Friday, August 22, 2014

If voter turnout is key, why is it so low? - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No matter what states try, election participation is falling. This doesn't correspond to voter ID laws, narrow voting windows, or anything else. States with vote-by-mail (Oregon) and at-will absentee voting (California) also have abysmal voting rates.
If voter turnout is key, why is it so low? - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Taken together, just 15 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots -- or 18.2 million people out of 122.8 million eligible. Turnout was 17 percentage points lower than the most recent high-water mark of 32 percent in 1966. Democrats were down 14.5 points from their 1970 high, or 20.9 percent of eligible citizens, and Republicans were down 5 points from their 1966 high of 13 percent.
Why? Because most of us know… our votes don't really count. States and districts are increasingly polarized. States are not gerrymandered, so we can't blame redistricting for partisanship in the United States Senate. When did California last have a Republican senator? If I'm voting in California for any one other than a Democrat, at the state-wide level, I'm likely not having much influence. And if I'm voting for a third-party, I definitely have no influence.
California now uses what is known as a blanket primary. Candidates from all parties are on the same ballot and the top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to the general election. The main goal is to reward candidates who can appeal as much to the center of the electorate as to the wings. 
It's too soon to draw any firm conclusions from the California experiment as to whether it produces more moderate candidates, but there have been no dramatic changes so far, while turnout has been dismal.
I'd support a single, nation-wide, open primary, ideally the first Tuesday of June. It would make the election a national event. But, that's not likely to make voting any more meaningful to many of us living in highly partisan districts or states.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Where Do the Smartest People Move? - CityLab

Readers know that I find Richard Florida's insistence that cities are in almost all ways "better" than suburbs and rural regions simplistic at best. His analyses depend on his (and similar scholars') definitions of what is "best" for humans and what variables don't matter as much. What we weight as important in such analyses reflects biases. Florida seldom acknowledges that cities mask social problems (income inequality, mental stress, concentration of power) and drive away some hypersensitive, great minds. Cities are inhospitable to those who need reflective space.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when The Atlantic ran a story reflecting the experiences and observations of my wife and me. The smartest people we know leave cities for more relaxed lives in the country (or exurbs).
Where Do the Smartest People Move? - CityLab: The most interesting finding here (below, far right) is that once income was taken into account, people who moved from the city center to rural areas actually showed a slight jump in cognitive ability over those who stayed. 
For good measure, Jokela ran a second analysis that incorporated additional follow-up surveys and found very similar trends. 
It doesn't surprise me that cognitive ability improves as you leave the city. Or, are those with higher abilities compelled to leave the city? Either way, a slight but significant different in cognitive ability corresponds to leaving crowded urban cores.
So how do we explain these relationships? Well, the inward moves make intuitive sense, as smart young people often seek education and higher-paying jobs, both of which tend to be found in cities. The move outward from city to suburb is likely a result of many educated Americans leaving the city for the suburbs to raise a family—especially in the 1980s, at the height of the survey. 
Consider where colleges and universities are: cities (generally). My wife attended a rural campus for her undergraduate degrees, but I went to school in Los Angeles. We both completed graduate degrees in Minneapolis — and I couldn't wait to leave the city behind once we were done.

Many of our friends did the same. They pursued their educations and built careers in or near urban cores. But, once established, they moved outside the cities, even if the move required commuting into the urban core. We live a little more than an hour from where I teach, but I'd never want to live in the city. That's not happening, for any amount of money.
As for the intelligence shifts from cities to rural areas, found once socioeconomic status was factored in, Jokela has no good explanation. "I assume this is a very special group of people," he says—perhaps converted city residents returning to their country roots.
The problematic phrase "no good explanation" reveals how biased, how blinded by their urban identities, the authors and editors of The Atlantic must be. It's easy to understand why the country is better: it is more relaxing and more productive for some of us. Not every personality flourishes in the city, and that includes many gifted and talented individuals.

I can only visit the same museums so many times. I drive into the city for concerts, the conservatories, and other events. I work at a major university. There's nothing that the city offers that requires I be there every day, all day. How many people really, truly care about the culture of the city?  Sorry, but bars and restaurants alone aren't justification for calling cities "better" than suburbs, either. When I was younger, those things mattered, but I haven't been "clubbing" in decades and have no desire to try it again.

I'd suggest a great many people would be more productive if they weren't surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of cities. Others need the city, and that's fine, but at least recognize cities aren't for all people.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America - The Atlantic

This is an older article in The Atlantic, but it goes to something I discuss in my courses when we explore demographic research. Looking at "red state-blue state" dichotomies ignores that the real divide is Rural vs. Urban and that this has little to do with how many scholars and reporters have argued about "liberal vs. conservative" and other political issues with maps.

Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America - The Atlantic
The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either -- virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it's about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy -- or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.
Consider the following claims often made on the Internet, especially via social media like Facebook or Twitter:

1. Red States have more poor counties, so "Red" policies must be to blame.
No, rural counties fit these descriptions, and they did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and even back to the Civil War. It makes little difference what the political leadership of a state might be: rural counties lack economic diversity.

2. Red States are ignorant.
Yes, rural areas and the states they represent have lower median educational attainments. Again, that distorts the rural/urban divide more than it reveals any truth. More universities are in the oldest and largest urban centers. There are exceptions to this, thanks to the Land Grant universities, but most leading research institutions are in metropolitan areas.

The "City Lab" of The Atlantic recently noted a study that people with the highest IQ scores (yes, another debate) drift towards cities as young adults, and then retreat to the suburbs or exurbs. In other words, cities are where learning is most available.

This is a chicken-and-egg problem for states. How do you attract an intellectual class without cities and large universities? I'm not sure you can, no matter your political persuasion. Universities draw cutting-edge employers, which leads to families with higher incomes and higher educational attainment. Online education and other innovations won't change this.

3. Red States resent the government, while relying on it.
Look at a map of federally controlled lands. National parks, wilderness areas, military bases, and so on. What you find is that these lands aren't in the Northeast. The West is where we have such spaces, inherently lowering population densities in some regions.

Is it really "dependent" of Texas or Nevada to have military bases and personnel in large numbers? It is really "dependent" to have an Interstate pass through a state, used to transport goods nationally? These are complex debates, certainly, but states without control of massive sections of their land have already given something significant to their fellow citizens.

4. Blue States offer more opportunity for mobility.
Actually, the class divisions in New York or San Francisco exceed the inequality of most rural areas. If you look at median incomes, or averages, then cities look great. But, one in 25 New Yorkers is a millionaire, living in a city with extreme poverty and homelessness. Cities mask poverty, because they have wealthy enclaves.

Random Thoughts…
The gap is so stark that some of America's bluest cities are located in its reddest states. Every one of Texas' major cities -- Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio -- voted Democratic in 2012, the second consecutive presidential election in which they've done so. Other red-state cities that tipped blue include Atlanta, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Tucson, Little Rock, and Charleston, S.C. -- ironically, the site of the first battle of the Civil War. In states like Nevada, the only blue districts are often also the only cities, like Reno and Las Vegas.
When we assume "Republican" or "Democratic" or "Libertarian" ideals have shaped the economies of states, counties, or cities, we're ignoring the fact that leadership changes, over and over again. Yet, the same cities and counties at the bottom of the United States in a variety of metrics today were at the bottom in 1950, 1900, 1850, and 1800. Mississippi was never "great" and probably never will be, no matter the political leadership. Likewise, New York might remain "great" thanks to the elites that live there and attract other elites.

Can a city or state change? Certainly. Look to Chicago or Detroit for cities that declined in a century or less. Or, Dallas and San Francisco reveal an opposite trend. But, generally regions seem to be locked into their geographies and histories.

I don't believe a "conservative" or "libertarian" could easily save most rural areas or cities in decline. Nor do I believe, by any stretch, that "liberal" or "progressive" policies would catapult Louisiana, Arkansas, or Mississippi into the top ten states by any major metric of quality of life: educational attainment, average salary (adjusted, off-course), innovation, productivity.

Why do we insist on Red and Blue maps at the state level, when the real maps are nothing more than population density? Rural vs. urban is the major divide between Americans.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Prepare for Opportunity

My wife and I are fortunate, and we are hard working.

Which of these traits should be first? I cannot answer with certainty.

We moved to our current home in 2011 for what seemed like a perfect job. It wasn't. Yet, I was "lucky" because we ended up in a region with several great universities, a wonderful performing arts community, and many other benefits. These institutions, however, require that you be prepared to take advantage of their existence.

I worked hard for my doctorate, and my wife worked hard for her master's degree. We prepared ourselves for opportunities, when they might appear.

Only a few years ago, we had nothing. We lost everything and I received the earned income tax credit (EITC), which I still believe was odd, since I didn't request it. I read a study that claimed in simulations, with everyone starting equal, the successful outside the simulation end up successful in the game. The theory is, that some people just rise to the top, even if they have to start from scratch.

Now, a dozen years after hitting bottom, I'm teaching at one of those elite universities and we're doing quite well. We are "successful" by every measure that matters, including the non-financial measures that should matter most in life. We have good friends — which mattered most when we had the least — and we have each other. But, that emotional safety net is also why we are financially stable.

When people tell me that can't get ahead in life, I ask some simple questions:

Did you…
Maximize the education that was freely provided?
Use public and private institutions to improve yourself?
Locate mentors and accept their guidance?
Nurture friendships and social connections?
Avoid giving up and developing bad habits when things were tough?
Keep your mind and body active?

No, life isn't fair, but you have to be ready for new opportunities. Plan ahead and make good personal choices. You can't sit around, be lazy, and then later be envious of the person who graduated high school with honors, went to a university to study science, and became a high-tech entrepreneur.

Get over the envy. Prepare and improve yourself for a better life.