Economy Teeters: We May(or) May Not Be Set

From national to local: How Ann Arbor is like Portland, or not

[Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks appear on The Chronicle.]

The crash of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 was the best thing that ever happened to the Teeter Talk interview series. Why? Because the word on everyone’s lips two years ago was … “teeter,” which gave the awkward and vaguely dirty-sounding word some well-deserved airtime. On Oct. 12, 2008, the BBC reported the remarks of Dominique Strauss-Kahn this way [emphasis added]: “The world financial system is teetering on the ‘brink of systemic meltdown,’ the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned in Washington.”

Steve Bean

Steve Bean, independent candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor.

Closer to home, a week earlier, on Oct. 3, 2008, a dozen distinguished alumni from the University of Michigan Department of Economics had gathered for a panel discussion focused on the financial crisis. Linda Tesar, department chair and professor of economics, stated that “the financial markets are teetering.” [Chronicle coverage: "Economists Gather, Talk About Markets"]

That same financial crisis still persists, and it’s occupying a lot of Steve Bean’s attention. Bean is an independent candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor – the election takes place on Nov. 2. We talked recently on the totter, a few days after the League of Women Voters mayoral candidate forum. During our talk, he spoke about the need for the city to prepare for various worst case financial scenarios on the national financial scene – dramatic inflation or deflation. The coming decade could be worse than the last one, he believes, and that could be exacerbated by diminished worldwide capacity for oil production.

So if there’s a large theme to his campaign, it’s about the challenge of translating national issues to the local level in a way that best prepares our community for whatever unfolds in the next 10 years. Presumably, the way that Ann Arbor prepares for the next decade might look different from the way other communities prepare. Bean and I touched on that idea in the context of some recent environmental commission deliberations. Bean chairs that city commission.

At their Sept. 23, 2010 meeting, the commission discussed a recommendation to the city council to create a task force to educate the community about peak oil. [Peak oil is the idea that worldwide oil production capacity will soon peak, if it has not already peaked, and then begin to taper off.] The resolution got support from only three commissioners – Bean, Kirk Westphal, and Anya Dale – and did not pass. One of the suggestions during commission deliberations was that commissioners could simply read the reports that other communities had produced about what local strategies would be appropriate – instead of asking the city council to appoint an Ann Arbor task force.

Portland, Oregon, is one such community that has produced such a report. But Portland’s population of more than half a million residents – compared to Ann Arbor’s 114,000 or so – makes Portland a substantially different kind of community from Ann Arbor, doesn’t it? Well, buried in the appendix of a new book – “Our Patchwork Nation” written by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel – is a way of looking at Portland and Ann Arbor that makes the Ann Arbor-Portland comparison … still seem a little crazy, but perhaps a little less so.

The Portland-to-Ann-Arbor comparison is one that has appeared in the pages of The Chronicle before – Republican city council candidate for Ward 5, John Floyd, took up the issue during public commentary at the city council’s Jan. 4, 2010 meeting:

Floyd thanked Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) for clarifying at the council’s Nov. 16, 2009 meeting that Hohnke saw Seattle, Portland and Boulder as models for Ann Arbor to emulate. Floyd then asked Hohnke if he thought that Ann Arbor should change to resemble Seattle and Portland by increasing its population to upwards of half a million people.

Floyd and the Democratic incumbent, Carsten Hohnke, are contesting the Ward 5 seat in the general election on Nov. 2, along with independent candidate Newcombe Clark.

So what do Chinni and Gimpel have to say in “Our Patchwork Nation” about Ann Arbor compared to Portland? Nothing specific, actually – even though the second chapter is devoted to Ann Arbor. But they do have something to say about all 3,141 counties in the United States. [That struck me, on reading it in the book, as a surprising number – for two reasons. First it seems small to me. Off the top of my head, I would have guessed 10,000 or so. Second, 3141 is the same way that π begins. How Chinni and Gimpel resisted the temptation to insert jokes about slicing up the country's "pie" – that's more than I can fathom.]

Chinne and Gimpel have analyzed all 3,141 counties in the U.S. as belonging to one of 12 community types: boom towns, campus and careers, emptying nests, evangelical epicenters, immigration nation, industrial metropolis, military bastions, minority central, monied burbs, Mormon outposts, service worker centers, tractor country. It’s worth noting that by “analyzed” I don’t mean that the authors made up these categories and then went through and just introspected about which category each county belongs to. The categories emerged from a very complex and involved statistical technique with prodigious amounts of data called exploratory factor analysis.

For the purposes of the book, each county is assigned to just the one category where it fits best – that’s the category on which it scores highest in the factor analysis. But that means that every county got some score or other for each of the other 11 categories, too. It turns out that Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located, fits best in the category “campus and careers.” And Portland’s Multnomah County fits best in the category “monied burbs.” But after “campus and careers,” Washtenaw County fits second best into the category “monied burbs.” So from the factor analysis point of view, it might make some sense to talk about the similarity of Ann Arbor and Portland in terms of their monied burbi-ness factor.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll buy your copy of “Our Patchwork Nation” at Nicola’s Books – that’s where Chinni will be talking about his book later this month – and you’ll open it up to page 25 and read every word on the next 10 pages to see how Chinni answered the question: How did Ann Arbor get to be awesome enough to be included in this book – a book that Ray Suarez, PBS senior correspondent, describes in the forward as “a handbook for understanding your own country.” [Notable local quotables include: mayor John Hieftje; Jesse Bernstein, who's now Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board chair, and at the time he was interviewed, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce president; Jane Coaston, editor of The Michigan Review; and Paul Dimond, who worked in the Clinton administration and is now senior counsel with the law firm Miller Canfield.]

I believe that if Suarez thinks of “Patchwork” as a handbook for understanding the country, then he means for us to read more than just the chapter about Ann Arbor. Following the 12 chapters that illustrate the community categories come three chapters that tackle general themes, using the heuristic of the patchwork: the economy, politics, and culture. The chapter on the economy concludes with a passage that, I think, sums up the kind of question that Steve Bean is trying to grapple with as a candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor: “Dramatic economic changes of one kind or another are coming, probably sooner than we expect. The question is, What will they be where you live?”

For more details on Bean’s thoughts on local and national issues, read Steve Bean’s Talk.


  1. By DrData
    October 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm | permalink

    Actually, the number of counties in the US is now 3,142. Broomfield County, CO was created November 15, 2001. Patchwork Nation must be based on data from Census 2000.

    More important, I find it hard to take Bean as a serious candidate for mayor. His website, which I will not link to [good luck finding it in a normal Google search], still has this tidbit on it less than a month away from the election:

    Thanks for being an engaged citizen and learning about my candidacy. I’ll be adding more information for your consideration over the coming weeks prior to the general election in November, so check back for issue statements and more.

    There is a link to his experience but no platform. Instead, we can click through all of his media links to see what his views are; his plans for the city; etc.

  2. October 12, 2010 at 4:13 pm | permalink

    Thanks for this intriguing preamble to the actual interview. I’ll have to check out Patchwork Nation. You raise some good questions here and on the totter.

    I wasn’t able to attend the Pat Murphy talk (the LWV scheduled a conflict that night), but did attend the recent talk by Nicole Foss [link], as did Mr. Bean. She touched on peak oil and energy issues but also on some very thought-provoking points about the world money supply and the likelihood of deflation. As she said in only one subtle allusion to chaos theory, it is an example of complexity.

  3. By Dave Askins
    October 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm | permalink

    Re: [1] “Actually, the number of counties in the US is now 3,142. Broomfield County, CO was created November 15, 2001.”

    Yes, in the appendix of Patchwork Nation that lays out the some of the methodology for the assignment of counties to categories, there’s an acknowledgment of Broomfield [p. 220]: “New counties do occasionally emerge, for instance Broomfield, Colorado, and some disappear through consolidation, but this a rare occurrence.” The idea is that the authors wanted to base the analysis on something that’s relatively, even if not perfectly stable.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    October 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    So if, say, Ferndale annexed the last tiny half-acre rump of Royal Oak Township, or if Pittsfield became a city, that number would change, right? Seem like that sort of thing happens all the time, not rarely.

  5. By John Floyd
    October 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm | permalink

    By the way, Mr. Hohnke has never answered my thrice-asked question: “Can you tell us three or four ways that Ann Arbor should become like Portland, Seattle, or Boulder; in particular, can you tell us if one of those ways is for Ann Arbor to grow to, say, 300,000 – 500,000 people?, like Portland, Seattle and Boulder?”. Has anyone else had success getting this information out of Mr. Hohnke?

    Separately, “Mormon Outpost” seems like a pretty small, narrow basis for assigning a national identity. There just aren’t that many Mormons.

    John Floyd
    Republican for Council
    5th Ward

  6. By Dr Data
    October 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm | permalink


    On “Mormon Outpost” I’ll disagree with you. Here’s an interesting analysis of Facebook users. The author looked at who your Facebook friends were by geography. And, sure enough there was a “Mormon” Utah to Idaho type: [link]

    The natural tendency is to not want to have a small group/type that only represents such a smaller population than some of the other groups. However, if that group is distinctive enough, it makes sense to let the group bubble up.

    There are solutions to this. Code Mormons as Evangelical and the message you might be crafting would work equally well for both groups – socially conservative, strict sex roles, etc. However, Mormons are better educated, more successful than many Evangelicals are so depending on the purpose of your grouping, it might not make sense to combine them with Evangelicals.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    October 13, 2010 at 7:19 pm | permalink

    Let me be the first to point out how I was missing the point in my comment above. Counties ≠ townships, duh.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    October 13, 2010 at 7:26 pm | permalink

    Something like two-thirds of the population of Utah is LDS, and a quarter of Idaho (and in southern Idaho, much higher). The LDS is supposedly the fourth largest denomination in the US, after, I presume, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and… Lutheran? I think it makes sense to identify a distinctively Mormon cultural area.

  9. By John Floyd
    October 13, 2010 at 10:50 pm | permalink

    OK, you win.