[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.”
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.