Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blue Dogs, dingy skies.

Woohoo! First mention of the Merced area on the Atlantic Cities site. Oh wait, it's kind of negative...

Why Does California's Central Valley Have Such Bad Air Pollution?

Well, not negative negative.  Not third most miserable place to live in America negative. Apparently it's even getting better! But I will admit, I have noticed the smog, and I do think it is a genuine problem. Mostly it bothers me from an aesthetic point of view. I want so badly to claim that the Central Valley has a natural beauty that's on par with just about any other place that you can name...and it does, but too many days there's an ugly haze obscuring that. The local news stories that I've read on the same topic (which of course I didn't think to bookmark at the time and now I don't really know that I could find them, so don't expect a citation) have taken great pains to point out that a good deal of smog here is created elsewhere, even suggesting that China is a making major contributions, and that therefore it would be unfair to expect locals to do anything about it. Apparently some recently changed laws on agricultural emissions are already having an effect though, so that's encouraging, and I guess if the price of gasoline keeps marching upwards, fewer people will be choosing long commutes in oversized cars. For my own teeny tiny part of it, I've started taking the bus to and from work most days. It's not quite as glamorous as my initial plan to ride my bike, but it's about as fast.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Historical Fact of the Day

In 1895, most of the graduating class at Amherst College voted for a guy named Dwight Morrow as the most likely to succeed in their year. Dwight Morrow, on the other hand, voted for a guy named Calvin Coolidge.

And now you know.

(Random trivia courtesy of "The Tormented President, Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression" by Robert E. Gilbert. I appear to now be reading through the UC Merced library in order of the Dewey Decimal system)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back of the envelope social science.

I mentioned last time that the number of people employed by Merced's top ten biggest employers seemed kind of strikingly low to me. Specifically, in a town of 78,958 people, only 10,179 have jobs at one of the places in town that employ more than 311 people. It seems like that could have some ramifications for the local economy as a whole.

Just because it seems especially low to me doesn't mean that it is though. It's not like I'm any kind of leading expert on small city economies. But I can become one with less than 30 minutes and Wikipedia! Right?

So, looking for other "small cities" to compare Merced to I come up with Chico (86,187), Redding (89,861) and Santa Barbara (88,410). I'm sticking in California because theoretically there might be an advantage to not comparing across state lines and thus keeping the majority of laws constant, and realistically there's a handy dandy list of California cities in order of population right there on Wikipedia and I have a better chance of being able to tell the independent small cities from the large suburbs in my home state than I would anywhere else. Unfortunately there's only four cities that are anywhere close to Merced's size in California that don't seem like suburbs to me, so this whole exercise is pretty worthless. Especially since the fourth one is Napa, which doesn't seem to have the top ten employers info that I'm looking for, and might be too close to the Bay Area anyways.

But based on the shitty data that I do have, evidence seems to be that Merced is pretty completely normal. Chico's top ten employers provide 7409 jobs. Redding's provide 7560. Santa Barbara is the one that stands out with 22,450 jobs, 6200 of which are from UCSB alone, which I guess is a good sign for Merced's future. I'm not really sure why Santa Barbara County employs many more people within Santa Barbara than any of the other cities (4000). The population density is pretty much in line with the other places, except for Redding, and both Merced and Redding are county seats too. The number of employees at Santa Barbara City College seems odd, too. Assuming (based on nothing) that it's a pretty average sized community college with twenty to thirty thousand students, that's one employee for every ten students served. Maybe in Santa Barbara everyone gets their own personal garbage man and even community college students get the finest in personalized instruction? But that's a mystery for another day.

(In other news, the Atlantic just launched, which I'm kind of excited about. Except I'm guessing Merced isn't really on their radar of important urban areas to cover...)

((Also, Matt Yglesias totally backing me up that an economy riddled with small-scale employers might be something to watch out for.))

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Third Most Miserable Place in America

I don't really have the frame of reference to be able to vouch for this personally, but there does seem to be a perception that there is something superlative about Merced. And more often than not, superlatively negative. The crime rate, the unemployment rate, and the poverty rate all stand out as big drags on the city's appeal. My goal has been to understand this better, because my own instinct is that this is a perfectly nice place to live and obviously I have some personal investment in that theory. My latest discovery poking around statistics and local newspapers has been a very simple fact: Merced is very young. The average age here is 28.1 and 46.1% of people are under the age of 24. Under the age of 24 is also a pretty good description of the individuals involved in a lot of the crime stories in the local paper. Throughout society, there's a strong correlation between youth and crime or violence in general (I should probably find a citation for this but I'm feeling lazy).

What's striking is that Merced is young, even compared to nearby places like Modesto (median age 34.2). Fresno and Stockton are only slightly older, at 29.3 and 30.8* respectively, but you don't generally hear anyone singing those places' praises either. For comparison, the median age in San Jose is 35.2 and in San Francisco it's 38.5. 36.8 is the national median. I think the crime, unemployment, and poverty statistics for the area need to be understood in that light.

The next thing I need to figure out is what it means that, in a city of almost 80,000 people, the top ten employers only account for a little over 10,000 jobs. I guess this wouldn't seem so very odd except that Wal-Mart is number ten at 311 jobs in the area. Where does everyone else work? The kind of small mom & pop businesses that get exempted from every major piece of pro-labor legislation? What are the ramifications of that in the community? Also, I can't help but notice that the real big employers in the area are the county, the city, and the schools...all told it adds up to more than 7000 of those 10,000 jobs at the mercy of falling tax revenue and statewide budget cuts. No wonder it's not a great time to be looking for a job here.