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Millennials, Migrate to Mountain Mansions

[In less than 30 days my wife and I are packing up our few belongings and driving up into Colorado, Utah, and/or Montana. We haven’t decided where yet, but we’re going to be renting somewhere, exploring places to live longer-term. Below is my vague dream vision motivating this migration adventure. If you’re interested in these ideas and want to chat via email or you live in these areas and want to have a drink, you should message me.]

This pandemic lockdown is making me think extra hard about where, with whom, and how I want to live.

I suspect I’m not the only one.

It just so happens that, when the lockdown struck, I was (and still am) living with my wife and two friends in a spacious home that my friends own in New Mexico. I suspect that the discomfort and inconvenience we are experiencing is drastically less than average, because we're locked up with other smart and interesting people.

It also just so happens that, a year ago, I jumped ship from a traditional career in a brick-and-mortar institution for an unorthodox career based on the internet. This is the other reason why the pandemic lockdown has been relatively pleasant and productive for me.

My wife and I find ourselves thinking more creatively than ever about how, exactly, we’ll choose to settle down. I’m 33, my wife is 29. We don’t have kids yet but we really want to have one soon. In my post-academic transition, we’re still a bit below median income for a married couple, but growth looks good and now my upside is unlimited so I’m pretty confident.

The inaccessibility of traditional home ownership for many Millennials is another factor that will intersect with the pandemic-induced appetite for lifestyle innovation.

There are many ways you could imagine young adults architecting arrangements far superior to their status quo. Personally, just to get the discussion going, I suspect the ideal collective unit will be both federated (autonomous units with a council) and digital:

  • Money comes primarily from high-leverage internet work
  • Internal governance processes automated to the max, minimizing politics

I think the ideal would be a very large property (~50 acres) somewhere cheap but beautiful (Appalachia? Montana?), with multiple independent households in a federal governance structure. Communal houses are just not attractive to most intelligent and high-functioning people. People just like privacy, and control. Also communal houses are not robust because one bad apple can rapidly ruin the whole bunch. My “federated town” model gives every family complete autonomy and privacy, except for whatever mutual obligations are decided. But multiple properties, like in the traditional suburb, provide only the weakest incentives for communal investment. When every household owns an equity stake in one property, you lock in the real forces of real community (if the ship goes down, everyone goes down).

Let’s run the numbers on a hypothetical scenario. As I wrote about previously, there was recently up for sale a whole town in the state of Georgia. It cost $1.7 million.

First, have a look at this video of what comes with our purchase of Tombsboro. Keep in mind this is only an example we’re using to fix ideas; there are actually many abandoned towns all over the USA, so exact location could be negotiated. But seriously, how cool is this?

In that video, I tallied at least 15 buildings suitable for stand-alone, private, family homes. And that’s being very conservative, because I’m not even counting the hotel and bank and such! Let’s be even more conservative for maximum planning realism and assume we could only have 10 families living here.

If we obtained a 30-year mortgage at a 3% interest rate, we could expect monthly payments of about $7,167. And assuming a 20% down payment we would need $340k up front. An abandoned ghost town might need a little work, but I’m assuming the initial group would be intrepid with modest needs and we could do it fixer-upper style after we move in and over time. So let’s just increase that figure by a completely made-up amount and say we’d need $500k up front to buy a ghost town and make it livable enough for 10 not-insane adults to tolerate it. Then we’d need to pay $7,167 every month, starting immediately.

First, let’s solve the down payment. Either the initial group is moderately wealthy people (~10 households each of which have $50k lying around), or a few are quite wealthy (~4 people each have about $125k lying around), or everyone is like me or poorer (I have about $20k liquid) and the rest we make up with private investment from the few kind and visionary readers of my blog who occasionally tell me they want to invest (I usually just say no thanks because I don’t really need or want capital, but after you receive a few of these offers you start to think about what you could do with it). 10 families each with $20k to invest would require an additional $300k to set-up shop in our ghost town. I’m not sure but my gut feeling is that if I found 10 responsible households that were seriously ready to roll, I could scrape together $300k investment from my personal networks on the internet. If only because it’s crazy enough that it would get a ton of buzz, which would bring a lot of people out of the woodwork.

Next, how are we going to pay $7,167/month and have enough to regularly improve and maintain the town? It’s easy to think of many plausible schemes that could work at some point (e.g. rent rooms in the hotel) but honestly I’d rather not count on anything at all speculative.

The easiest and most fail-proof way to solve this problem is to have 10 households that already have a good, stable income through remote work.

This is another reason why the pandemic is a game changer. The number of people who meet this requirement just increased to… everybody. And even if you think post-pandemic workplace norms revert 90% back to pre-pandemic norms (unlikely in my view), that’s still thousands of new people who could potentially do what I’m envisioning. Think about how many smart and productive, married Millenial couples there must be, wanting to have their first baby but postponing because their professional work requires them to live somewhere too expensive and too atomized to build a family. The employers of these couples formerly believed that face-to-face interaction was necessary; they are now learning it is not, and remote workers are cheaper. Thus, when the pandemic is over there will be at least a few thousand Millenial married couples who have both the resources and the newfound freedom to build the community of their dreams. I only need to find 9 of them!

$7,167/month split among 10 households is only $716 a month! Obviously you’d have to add for interest paid to investors, add for developing the properties, add for taxes and a bunch of other things. But as a starting figure, that aint’ bad!

No point getting more specific since these are extremely rough estimates. But remember, I handicapped the estimates very conservatively. You could fit way more people in a whole town; find a cheaper town; luck out with a donor instead of an investor—many ways this could turn out easier and better than I estimate here. As a back-of-the-napkin exercise, it’s enough to convince me something like this is very possible.

The real bottleneck is not financial, I suspect. It’s psychological and sociological. Are there 10 smart, capable, married couples who are weird enough to try something like this? Historically, no. But historically we’ve never been constrained to our neighborhood for weeks on end… And historically 30-year-olds already own homes and have babies. So maybe now is when the truly smart and truly capable Millennials realize their holistic life prospects look much better as desperados...

Personally, if there was a viable opportunity to settle down into a weird and novel lifestyle arrangement that might be risky in some regards but highly anti-fragile to catastrophic threats, my wife and I are probably more favorably disposed than we’ve ever been. By “viable opportunity” I just mean actual, capable people who seem cool, in my inbox, seriously interested in figuring out something like this.

By the way I’m not saying I would never do this with single people, and no disrespect to single people. It’s just that I’m married so it would make the most sense for everyone else to be married.

I’m guessing we’re not the only ones who think about this kind of stuff. A few other data points here… IndieThinkers.org now has a notable contingent of people interested in, or already working on, unorthodox lifestyle designs. I’ve also been contacted by at least three people in the past few months who expressed — unsolicited — a desire to invest financially in some kind of collective project related in some way to lifestyle design. A recent edition of my Signs of Life newsletter was entitled, “If I bought 8 studio apartments, would you visit?” I got a few replies saying yes… Also, the success of Based Mansion seems to further validate the hypothesis of high interest in — and the financial viability of — seemingly weird IRL arrangements.

I know that there’s always been widespread romantic interest in such things; my argument is only that the pandemic may, at the margin, kick some people from the romantic-dreamer category into the fuck-it-let’s-go category.

If anything in this post resonates with you, you should at least say hi. My wife and I are just crazy enough to really consider something like this…

How to know if you’re talking to a wokescold: A scientific method for preventing IRL flame wars

[FYI: If you’re interested in data-blogging like this, I’m offering a little free course on it.]

We’ve all been there: You’ve had a couple drinks, you’re having fun talking with someone, then you blurt out a controversial opinion and everything goes belly up. Maybe your interlocutor scolds you, maybe they just walk away, or maybe nothing happens but there’s gossip a week later…

If you have controversial opinions, what you need is a method for knowing — in advance — whether your conversation partner can handle them. It needs to be simple and quick enough to be practical, but it needs to be scientific enough to offer real predictive validity.

It recently occurred to me that there exists a statistical technique that solves exactly this problem. It’s called recursive partitioning, and the practical tool it produces is called a decision tree. If you have data on public opinion and other demographic variables, you can use statistics to determine which chain of questions will give you the best guess about someone’s position on any given issue. If we create a decision tree to predict their position toward suppressing naughty opinions, then we have a simple, practical, and scientifically valid “life hack” for avoiding IRL flame wars.

Analysis

I did this last week and the results are very interesting. If you’re interested in the statistical details, or you’d like to run the code yourself (perhaps on a different outcome variable), you can find all of that here. In this post, I’ll focus on the social and practical implications.

Here’s all you need to know about the stats. In this analysis, “being a wokescold” is proxied by whether or not someone thinks racist speakers should be allowed or disallowed. For possible predictor variables, I included a handful of variables that are reasonable to ask someone about or easy to observe yourself.

Specifically:

  • sex/gender = variable named sex
  • race = variable named race
  • left/right identification = variable named pol
  • family income = variable named realinc
  • college attendance = variable named college
  • word knowledge or verbal skill (proxy for IQ) = variable named wordsum

I then conducted recursive partitioning, which breaks the data down into the sequence of branches giving the most predictive traction over the outcome variable.

Results

Figure 1 plots the resulting decision tree.

Figure 1

The graph is fairly intuitive, and if you’d like to understand the numbers better, see my more technical post over at jmrphy.net. Here I will give you a more concise and practical translation, resulting in a simple heuristic you can memorize.

If you meet a random person, there’s a 38% chance they’re a wokescold (defined as wanting to suppress racist speakers; one can debate this, but whatever, it’s a decent proxy).

The very first and most important question you can ask someone, to avoid a flame war, is: “Did you ever go to college?" If they say yes, the probability of them being a wokescold drops to 29% and that’s your best guess: They are probably not a wokescold. Nothing else will improve your guess from this point (at least from the variables we selected).

Now, many of you will say: But it’s the college-educated wokescolds one should be most afraid of! True. The limited utility of this analysis is also it’s primary social-scientific value: It reminds us that college-educated wokescolds remain a relatively minor anomaly, quantitatively speaking. Being educated still means you’re much more likely to support unsavory expression. It’s true that educated wokescolds are often the most dangerous landmines we’d like to tiptoe around, and unfortunately my particular analysis this week will not help you on this front. Fortunately, I have an alternative algorithm custom made for this use-case: If they went to college and they’re also a female with dyed hair, hold fire on your nuclear takes: They are probably a wokescold. Unless they’re Amber Frost.

If they never went to college, the next question you have to ask yourself is whether they're smart. You probably don't want to give them a vocabulary test, but conversation is pretty revealing. If they are smart, you infer they are not a wokescold (40% chance). If they are dumb, it's now a coin flip (50%).

Next, what is their race? This you can probably guess yourself. If white, this bumps them very slightly toward not being wokescolds (48%). If non-white, this bumps them toward being wokescolds (57%). From here:

If they are white and male, there's a 45% chance they’re a wokescold so you infer they are not — and that’s your final guess. If they are white and female, you should see if their family is rich or not. If rich, they are slightly less likely than a coin flip to be a wokescold (46%); if poor, they're slightly more likely than a coin flip to be a wokescold (54%).

If they are dumb and non-white, there is a 57% they’re a wokescold and that’s your best guess.

A heuristic you can memorize

(This only applies in America, mind you, the land of the free.)

  1. If they’re a female who signals creativity or virtue (e.g., dyed hair, bumper stickers), don’t share any edgy takes (this is post-hoc to the model, just a precaution in light of data limitations and researcher experience).

Otherwise:

  1. If they went to college, they’re probably not a wokescold. You may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.
  2. If they did not go to college, but speak more intelligently than average, they are probably not a wokescold. You may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.

For all others, the safest decision rule is to not share edgy takes. Bonus rule only if you can master the above 3-step algorithm and you have an appetite for risk:

  1. If they are rich white people, you may gradually begin to share your edgy takes.

What about ideological identification?

The most intriguing result here, to my mind, is that ideological identification totally drops out — it appears to have no predictive power! As I wrote in my technical post:

[That ideological identification has no predictive power] is fascinating, given that many people today tend to think of speech suppression as a fashion on the educated Left! And it is, but that's only a highly visible minority. Political scientists would not be surprised by this result: We've long known that leftists and educated people are always more supportive of free expression (you just don't hear about those people in the media right now).

Limitations

Please note that the model here does not provide especially satisfying statistical discrimination. It’s better than nothing, but one must still proceed carefully. Always begin by sharing mildly provocative takes, and watching your interlocutor’s reactions. Do not advance to nuclear takes until several acts of mild edgelording produce only smiles, laughter, or excited edgy reciprocity. With additional data and more sophisticated modeling, we may hope to derive more confident predictions for more ambitious social maneuvering. Until then, be careful.

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