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23 Jan 18:44

Book Review Review: Little Soldiers

by Scott Alexander

Little Soldiers is a book by Lenora Chu about the Chinese education system. I haven’t read it. This is a review of Dormin111’s review of Little Soldiers.

Dormin describes the “plot”: The author is a second-generation Chinese-American woman, raised by demanding Asian parents. Her parents made her work herself to the bone to get perfect grades in school, practice piano, get into Ivy League schools, etc. She resisted and resented the hell she was forced to go through (though she got into Stanford, so she couldn’t have resisted too hard).

Skip a decade. She is grown up, married, and has a three year old child. Her husband (a white guy named Rob) gets a job in China, so they move to Shanghai. She wants their three-year-old son to be bilingual/bicultural, so she enrolls him in Soong Qing Ling, the Harvard of Chinese preschools. The book is about her experiences there and what it taught her about various aspects of Chinese education. Like the lunches:

During his first week at Soong Qing Ling, Rainey began complaining to his mom about eating eggs. This puzzled Lenora because as far as she knew, Rainey refused to eat eggs and never did so at home. But somehow he was eating them at school.

After much coaxing (three-year-olds aren’t especially articulate), Lenora discovered that Rainey was being force-fed eggs. By his telling, every day at school, Rainey’s teacher would pass hardboiled eggs to all students and order them to eat. When Rainey refused (as he always did), the teacher would grab the egg and shove it in his mouth. When Rainey spit the egg out (as he always did), the teacher would do the same thing. This cycle would repeat 3-5 times with louder yelling from the teacher each time until Rainey surrendered and ate the egg.

Outraged, Lenora stormed to the school the next day and approached the teacher in the morning as she dropped Rainey off. Lenora demanded to know if Rainey was telling the truth – was this teacher literally forcing food into her three-year-old son’s mouth and verbally berating him until he ate it. The teacher didn’t even bother looking at Lenora as she calmly explained that eggs are healthy and that it was important for children to eat them. When Lenora demanded she stop force-feeding her son, the teacher refused and walked away.

Or the seating:

As Lenora hears more crazy stories from her son and friends, she keeps coming back to one question: “what does Rainey actually do in school?” Lenora tries to ask Rainey, but he always replies, “we sit still.” He also occasionally mentions painting and eating, but that’s it.

So Lenora goes to Rainey’s teacher one day and asks to sit in on classes to observe. Lenora is told that this is not possible. So she asks if she can know a little more about what the school is teaching Rainey. The teacher tells her that she is already told everything she needs to know, and that this is the “Chinese way.”

Since Lenora couldn’t get a look into Soong Qing Ling, she went to another local school and bribed her way into a classroom-observation post with some well-placed handbags. She discovered that Rainey was basically right. Chinese preschool really does seem to consist of sitting still. Unless given different orders, all students were required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground. This is not an easy task for three-year-olds.

There were two teachers in the classroom with a classic good cop/bad cop dynamic. The good cop stood in the front of the room with the desks splayed out before her. She would give simple instructions like orders to get food, water, or sometimes paint, though usually she said nothing at all. The bad cop was another teacher who prowled the classroom. Any time she saw a student remove a foot from the line, move arms from his side, or otherwise deviate from the instructions, she would yell at the student to fall back in line. Lenora spent about a week watching tiny kids get screamed at for trying to get water, shifting in their chairs, or talking to classmates.

Or art class:

When Lenora sat in on a kindergarten class, she witnessed an art lesson where the students were taught how to draw rain. The nice teacher drew raindrops on a whiteboard, showing precisely where to start and end each stroke to form a tear-drop shape. When it was the students’ turns, they had to perfectly replicate her raindrop. Over and over again. Same start and end points. Same curves. For an hour. No student could draw anything else. Any student who did anything different would be yelled at and told to start over.

The point of this exercise was not to teach students how to draw raindrops. Drawing raindrops is not an important life skill, and drawing them in a particular way is especially not important. Even the three-year-old students in the class seemed to realize this as many immediately created their own custom raindrop shapes and drew landscapes, all to be crushed under the mean teacher’s admonishment. The real point of the exercise was to teach students to follow directions from an authority figure. But more than that, the point was to follow pointless and arbitrary directions. The more pointless and arbitrary the directions are, the more willpower is required to follow them.

Chinese people presumably put up with this because it makes sense within their culture; why did Chu put up with it? Dormin half-jokingly suggests maybe she really wanted to write the book she eventually wrote, and this was her research. But Chu herself says it eventually got results:

After spending 75% of the book relentlessly complaining about her son’s Chinese education, with the occasional anecdote about how horrible her own culturally Chinese upbringing was, Lenora decides Chinese schools aren’t so bad.

After a few years in China, Rainey changed. Though Lenora constantly worried if Rainey’s creativity and leadership potential was being snuffed out, she couldn’t help but be impressed by his emerging self-control. He could sit still for longer. He always greeted people politely. He finished eating his food. He asked permission a lot.

Lenora didn’t realize what Rainey had become until she took him back to the US for a few weeks to visit family. There, the contrast between Rainey and his same-aged American counterparts become stark. Lenora’s friends’ kids ate junk food all day while Rainey asked for vegetables. They couldn’t read or do basic addition while Rainey was close to being bilingual and had started double-digit addition and subtraction by first grade. They wandered obliviously in their own worlds while Rainey’s Chinese grandparents were thrilled to receive respectful greetings every time Rainey entered the room […]

What really sold Lenora on Chinese education was that it apparently worked. At the time of writing the book, Shanghai was scoring first place in the world on the PISA exams, beating heavy-hitters like Norway and Singapore. Supposedly, education scholars and professionals all over the world were looking at China for wisdom. They all saw the bad, but they saw a lot of good too.

(before going forward, I should interject that China’s great PISA scores are kind of fake. China struck a deal with the OECD (the group that administers PISA) to let it conduct testing only in its four richest and best-educated provinces. Rich and well-educated places always do well on PISA. That China’s four best provinces outperform the average score of other countries is unsurprising. This article points out that if the US were allowed to enter only its best-educated state (Massachussetts, obviously) we would be right up there with China. So this probably isn’t as impressive as Ms. Chu thinks.)

This is just a sample of the great stuff in Dormin’s review of Little Soldiers, and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing. You should also read the comments, which point out that this may be more about a few elite Chinese schools than about an entire country. But I want to use these excerpts as a jumping-off point to talk about the US education system, unschooling, and child development in general.

I predict most of my Bay Area friends would hate the Chinese education system as Chu describes it. I predict this because they already hate the US education system, which is only like 10% as bad. I’m especially thinking of @webdevmason and @michaelblume, who often write about the ways American education is frustrating, regressive, and authoritarian. Bright-eyed, curious kids come in. They spend thirteenish years getting told to show their work, being punished for reading ahead in the textbook, and otherwise having their innate love of learning drummed out of them in favor of endless mass-produced homework assignments (five pages, single-spaced, make sure you use the right number of topic sentences).

People with this position usually make two claims. One, US public school as it currently exists is awful, basically institutionalized child abuse. Two, this is bad for the economy. I’ve been through too much school myself to feel like challenging the first, so I want to focus on the second.

Salman Khan, John Gatto, and other education rebels trace the current school systems back to the Prussians, who invented compulsory education to prepare children for a career as infantrymen or factory workers. It’s a great story. Like most great stories, it’s kind of false. But like most kind-of-false things that catch on, it has an element of truth. Children who can sit still in a classroom and do what their teachers say are well-placed to become adults who can sit still in an open office and do what their bosses say. So (according to this logic), even if our schools are awful, they were well-suited to the Industrial Age economy. Some hypothetical mash-up of Otto von Bismarck and Voldemort, who wanted the country to produce as much as possible and didn’t care how many children’s souls were crushed in the process, might at least endorse the education system on widget-maximization grounds.

But (these same people argue), the Industrial Age is over. The most important skills now are entrepreneurship and creative problem solving. Reinventing yourself, selling yourself, carving out a new niche for yourself. Figuring out what’s going to be the next big thing and pursuing it without anyone else watching over you. We’re in XKCD’s world now, where 900 hours of classes and 400 hours of homework matter less to your career success than one weekend messing around with a programming language in 11th grade. The Prussian model of education stamps out the kind of independent agency that could help people navigate the weird, formless 21st century world.

How might the personified Chinese education system respond?

What if it said “I don’t know what you 老外 are doing in America, but I’m not crushing anybody. I’m just telling kids to sit here drawing 1,000 raindrops in a row without moving or protesting. If after that you decide you don’t want to found the next Uber, that’s on you. But if you do decide to found the next Uber, I will have taught you the most important skill: discpline. Learning how to sit still and obey others is the necessary prerequisite to learning how to sit still and obey yourself.”

If it was really mean, it might go further. “I notice most of you Americans suck at this skill. I notice you’re always whining about how you don’t have enough discipline to pursue your interests. Some of you are writers who spend years fantasizing about the novel you’re going to publish, but can never quite bring yourself to put pen to paper. Others want to learn another language, but reject real work in favor of phone apps that promise to ‘gamify’ staying at a 101 level for the rest of your life. You don’t need to feel bad about having no self-control; after all, nobody taught you any. If you’d gone to 宋庆龄幼儿园, you would have spent your formative years learning to sit still and focus, having your natural impulse to slack off squeezed out of you. Then you could have pushed through and written your novel, or learned 官話, or if you wanted to start Uber you could start Uber. At the very least you’d be doing something other than lying in bed browsing Reddit posts about how adulting is hard.”

My Bay Area friends treat people as naturally motivated, and assume that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they’ve spent so long being taught to suppress their own desires that they’ve lost touch with innate enthusiasm. Personified China treats people as naturally unmotivated, and assumes that if someone acts unmotivated, it’s because they haven’t been trained to pursue a goal determinedly without getting blown around by every passing whim.

What evidence is there in favor of one education system or the other?

I can’t find any good studies directly supporting or opposing either of these claims. The best I can do is The Development Of Executive Functioning And Theory Of Mind: A Comparison Of Chinese And US Preschoolers. They find that on various tests of executive function, “Chinese [preschool-age] children’s performance was consistently on par with that of US children who were on average 6 months older” (other sources say 1-2 years). But lots of interventions change things in childhood; this isn’t interesting unless it persists into adulthood, and I don’t see any work on this. This study on racial differences in personality traits found weak and inconsistent white-Asian differences on adult conscientiousness, but the Asian sample was Asian-American and differences in education were probably pretty minor.

What about circumstantial evidence?

First and most important, since extreme cultivation of discipline vs. laissez-faire childrearing is a property of parents as much as schools, any claimed effect would run afoul of all the twin studies showing that shared environment has few long-term effects on any trait. For example, this meta-analysis of factors affecting self-control that finds “no or very little influence of the shared environment on the variance in self-control”. But we can always invoke the usual loophole in shared environment findings: maybe the US doesn’t contain anything as extreme as the Chinese education system, so US-only studies can’t capture its effects.

Second, both Westerners and Chinese seem to include some very impressive and some less impressive people. It certainly doesn’t seem wrong to say that Chinese people seem more diligent and Westerners seem more independent, but there are so many potential biases at work that I would hate to take this too seriously as evidence for or against one form of education. Also, Chinese-Americans who are educated in US schools also seem more diligent than white Americans, so maybe the education system doesn’t contribute too much to this. Maybe Chinese culture promotes diligence better in general, this causes diligence-focused school systems, but the diligence-focused school systems don’t themselves cause the diligence.

Third, we could try to find more extreme versions on both sides and see what happens there. Pre-industrial populations with no education were famously bad at the discipline needed for factory work. From Pseudoerasmus:

The earliest factory workers were lacking in what Mokyr & Voth call “discipline capital” — non-cognitive ‘skills’ like punctuality, sobriety, reliability, docility, and pliability. Whether they had been peasants or artisans, early workers were new to industrial work habits and they had a strong preference for autonomous work arrangements. They were accustomed to setting their own pace of work in farming, domestic outwork, or artisanal workshops, and disliked the time rules and strict supervision of the factories.

All this is consistent with colourful descriptions of the early history of the textile industry in the Global South, including Japan. Mills were described as places of chaos and disorder. They were supposedly filled with workers ‘idling’, ‘loitering’, ‘socialising’, smoking, tea-drinking, or just disappeared for the day. In Japan, “twenty percent of the female operatives…absent themselves after they receive their monthly pay check” (Saxonhouse & Kiyokawa 1978). In Shanghai, it was said female mill workers could be found breast-feeding infants during work hours (Cochran 2000). Or at Mumbai mills, workers “bathed, washed clothes, ate his meals, and took naps” (Gupta 2011).

But this could be as much about expectations as about abilities.

Which historical culture had the most authoritarian-instillment-of-virtue-focused approach to child-rearing? Surely the New England Puritans were up there – remember that eg Puritan parents would traditionally send children away to be raised by other families, in the hopes that the lack of familiarity would make the child behave better”. They certainly ended out industrious. But they were also creative and self-motivated, sometimes almost hilariously so. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Puritans who ended up incredibly creative were exactly the same Puritans who suffered extreme strict child-rearing – there seems about a century gulf between the evidence of authoritarian parenting in the 1600s and the crop of geniuses born in the late 1700s – so I’m not sure how seriously to take this.

Fourth, we could look at US trends over time. Both US parenting and US schooling seem to be getting less authoritarian over time; 31 states have banned corporal punishment since 1970, and the teachers I know confirm a shift away from most forms of discipline. Over the same time period, children have gotten weirdly better behaved – less crime, less teenage pregnancy, more willing to jump through various stupid hoops to get into a good college. This seems to contradict the Chinese theory – the children are no worse at controlling their impulses. But there are other findings that contradict the Bay Area theory – entrepreneurship is decreasing; more top students are choosing to go work for a boss at a big bank rather than go do something weird. I think the better behavior is probably just caused by lower lead; I have no idea why people are more risk-averse. Secular decline in testosterone, maybe?

Fifth, we could look at research on the effects of preschool more generally. Some studies find that US preschools do not make children smarter, but still improve life outcomes like graduation rates, crime rates, and employment. Although there are lots of theories about the “noncognitive skills” that accomplish this (including that they don’t exist and the improvement is an artifact of bad experimental technique), this is certainly consistent with preschool teaching children discipline at a critical window. If this hypothesis were true, the effect of preschool would be much larger in China, but I don’t know of any Chinese studies on the topic.

Sixth, we could look at the research on meditation for very young kids. The Chinese theory casts preschool as a sort of dark-side form of mindfulness. In traditional Buddhist settings, monks would sit perfectly still and concentrate on the most boring thing imaginable, and the head monk would slap them with a bamboo stick if they moved. The resemblance to the school system is uncanny. So maybe school’s effects on self-control could be modeled as a sort of less-intense but much-more-drawn-out meditation session. Unfortunately, the studies surrounding mindfulness in kids are crap, so this doesn’t help either.

Really none of this seems very helpful and we’re kind of left with our priors. And maybe one of our priors is “don’t abuse children”, so there’s that.

But what about the Polgars? They turned all three of their children into chess prodigies through a strategy that seemed based around exposing them to absurd amounts of chess at a very young age. If we generalize, it does look like very young children might have very plastic minds that you can shape through out-of-distribution experiences. But Lazslo Polgar insisted that his technique didn’t use force; the point was to interest his children in the material so avidly that they inflicted near-Chinese levels of intensity on themselves in order to study it more successfully.

One problem with the physical universe is that even after you study a question in depth and decide more evidence is needed, there are still real children you have to educate one way or the other. I have no general solution for this, but the Polgar strategy seems like a good deal if you can pull it off.

04 Dec 02:19

What Your Street Grid Reveals About Your City

by Sarah Goodyear

Cities often celebrate the anniversaries of major pieces of transformative infrastructure, like bridges or buildings or dams. It's much more rare to celebrate the birthday of a design template. The bicentennial of Manhattan's street grid, which fell in 2011, was an exception. There was an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York to mark the milestone. Countless articles from planners, architecture critics, and urbanists lauded the foresight of the city's street commissioners, who in 1811 laid down the plan that defines the island's development to this day.

On the occasion, the New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, wrote this about the "oddly beautiful" grid:

It's true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street.

New York, of course, is not the only city built on a grid. Similar schemes could be found as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. But Manhattan's design was the exemplar for what became the default pattern of American cities.

Still, not all grids are created equal. Some shape a walking-friendly streetscape. Others, not so much. Over at the Strong Towns blog, Andrew Price, a software developer by day who blogs about urbanism, has been writing about the math of the grid and what it reveals about a city's economic productivity and walkability.

Price has created a "street area calculator," that allows you to plug in a street width and block size. Using this tool, you can come up with some basic figures to compare different grids and how they apportion a city's land. To take two of the extreme examples calculated by Price using rough figures gleaned from Google maps, Portland, Oregon, has streets that are 60 feet wide (building face to building face, including the sidewalk) and blocks that are 200 by 200. Compare that to Salt Lake City, where the streets are 130 feet wide and the block are 660 by 660.

Portland, Oregon (left) and Salt Lake City, Utah.

These configurations mean that Salt Lake is using its space more efficiently by one measure, with only 30.2 percent of area devoted to streets, which must be maintained and are not "productive" in terms of tax revenue. Portland, in contrast devotes nearly 41 percent of its area to streets. Most street space goes to cars, with sidewalks taking up a relatively small fraction.

But when you look at how much street frontage a city’s grid creates within a half-mile walk of a certain point – one potential measure of walkability – Portland has nearly 160,000 feet, while Salt Lake has just under 60,000.

Price points out that if you create smaller blocks, more space goes to streets (and usually, in this country, that means it goes to cars), and the width of the street must be adjusted in order to create a pedestrian-friendly environment:

If we are to downscale our blocks to make our grid more walkable, we also need to downscale our streets, in order to keep the ratio of Street Area:Block Area down. We can have 150 ft blocks and keep our street area down to 22.15%, if we also build 20 ft streets (which would result in 284,800 ft of street frontage being within a half a mile walk - far greater than that of Portland!) 
However, when we start talking about 150 ft blocks and 20 ft streets, we begin to get into the realm of traditional cities.

Traditional cities are naturally highly walkable, human-scale environments. 

Price’s work is inspired in part by the disorientation he felt upon moving to the southern United States from a more "human-scale" community. "I was born and raised in Australia, in a middle-class inner-city neighborhood," he wrote in an email. "I grew up around walking, transit, and street life. Two years ago, I relocated ... From dealing with the culture shock (most towns are simply a road with a couple of strip malls and drive through, very few actual 'urban' places where you can make a day of walking around), I've turned to blogging as a way to study and cope with the lifestyle change."

In most cities with wide streets and big blocks, Price says, precious little space is allotted to pedestrians. According to his calculations, 30 percent of a city’s area is typically dedicated to moving cars – "not counting the parking lots that push some southern cities over 50 percent."

Price hopes that by examining the proportions of the grid from a mathematical perspective, we can better understand what makes some grids a better place for humans to live than others.

Top image: Chicago's street grid. Scott David Patterson /


01 Nov 17:00

Forensic Topology

by editors

How architecture has made Los Angeles a bank robber’s paradise.

Geoff Manaugh | Cabinet | May 2013
[Full Story]
01 Feb 03:00

Top 5 Naval Battles of the Asia-Pacific

by James R. Holmes

Ranking apples against oranges is always a slippery process. How does one maritime battle rise above others in importance? One benchmark is whether an encounter saw one fleet crush another. We could put Lord Nelson’s face on such a list. The Battle of Trafalgar (1805) delivered astounding tactical results. Yet the Napoleonic Wars raged on for another decade after Trafalgar, until Europeans finally banded together to put a stop to the little emperor’s marauding. It was indecisive. So why not rank battles by the magnitude of the issues they decided? Which sea fights yielded the most fateful results, reshaping the Asian order?

Herewith, my list of the Top 5 Naval Battles of the Asia-Pacific:

5. Battle of Yamen (1279). Sometimes dubbed “China’s Trafalgar,” this clash between the  Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the beleaguered Southern Song determined who would rule China. It was far more decisive than Nelson’s masterwork. Over 1,000 men-of-war crewed by tens of thousands of men took part in the engagement. Yuan commanders deployed deception and audacious tactics to overcome at least a 10:1 mismatch in numbers. Most important, Yamen claimed the life of the Song emperor, clearing the way for Kublai Khan’s dynasty to rule for nearly a century.

4. Pearl Harbor (1941).This epic miscalculation on Imperial Japan’s part opened a struggle for mastery of the Pacific Ocean. Rather than bypass Hawaii, strike at the U.S.-occupied Philippine Islands, and thereby firm up its control of the waters within its island defense perimeter, Tokyo dispatched Admiral Nagumo’s carrier fleet to strike at the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The result was an ephemeral tactical victory that brought about strategic catastrophe for Japan. American shipbuilders had laid the keels for a second U.S. Navy under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. The handwriting was on the wall for Japan once the new hulls arrived in theater starting in 1943. Pearl Harbor set events in motion that would give America nautical primacy for the next seven decades (and counting).

3. Guadalcanal (1942-1943). While the Battle of Midway garnered the most press, Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands campaign launched the United States into an early offensive in the Pacific—despite the primacy Allied leaders afforded the European theater. The campaign kept Japan from extending its defense perimeter farther to the south, and thereby menacing the sea lanes connecting the United States with Australia. After six months of grueling battle—ably retold by the miniseries The Pacific and the memoirs from which it derives—U.S. forces could commence their methodical trek across the South Pacific toward the Philippines and Formosa. Never again would Japan regain the strategic initiative.

2. Battle of Tsushima (1905). Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s Combined Fleet followed up its August 1904 demolition of Russia’s Port Arthur-based Pacific Squadron by sending the Russian Baltic Fleet to the bottom. After losing the Pacific Squadron, the tsar doubled down on failure. He dispatched the Baltic Fleet on a 20,000-mile voyage from the Baltic, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean, and into the Far East. Togo’s freshly refitted fleet intercepted the Russians between Japan and Korea—handing Asians their first meaningful victory over a European imperial power in centuries. Tsushima electrified Asia, showing the region’s inhabitants they could resist imperial rule. Vanquishing its chief maritime competitor, furthermore, allowed Imperial Japan to annex Taiwan and Korea. The battle’s legacy haunts the region to this day.

1. Battle of the Yalu (1894). This trial of arms turned Asia’s Sinocentric order upside down. Seaborne European conquerors ushered in China’s century of humiliation in the 1840s, marked by the Opium Wars, a series of “unequal treaties” the imperial powers imposed on the Qing Dynasty, and European occupation of seaports along the China coast. This was bad enough. Upstart Japan had opened to the world only in the 1850s, following centuries of seclusion. Its Meiji Restoration (1868) launched the island nation onto the path to outward Westernization. An Imperial Japanese Navy fleet cobbled together from imported components steamed to the Korean west coast. It defeated China’s Beiyang Fleet, a force widely considered superior in material and seamanship terms. The battle hastened the collapse of China’s dynastic order, among the most fateful events to convulse Asian history in centuries. Such repercussions land the Yalu atop my list.

21 Dec 04:28

Milwaukee’s Relationship with the Chicago Mega-City Revisited by David Holmes

by Aaron M. Renn

[ I am going to take a break until early 2013. See you folks in the New Year. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this piece by David Holmes that follows up on my "Don't Fly Too Close to the Sun" piece. He makes some of the same points I did at the conference, as well as some new ones I found interesting. Bye for now! - Aaron. ]

I was intrigued by Aaron’s recent post “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun Piece” which focused on the relationship between Milwaukee and Chicago and the notion of whether “proximity to Chicago or another mega-city represents an unambiguous good,” or – as posited by Aaron – may actually be more of a curse than a blessing, and something that drains vitality instead of increasing it. This is a topic that interests me both from the perspective of a long-time resident of Milwaukee and as a long-time fan of the City of Chicago. There are likely unique combinations of factors to consider in this type of evaluation for every city pair – including the distance between the cities, the presence or absence of high speed and/or low cost transit options between the cities, and the relative size. Although I did not comment on Aaron’s post at the time of publication, I thought it would be useful to consider some specific examples of ways in which Chicago enhances or decreases Milwaukee’s economic vitality as both the article and many of the comments on Milwaukee-Chicago and other city pairs, seemed to lack specific examples of both positive and negative impacts.

I will begin by presenting several examples of ways in which Chicago’s proximity appears to negatively impact Milwaukee’s economic vitality. I will then consider the impact of Chicago’s proximity on professional services, which Aaron evaluated in his recent series of articles on Chicago as a potential key growth area for Chicago’s economic future. Finally, I will conclude with examples of ways in which I believe Chicago’s proximity adds to Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or quality of life.

Ways in Which Chicago Drains Vitality from Milwaukee

1. Competition for High End Specialty Retailers and Restaurants. The first specific example of a way in which Chicago drains economic vitality from Milwaukee is in the competition for certain types of high end retailers or restaurant chains that have a national presence, but one that is limited to perhaps 30 or 40 locations. When I travel to other Midwestern cities that are more geographically isolated or more dominant in their geographic region (such as Kansas City or Indianapolis) I am usually surprised by the number of high end specialty stores or restaurants that have a presence in those cities but none in Milwaukee. Chicago’s proximity is almost certainly a major factor in this dynamic, and a perception (rightly or wrongly) that either the business can’t sustain two locations in SE Wisconsin/NE Illinois, that residents in Milwaukee could be served by a Chicago location. A good recent example was the announcement approximately two weeks ago that: (a) Nordstrom is planning to open a store in Milwaukee in 2013, and (b) Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. that does not currently have a Nordstrom store. Chicago is almost certainly a major factor in Milwaukee’s status as the last metropolitan area of its size to get a Nordstrom store.

In researching this point, I came across a research article titled “Can We Have a High-End Retail Department Store? How to Tell if Your Region is Ready” which presented a formula for predicting the number of high end department stores (defined as Macy’s Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Saks) that could be supported in a metropolitan area based on its population, land area, and the percentage of households with at least $150,000 of income per year. Although the article did not present the findings for Milwaukee, I followed the researcher’s definition of high end department stores, and reviewed the current number of locations for these five stores that are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and several peer Midwestern metropolitan areas, using data available at The findings generally confirmed my impression that Milwaukee is underserved by high end department stores – with 38 of these stores being located in the Chicago metropolitan area, 8 in both Kansas City and Columbus, 6 in Indianapolis, but only 2 in Milwaukee. Although the research study did not consider proximity of a metropolitan area to a neighboring larger metropolitan area, I think it likely that this is a factor, and one in which Chicago’s proximity negatively impacts Milwaukee.

2. Competition for Federal Offices Another example where I believe Milwaukee loses out economically due to its proximity to Chicago is in serving as a location for regional federal offices. I know this from personal experience in developing business plans for pursuing federal work, and discovering that in terms of regional facilities (versus those that are present in nearly every major city such as postal service, federal courts, social security offices, etc.), Milwaukee is pretty much limited to a Forestry Service Regional Office and a Veterans Administration Regional Headquarters. Although I don’t have any detailed data to back me up, I did review the locations of regional offices for five agencies, including the IRS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. EPA, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), and determined that Chicago has regional offices for 4 of these 5 agencies (the USACE, U.S.EPA, FRB, and SBA). Among peer cities, Kansas City has regional offices for all five agencies, followed by Minneapolis/St. Paul (with regional offices for three agencies); and Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis (each having two regional offices for these agencies).

What this means economically varies from agency to agency, but for Kansas City, the office for the IRS regional service center reportedly occupies an 11-story building with 900 employees (based on data from Emporis). In addition to direct economic benefits to cities that host a greater number of regional federal offices, there are likely significant indirect benefits as well, as consulting firms are more likely to establish locations in cities that host federal regional offices, as there are benefits to engineering firms from being in the same cities as USACE regional offices, benefits to accounting firms from being near IRS regional offices, benefits to financial firms being near FRB regional branch offices, etc. Although there may be other major cities in the Midwest that are also losing out in the competition for regional federal offices, I believe that Chicago’s proximity puts Milwaukee at a particular disadvantage, and my impression is that on a per capita basis, Milwaukee has fewer federal offices than almost any of its peer cities.

3. Ranking as a Metropolitan Area A third example of a possible negative impact from Chicago’s proximity on Milwaukee’s economic vitality occurred to me as I was researching the example presented above on the competition for high end retailers. In trying to confirm that the Indianapolis and Kansas City metropolitan areas are in fact comparable in size to Milwaukee, I noticed that both are ranked ahead of Milwaukee – with Kansas City currently ranked as the 29th largest metropolitan area (with 2,052,676 residents) and Indianapolis ranked as the 35th largest metropolitan area (with 1,778,568 residents) versus the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA’s ranking as the 39th largest metropolitan area (with 1,562,216 residents). This size difference could provide an explanation as to why Milwaukee would be chosen after these cities as a regional location for certain businesses.

However, Milwaukee’s ranking below Indianapolis and Kansas City is arguably more of a statistical artifact than reality, and due to Chicago’s proximity and the manner in which the U.S. Office of Management and Budget choses to split the two metropolitan areas. Indianapolis and Kansas City, which are more geographically isolated than Milwaukee, have MSAs that extend over approximately 3,200 and 8,000 square miles, respectively, whereas the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA is defined as a much more compact 1,500 square mile area. If Chicago was not located in as close proximity to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Counties would almost certainly be included as part of the Milwaukee MSA. Adding the 361,000 residents in Racine County (defined as a separate metropolitan area) and Kenosha County (defined as part of the Chicago MSA) would result in a Milwaukee metropolitan population of 1,920,000 residents in a land area of 2,100 square miles – in theory, a market greater in population than Indianapolis and only 5% smaller than Kansas City, in a far more compact land area than either MSA.

Competition for Service Businesses

A fourth potential negative influence of Chicago on Milwaukee’s economic vitality that I considered (but rejected) is the competition for serving as a location for professional service firms. I considered this factor partly in response to Aaron’s recent series of articles on Chicago, which noted Chicago’s status as the Midwestern center for professional services such as management consulting, technology consulting, business process outsourcing and legal services. In theory, large firms with greater resources based in Chicago might out compete smaller firms based in Milwaukee. While I am not familiar with all categories of professional services, for law and engineering firms with which I am familiar, Chicago’s proximity and large pool of major firms appears to have no negative impact on the vitality of similar firms based in Milwaukee. This is probably most surprising with law firms, given that Chicago not only has 17 of the top 250 largest law firms in the U.S., but has an even more impressive 5 of the top 13 firms (based on data at Internet Legal Research Group). Milwaukee has 5 of the top 250 firms (including Foley and Lardner at No. 29), which not only compares favorably with Chicago on a per capita basis, but compares even more favorably with cities such as Charlotte (with 2 of the top 250 firms), Cincinnati (3 firms), Columbus (2 firms), Indianapolis (3 firms), Kansas City (4 firms), and even Houston (5 firms). None of these cities has a firm ranked as highly as Foley and Lardner at 29. The main point is that in spite of the incredible concentration of major law firms in Chicago, there is no evidence that this has negatively impacted Milwaukee’s vitality as a center for legal services. The fact that this is the case is significant for Milwaukee’s downtown, as nearly every major office building proposed or constructed in the last decade in the downtown had one of these major law firms as its anchor tenant.

Examples of Ways in Which Chicago Increases Vitality

Having considered some of the ways in which Chicago’s proximity drains vitality from Milwaukee, following are several examples of significant ways in which I believe Chicago increases Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or the quality of life for residents of Milwaukee:

1. Enhanced Travel Connectivity. It takes 60 minutes to drive from downtown Milwaukee to O’Hare International Airport. For all intents and purposes, residents of Milwaukee have two airports – one (General Mitchell International Airport) that is 10 minutes from downtown, and the other (O’Hare) that is 60 minutes from downtown. Which airport is used for a particular flight is a choice made by Milwaukee residents on a flight by flight basis, based on the most favorable combination of price, availability of direct flights, and/or preferred departure or arrival times. Quite often, General Mitchell International Airport is the choice because similar flights from the same airlines are actually cheaper than from O’Hare (a competitive pricing factor that is almost certainly due to the Chicago’s proximity and the presence of O’Hare as an alternative airport for Milwaukee residents). Even excluding Midway Airport from the discussion (which is appropriate as Midway is not convenient for routine use by residents of Milwaukee), Milwaukee residents through the combination of General Mitchell International Airport and O’Hare have better air travel options than residents of almost any other major metro area in the U.S. (New York City, Chicago, and perhaps Atlanta, being possible exceptions). Another benefit related to air travel that Milwaukee residents take for granted is the convenience for visits by friends from other countries. Chicago will almost always be one of the lower cost U.S. travel options for foreign travelers.

2. Enhanced Entertainment and Recreational Amenities/Opportunities. It is nice to be located adjacent to a city that has some of the best museums and cultural institutions in the US. Although there is some inconvenience in driving 90 minutes to downtown Chicago, there is the option to take Amtrak, or even Metra ($5 from Kenosha). I’ve thought about this when visiting geographically isolated cities with great (and often deserved) reputations such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, etc. I would even add some sizeable (>5 million resident) metro areas to the list such Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The cultural attractions in these cities do not match those present in Chicago, such as the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum of Natural History, or the Chicago Art Institute. For friends and family travelling from other countries, a trip to Milwaukee means they get a trip Chicago thrown in for free. It also means that these visitors will never run out of interesting places to explore available through the combined attractions in Milwaukee and Chicago. For visitors to other even fairly large metro areas in the U.S., the entertainment options for out-of-town visitors will typically be exhausted within a week or less. Not so in Milwaukee, thanks to Chicago. This is a quality of life factor more than an economic vitality factor, but one that should be a consideration in businesses trying to recruit employees from other major metropolitan areas to Milwaukee. Although I think Milwaukee has a pretty large and attractive set of amenities on its own, due to the proximity of Chicago and the amenities available in our mega-city’s “southern” downtown, residents in Milwaukee have access to amenities that are matched by few cities in the world, and this has economic value in the increasing competition for highly skilled and mobile workers.

3. Enhanced Business Expansion Opportunities. For businesses based in Milwaukee, having a metro area with 9.5 million residents an hour away is a significant plus. For entrepreneurs based in Milwaukee, Chicago presents an exceptional opportunity for expansion, as the cities are close enough together that it is possible for someone living in the Milwaukee area to oversee branch offices or locations in both the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas. Although one could argue that businesses in Milwaukee have additional competition from businesses in Chicago, this type of analysis varies greatly from business to business with no consistent rule. For major businesses located in Milwaukee, if they need access to some very specialized consulting expertise, if it isn’t available from firms based in Milwaukee, it will almost certainly be available from one or more firms based in Chicago, providing a very deep business support talent pool and a competitive advantage for firms based in Milwaukee relative to those based in more geographically isolated cities.

4. Enhanced Global Mindset. This is a little more subtle advantage, and a quality of life enhancement versus an economic vitality enhancement. Even if I don’t go to Chicago for several months, I like having Chicago nearby. I’m conscious of it. It is definitely one of the reasons I like living in Milwaukee, even if it is impossible to precisely quantify this aspect. In my mind, I always know that I have all of Chicago’s assets readily available to me, whenever I might feel inclined to “imbibe” (but without the hassle of actually having to live in Chicago, as well as not having to live in a state that is currently ranked 49th or 50th in most financial health measures). When I travel (and I suspect this is the case for most people) I almost always measure the city I am visiting in my mind to my hometown of Milwaukee. Whenever I visit some nice, but geographically isolated metropolitan area, the quality of life in that city is frequently downgraded in my mind as I can imagine how quickly the interest of living in that city would wear off once I exhausted the list of unique attractions in those cities. Chicago is a component of how I measure Milwaukee against those cities, as all of its attractions are in fact readily accessible to residents of Milwaukee. I suspect there are many other cities where a similar dynamic plays out – such as for residents of Baltimore including the attractions and opportunities available in Washington DC in their similar assessments.

5. Increased Groundedness. This is a subtle point and one that occurred to me only recently. Milwaukee is a city that definitely does not have an inflated view of itself. I think part of this is the result of its proximity to Chicago, and knowing that by a hundred different measures, Milwaukee does not match Chicago. If there were fifty new 50-story skyscrapers constructed in downtown Milwaukee over the next 100 years, I am pretty sure that our skyline would still fall short of Chicago’s. I think there is a tendency of other somewhat “successful” cities (Charlotte and Indianapolis come to mind) to always be chasing some grand ambition. Although there are definitely positive aspects to ambition, there can also be a tendency to pursue goals that really aren’t important, as well as a greater reluctance to realistically address obvious shortcomings. Milwaukee, through its proximity to Chicago, is relieved of this aspirational burden, and can simply go about its business in a quiet, but usually highly effective way.

David Holmes is an environmental consultant focused on brownfield redevelopment issues. He is also a co-author of a book on the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee: “Chinese Milwaukee” (published by Arcadia Publishing in 2008).

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15 Dec 02:09

Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Urban Tech Scenes

by Richard Florida

I've written before about the ongoing shift away from the Silicon Valley-style suburban nerdistan office park model. Entrepreneurial high-tech start-ups have taken an urban turn. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than New York City, which has emerged as the nation's second-largest center of venture capital-financed high-tech start-ups, thanks to Google's significant presence in the old Port Authority building in Chelsea and companies ranging from Foursquare to burgeoning tech-fashion players like Rent the Runway, Warby Parker, and Gilt Groupe.

A report [PDF] from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office, "Start-Up City: Growing New York City's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem for All," released earlier this week develops a series of important recommendations not only for deepening New York's start-up ecosystem but for extending its benefits to less-skilled workers, diverse demographic groups, and other groups typically thought to be outside of the tech community. (In the interest of full disclosure, I met with Stringer and his team, discussed these and other issues, and provided comments on a draft of the report.) That said, the report goes far beyond my own thinking and commentary, and in my view breaks important new ground on this critical issue. 

While lauding the importance of start-ups and high-tech entrepreneurship to the city's' economy, the report identifies the uneven benefits that flow from it, noting that only one in five New York-based start-ups was founded by a woman and that only 29 percent employed African-Americans and 20 percent Latinos. That's compared to the half of all employed white New Yorkers who work in the creative economy, which includes science and technology, arts, design, media and entertainment, business and management, healthcare and law (a pattern which mirrors the national trends I wrote about here).

Echoing the dynamism of New York's burgeoning high-tech, entrepreneurial start-up economy, the report stresses the need for policies and strategies that can expand the city's economic power in ways that benefit a broader and more diverse array of workers and communities:

One important area of focus is the City’s emerging tech sector, which could offer a gateway to the middle class for thousands of New Yorkers―but only if the city ensures that workers have the skills needed to fill those jobs. Unlike other growth areas of the economy, an entry-level coding job at a start-up tech firm can pay as much as $65,000 a year, well above the city’s median household income.

The report includes a series of detailed recommendations for accomplishing this goal, across five key areas:*

Fill the talent gap: The report suggests addressing the high-tech talent gap by upgrading the skills of a broader cross section of New Yorkers as well as by staying open to new immigrants. All New Yorkers need to be equipped with the core skills needed to succeed in high tech age — from computing and math to the "language of business." Specific recommendations include improving the computer science curriculum in the city's public schools, creating STEM programs for college and continuing-education students, easing immigration restrictions and creating new visas for entrepreneurs and tech talent, and establishing an "Empire Engineers Initiative," which would offer financial aid to college students in exchange for working in the city or state after graduation.

Streamline the bureaucracy for launching and building new start-ups: The report notes the rapid cycle times on which start-ups are built and their need for flexible space to ramp up quickly. In contrast to suburban high-tech districts where start-ups can often grow into adjacent space in industrial and office parks, the nature of the center city often means start-ups have to move much more frequently as they grow and take on new people. Finding such space on quick turnaround is difficult given the city's permitting and coding processes. The report recommends creating simpler more flexible permitting and licensing processes for entrepreneurs and start-ups who need affordable, timely space for their enterprises. Specific recommendations include: expanding NYC Digital to match what the successful Office of TV and Film already does cutting red tape, and establishing a new cross-cabinet group to advise the mayor's office on emerging core needs of start-ups and high-tech businesses.

Improve high-tech infrastructure: The report highlights the need for the city to improve its internet infrastructure, what it refers to as the city's "fourth utility." Just like American industrialization needed subways and pipes and electricity, the knowledge and innovation age needs wireless internet. The report recommends creating a city-wide fiber network to encourage competition between internet service providers and expanding Wi-Fi service across the city.

Close the affordability gap:  New York City — despite or perhaps as a consequence of its many economic advantages — suffers from an affordability problem across two dimensions: the affordability of housing for budding entrepreneurs and affordability of space for their companies. It notes that aspiring entrepreneurs are building businesses and cannot afford to spend a great amount on space. Start-ups require the "garage spaces" and cheap re-configurable space Jane Jacobs long ago identified as key to innovation and new business development in cities. The report recommends creating resources for co-working spaces, reforming the city's regulatory restrictions to create more micro-housing units and enabling "accessory dwelling units" (additional full living spaces on a property), as well as reducing or eliminating parking minimums for residential properties near transit.

Connect the high-tech economy to all corners of the city: Right now, New York's high-tech economy is isolated and geographically uneven. This is a byproduct of start-up culture thriving on concentration and clustering, as we've pointed out many times here at Cities. But the report notes that there are strategies than can be adopted to improve access to less advantaged and less-skilled groups, as well as outlying parts of the city. Here its recommendations include using light rail and bus service to supplement and connect people across job corridors. This to my mind may well be the most intriguing of the report's many recommendations. It shows how the density and public transit available in cities like New York make it possible to extend the urban tech model to benefit a broader cross-section of workers than the traditional suburban nerdistan model, with its dependence on the car.

As Stringer writes: It is time to set in place a framework that not only spurs high-tech development, but "shows the world how the entrepreneurial economy of the 21st century can reinvigorate our middle class." The recommendations in this report represent an important step in moving us in that direction that other cities and states as well as the federal government can take heed of and build upon.

* An earlier version of this post misstated the number of key areas listed in the report.

Top image courtesy of Google

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