Home Revolution, Newsletter Excerpt

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Revolutions happen in many forms. Sometimes a revolution is fought with muskets and guillotines. Sometimes revolutions occur when a 16th century Italian astronomer looks up into the night sky and realizes that the earth revolves around the sun. And sometimes revolutions happen when a new mode of mass producing products takes hold, resulting in the migration of rural agrarian population to large urban centers.

We’re in the midst of the COVID revolution. It’s bringing changes on a grander scale than masks and social distancing. These changes began when a million computers were packaged with free AOL programs in the early 1990s, giving us our first taste of email, chatrooms, and online news. There can be no COVID revolution without the Internet, but COVID is the kick-in-the-ass making potential changes into real changes. Let me explain.

For two decades, most business people recognized that much of their work could happen at home. But folks like my husband, who spends all day in front of a computer, kept showing up to the office, despite its 3-hour commute, because business honchos didn’t believe that people would continue to work hard at home. There was no pressure to make changes from the bottom either, because people fretted that working home would make them vulnerable during budget cut times.

In a matter of months, those views changed. Business leaders saw that their workers did just as much work from home, as they did in the office. Computer cameras and Zoom chats keep workers connected. If everyone is home, then individual workers don’t feel vulnerable for working from home. Most importantly, working from home is saving the corporate world tons and tons of money in everything from reduced cleaning staff to a reduced real estate footprint. I doubt if my husband will regularly take the Jersey train into lower Manhattan ever again. He’s home for good.

Now, not all jobs can be done remotely. Physical therapists still need to manipulate real spines and shoulders. Little children cannot socialize with peers on a laptop. Our broken Subaru needs some TLC from Jimmy the mechanic. But there are enough jobs — lawyers, traders, writers — that are making the permanent transition to home, and all of this is having a major impact on society.

We’re seeing the rush of city folks to suburban locations. It’s fine to live in a cramped city apartment, when you are only there to sleep at night. You can store your sweaters in the oven, when there are a bazillion great restaurants downstairs and you never cook. But now, people need more elbow room at home. They need backyards and dedicated home offices. Friends in the city tell me that they are worried about the boarded up stores and the increased homeless population and the rising crime rate. Restaurants and museums – a big draw of cities — are on life support. So, here in the suburbs, we’re seeing the mass migration to our neighborhoods. Real estate agents are cold calling me to see if we’ll move.

But this might be just the first step. People tolerate high prices for tiny homes with major tax bills in the suburbs, in exchange for a commuter train and schools. But what if workers never return to the office? What if public education never recovers? Why even bother with the suburbs when we live in a massive country with lots of opportunities? We could be in the midst of a de-industrial revolution — a return to rural life.

One of Steve’s co-workers was in Lake Placid on vacation when the pandemic hit. Instead of returning to the city, his family never left. Instead, they rented a house in that beautiful location. School and work was all online anyway. They might be living up in the Adirondacks mountains in upstate New York permanently now.

Because I’m an education policy geek, I always come back to schools. Right now, Ian’s teachers are doing superhero work, teaching kids in the classroom and at home AT THE SAME TIME (whew!) via little cameras mounted on classroom walls. In other nearby towns, the teachers refused to return to their physical schools altogether, and parents are marching in the streets in protest. We’ll see how this all plays out this year.

If the suburbs can’t manage to return to normal public education in the next few months, then there are few reasons to live here when there are cheaper options elsewhere. This summer, we drove our Subaru to six states (hence its visit to Jimmy the mechanic). We saw lakes and beaches, old graceful homes in the shadow of high mountains, red barns in fields of corn. Our car conversations have turned from theoretical, dream-world conversations about relocating into real ones, browsing home prices on the Zillow app.

We’re not ready for such drastic changes yet, but the small changes that have happened in our lives in the past few months are still tangible and important. My husband spends all day with our kids, instead of one exhausted hour in the evening. Last night, he took Ian to a cooking class at 5:00, so I could meet up with a group of my favorite special ed moms for drinks at the Bicari Grill, a restaurant that has relocated to a tent in a parking lot. He gained 15 hours every week – time previously spent dozing on a commuter train. He can help with household chores, freeing me up to do jobs like this newsletter.

Even if the nation-wide revolution doesn’t materialize, the revolution in our household has been sweet. 

24 thoughts on “Home Revolution, Newsletter Excerpt

  1. In contrast, this article, from the Atlantic: “Generation Work-From-Home May Never Recover: The social and economic costs borne by young people without offices”: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/10/career-costs-working-from-home/615472/

    “I had an inexpensive apartment in a small town that I loved, but it was far away from New York City, the country’s fashion capital. I wasn’t meeting anyone else who did similar work, wasn’t being invited to anything, wasn’t getting introduced to any friends of friends. If I had wanted or needed a new job, completely changing careers would probably have been easier than getting another gig in my field with the experience I’d accrued at home.”

    I think the success of remote work and remote life depends on whether people can successfully build and maintain social networks outside of school and work. For work and careers I still think the issue of what happens when there are budget cuts, furloughs, changes is unknown. I think people can work from home when their job is defined, but they will struggle when they need a new project.


    1. What I find difficult about working remotely is training and supervising subordinates. Training in a law office isn’t like university teaching, where the professor can simply lecture, it’s more like teaching grade school, where the teacher needs to sit down with the student, work through problems, read body language and facial expressions to see if the student is really understanding, etc.. Without that interaction, training is difficult, and if I can’t train the new people, then I have to keep giving work to the mid-level people I know and trust, or else do it myself. Neither of those bodes well for the future of the firm or the juniormost employees.


    2. I am hearing of at least one organization that is working hard to train new legal employees remotely. But, they are a legal aid organization and do client work, client specific, but not complex litigation.

      I think it might be possible to figure out how to train an associate remotely (for a grad student, for example, one would imagine critiquing their work and zoom conversations). But, why would you? if you can give the work to those who already know how to do it (and, they are not in short supply). The legal aid organization is expanding its work during the pandemic and needs more workers. That’s the problem, I think, for remote workers, whether they get the work that if they have not already proven they can do.


  2. Also, we’ll note that if a job can really be done remotely one does have to consider which jobs will bed one in even less expensive environments (not Lake Placid, but Goa as an example, or Mexico).


  3. There’s no way I’m moving somewhere that has like 60% Trump voters just to get some scenery. Been there, done that, not going back.


    1. But if enough of us moved there, we could change those places. I want restaurants, though, that’s what I’m not willing to give up. But, yes, I’m not willing to worry about the neighbors and their racism.


  4. We’ve gotten cold calls about buying our house too. And some realtor sent a photocopied, hand-written letter to the whole street. Nothing like the impersonal touch using 1967 technology.


      1. With the same effort and greater odds of looking like they weren’t just spamming the zip code, they could have printed personalized letters using a mail merge.


      2. We get ‘personalized’ letters, writing about ‘Sandra and Mike who have just re-located from overseas back to NZ and are highly motivated buyers keen to make an offer on your house’.
        The nextdoor neighbours get the same letter, but with ‘Christine and Tim’

        I suppose that *someone* must be convinced by the obvious spin…..

        House-prices here in NZ are up across the board by 15% (more in some areas than others) – driven by the influx of Kiwis returning home because of Covid, and record low interest rates (they’re talking about negative interest rates, now….).

        Really serious issue for us – we already had an extreme housing affordability crisis (not to mention the extreme housing crisis – not enough houses). Average house price in Auckland, where I live, is 980K $NZ – which is about 11+ times the average household income…..

        The internet mobility is continuing to drive up house prices in the regions as well – the whole ‘you can do your job anywhere’ thing.
        So families (in particular) are re-locating to scenic parts of the country – e.g. Gisborne – golden sand beaches, small town laid-back lifestyle, fantastic surf breaks, better weather than the rest of NZ, and average house price 50% or less than the big cities.


  5. Waiting to see what the outcome is going to be on education.
    There is still extreme competition to buy into the ‘best schools’ areas here – with house prices often 500K different on one side of a surburban street (in zone) and the other (out of zone).

    Historically gentrification of suburbs and cities has pushed demand (and revenue) onto the local schools to raise their game.

    [NB: School funding in NZ is different to the US – we have government funded schools (through national taxes) – with teachers all paid a standard salary range, wherever they teach. Government allocates more per-child funding to ‘poor’ areas than to ‘wealthy’ ones. But individual schools can ask for a parent ‘donation’ which is often around 1-2 thousand per year in wealthy schools, which is used to increase resourcing (e.g. teacher aides, or fund extra-curriculum activities (music, sport, etc.), and also have access to wealthy/connected alumni for fund-raising for infrastructure (sports, especially)]

    But I don’t see where the people gentrified out are going to go – as we are massively short of housing nationally – and neither national nor local governments have been able (or willing?) to effectively address this…


    1. If NZ is anything like the US, what the “good” schools have more than anything else is parents who are committed to education and who put pressure on their children to succeed academically. Money doesn’t change anything.


    2. Ann wrote, “[NB: School funding in NZ is different to the US – we have government funded schools (through national taxes) – with teachers all paid a standard salary range, wherever they teach. Government allocates more per-child funding to ‘poor’ areas than to ‘wealthy’ ones. But individual schools can ask for a parent ‘donation’ which is often around 1-2 thousand per year in wealthy schools, which is used to increase resourcing (e.g. teacher aides, or fund extra-curriculum activities (music, sport, etc.), and also have access to wealthy/connected alumni for fund-raising for infrastructure (sports, especially)]”

      That actually all sounds very familiar to the American ear–aside from salaries being set and funded at the national level.

      Our family just funded a canopy, a target for use with catapults, and ping pong balls for the aftercare program at Elementary-School-Near-MLK-BLVD. The aftercare program has been (very sensibly) moved outside due to the pandemic.


  6. I have a lot of mixed feelings about all of this. My family of 4, with two young children, are moving out of the city. It has nothing to do with the pandemic because we wanted to move in 2019 and didn’t get organized to do it. Why didn’t we get organized? Well, we do love living in the city. Right now many of the things we loved are unavailable or at least harder to do, from museums to dining to the ease of having friends to socialize with all living within a few blocks. Those things will come back, hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s not like the benefits of city living are permanently gone.

    On the other hand, I worry about New York in particular. The bipartisan effort to load up the MTA with debt instead of dealing with out of control costs is no longer feasible. If the subway doesn’t work, Manhattan really does die as a place to do business. New York faces a challenge- it can either wring the excess costs of living and doing business out or it can decline. But paying 10x what anyone else in the world pays for subway construction (and to be clear it is mostly corruption and incompetence) has got to end. And the same across a whole range of things. Prosperity over the last 30 years has allowed New York to paper over a lot of things that really are outrageously inefficient.

    Career wise, I actually started a new job shortly after lockdown started. That experience has made me brutally aware of two things. First, a lot of work really can be done remotely. Second, 100% remote is a little like eating the seed corn. It works in an emergency, but it’s not a long term plan. It is hard to make 100% remote work. I can’t imagine that most workers will be able to move to the middle of nowhere. Maybe work from home a few days a week – which would make a longer commute more manageable for the other days- but never come in to the office? Seems unsustainable.


  7. What about the huge regression for women in all of this? More cooking, homeschooling, more caregiving—COVID makes the second shift become the third shift! I don’t see a happy ending for the equitable division of labor


    1. And yet, it’s an ill wind that blows no good. One of my associates pointed that there is one giant benefit to working women from working at home, though it only applies to brief periods during the life of a typical woman: no pumping!


    2. I have never cared for my children full time except for brief periods (i.e vacations and maternity leave). I am entirely ill suited for being the sole care of my children and it has been interesting seeing how many women share that feature with me.

      Someone wrote an op-ed in the WSJ talking about how great work from home was because women love being able to spend time with their children. This appeared in my twitter feed with women writing things like “I hid in my crawl space with a bare light bulb & my laptop to finish a grant”.


  8. I’ve been holding my fingers and hoping that Hometown U.’s COVID situation will continue to improve. Today’s stats say total positivity around 5%, current active cases down more than 2/3 from the peak 10 days ago, total active cases lower than what they were on the first day of class, a handful of new cases, and surveillance positivity well under 1%.

    Take away: test and trace really does work.

    County positivity is down to 10%. I’d like to see better, but Hometown U. is doing really well and is not dragging the county down.


  9. This is an important piece of news for New Jersey and New York: https://www.wsj.com/articles/nyse-signals-it-will-exit-new-jersey-if-state-taxes-stock-trades-11599829203?mod=lead_feature_below_a_pos1

    The New York Stock Exchange is signaling that it will move its electronic trading systems out of New Jersey if the state implements a proposed tax on financial transactions.

    The NYSE said Friday that it will run one of its exchanges from a backup site in Chicago for a week as a demonstration of its readiness to quit the state, according to a notice sent to clients.

    News of the NYSE’s plan was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal. Two other exchange operators, Nasdaq Inc. and Cboe Global Markets Inc., also indicated on Friday that they may quit New Jersey over the tax.

    This article is not behind a paywall: https://nypost.com/2020/09/11/nyse-eyes-exiting-nj-if-state-taxes-stock-trades/?link=mktw

    This is the death knell for New York and New Jersey as we know them:
    State Assemblyman John McKeon, the lead sponsor of the bill, said in an interview last month that he proposed the legislation because the state is “desperate for funds.”

    “If our state is blessed to have the geography that is able to serve that function for the financial markets, then why shouldn’t we be in the position to potentially be paid for that?” said Mr. McKeon, a Democrat.

    It’s not geography. It’s not the Rocky Mountains, or the Gulf of Mexico.


    1. Amazon succeeded in killing a tax in Seattle using such pressure. What’s the bottom line, though? A world in which the kind of services people expect in NJ (schools, for example) disappear in favor of individually funded services. This battle for lowest taxes (least regulation, least labor protection, least environmental protection) in a highly mobile workspace brings everyone to the lowest common denominator. It is the globalization problem writ within the United States. As I’ve mentioned before, if the NYSE can move to Chicago, will they next move to India? or London? or Malta? Regulatory issues and a belief in the strength of financial systems in the US will prevent those moves in the short term, but in the long term?


      1. I’m pragmatic, not emotional. The revolution in computing has caused increases in productivity in many areas. Government is maybe one of the last trees to fall.

        In New York, the securities industry represents 17% of the state tax revenues, and 6% of NYC tax revenues: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/2020/03/new-york-state-comptroller-dinapoli-wall-street-bonuses-and-profits-slightly-2019-facing-sharp-fall

        Reading about Indian banking scandals is distracting, but mesmerizing. It would probably be better for the world if investing in India or Cyprus were as safe as investing in the US. We aren’t there yet.

        In terms of taxes, businesses appreciate the quality of life provided by an adequate tax base. However, there’s a duty on the part of the legislators to make sure their state is not out-competed by other states. Government could provide the same services on a more cost-efficient basis by using computers. It’s already happening in the newspaper industry; ever fewer people read newspapers on paper, but readers can access news articles from across the globe in seconds. It’s happening in the public schools; going remote would have been impossible not long ago.


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