…  where I start a company and produce things only for myself and for people who resemble me.  Let’s be honest.  Very few of us are members of this unexotic underclass.  Very few of us even know anyone who’s  in it.   There’s no shame in that.  That we have  sailed on a yacht of good fortune most of our lives — supportive generous families, a stable peaceful democracy, excellent schooling, prestigious careers and companies, relatively good health – is nothing to be ashamed of. Consider yourselves remarkably blessed.

    What is shameful though, is that in a country with so many problems, with such a heaving underclass, we find the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ the 20-and 30-somethings who emerge from the top American graduate and undergraduate programs, abandoning their former hangout,Wall Street, to pile into anti-problem entrepreneurship.

    Look, I worked for Goldman Sachs immediately after graduating from Wellesley. After graduating from MIT, I worked at a hedge fund. I am not throwing stones.   Here in hell, the stones wouldn’t reach you anyhow… If you’re under 30 and in finance, you’ve definitely noticed the radical migration of your peers from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley.   This should have been a good exchange.  When I first entered banking, leftist hippie that I was (and still am), my biggest issue was what struck me as a kind of gross intellectual malpractice:  how could so many bright historians and economists, athletes and engineers, writers and biogeneticists, from every great school you could think of – Princeton, Berkeley, Oxford, Harvard, Imperial, Caltech, Amherst, Wharton, Yale, Swarthmore, Cambridge, and so on — be concentrated into a single sector, working obscene hours at a sweatshop to manufacture money?

    When I look at the bulk of startups today – while  there are notable exceptions (Code for America for example, which invites local governments to request technology help from teams of coders) – it doesn’t seem like we’ve aspired to something nobler: it just looks like we’ve shifted the malpractice from feeding the money machine to making inane, self-centric apps. Worse,  is that the power players, institutional and individual — the highflying VCs, the entrepreneurship incubators, the top-ranked MBA programs, the accelerators, the universities,  the business plan competitions have been complicit in this nonsense. 

    Those who are entrepreneurially-minded but young and idea-poor need serious direction from those who are rich in capital and connections.  We see what ideas are getting funded, we see money flowing like the river Ganges towards insipid me-too products, so is it crazy that we’ve been thinking small?  building smaller? that our “blood and judgment” to quote Hamlet, have not been  “so well commingled?”

    We need someone bold (and older than us) to stand up for Big Problems which are tough and dirty.  But what we especially need is someone to stand up for big problems – little b, little p –which are tough and dirty and too easy to overlook.

    We need:

    A Ron Conway, a Fred Wilson-type at the venture level to say, ‘Kiddies, basta with this bull*%!..  This year we’re only investing in companies targeting the unexotic underclass.”

    A Paul Graham and his Y Combinator at the incubator level, to devote one season to the underclass, be it veterans, single moms or overworked young doctors, Native Americans, the list is long:  “Help these entrepreneurs build something that will help you.”

    The head of an MIT or an HBS or a Stanford Law at the academic level, to tell the entire incoming class: “You are lucky to be some of the best engineering and business and law students, not just in the country, but in the world.  And as an end-of-year project, you are going to use that talent to develop products, policy and programs to help lift the underclass.”

    Of the political class, I ask nothing.  With a vigor one would have thought inaccessible to people at such an age, our leaders in Washington have found ever innovative ways to avoid solving the problems that have been brought before them.  Playing brinkmanship games with filibusters and fiscal cliffs;  taking money to avoid taking votes.  They are entrepreneurs of the highest order: presented with 1 problem, they manage to create 5 more. They have demonstrated that government is not only not the answer, it is the anti-answer…

    The dysfunction in D.C. is a big problem.

    Entrepreneurs: it looks like there’s work for you there too…

    C.Z. Nnaemeka studied Philosophy at Wellesley; logically, she has spent most of her time in finance, beginning at Goldman Sachs. Born in Manhattan to Nigerian parents, she attended French schools, graduating from the Lycée Français de New York. Since then she has alternated between writing, banking, and consulting to startups in Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Previously, she lived in Paris where she founded a political discussion group and was a foreign affairs commentator for the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro. She graduated from MIT in 2010, focusing on Entrepreneurship + Innovation.

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    Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.

    So it came as a shock to many and an offense to some to learn that new nuclear plants still cost substantially less than solar. Solar advocates have challenged our recent analysis finding that the electricity from Finland's beleaguered Olkiluoto plant is still four times cheaper than electricity from Germany's solar program, claiming that we cherry-picked cases to make nuclear look good and solar look bad.

    It is an odd objection, given that we selected perhaps the most expensive nuclear power plant ever built for our comparison. The complaint is odder still because many of the same critics who accused us of cherry-picking then turned around and, without any apparent irony, cherry-picked small, one-off solar projects as evidence that our analysis is slanted toward nuclear. 

    The reason we compared the Finnish plant to the German solar program is not just because renewables advocates have long claimed that the two examples prove that solar is cheap and nuclear is expensive. We also compared the two because both projects exist in the real world at significant scale, which helps avoid the cherry-picking problem of overgeneralizing from particular cases. Thanks to generous subsidies, Germany generated 5 percent of its electricity from solar last year — a huge amount compared to other nations. By contrast, last year the United States produced just 0.18 percent of its electricity from solar, according to the EIA.

    Some have reasonably asked if there aren't broader surveys of the costs of new solar and new nuclear. There are. Both the International Energy Agency and the EIA have done them, and both find that solar costs substantially more than new nuclear construction.

    While those figures represent the cost of the average solar installation today, they don't tell us what it costs for a major industrial economy to scale up solar rapidly, such that it gets a significant percentage of its electricity from solar. To date, Germany is the only major economy in the world that has done so. The costs of Germany's solar feed-in tariff represent the only real world figure we have. 

    As solar has scaled up in Germany, the costs have declined. But the dynamics are not dissimilar with nuclear. France saw significant cost declines as it scaled up standardized plant designs in the 70s and 80s. The new plant in Finland is a first-of-kind design. Subsequent builds are already showing significantly lower costs. The EPR under construction in France, initiated around the same time as the one in Finland, is expected to cost slightly less. The third and fourth versions of the EPR, currently under construction in China, will be a third the cost of the Finnish plant.

    Had we chosen to use the two new Chinese plants, solar would have cost twelve times more than nuclear, rather than just four times more. Of course this comparison would almost certainly have raised further objections that we had compared German apples to Chinese oranges. Yet it turns out that the German solar program has benefited enormously from the scaling up of Chinese solar manufacturing — or in the eyes of the US Solar Energy Association, the US Trade Commission, and the European Union, the outright dumping of solar panels by Chinese firms. Indeed the flood of Chinese solar panels, which take up as much as 80 percent of market share in Europe, has depressed the cost of solar panels by as much as 88 percent according to EU officials.

    Surely, if it is appropriate to tout solar cost reductions that have been driven by Chinese mercantilism and industrial policy it is also appropriate to consider the cost benefits that Chinese manufacturing and construction costs are bringing to nuclear ­— even more so given that the vast majority of future carbon emissions will come from places like China, not Finland or Germany.   

    Our analysis was further biased toward solar over nuclear by not accounting for the high costs of backing up and integrating intermittent solar electricity. Leading anti-nuclear greens, including Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., note that for a few hours during a sunny weekend day, solar provided 50 percent of Germany's electricity; at the same time, as we pointed out, only five percent of the country's total electricity came from solar in 2012. What that means is that if Germany doubled the amount of solar, as it intends to do, there might be a few hours or even days every year where the country gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar, even though solar only provides 10 percent of its annual electricity needs.

    What happens beyond that is anyone's guess. Some say Germany could sell its power to other countries, but this would mean other countries couldn't move to solar since Germany would provide electricity at the same hours it would seek to unload it on their neighbors. Solar advocates say cheap utility-scale storage is just around the corner; in fact, choices are extremely limited and expensive. As a result, analysis by the Clean Air Task Force suggest that integration costs for solar and wind are likely to surge dramatically should renewables rise much above 20 or 30 percent of total electrical generation (see graph below).

    Costs of adding intermittent generation are likely to scale super-linearly with penetration, creating a deployment barrier.  Some examples (various bases) in the figure: “Wind A” is the marginal cost per MWh of wind in ERCOT relative to the same index at 0% wind penetration. “Wind B” is the reciprocal of total system wind capacity factor in CAISO relative to 0% wind penetration (an indicator relative total system construction cost).“Wind C” is the number of annual CCGT start-ups in Ireland relative to 0% wind penetration (a proxy for system-wide O&M costs and emissions due to cycling).“PV” is the marginal cost per MWh of PV in ERCOT relative to the same index at 0% PV penetration. “RE Bundle” is the relative size of the US bulk transmission system (million MW-miles) due to bundled renewables (roughly ½ wind+solar) relative to 0% penetration.

    Sources: CATF from Denholm & Hand, 2011 (Wind A); Hart et al, 2012 (Wind B); Troy et al, 2010 (Wind C); Denholm & Margolis, 2006 (PV); NREL, 2012 (RE Bundle). 

    We do not present this evidence to advocate against solar subsidies or Germany's program. We have long advocated that governments spend significantly more on energy innovation, including the deployment of solar panels. But it's one thing to endorse Germany's big investment in solar in the name of accelerating solar innovation, and it's quite another to claim — as McKibben, Kennedy, and environmental groups do — that Germany's solar program and increasingly cheap solar panels demonstrate that solar energy is ready to scale, capable of substantially displacing fossil energy, and a viable alternative to nuclear.

    In reality, there's little evidence that renewables have supplanted — rather than supplemented — fossil fuel production anywhere in the world. Whatever their merits as innovation policy, Germany’s enormous solar investments have had little discernible impact on carbon emissions. Germany’s move away from baseload zero-carbon nuclear has resulted in higher coal consumption since 2009. In 2012, Germany's carbon emissions rose 2 percent.

    Nuclear, by contrast, replaces fossil energy. A recent analysis by the Business Spectator’s Geoff Russell finds that big nuclear programs around the world have shown the ability to scale up three to seven times faster than Germany's vaunted Energiewende (see below). In 1970, fossil fuels supplied roughly two-thirds of France’s electricity, with the balance mostly coming from hydro. By 1990, fossil’s share of the electricity supply had dropped to 10 percent, according to EIA data, while nuclear supplied 80 percent, an energy mix that still holds today. As a result, France’s electricity sector emits 80 grams of CO2 per kWh, compared to Germany’s 450 grams CO2 per kWh. Sweden and Ontario, which also have large shares of nuclear in their electricity supply, augmented by large hydro projects, are even lower. 

    In the United States, nuclear power grew from supplying zero percent of US electricity in 1965 to 20 percent in 1990. Over that same period, coal generation remained flat, rising from 54 percent of generation in 1965 to 60 percent in 1990, during a period when total electricity demand roughly tripled. Since the early 1990’s, when the US nuclear build-out stalled, the vast majority of new US electricity demand has been met by coal and gas.

    Even so, nuclear still needs to get better and cheaper if it is going to displace fossil energy at any scale that will make much difference in terms of climate change. Next generation plants that are safer, cheaper, and more reliable will be necessary if nuclear is to be more than a hedge against fossil energy in the developing world and to see significant new deployment at all in the developed world. Solar, wind, and energy storage technologies will need substantial further advances if they are going to even begin to achieve the scale possible with present day nuclear.

    Our analysis serves a broader point: we must reject technology tribalism if we are to meet rising energy demand and combat global warming. This entails paying close attention to the substantial challenges emergent technologies face, not ignoring them, and discerning how far different technologies are from being capable of replacing fossil energy. The question is not whether solar is the solution, or nuclear. The question is what technologies will deliver clean, reliable, and cheap energy to a growing population, and what it will take to get those technologies to scale. Any movement serious about addressing climate change will thus be characterized by a broad commitment to innovation and a willingness to take a hard, non-ideological look at present day zero-carbon technologies.

    Shellenberger and Nordhaus are co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, a leading environmental think tank in the United States. They are authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

    This piece originally appeared at

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    Rhine-Ruhr, or Essen-Düsseldorf, is among the world's least recognized larger urban areas (Figure 1).  Germany does not designate urban areas according to the international standard, and for that reason the Rhine-Ruhr does not appear on the United Nations list of largest urban areas. Yet, in reality this contiguous urban area is Germany's largest urban area, a position as it has held since at least the end of World War II. The Rhine-Ruhr is the third largest urban area in Western Europe, trailing only Paris and London. The area was one of the strongest early urban industrial areas in the 18th century and continued as a major manufacturing and coal mining center through the first half of the 20th century.

    An Early Polycentric Urban Area

    The Rhine Ruhr is unusual in not having evolved around a single core municipality. The Rhine Ruhr has multiple core municipalities, which have grown together to form a conurbation, the second largest in the world following Osaka –Kobe – Kyoto. But the Rhine Ruhr is probably the most polycentric urban region in the world, with a minimum of eight older, large municipalities now linked by urbanization. These include Essen and Düsseldorf, which were until recently the two largest municipalities. In addition there are Dortmund, Duisburg, Bochum, Wuppertal, Gelsenkirchen and Oberhausen. Each of these eight municipalities reached a population of 250,000 or more by 1961.

    Like nearly all prewar municipalities in the high income world that had not expanded their boundaries, each of these has lost population since 1961. By 2011, the combined population of these eight municipalities was under 3.4 million, a reduction of 700,000 (Table) from their 1961 total (a 17% loss).

    Larger Rhine-Ruhr Municipalities: Population 1961-2011
      1961 2011 Change %
    Bochum      441,000      362,000     (79,000) -17.9%
    Dortmund      645,000      571,000     (74,000) -11.5%
    Duisburg      504,000      488,000     (16,000) -3.2%
    Dusseldorf      705,000      586,000   (119,000) -16.9%
    Essen      730,000      566,000   (164,000) -22.5%
    Gelsenkirchen      384,000      259,000   (125,000) -32.6%
    Oberhausen      258,000      210,000     (48,000) -18.6%
    Wuppertal      422,000      343,000     (79,000) -18.7%
    Total   4,089,000   3,385,000   (704,000) -17.2%


    Data for the balance of the urban area and the broader Rhine-Ruhr region (Note 1) is not readily available for 1961. As a result, this analysis considers the Rhine-Ruhr region to consist of the Dusseldorf, Arnsberg and Münster subregions of the state (lander) of North Rhine-Westphalia, which had a combined population of 11.22 million in 2011, up only modestly from 11.06 million in 1987. The urban area has a population of approximately 6.5 million residents, covering a land area of approximate 950 square miles (2,450 square kilometers). The urban density is approximately 6,800 per square mile (2,650 per square kilometers), less than that of Los Angeles (7,000 per square mile or 2,700 per square kilometer) or Toronto (7,600 per square mile or 2,900 per square kilometer).

    Since 1987, the Rhine-Ruhr has added 161,000 residents, having gained 617,000 residents between 1987 and 2001, and losing 456,000 from 2001 to 2011. The eight older cities lost 170,000 residents from 1987 to 2011, while the balance of the urban area lost 42,000. The exurbs, outside the urban area have added 373,000 residents, and account for more than all of the modest growth since 1987. All three sectors lost population after 2001 (Figure 2).

    Slow Growth, Even for Germany

    The Rhine-Ruhr is located in the lander of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has the largest population in Germany. Its growth, however, has been glacial. Since 1961, the average annual growth rate of the lander was 0.2%. This is one third the growth rate of the other lander that constituted the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

    North Rhine-Westphalia’s performance is stellar compared to the lander of the former Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany), which have fallen back to their 1961 population, having lost 10% of their residents since 1990. Germany itself lost more than 2 million people in the last decade, reflecting its well-below replacement fertility rate. Based upon this rate, Germany could lose more than the 5 million more residents projected by United Nations projectionsto 2050 (to 75 million).

    But even within the slow growth environment of North Rhine Westphalia, the  Rhine Ruhr region is falling behind as nearly all the growth has shifted elsewhere to the regions of the lander that surround other urban areas, Cologne (Köln), which includes the former West German capital of Bonn, and Aachen (which stretches into the Netherlands). Local authorities in the Ruhr Valley are forecasting a population loss of approximately 8 percent by 2030.

    The Setting

    The Rhine-Ruhr conurbation is organized around confluences of two rivers with the Rhine. The northern part of the urban area stretches from the west bank of the Rhine eastward along the Ruhr River Valley with the large municipality of Duisburg anchoring the West and Dortmund the East. The southern part of the urban area stretches along the Wupper River Valley starting at Düsseldorf and continuing eastward to south of Dortmund. The elevation at the two river junctions is less than 100 feet (40 meters). A transverse, low mountain range (Rhenish Massif) separates the northern and southern parts of the urban area (maximum elevation 800 feet or 300 meters), though much of the hilly area is urban.


    Without a dominant, large center, the Rhine-Ruhr has a lower transit work trip market share – 18 percent – than would be expected for a European urban area of its size. This is well below the 30 percent share of Berlin and the approximately 35 percent shares of Madrid, Lisbon, and Stockholm, which are all smaller than the Rhine-Ruhr. Wuppertal is home to one of the icons of mass transit, the Wuppertal Monorail, which opened in 1901. The Monorail is suspended for much of its route above the Wupper River, with supports straddling the river (such a configuration would probably not be permitted to be constructed today in any high-income world metropolitan area because of environmental regulations).

    The Rhine-Ruhr’s polycentricity requires substantial reliance on its road system. The region is well served by an extensive freeway (autobahn) system consisting of at least four east-west routes and five north-south routes. Traffic congestion is worse than in most US urban areas, but the Rhine-Ruhr’s traffic flows better than in any metropolitan area of similar size in Europe, according to 2012 data from the INRIX Traffic Scorecard. The average peak hour delay is 14.8 percent compared to “free flow.” This is less than one-half the average delay in smaller Milan (30.2 percent) and well below Paris (27.8 percent) and London (26.1 percent). In 2005, the Rhine-Ruhr had the fifth highest rated freeway access among 30 surveyed international urban areas.

    Shrinking City

    Shrinking cities (where cities are defined as metropolitan areas or urban areas) have been unusual in the high income world (Pittsburgh and Liverpool are exceptions). Even as core municipalities have lost population, such as in Atlanta and Copenhagen, metropolitan areas have continued to grow. This is likely to change because of the severe national population declines forecast in a number of countries. The Rhine-Ruhr, and other similarly situated cities, will face serious challenges in retaining dynamic economies and delivering public services in the years to come for an aging population supported by a smaller work force.

    Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.


    Note 1: The entire Rhine-Ruhr and Cologne areas are considered by Germany to be the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area (ballungsräume). This article is limited to an area roughly conforming to the northern part of the ballungsräume. Eurostat defines a much smaller Düsseldorf-Ruhrgebiet metropolitan area that includes the Rhine-Ruhr urban area and most of the exurban area in this analysis. There is no international standard for the designation of metropolitan areas (labor markets).

    Note 2: INRIX classifies the Rhine-Ruhr as two areas (north and south). This is the population weighted congestion delay.

    Photo: Wuppertal Monorail

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    Planners and parents have been concerned about two widely reported, and most likely related, trends: the increasing percentage of overweight children, and the growing number of hours that kids spend looking at a screen, be it a television or a laptop. These two activities take up most of the free time kids have after school. Add on the tendency for kids to be driven or bussed to school, and the result is what has been called a “nature deficit” — a disconnect to natural surroundings. Over the long run, the outcome could be a generation of physically unfit and socially maladjusted young adults. The warning statistics are all around us. Is there a way out of this unhealthy cycle? One answer may rest with our planning decisions. Can neighbourhoods be laid out so as to avoid these unwelcome results?

    Evidence from research pronounces an unequivocal ‘yes’. Many pieces shape the puzzle that forms the complete answer. The first element of a community friendly to outdoor childhood activity is its ability to draw people — adults as well as kids — out of their houses and prompt them to socialize with neighbours. Since 1980, several studies have shown that the great inhibitor to socializing on a street is traffic. The heavier the traffic, the less the socializing. When there's not much socializing, adults and kids make fewer the friends, and the motivation to get out of the house goes down. A 2008 study on this showed that people who lived on cul-de-sacs had four times as many friends and two times the number of acquaintances as residents on through streets with heavy traffic did. It seems intuitive, and research confirms it.

    A second clue can be found by looking at the kinds of streets young kids play on most often. You may have guessed that research shows it's the cul-de-sac. Kids on cul-de-sacs spent 50 percent more time playing actively than kids on other streets. Importantly, the benefits to kids who play on the street continue. Other studies have shown that play and exercise in the early years build an affinity for activity that can last a lifetime, and that, through friendships, these kids also develop the spirit of a beehive at work.

    The third puzzle piece needed to create a kid-friendly place is the presence of magnets in the surroundings. These are factors that pull kids out of their homes and send them walking to school, the corner store and other destinations. And one study found that of all the elements that would attract kids of all ages, the strongest common force was the presence of open space.

    How parents feel about letting kids play on the street, walk to school, or ride their bicycles plays into the result, too. Justified or not, parental fear and unease limits the range of activities that kids engage in, and builds unhealthy habits.

    This knowledge from the field provides a sketch of the essential elements of a kid-friendly neighbourhood and, beyond that, a child-friendly district. Which elements are most essential?

    There shouldn't be any through streets in an area about the size of about ten city blocks. That feature gives kids plenty of room to move around in a low-traffic, low-speed environment. Parents socialize and kids play; parental insecurity fades. The easiest way to create this is by using connected cul-de-sacs and crescents.

    Every kid-friendly neighbourhood area should have at least one open space, whatever its size. That grants a safe haven for play — a magnet. Its land value will be recovered through higher values for the homes around it. Real estate research shows that homes near cul-de-sacs and open spaces command higher prices. And where there are bike and foot paths separated from the road, with few road crossings, parents are more likely to let their kids walk or bike ride.

    Can all this be achieved with a layout? Yes, by selectively fusing well known elements of available community plans. A number of examples of this fusion exist, and plenty of advice is accessible; check out, for example, Taking the Guesswork Out of Designing for Walkability.

    These techniques are not just for planning new neighbourhoods. Existing places can also be transformed to create child-friendly environments. Initiatives in many cities have changed neighbourhoods with positive results.

    How can you know when a neighbourhood has succeeded at incorporating these creative elements? One of the sure tell signs is chalk hopscotch marks left on the pavement! It signals that the kids have taken possession of a street, and are having fun. Every new family that moves into the neighbourhood will be heir to its physical and social benefits.

    Fanis Grammenos is the founder of Urban Pattern Associates (UPA), and was a Senior Researcher at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for over 20 years, focused on housing affordability, building adaptability, municipal regulations and sustainable planning. Research on street network patterns produced the innovative Fused Grid. He holds a degree in Architecture from the U of Waterloo. For additional references on the studies mentioned here, please e-mail the author at

    Flickr Photo by Joe Duty, Little Kid Down the Road chalking the sidewalk.

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    For the better part of a half century, social conservatives have been waging a desperate war to defend “family values.” However well-intentioned, this effort has to be written off as something of a failure. To continue it would cause even more damage to many of the things that social conservatives say they care most about.

    It’s not that we don’t need some sort of culture war — a conflict over values is the ultimate liberal value — but it makes no sense to keep waging a losing one. This includes, first and foremost, attempts to oppose gay marriage, something that almost half of Americans accept, according to Pew. Gay marriage wins even more support among millennials, who will over time come to shape our politics. Other social conservative efforts, like prayer in school or efforts to establish Christianity as a state religion, as recently was proposed in North Carolina’s legislature, make even less political sense.

    Obscured by such divisive approaches are larger issues, such as the durability of the family unit, that should be of concern to both liberals and conservatives. The number of children born to single mothers continues to soar. In 1970, 11% of births were to unmarried mothers; by 1990, that number had risen to 28%. Today, 41% of all births are to unmarried women. Most frightening of all, for mothers under 30, the rate is 53%.

    And Americans are increasingly eschewing not only marriage, but having children, although not yet to the extent of their counterparts in East Asia and Europe. This is particularly evident among the young.

    Not coincidentally, this is taking place as church affiliation, if not in free fall, is clearly on the downward trend. Secularism and the promotion of singleness and childlessness has gained cachet. Contemporary social thinking, as epitomized by “creative class” theorist Richard Florida, essentially links “advanced” society to the absence of religious values. Indeed virtually the entire span of modern urbanism — which has become entangled with both modern progressivism — not only disdains religiosity but gives remarkably short shrift to issues involving families.

    These trends represent a threat to values that many, if not most, Americans still adhere to, such as the primacy of the family, the importance of faith and the centrality of children. You don’t have to be an absolute believer in the revealed veracity of the Bible to see the danger posed by a national shift away from family and toward a hyper-individualist ethos.

    The question is not whether there should be a debate, or, if you will, a “war” over culture, but on what terms this struggle should be waged. This can’t be done, as one conservative writer suggested to me last year, “by marching back to the 1950s.” History does not move backward, and trying to inspire the next generations to live or think like their parents or grandparents simply lacks any serious appeal. There is truth to the Democratic claim that conservative Republicans suffer a “modernity deficit” that could assure them permanent minority status.

    But for all the failings of social conservatives, we should not ignore the reality that the decline of the family and of child-bearing must be addressed if this society is going to have any dynamism in the decades ahead. The largely native-born population is demonstrating all the essential weakness of their counterparts in Europe and East Asia; last year, more whites died than were born. Despite a total rise in population of 27 million from 2000 to 2010, there were actually fewer births in 2010 than 10 years earlier.

    Immigrants may bail us out in the short run — migrants and their offspring have accounted for one-third of the nation’s population growth over the past three decades—but the longer they stay, the more marriage and child-bearing decline over time. Even more seriously, 44% of all millennials think marriage is “obsolete”; among their baby boomer parents, the number is 35%. And fewer young people think childbearing is even important in a marriage.

    This could have disastrous social consequences, Conservative analysts such as Charles Murray point out the deterioration of family life among working-class whites, as measured by illegitimacy and low marriage rates. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44% of births are out of wedlock, upfrom 6% in 1970. With incomes dropping and higher unemployment, Murray predicts the emergence of a growing “white underclass” in the coming decade.

    Sadly, neither of the rising political tendencies — what might be seen as “clerical” liberalism and its libertarian counterpoint — are focused on the fundamental social deficit. Libertarianism, rapidly becoming the most legitimate form of conservatism, is almost psychologically incapable of addressing social issues. “The libertarian priority is meeting market needs,” noted Ben Domenach in Real Clear Politics recently.

    Markets are wonderful things, but what if, as they evolve, they can also tilt against families and communities? If everything boils down to what Marx called “the cash nexus” or simple individual “empowerment,” then having children, or committing to marriage, becomes far less palatable. It’s easy for well-heeled tech entrepreneurs, or inheritors of vast wealth, to speak about principles of classical liberalism, but if free markets fail to serve society’s needs, then support for competitive capitalism will necessarily fade.

    Libertarians tend to detest class warfare, but seem incapable of identifying with anyone other than those they consider “talented.” They seem unconcerned about market manipulations (inevitably aided and abetted by government) that might force more people out of homes and into congested, overpriced apartments. Or how technology is destroying whole classes of jobs while programs to train people for needed skills remain poorly funded.

    Ironically such an approach plays into the hands of the sworn enemies of libertarians, what I call the clerical progressives, who inhabit  certain cosseted institutions: universities, the media and foundations. This is where the new theology of planning the lives of the masses has been cooked up; it is a dogma of both power and belief, one that sees little role for the family as the central institution in society.

    This represents a very dangerous break point from the kind of progressivism embraced by Harry Truman, Pat Brown and traditional liberalism. Rather than see government as something that can help families achieve greater autonomy, and spark voluntary association, the clerical progressives prefer an approach that embraces government in place of parenting, and elevates planning from above over grassroots community.

    If you want to glimpse the world view of the progressive clerisy, watch the inane “Life of Julia” presented last year by the Obama campaign. In “Julia,” virtually every step in life is predicated on some government service. She does “decide” to have a child although a man is never mentioned (one can’t assume that progressive clerics accept the notion of immaculate conception), and the child, once sent off to government-funded pre-school, never reappears. So much for the permanence of family ties.

    Julia did not upset modern progressives because it reflected their worldview — Ms. even carried a piece hailing Julia as “a future standard for women” who are increasingly told that they don’t need men either as long-term partners in child-raising or even as spouses.

    This divergence from familialism represents the real basis for a new culture war. This means moving away from a focus on divisive and peripheral issues, such as gay marriage at least speaks to the desire for long-lasting bonds between people. The new cultural warrior might seek instead combine some elements of traditional social democracy — in terms of a commitment to upward mobility — with the assumption that family represents the essential institution in our society.

    Nowhere will this battle be more intense than in the field of urban planning. The current generations of progressives ascribe, almost universally, to the notion that people should be cajoled, by price or by edict, away from owning homes large enough to raise modern families, particularly those with more than one child. Today’s progressives, echoing an old tradition among urban aesthetes, find our century-long movement to suburbia — which has slowed but barely stopped — an abomination worthy of contempt and eradication.

    In the end what is needed is a new political counterpoint that embraces family as critical to the health of the society. This approach may not fit the conventional preferences of many conservatives, and most progressives, but is a necessary counterpoint to a process that threatens the future trajectory of our society.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

    This piece originally appeared at

    Photo by John Perkins.

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    For some students, the decision to enroll at a community college is simple. A two-year school offers the credential they need at a much lower cost than a university, and the earnings post-degree are on par with — or better than — what they would make after going to a four-year school.

    Less debt, similar salary — the math adds up.

    But outside fields that require specific certificates or degrees, it’s not always clear to students which higher education path they should take. And as Jeffrey Selingo wrote in a recent Wall Street Journalweekend essay, a number of websites are cropping up that allow students and parents to compare the return on investment from college to college.

    Based on first-year salaries of graduates (one of the metrics included at via state unemployment insurance programs), Selingo points out that some community college degrees have been shown to have a stronger early return than bachelor’s degrees.

    Think a community-college degree is worth less than a credential from a four-year college? In Tennessee, the average first-year salaries of graduates with a two-year degree are $1,000 higher than those with a bachelor’s degree. Technical degree holders from the state’s community collegesss often earn more their first year out than those who studied the same field at a four-year university.

    Take graduates in health professions from Dyersburg State Community College. They not only finish two years earlier than their counterparts at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but they also earn $5,300 more, on average, in their first year after graduation.

    This isn’t new information by any means. In 2011, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, an EMSI client, released its well-publicized “College Payoff” report. Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues looked at median lifetime earnings — a key distinction from the sources that Selingo cites — for all educations levels by occupation to show that 28.2% of associate’s degree graduates out-earn bachelor’s degree holders. This is just one example of what Georgetown referred to as “earnings overlap” (see the following chart).

    Georgetown’s report provides clear evidence that degree level matters when it comes to lifetime earnings. But another critical element is the actual job that a person chooses.

    There are many fields — in healthcare, engineering, technology, manufacturing, etc. — in which associate’s degree graduates can make just as much or more than bachelor’s degree holders. But what specific careers are we talking about? Let’s take a look using the Georgetown study and EMSI data.

    Well-Paying Jobs That (Often) Take an Associate’s Degree to Get

    To get a sense of the top-earning jobs in which the majority of workers have an associate’s degree, we looked the educational attainment breakdown by detailed occupation from U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, via EMSI’s Analyst. This data is only available at the national level; the most recent numbers are from 2009 (see here).

    The following occupations are ones in which associate’s degree holders (or associate’s degree plus some college) comprise the largest percentage of workers. Note that the educational attainment varies for most occupations (e.g., most CEOs have a bachelor’s, some have a master’s, a few have less than a high school diploma). Also, the educational requirements for some occupations change over time. For registered nurses, the typical education needed for entry, as assigned by the BLS, is an associate’s degree — even though 43% of all nurses hold a four-year degree. For this reason, we excluded RNs from our analysis. (We also excluded air traffic controllers because only 14% have an associate’s degree).

    1. Radiation Therapists ($37.36 median hourly earnings)

    Associate’s degree holders make up 42% of this healthcare occupation, slightly higher than bachelor’s degree grads (38%). For both degree levels, workers in this field earn $2.1 million in their lifetimes, per Georgetown. And the job outlook is strong, too. Radiation therapist jobs have increased 14% nationally since 2001, and the female-dominated occupation is projected to grow another 6% from 2012-2015.

    2. Dental Hygienists ($34.77)

    The bulk of hygienists (57%) have associate’s degrees, followed next by bachelor’s degrees (30%). Georgetown lumped these workers in with other healthcare practitioners and technical occupations, but still the lifetime earnings are similar — $2.1 million for two-year degree holders; $2.2 million for four-year grads.

    This lucrative, female-dominated occupation is projected to grow 8% from 2012-2015.

    3. Nuclear Medicine Technologists ($33.96)

    Far and away the largest chunk of workers in this field have associate’s degrees (45%). Although nuclear medicine technologists are not included in the Georgetown report, associate’s degree holders among a larger subset of workers, diagnostic related technologists and technicians, earn $2.2 million in their lifetimes, compared to $2.4 million among bachelor’s degree grads.

    4. Nuclear Technicians ($32.85)

    The first non-healthcare field on our list, these workers are not to be confused with nuclear medicine technologists. Nearly 45% of these workers have an associate’s degree or some college, compared to 24% who have bachelor’s degrees and 23% who have a high school diploma or equivalent. (Note: Georgetown does not report lifetime earnings at the two-year level for nuclear technicians).

    More than a third of fewer than 9,000 nuclear technicians in the U.S. work in two specific industries — electric power distribution and fossil fuel electric power generation.

    5. Diagnostic Medical Sonographers ($31.83)

    Similar to No. 3 on our list, nuclear medicine technologists, 45% of workers in this field have an associate’s degree.

    This field has seen a 63% increase in jobs since 2001, from 34,752 to an estimated 56,514. And it’s projected to grow another 12% from 2012-2015.

    6. Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technicians ($29.48)

    Only 23% of these workers have associate’s degree, but another 33% have some college/no degree, which is why the typical education needed to enter this occupation (as assigned by the BLS) is an associate’s degree.

    Unlike the previous occupations on this list, the job market for aerospace techs isn’t so rosy. Employment in this field declined 16% from 2001-2012 (with the bulk of the jobs losses from 2001-2003 and 2008-2010). It’s projected to decline by 2% from 2012-2015.

    7. Engineering Technicians, Except Drafters, All Other ($28.54)

    Like aerospace technicians, more than half of these workers (56%) have either an associate’s degree or some college/no degree. But unlike the above occupation, this field is growing: employment increased 5% from 2001-2012 and is projected to go up 4% from 2012-2015.

    8. Respiratory Therapists ($27.04)

    A whopping 56% of respiratory therapists hold an associate’s degree, followed by 24% with a bachelor’s degree. The lifetimes earnings, as reported by Georgetown, are the same as for radiation therapists: $2.1 million for both degree levels.

    This is one of the strongest-performing associate’s degree occupations. The U.S. had 28% more respiratory therapists in 2012 than in 2001, and the field is projected to grow 8% through 2015.

    Note: This list doesn’t include the many high-paying jobs available through vocational technical education. Plumbers, electricians, welders — and an array of other skilled trades — often offer better wages than bachelor’s degree-required fields. See our piece on the aging skilled trades workforce here.

    Joshua Wright is an editor at EMSI, an Idaho-based economics firm that provides data and analysis to workforce boards, economic development agencies, higher education institutions, and the private sector. He manages the EMSI blog and is a freelance journalist. Contact him here.

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    Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

    Hope came in the form of World War I. Congress authorized the construction of the Wilson dam on the Tennessee River to power an ammunition factory. But the war ended shortly after the project was completed.

    Henry Ford declared he would invest millions of dollars, employ one million men, and build a city 75 miles long in the region if the government would only give him the whole complex for $5 million. Though taxpayers had already sunk more than $40 million into the project, President Harding and Congress, believing the government should not be in the business of economic development, were inclined to accept.

    George Norris, a progressive senator, attacked the deal and proposed instead that it become a public power utility. Though he was from Nebraska, he was on the agriculture committee and regularly visited the Tennessee Valley. Staying in the unlit shacks of its poor residents, he became sympathetic to their situation. Knowing that Ford was looking to produce electricity and fertilizer that were profitable, not cheap, Norris believed Ford would behave as a monopolist. If approved, Norris warned, the project would be the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.” Three years later Norris had defeated Ford in the realms of public opinion and in Congress.

    Over the next 10 years, Norris mobilized the progressive movement to support his sweeping vision of agricultural modernization by the federal government. In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

    The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

    By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

    Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

    The Rejection of the State and Cheap Energy

    Just a decade later, as Vietnam descended into quagmire, left-leaning intellectuals started denouncing TVA-type projects as part of the American neocolonial war machine. The TVA’s fertilizer factories had previously produced ammunition; its nuclear power stations came from bomb making. The TVA wasn’t ploughshares from swords, it was a sword in a new scabbard. In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described modern agriculture as a war on nature. The World Bank, USAID, and even the Peace Corps with its TVA-type efforts were, in the writings of Noam Chomsky, mere fig leaves for an imperialistic resource grab. 

    Where Marx and Marxists had long viewed industrial capitalism, however terrible, as an improvement over agrarian feudalism, the New Left embraced a more romantic view. Before the arrival of “progress” and “development,” they argued, small farmers lived in harmony with their surroundings. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, economist E.F. Schumacher dismissed the soil erosion caused by peasant farmers as “trifling in comparison with the devastations caused by gigantic groups motivated by greed, envy, and the lust for power.” Anthropologists like Yale University’s James Scott narrated irrigation, road-building, and electrification efforts as sinister, Foucauldian impositions of modernity on local innocents. 

    With most rivers in the West already dammed, US and European environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the International Rivers Network tried to stop, with some success, the expansion of hydroelectricity in India, Brazil and elsewhere. It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear. “Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” 

    Elaborate justifications were offered as to why poor people in other countries wouldn't benefit from cheap electricity, fertilizer and roads in the same way the good people of the Tennessee Valley had. Biomass (eg, wood burning), solar and efficiency “do not carry with them inappropriate cultural patterns or values.” In a 1977 interview, Amory Lovins added: “The whole point of thinking along soft path lines is to do whatever it is you want to do using as little energy — and other resources — as possible.” 

    By the time of the United Nations Rio environment conference in 1992, the model for “sustainable development” was of small co-ops in the Amazon forest where peasant farmers and Indians would pick nuts and berries to sell to Ben and Jerry’s for their “Rainforest Crunch” flavor. A year later, in Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote, “Power grids themselves are no longer necessarily desirable.” Citing Schumacher, he suggested they might even be “inappropriate” for the Third World.

    Over the next 20 years environmental groups constructed economic analyses and models purporting to show that expensive intermittent renewables like solar panels and biomass-burners were in fact cheaper than grid electricity. The catch, of course, was that they were cheaper because they didn’t actually deliver much electricity. Greenpeace and WWF hired educated and upper-middle class professionals in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg to explain why their countrymen did not need new power plants but could just be more efficient instead.

    When challenged as to why poor nations should not have what we have, green leaders respond that we should become more like poor nations. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that developed economies should adopt “appropriate technology” like those used in poor countries and return to small-scale agriculture. One “bonus” that comes with climate change, Naomi Klein says, is that it will require in the rich world a “type of farming [that] is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture.” 

    And so the Left went from viewing cheap energy as a fundamental human right and key to environmental restoration to a threat to the planet and harmful to the poor. In the name of “appropriate technology” the revamped Left rejected cheap fertilizers and energy. In the name of democracy it now offers the global poor not what they want — cheap electricity — but more of what they don’t want, namely intermittent and expensive power. 

    From Anti-Statism to Neo-Liberalism

    At the heart of this reversal was the Left’s growing suspicion of both centralized energy and centralized government. Libertarian conservatives have long concocted elaborate counterfactuals to suggest that the TVA and other public electrification efforts actually slowed the expansion of access to electricity. By the early 1980s, progressives were making the same claim. In 1984, William Chandler of the WorldWatch Institute would publish the “The Myth of the TVA,” which claimed that 50 years of public investment had never provided any development benefit whatsoever. In fact, a new analysis by economists at Stanford and Berkeley, Patrick Klein and Enrico Moretti, find that the "TVA boosted national manufacturing productivity by roughly 0.3 percent and that the dollar value of these productivity gains exceeded the program's cost."

    Even so, today's progressives signal their sophistication by dismissing statist solutions. Environmentalists demand that we make carbon-based energy more expensive, in order to "harness market forces" to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Global development agencies increasingly reject state-sponsored projects to build dams and large power plants in favor of offering financing to private firms promising to bring solar panels and low-power "microgrids" to the global poor — solutions that might help run a few light bulbs and power cell phones but offer the poor no path to the kinds of high-energy lifestyles Western environmentalists take for granted.

    Where senators Norris and Gore Sr. understood that only the government could guarantee cheap energy and fertilizers for poor farmers, environmental leaders today seek policy solutions that give an outsized role to investment banks and private utilities. If the great leap backward was from statist progressivism to anarcho-primitivism, it was but a short step sideways to green neoliberalism.

    But if developed-world progressives, comfortably ensconced in their own modernity, today reject the old progressive vision of cheap, abundant, grid electricity for everyone, progressive modernizers in the developing world are under no such illusion. Whether socialists, state capitalists, or, mostly, some combination of the two, developing world leaders like Brazil’s Lula da Silva understand that cheap grid electricity is good for people and good for the environment. That modern energy and fertilizers increase crop yields and allow forests to grow back. That energy poverty causes more harm to the poor than global warming. They view cheap energy as a public good and a human right, and they are well on their way to providing electricity to every one of their citizens. 

    The TVA and all modernization efforts bring side effects along with progress. Building dams requires evicting people from their land and putting ecosystems underwater. Burning coal saves trees but causes air pollution and global warming. Fracking for gas prevents coal burning but it can pollute the water. Nuclear energy produces not emissions but toxic waste and can result in major industrial accidents. Nevertheless, these are problems that must be dealt with through more modernization and progress, not less.

    Viewed through this lens, climate change is a reason to accelerate rather than slow energy transitions. The 1.3 billion who lack electricity should get it. It will dramatically improve their lives, reduce deforestation, and make them more resilient to climate impacts. The rest of us should move to cleaner sources of energy — from coal to natural gas, from natural gas to nuclear and renewables, and from gasoline to electric cars — as quickly as we can. This is not a low-energy program, it is a high-energy one. Any effort worthy of being called progressive, liberal, or environmental, must embrace a high-energy planet.

    Shellenberger and Nordhaus are co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, a leading environmental think tank in the United States. They are authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

    This piece originally appeared at

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  • 06/28/13--22:38: Angry Young Men
  • “'Angry young men' lack optimism.” This was the title of a BBC News story earlier this year, exploring the deeply pessimistic views that some young working class British hold about their own future. Two-thirds of the young men from families of skilled or semi-skilled workers, for example, never expect to own their own home. Angry young men, this time of immigrant origin, were also recently identified as the group causing riots in Swedish suburbs such as Husby. As Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt noted, the riots were started by a core of “angry young men who think they can change society with violence”.

    The social unrest occurring in Western Europe is often ascribed to the lack of integration into society among immigrants. It is true that dependency of public handouts rather than self-reliance has become endemic in Europe’s well‑entrenched and extensive welfare states. In Norway for example, the employment rate of immigrants from Asia is only 55 percent, compared to 70 percent for the non-immigrant population. Amongst African immigrants the figure is merely 43 percent.  In neighboring Sweden, a recent government report noted that the employment rate of Somalians was merely 21 percent. This can be compared to 46 percent in Canada and 54 percent in the US for the same group. The low incentives for transitioning from welfare to work in Sweden and Norway compared to in Canada and the US explain at least part of this difference.

    But a failure of integration is hardly the sole explanation for the social unrest which extends well beyond immigrant youth. Why not add another relevant perspective to the puzzle, namely the increasing marginalization that some young men feel across the continent? This frustration is hardly an excuse for violence, but relates to important social phenomena which deserve to be explored, and targeted with the right policies.

    Youthful exclusion from the labor market constitutes a major challenge to European economies. Unemployment for European youth is in many countries more than twice the level of adult workers. The youth unemployment in advanced economies is, according to the International Labour Organization, estimated at an average level of 18 percent. Some countries, such as Switzerland, Austria and Germany, fare relatively well with a rate below ten percent. In others, such as the UK, France and Sweden, around one in five of the youth is unemployed. In Spain and Greece the share recently peaked at a rate of one in two.

    It is hardly news that youth who face unemployment have a tendency to become angry, and to translate this anger to violence. What has become increasingly evident is how much this situation pertains particularly to men. 

    To begin with we can see that a number of societal trends in particular favor women’s career opportunities. Girls tend to perform better in school, regardless of class, place of residence or ethnicity. Young women also, not only in developed countries but even globally, now constitute the majority of students in higher education. Another important change which in particular benefits women’s career opportunities is urbanization. Large cities attract talented young people like magnets. The attraction tends to be greatest for young women, who find employment and opportunities for entrepreneurship in the sprawling service sectors. Men who remain behind in less densely populated areas sometimes struggle to find both work and a spouse.

    As a whole, we have little reason to feel sorry for men in the labor market. Since women still take the primary responsibility for children and family, men can on average invest much more time on their careers and thus more often reach the top. But while some men succeed, others fall behind. Men end up dominating not only the top of society but also the bottom. After having failed in school, many men face rejection in both the labor market and the marriage market. They are left with little in terms of social capital, in terms of valuable know-how and established social networks.

    One reason for why frustration grows is that for men the link between success in work and success in finding a partner is very strong. Men without higher education for example face a higher chance of never becoming a parent, whilst men with higher degrees face the lowest chance (the relation is the opposite for women, where the individuals with higher education face the highest risk of remaining childless).  Extreme opinions, racism and violence are not uncommon among young men who feel they have little chance of making their way in society.

    We should of course stress individual responsibility. But awareness of the alienation felt by some young men has the danger of morphing into a considerable long-term problem, even in wealthy European nations. In previous generations, a considerable amount of “simple jobs" existed in manufacturing, forestry, agriculture and the like which were suited for young individuals with limited education. Today, such jobs are far less available.

    Part of the explanation is that technological changes and increasing global competition are pushing the labor market towards higher degree of specialization. Another reason is that policies in many modern countries, due in part to bureaucratic regulation, work to slow industrial development. Although industrial job growth is clearly possible and very promising in developed nations, many politicians wrongly believe that new industry has no future in rich Europe.

    The lacking interest to open up for growth in manufacturing is combined with the fact that education systems in countries such as the UK and Sweden are not good at encouraging students with low academic interest to ready themselves for manufacturing and other technical jobs – the situation is much different in for example Germany and Switzerland, with promising apprentice systems. In addition a strong social stigma has begun to become associated with not having a higher degree. This prompts individuals to choose even university courses that aid them little if any on the labor market, rather than take available simple jobs and climb the career ladder by developing practical knowledge.   

    Frustrated young men should never be excused in their acts of violence. But we must take their lack of hope seriously. Both policies and the education system should be reformed, so that the simple entry-level jobs that are suited for young men who lack academic skills or interest are opened up. Such policies would as an added bonus boost growth, employment and in particular benefit smaller cities and rural regions. We surely need ample policies to boost women’s’ career opportunities and entrepreneurship, but we should also recognize the challenges tied to the increasing marginalization for the men who feel little hope of progressing in society by following the rules.

    Dr. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish author of Kurdish-Iranian origin. He has written two books about womens carreer opportunities in Sweden, and is upcoming with the report “The Equality Dilemma” for Finnish think-tank Libera.

    Husby riot photo by Wiki Commons user Telefonkiosk.

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  • 06/30/13--22:38: Beware the Herbivore Effect
  • In the 1980s, American commentators and best-selling authors repeatedly sought to convince companies and workers to be more "Japanese." After all, for two generations, the men of Japan, supported by their wives, constituted a fearsome force – first, in the run up to the Second World War, then during the economic "miracle" that drove that small island nation toward the pinnacle of global economic power.

    Yet, today, Japan's latest generation of men appears lacking the fierce ambition that drove their fathers, much less their grandfathers. The term commonly used for this new generation of Japanese is "herbivores," a play on the word for plant-eating animals generally known for their docility. And, instead of embracing what the new generation is doing in Japan, we should look at our young people and think: God forbid.

    Growing up in a period of tepid economic growth, a declining labor market and a loss of overall competitiveness, Japan's "herbivores" are more interested in comics, computer games and socializing through the Internet than building a career or even seeking out the opposite sex. Among males ages 16-19, 36 percent in one survey expressed no interest in sex, and some even despised it.

    Not that women are waiting breathlessly for male stirrings: Disinterest is even higher – 59 percent – for females in the same age category. The percentage of sexually active female university students, according to the Japanese Association for Sex Education, has fallen from 60 percent in 2005 to 47 percent last year. There's a bigger issue here than overly tame libidos, suggests sociologist Mika Toyota. Once-critical interpersonal familial ties are being replaced by more ad hoc relationships based on common interests.

    One indication of this breakdown in family ties has been a gradual loss of interest in marriage, among men but at least as much so among women. By 2010, a third of Japanese women entering their 30s were single, as were roughly one in five of those entering their 40s. That's roughly eight times the percentage in 1960, and twice that in 2000. By 2030, according to sociologist Toyota, almost one in three Japanese males may be unmarried by age 50.

    Such attitudes, one Osaka blogger observed, indicate that many young people, particularly women, sense "an unwillingness to throw away the freedoms of single life to comply with the strict societal demands accompanying co-habitation or marriage."

    Herbivores, it appears, are less likely to marry. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can do his best imitation of President Obama's loose money policies, pumping trillions of yen into his economy, but bigger civilizational forces appear to be at play. Demographics are more intractable than short-term markets. The herbivorization of Japan can't be good news in a country that suffers from a plunging marriage rate, a declining workforce and a fertility rate so low that adult diapers outsell those for babies.

    Could the same process occur here? Are young American males following the path to herbivore pastures? There are some disturbing parallel trends. The onset of the Great Recession has slowed fertility in the United States, the one large high-income country with fertility rates historically above replacement levels, down to the lowest levels in a quarter century. Despite a rise in population of 27 million Americans, there were actually fewer births in 2010 than there were 10 years earlier.

    The herbivore effect can be seen in the postponing among younger Americans of both marriage and having children, according to a recent Pew Foundation study. As in Japan, a weak economy plays a role. The recession, and the weak recovery, has had a disproportionate impact on young people: Almost two in five unemployed workers are ages 20-34.

    There are other disturbing parallels. Young Americans are increasingly embracing what European scholar Angelique Jansenns described as "the deinstitutionalization of marriage" and "the emancipation of individual members from the family." Although more than 70 percent of U.S. millennials want to get married, nearly half believe the institution is becoming "obsolete." No surprise, then, that a growing proportion of American children born today – and a majority born to women ages 20-24 – are to unwed mothers.

    Another apparent casualty here is entrepreneurship, the very thing that characterized boomers and the successor Generation X. Boomers, while now in their 50s and 60s, are still at it, but start-up rates among young people are getting weaker even as boomers continue to start new ventures. No longer can we take as a given that entrepreneurial activity is associated with the young.

    "Millennials have been raised in ways that make them feel very pressured by the need to succeed," observe generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais. "They see life as a series of hoops to be jumped through, starting with getting into the right preschool, all the way to graduating from the right college. Such a view of the world makes them very afraid to fail on their own and, therefore, very risk averse."

    Some see this age of unambition as a positive. There is a devout "progressive" picture of millennials who don't buy houses, cars or don't fret much about getting on with their lives. Some of this may be attributable to cascading student debt but some see the emergence of a higher generational consciousness.

    The environmental magazine Grist sees "a hero generation" that will avoid the pain and suffering that comes with trying to overcome a tough economy. They will transcend the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents. "We know the financial odds are stacked against us and, instead of trying to beat them, we'd rather give the finger to the whole rigged system," the millennial author concludes.

    Anyone over age 40 will tell you how that strategy likely will work out.

    Yet, I, for one, have not given up. As the new generation begins to face the realities of growing up, Winograd and Hais suggest, they will begin to move away from the "herbivore" model. After all, despite the claims like those in Grist, most millennials, particularly those entering their 30s, want to own a home, with more than three times as many eyeing the suburbs as their ultimate destination as the big city.

    Fortunately, our millennials are not stuck in a narrow, expensive homogeneous country, like Japan. If our native-born young people lack sufficient moxie, newcomers from Mumbai, Mexico City, Seoul or Shanghai will show them the way – or the way to the unemployment office. And when millennials get around to buying homes, there are many places – perhaps not always Southern California – that can accommodate them.

    Like their boomer parents – who endured the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years – reality has a way of reawakening the carnivorous spirit of young Americans. This had better happen, anyway, if America is to remain competitive.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

    This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

    Illustration by Timothy Takemoto.

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    The latest data (2011) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) indicates that violent crime continued to decline in both the suburbs and historical cores of major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000 residents). Since 2001, the rates of decline have been similar, but contrary to media reports, the decline has been slightly greater in the suburbs than in the historical cores. Moreover, despite the preliminary report of a slight increase in the violent crime rate at the national level in 2012, substantial progress has been made in making the nation safer over the past 20 years.

    Major Metropolitan Area Trends

    The FBI website includes complete data on 48 of the 51 major metropolitan areas for 2011 (2012 data are not yet available for metropolitan areas). The FBI notes that the data collection methodology for the city of Chicago and the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul is inconsistent with UCR guidelines and as a result, the FBI does not include information for these jurisdictions. No data is reported for Providence.

    Among these 48 major metropolitan areas, the violent crime rate was 433 (offenses per 100,000 population known to the police), approximately 10% above the national rate of 392 in 2011. The violent crime rate in the historical core municipalities, or urban core (See Suburbanized Core Cities) was 911 offenses per 100,000 population. In the suburbs, which consist of all municipalities not comprising the historical cores, the violent rate was 272 offenses per 100,000 population. Thus, the urban core violent crime rate was 3.3 times the suburban violent crime rate (Figure 1).

    A comparison of the urban core and suburban crime rates by historical core municipality classification further illustrates the lower crime rates generally associated with more suburban areas. The violent crime rates in the more suburban urban cores are generally lower (Table 1). 

    • Among metropolitan areas with “Post-War & Suburban Core Cities,” the urban core violent crime rate in 2011 was 2.2 times that of the suburbs. This would include core cities such as Phoenix, San Jose, Austin and others that became large metropolitan areas only after World War II and the broad expansion of automobile ownership and detached, low density housing.
    • In the metropolitan areas with “Pre-War & Suburban Core Cities,” the urban core violent crime rate was 3.1 times that of the suburbs. These would include core cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Milwaukee, which combine a denser pre-war inner city with large swaths of post-World War II suburban development within their borders.
    • The greatest difference was in the metropolitan areas with “Pre-War & Non Suburban Core Cities,” where the urban core violent crime rate was 4.4 times that of the suburbs. These would include such core cities as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and others, which had large areas of high density and significant central business districts before World War II, and which, even today, have little post-World War II suburban development within their borders.

    Violent Crimes Reported per 100,000 Population In Major Metropolitan Areas
    Historcial Core Municipality Classification Metropolitan Area Urban Core Suburbs Urban Core Times Suburbs Crime Rate
    Pre-War Core & Non-Suburban 436 1,181 273 4.3
    Pre-War Core & Suburban 443 821 265 3.1
    Post War Suburban Core 398 642 294 2.2
    48 Major Metropolitan Areas 433 911 272 3.3
    No data for Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Providence


    Suburban and Urban Core Trends: 10 Years

    Over the past decade, violent crime fell both in the suburbs and the urban cores. Among the 36 major metropolitan areas for which complete and comparable data is provided on the FBI website, the violent crime rate fell an average of 25.8 percent between 2001 and 2011. Urban core violent crime rates were down 22.7 percent, while suburb violent crime rates were down a slightly less 26.7 percent (Figure 2).

    Reconciling Differences with Other Analyses

    Other analyses have noted that urban core crime rates are declining faster than in the suburbs. The differences between this and other analyses are due to the use of different time periods, different metropolitan area sets, and most importantly, profoundly more limited definitions of the suburbs.

    An article in The Wall Street Journal raising concerns about suburban crime rates was based on an FBI analysis of all metropolitan areas, not just major metropolitan areas and covered 2001 to 2010. Crucially, the FBI classifies much of suburbia as not being suburbs. The FBI defines suburbs generally as any municipality in a metropolitan area with fewer than 50,000 residents as well as areas patrolled by county law enforcements agencies. Non-core municipalities with their own law enforcement that have 50,000 or more residents are not considered suburbs, regardless of their location in the metropolitan area. This would mean, for example, that Pomona would not be considered a suburb, despite its location 30 miles from Los Angeles City Hall, on the very edge of the metropolitan area, simply because it has more than 50,000 residents. As a result, the crime rates in “cities” versus suburbs cannot be determined by simply comparing FBI geographical classifications.

    A Brookings Institution report reported suburban violent crime rates to be dropping more slowly than in “primary cities,” which are a subset of the “principal cities” defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Many of these primary cities are virtually all post-World War II suburban in form. These include, for example, Mesa, Arizona, Arlington, Texas and Aurora, Colorado, each of which had fewer than 10,000 residents in 1950 and are virtually exclusively the low-density, automobile oriented suburban development forms that would be found in nearby Tempe, Grand Prairie, and Centennial, which are defined as “suburban” in the Brookings classification. The Brookings report looked at major metropolitan areas as well as smaller metropolitan areas and covered a longer period (1990 to 2008).

    OMB, which defines metropolitan areas, does not designate any geography as suburban. OMB specifically excluded “suburban” terminology from its 2000 metropolitan area criteria. Instead, in recognition of the increasing polycentricity of metropolitan areas, OMB began designating “principal cities.” Except for the largest city in a metropolitan area, principal cities are defined by the strength of their employment markets, and are generally suburban employment centers, not urban cores. In defining its metropolitan area criteria for the 2000 census, OMB recognized  that the monocentric city (metropolitan area) had given way to an urban form with multiple employment centers, located throughout the metropolitan area.

    OMB’s principal cities may be located anywhere in the area, without any relationship to the urban core. Rather than a single core city in a metropolitan area, OMB has designated up to 25 principal cities in a single metropolitan area.

    The National Trend

    The metropolitan area crime reductions are consistent with a now two-decade trend of substantially improving crime rates. This is despite preliminary data recently released by the FBI in June indicating a reversal of the trend for 2012. The FBI reported violent that violent crime increased 1.2 percent. With a 0.7 population increase from 2011 to 2012, the US violent crime rate would increase to 394 per 100,000 residents, from 392 in 2011. Metropolitan area data for 2012 is not yet available.

    This increase in crime rates should be a matter of concern. The 2012 violent crime rate increase is, hopefully, only a blip in a decline that will soon resume. The violent crime rate has declined eighteen of the last 21 years. Since 1991, the violent crime rate has dropped by nearly half (48.3%).

    This is in stark contrast with the previous 30 years, during which the violent crime rate increased in all but five years. By 1991, the violent crime rate had increased 3.7 times from 1961. By 2012, the national violent crime rate had fallen to the lowest level since 1970 (Figure 3).

    Why Has the Crime Rate Declined?

    There are multiple theories about the causes of the crime rate reduction. The late James Q. Wilson, who with George Kelling advanced the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, offered a number of additional reasons for the fact that crime rates remained much lower, even during the Great Recession, in a Wall Street Journal commentary. The earliest and best publicized improvements in crime rates occurred under New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s. Kelling and others (such as Hope Corman of Rider University and Naci Mocan of Louisiana State University) attribute much of the crime rate improvement in New York City to the “broken windows” deterrence strategies.

    The substantial decline in violent crime rates, in the nation, metropolitan areas, suburbs and urban cores, are an important success story. Yet, crime rates can never be too low. It can only be hoped that future years will see even greater reductions.

    Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

    Crime scene photo by Alan Cleaver.

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  • 07/02/13--22:38: The Hall of Gimmicks
  • Occasional Urbanophile contributor Robert Munson has talked about how Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was among the first to recognize that there was a “taxpayer strike” in America. That is, given the breakdown in the social contract in our cities, taxpayers were increasingly unwilling to pour money down a rat hole.

    Localities have also been in a fiscal vice as their tax receipts have collapsed thanks to the Great Recession and especially the decline in housing values, while at the same time the chickens are coming home to roost from the accumulated unfunded liabilities that had been racked up from sweetheart pension deals and the like.

    And state and federal retrenchment have cut into municipal budgets. Aid to municipalities is easy to cut. Also, it’s easy for states to make municipalities bear the brunt of tax caps and other disempowerment items since living with them is Somebody Else’s Problem for state office holders. And most states radically under-empowered local governments to begin with.

    Combine these and there’s little room to maneuver for many cities and mayors. They are hemmed in on all sides. So what do they do? Unsurprisingly, they’ve increasingly turned to gimmicks, especially in bigger cities that have the talent firepower to dream them up.

    Exhibit A is parking meter lease in Chicago. It generated $1.2 billion in “free money” for Mayor Daley to use to paper over deficits, but at a huge long term cost. We’ve seen all sorts of other “public-private partnership” type deals that accomplish similar things. Many of these are not per se problematic – I’m a fan of privatization done right, for example – but the details can be troublesome when you examine them.

    One common complaint I hear in places like Chicago and Indy is the abuse of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Without a doubt TIF has been abused in a number of cases. But what critics fail to take into account is that TIF is one of the few tools left in the civic toolbox that can actually raise real money.

    Let’s say we are all opposed to gimmicky privatization deals and TIF to raise money. Now let’s ask the question: how are our cities supposed to pay to rebuild their obsolete infrastructure like pothole-ridden streets that, even if they were already pristine, don’t meet modern 21st century demands? This is a real liability of the city, accrued over the years as previous generations failed to keep up with maintenance and such. Absent gimmicks, how is this supposed to be funded? And if the answer is don’t fund it, then how is a completely run down, dilapidated city with creaky services supposed to retain choice consumers who can easily pull up stakes and move to a new suburb or other part of the country that doesn’t have these problems? It’s easy to criticize, but solutions are needed.

    Munson thinks that we need to have accountability reforms so that the public will be convinced to open their wallets and invest. I agree this is critical. I personally have no desire to pour any more of my money into the local treasury until I can see that I’m going to get some return on it. And there’s evidence that the public will spend if you can demonstrate that. Capital bonds and actual tax increases for things like schools, transit systems, stadiums, and even cultural facilities have frequently passed across America when there’s assurance that the money is ring-fenced. When people know that they can vote for a tax and get something tangible for it, even something as dubious as a stadium, they can be convinced to vote for it. But more money for fewer and worse services is a loser every time.

    The problem is that the state controls the fiscal levers. Therefore there’s no guarantee that even if a city got its house in order, it would even be permitted to ask its residents for more money. Also, too many local leaders are beholden to special interests and so are unlikely candidates to deliver reform anyway. Paddy Bauler eloquently summed up this mindset when he famously said, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” Sadly, this remains true in all too many places.

    So while the use of gimmicks may be distasteful (and even destructive in the long term at times), we should expect more of it since the incentives are all aligned to produce this outcome. Those cities that do manage to reform, and get state support for the type of legal framework the need to operate (as called for in The Metropolitan Revolution) will be the ones that end up with long term success.

    Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

    Chicago parking meter photo by Ed Fisher.

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    Concerned citizens of California are already familiar with the undue political influence of California’s prison guard union. According to Tim Kowal of the Orange County Federalist Society, the union raises $23 million dollars per year and spends $8 million of it lobbying. As a result, the state has found it impossible to engage in meaningful reform of its correctional system. The union helped defeat a 1999 bill allowing alternative sentencing to select parole offenders and attempts in 2000 and 2008 to provide substance abuse treatment for nonviolent drug users as a substitute for prison sentences. Such laws remain on the books that keep nonviolent criminals in prison, keeping prison guards in high demand with enviable job security.

    Experience shows that when public sector unions become powerful, they can influence the democratic process to secure promises of future benefits. These benefits are ubiquitous; a recent investigation uncovered that many Chicago police officers are eligible to receive annual six figure pensions upon retiring at age 50. In no way are these promises in the public interest. And the real fiscal crisis in America, at the state and local level, looms in states where public sector unions are out of control.

    Unions want more benefits and politicians would rather not incur the wrath of their constituents by raising taxes. To serve both masters, politicians incur more debt. But off the books, they also make completely unrealistic promises about retiree health benefits and pension plans. The promises are known as an unfunded liability – a promise to pay without a source of funds attached to it. Our research, “The Public Sector ‘Union’ Effect: Pushing up Unfunded Pension Liabilities and State Debt” published by The Beacon Hill Institute, establishes a convincing link between the strength of public sector unions and both public failures.

    For California, for instance, we attribute 42.8% of state and local debt to unions. This amounts to $173 billion dollars. We arrived at this conclusion by finding that, after controlling for other factors, a one percentage point increase in membership in public sector unions will lead to an increase in state and local debt by $78 per person. So, if the percentage of public sector employees increases from five to six percent, then we predict that public debt would eventually increase by $78 times the population of the state.

    In California, 58.7% of public sector employees are unionized – it isn’t even the most unionized state. The states in which public debt is most attributable to unions are Iowa (55.2% of their debt), Montana (54.3%), and Michigan (54.2%). The states which can least credibly attribute their fiscal problems to unions are Virginia (10.3%), South Carolina (11.8%), and North Carolina (12.8%).

    But this is only side of the problem. Unfunded liabilities are not included in these figures. The Pew Center on the States has elsewhere analyzed how well states are managing their public pensions and retiree health care benefits. For each of these, Pew rated states as a “Solid Performer,” “Needs Improvement,” or has having “Serious Concerns.”  California was one of several states to have “Serious Concerns” for both.

    There was only one state rated by Pew as having both liabilities under control, Wisconsin. To accomplish that, Governor Scott Walker expended a great deal of political capital to limit unions, and paid for it by nearly being recalled.

    To critically analyze this, we constructed an index out of Pew’s two ratings. For each unfunded liability, we assigned a “0” for states with “Serious Concerns,” a “1” for “Needs Improvement,” and a “2” for “Solid Performer” Then, we summed the two ratings together. States like California that are performing poorly in both have a total score of 0 in the index. Wisconsin received a total score of 4. Any state that receives a total score of 0 or 1 is poorly managing its liabilities.

    More detail is available in the paper, but one way of summarizing our results is this: After controlling for other relevant factors, a one percentage point increase the proportion of public sector employees who are unionized makes it one percent more likely for the state to receive a total score of 0 or 1. This demonstrates the link between unfunded liabilities and pressure from unions.

    The combination of high public debt and the specter of a drastic increase in costs to pay for retiree benefits constitute a recipe for disaster. If the issue is ignored, states like California will experience problems very similar to what European countries like Greece and Spain are now experiencing. Similar austerity measures would mean cuts to basic services and the highest state tax rates seen in US history to avoid bankruptcy.

    Responsible citizens and politicians should recognize the lethal pairing of high debt and poorly funded pension plans. And there is a clear relationship between poor state performance and the power of public sector unions. Engaging in real reform, as was accomplished in Wisconsin, may be politically costly, but it is the best path to allow democracy to function effectively once more.

    Ryan Murphy, PhD, is a research associate at the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University.

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    When a city bankrupts itself on the debt service of municipal bonds that were issued to keep some local pro team from bolting, residents and fans get the worst of both worlds. Losing teams and crippling interest payments are the signatures of bad deals in Cincinnati, Miami, Phoenix, and Cleveland, which collectively have taken on more than $1 billion in stadium debt to keep the Bengals, Marlins, Cardinals, and Browns in their loss columns.

    Nor, nationally, is the debt burden more manageable. According to Bloomberg, American taxpayers are on the hook for $4 billion in stadium subsidies of the total $17 billion outstanding in bonds, which only mean jobs for ushers, investment bankers, parking lot attendants, and team owners.

    The major-league losers are the municipalities. Hostage to the private fortunes of professional teams, these cities are saddled with billion dollar white-elephant stadiums that, in some cases, get used 20 days a year.

    Most new billion-dollar stadiums do nothing for city neighborhoods. For example, the new stadiums of the Yankees and Cowboys (price tag $3 billion) might as well be on offshore islands, for all that they contribute to neighborhood development.

    Nor can most local fans afford the prices to the big-league games. In many venues, tickets and hot dogs for a family can cost hundreds of dollars. Major league baseball publications say a family of four can go to a game for $62, although it must define “go to” as the cost of parking.

    To level the playing fields of major-league oligopoly, here are few ideas for professional sports that put fans and cities first:

    Create a city league: Given that the World Series is named after a New York newspaper, not the globe itself, I propose a City Series that will group each city’s sport franchises into a formula that can be ranked alongside the results of other cities.

    For example, into this formula for New York would go the results of the Mets, Yankees, Giants, Jets, Rangers, Islanders, Knicks, and Nets, and each time a team won or lost a game, the city ranking would change. Newspapers and web sites could track the city standings (with appropriate credit to New Geography, of course).

    The calculation would have to take into account that Cincinnati only has the Bengals and Reds, and that Los Angeles is without a football team. Green Bay and Milwaukee might pool their resources. Divisions could be created around the number of teams in a city.

    One simple way to rank each city might be according to the average winning percentage of each professional team (weighted by the number of games they play each season). This would prevent big cities from being favored over smaller ones. Perhaps the Super Bowl could be awarded to the winning city?

    Handicap the standings in each city according to population size, so that New York is not given an unfair advantage over Kansas City.

    The goal would be to show at the end of each year which American city is the best at professional sports, and to give incentive to teams, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Charlotte Bobcats, that otherwise find little reason to try at the end of their dismal seasons.

    Imagine the enthusiasm in September if the Cleveland Indians needed a few wins to boost the city average, and its opponent was the Houston Astros. Normally, such a game would draw about 4,000 fans on a cold autumn night on Lake Erie. Maybe now each game would count.

    Repeal antitrust exemptions: The reason sports teams can hold their home cities hostage — for sweetheart cable and stadium bond deals — is because Congress made the mistake of giving football and baseball exemptions from antitrust legislation. Are they such precious commodities that we need to limit competition? Under the outdated laws, the leagues, as opposed to the fans, decide which cities deserve a pro team.

    Supply and demand ought to govern the number of baseball teams, not the guild of MLB owners determined to limit supply and drive up the prices of sky boxes. Without this cabal, would the hapless New York Jets be worth an estimated $1.2 billion?

    Let the market play: With an increased supply, it would not be necessary for cities like Oakland to fear the departure of the A’s to the warmer climes of San José. The team would be free to join whichever league suited their budget and aspirations.

    Ideally, many leagues would operate like European soccer, which “relegates” those franchises at the bottom of the tables and allows improving teams to “move up” to the next level.

    In such a federation, the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals might be relegated to Triple A, while the Indianapolis Indians and Durham Bulls would move up to the majors. Right now in most major leagues, losing has no consequences, especially when revenues are shared.

    Allow pro sports to be covered as news: Because of the antitrust exemption, teams own their own broadcast rights, which they flog off to friendly networks or use to create a cable empire, as in the case of the Atlanta Braves (Turner Broadcasting, but now owned by Liberty Media).

    Under the current system the leagues regulate the video supply, which explains the monopolistic pricing that allows the Yankees to pay Alex Rodriquez $27 million a year for hitting on more starlets than fastballs.

    If, however, the results of sporting matches were treated as news (not unlike elections or town meetings), all media would be allowed to cover the games. Without the closed shop of the current arrangements, anyone with a hand-held camera could upload the action.

    In this unregulated market, team revenue would collapse in many sports, but the same money would, I believe, be spread more equally among a greater number of players and teams. All we have now is professional oligopoly.

    Flickr photo by John Dalton: The Bronx from left field at Yankee Stadium, August 2009.

    Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.

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  • 07/07/13--22:38: Suburbia's Sacred Spaces
  • From the earliest times, cities have revolved around three basic concepts – security, the marketplace and what I call "the sacred space." In contemporary America, everyone wants safe streets and a thriving economy, but what about the ethereal side, the places that makes us take note of a place and feel, in some way, a connection with its history?

    What makes up sacred space in our time is debatable. Certainly, the great churches of Europe and the mosques in the Islamic world are the most obvious symbols. In America, we have relatively few such places, but there's also the sanctity of a war memorial, a monument to a revered leader, concert hall, cherished parks or a sports facility.

    For its part, suburbia is not good at being venerable. It's not just a matter of age, notes urban analyst Aaron Renn, but also "a lack of transcendent scale." Ceremonial locations, such as New York's Times Square or Indianapolis' War Memorial, make "a statement of the permanence of this community, its people, and their values" for an entire region or even state, he notes. Such spaces tend almost always to be built in core cities.

    There is also another factor impinging on the sanctity of suburbia: its lack of permanent establishments. In most suburbs, even the most iconic businesses, notes Renn, tend to go in and out of business. Visit the suburban town that you grew up in, and many of the most cherished spots have gone. This happens in cities, too, but the presence of historic buildings, including old churches, does lend them a greater sense of permanence.

    The very notion of sacred space in suburbia has long seemed absurd to urban theorists, who have regarded suburbia as a hellish place with little in the way of permanency or transcendence. In 1921, Lewis Mumford described the emerging suburbia around New York as a "dissolute landscape ... a no-man's land which was neither town or country." Decades later, architect Peter Blake intemperately declared in "God's Own Junkyard" that the suburban pattern developing in the United States is "making life there only slightly less tolerable than on tenement streets."

    Yet, ironically, if the greatest "sacred spaces" are in the core cities, those who seek the transcendent are increasingly found far from the dense urban centers, particularly on the East Coast. The most religious cities, according to one recent study, are lower-density areas such as Salt Lake City, Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Oklahoma City.

    Overall, suburbs tend to be not only where the megachurches are, but increasingly also where the new mosques, Hindu temples and ethnic Christian churches tend to cluster. In contrast, many urban churches in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Minneapolis often are empty, or even abandoned.

    One trend-setter here is San Francisco– perhaps the ultimate mecca of the secularized "creative class" – where a large former Catholic church, now shuttered, is being turned into an art academy. In many cities, such as ultra-secular Seattle, religious structures are being routinely refashioned into high-end condos and loft spaces.

    So, if religious folks cluster in suburbs, where there is insufficient "sacred space," urbanites live amidst spiritual and symbolic splendor, but feel very little attachment to the religions that inspired them. Indeed, the places idolized as pillars of successful urbanism – think of places like Seattle, Boston, San Francisco or Manhattan – tend to be less religious, while cities with more of a strong spiritual commitment, such as many in the South, are seen as somewhat backward.

    As the urban booster Richard Florida puts it, the shift from religious to secular values is “one part of the transition to more economically advanced societies.”

    Whether one accepts this thesis, it's pretty clear that most urbanists today have little or no use for religion. This even has crept into discussion of the urban past. Britain's Peter Hall, for example, wrote a thousand-page history, “Cities in Civilization,” with hardly any reference to religion. Religious institutions rarely appear in the writings of new urbanists, smart-growth advocates and others who tend to also disdain suburbs.

    So perhaps we need to look elsewhere than even grand church buildings or old synagogues for “sacred space.” Emphasis on historic and grand places should be supplanted with greater attention on the activities of those who worship and perform charity, even operating out of more prosaic places. When I worked in Houston after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the leading institutions helping the evacuees were not the established mainline churches, but the often vast evangelical ones, many of them housed in uninspiring barn-like structures on the suburban frontier.

    In other words, rather than focus on buildings, perhaps we should look at function. What is the most sacred thing in our lives? This could easily be a place where children can play; the parks in places like Irvine or the new Riverside County community of Eastvale, outside Ontario, serve as a kind of sacred space amidst prosaic buildings, malls and strip shopping centers. Perhaps we need to redefine continuity to be less about stylish brick and mortar and more about what animates peoples' feelings about place and their connections to it.

    This may be, in particular, the essence of suburban “sacred space.” Suburban community has its own unique iconography of recreation centers, parks and smaller religious bodies; yet, these places also constitute the connective tissue of suburbia. When UC Irvine's Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey conducted 15,000 interviews across the country, they found that, for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week goes up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status or age.

    This is something I see every day in my own San Fernando Valley suburban community. Not only are there strong ties here among neighbors, but many belong to various faith communities, ranging from African-American evangelical churches, to Armenian orthodox as well as every variety of Judaism, from reform to the ultra-religious “black hats.” For many of us, the “holy places” include the trees, which grow luxuriously here, and the many birds, small mammals and variety of insects that share space with us.

    In the end, I would argue that “sacred space” in the current context is basically about home – those places where one has lived, children have played, pets have lived out their lives and where holidays, religious or not, are shared with neighbors. Suburbia not only does not negate this kind of sacred space but, in a surprising way, nurtures it.

    In his brilliant book, “Holyland: A Suburban Memoir,” author D.J. Waldie writes about growing up in the Orange County-adjacent, suburban tract development of Lakewood. He still lives there, and believes that, for millions of Americans – like his parents – these modest communities represented something very inspiring, a place to raise children, go to church, know the neighbors.

    “I actually believe that the place where I live is, in the words of the Californian philosopher Josiah Royce, a ‘beloved community,'” Waldie said last week. “The strength of that regard, Royce thought, might be enough to form what he called an ‘intentional community' – a community of shared loyalties – even if the community is as synthetic as a tract-house suburb.”

    Lakewood, he notes, is a place that urban planners would like to have seen “bulldozed away years ago to make room for something better,” yet the people there, increasingly Latino and Asian, do not feel their suburb is the invidious thing reviled in urban-studies program or criticized by advocates of forced densification. These are places that people adhere to, Waldie says, even if the appeal is difficult for outsiders to appreciate.

    “I believe that places acquire their sacredness through this giving and taking. And with that ever-returning touch, we acquire something sacred from the place where we live. What we acquire, of course, is a home,” he suggests. “It's a question of falling in love … falling in love with the place where you are; even a place like mine … so ordinary, so commonplace, and my home.”

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

    This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

    Suburbs photo by Bigstock.

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    In May 2013, the district of Husby in suburban Stockholm, Sweden was shaken by “angry young men” engaging in destructive behavior for about 72 hours,1 including the burning of automobiles and other properties and attacks on police officers (over 30 officers were injured). The violence spread to the nearby districts of Rinkeby and Tensta as well as to other parts of Sweden.

    Husby, Rinkeby, and Tensta are located within the corporate limits of Sweden’s capital city,2 but a considerable distance from the waterfront and medieval beauty of downtown Stockholm frequented by visitors and tourists. All three communities were planned in the 1960s and completed in the mid-1970s as part of the Swedish Million Programme.  According to official Stockholm municipal statistics, resident populations in 2012 were 12,203, 15,968, and 18,494 respectively.3

    This ambitious program was approved by Sweden’s Parliament in 1965 to remedy what was then considered an acute shortage of housing. Its goal was to rapidly produce a large number of affordable housing units for the Swedish middle class while preserving nearby open space, improving traffic safety and encouraging residents to walk, ride bicycles and use transit. Planners and architects felt that in order to achieve the desired suburban “new town” environment, development and densities were to be as concentrated as possible, and all units were to be within 500 meters of the transit station.4

    The first new homes in Tensta were delivered to their initial residents in 1967, only two years after the program was approved, but the subway line, so important to the design and development of these communities, was not to be opened to traffic until 1975.

    By the 1970s, the Swedish economy had slowed considerably from its 1960s boom, and as the economy cooled, some areas outside of Stockholm where new Million Programme communities had been built suddenly had a surplus of housing. In Stockholm, production of the Million Programme units continued well into the 1970s until all planned units were completed, even though the population of Stockholm was to decline from 787,182 in 1965 to a modern low of 647,115 in 1981.

    Yet in the end, most of the residents who ended up in these units were neither middle class or of Swedish descent. In part because the Million Programme had eliminated Sweden’s shortage of housing and many of its communities were considered unsightly and undesirable by Swedes, the newly constructed units became places where waves of new immigrants to the country found a place to live. Over time these communities have become suburban ghettos for newly-arrived families and individuals, with persons of an “immigrant background” (either immigrants or the child of immigrants making up between 85% and 90% of resident population in these districts according to official statistics for 2012).  

    These areas soon became isolated from the mainstream of Swedish society. The new communities were designed to make open space accessible to their residents (ordinarily a desirable goal), but this by design disconnected from nearby older (and lower-density) subdivisions. Planners and architects for the Million Programme apparently never anticipated that their creations would become segregated to such an extent that a member of Parliament and government minister would call for some of them to be razed. Sweden’s Minister of Integration, Nyamko Sabuni, did just that in a 2009 op-ed column, when she charged that they led to “exclusion” of their residents and since many of them are badly in need of thorough renovation, some should be torn down instead.5 Indeed some Million Programme complexes outside of Stockholm have met their demise with the use of a wrecking ball.6

    Swedish planners and elected officials did learn from these mistakes. The new high-tech employment center of Kista, located adjacent to Husby, has a base of employment that never developed in the Million Programme districts, and a significantly lower percentage of immigrants (though still higher than 50%). 

    Planners and elected officials in other nations (including North America) should take notice of the Million Programme – and more-recent Smart Growth proposals – as an example of what can go badly wrong.

    The aftermath of Million Programme demonstrates the inability of elected officials and the planners and architects on their staffs to anticipate the future needs and even the demographic makeup of their constituent populations, even in a democratic nation such as Sweden. Though it was approved with wide agreement by the Parliament in 1965, it is unlikely that members of that body anticipated that Swedish middle-class families would reject the densely-developed large-scale apartment developments that the effort produced, nor that much of the wave of immigration that was to arrive on Swedish shores starting in the late 1960s and continuing for many years would end up seemingly confined and segregated in the newly-constructed communities. The problems resulting from the cheap construction methods used and a resulting need for extensive and expensive renovations in order to bring the units up to contemporary standards will require large amounts of money. The source of that funding to make those repairs has not been identified.

    Finally, the role of rail transit in these projects deserves a mention. The construction of the Stockholm subway’s Blue Line (a radial line linking all three communities with downtown Stockholm) was significantly delayed, and did not open for traffic until 1975, well after most of the new homes were occupied, even though a transit station was always intended as an integral part of each of them (prior to 1975, residents had to take buses to get downtown, or get themselves to regional rail stations some distance away).  While the subway system in general (and the Blue Line in particular) are rightly called the “world’s longest art exhibit” because of the extraordinary and diverse beauty of its underground stations, it has not prevented the isolation and economic disadvantage that the minorities living along the line have always experienced. 

    C. P. Zilliacus is a transportation engineer residing in the eastern United States.

    Translations from Swedish by the author.

    Tensta housing photo by Wikimedia Commons user Holger.Ellgaard.


    1           Dagens Nyheter, 2013-05-22, ”Det har blivit värre I Husby de senaste åren” (translates to “It Has Gotten Worse in Husby in Recent Years”)

    Dagens Nyheter (“The Daily News”) is the largest daily newspaper in Sweden.

    2           Like some U.S. cities, including Houston and Los Angeles, Stockholm annexed significant areas of mostly vacant land during the 20th Century that are now generally considered suburban due to distance from downtown and land use characteristics. 

    3           Municipal statistics for Stockholm obtained online from

    4           A Swedish-language overview of the Million Programme was written by Michael Lindqvist, 2000-05-15 “Miljonprogrammet - planeringen och uppförandet” (“Million Programme - Planning and Construction”), available online

    5           Dagens Nyheter, 2009-03-20, "Riv i miljonprogrammen för integrationens skull" (translates to "Tear Down the Million Programme Units for the Sake of Integration")

    6           For an example, see Jan Jörnmark’s photo essay of abandoned Million Programme apartment buildings in the municipality of Laxå, located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) by highway west of Husby:

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