Numlock Sunday: Christopher Ingraham is thriving

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Chris Ingraham who wrote “Vaxxed, vibing, and totally thriving” for The Why Axis, his newly launched indie publication. Here's what I wrote about it:

The percentage of Americans who said they considered themselves to be “thriving” has hit an all-time high according to Gallup, with 59.2 percent of American respondents indicating to the pollster that they rated their livelihoods between a seven and 10 on a 10-point scale. This is by far the highest mark in the 13 years of ongoing polling, and a significant rebound from the sub-50 percent lows notched over the course of the 2020. At press time, the percentage who considered themselves either “thirty” or “flirty” was as yet unclear.

The last time Ingraham joined us on the Numlock Sunday was when he released his book, If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now, which tells the story of the time he blogged his way into moving to Northern Minnesota. I am a huge fan of his work, and when he announced he was splitting from the Washington Post to launch his new newsletter The Why Axis I wanted to bring him on to chat.

We spoke about how and why the national mood has perked up, the Golden Age of data blogging, the Dark Age of data blogging, and his new venture.

Ingraham can be found at The Why Axis and on Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Chris, you have just launched a brand new newsletter called The Why Axis. Last week, you published a story about how America is thriving again. Would you like to talk a little bit about this story and what got you interested in it?

The newsletter is called The Why Axis and what it is basically is I'm just looking for interesting charts and data that capture something about the way we live now. And I'm really interested in offbeat stuff and off the beaten track data. This was actually one of the more straightforward things, this was about Gallup data. They're a big polling organization, and one of the things they do is they track happiness and well-being, and they do it in every country in the world and they do it over time, and they’ve been doing it for over a decade. The big set of numbers for the United States just came out, and it was pretty interesting.

What they found generally is that during the pandemic, well-being just fell off a cliff, as you'd expect, because we've all been through a lot in the past year between the pandemic and the election, it was a lot and a lot of people were feeling burnt out, tired and just overwhelmed. But what they found is since then, starting in 2021, basically American well-being is almost literally off the charts. It's the highest that they have ever captured in their 13 years of doing this particular type of survey in the United States. I thought that was pretty surprising because life is still a challenge for a lot of people.

A lot of people aren't vaccinated, a lot of people are still sick, we've got 200 people a day dying still. If you had said a year ago that like, "Okay, so a year from now, we're going to have 200 people a day dying of a new preventable disease, but Americans are going to be happier than they've ever been," it would just sound nuts. But that's where we're at today and that's our reality.

It's really, really interesting because you see the chart and it proceeds fairly as expected last year with instantaneous despair and then getting back a little bit, but then despair again as the back nine of the year. And it has just rebounded in such a remarkable way.

Gallup attributes that, and I think they're absolutely right, I think the two big things are first of all the vaccinations. People are vaccinated and the people who are vaccinated, they're going out, they're seeing their friends again, they're getting that socialization and that human contact that so many of us missed over the past two years because we were locked down, we had to keep our distance. The vaccination and all the benefits that that brings help it. The economy's coming back now in part because of vaccination. But then, the other big thing I think is just a tremendous amount of stimulus that the federal government has pushed out over the past year has really put a fair amount of money into people's pockets.

As we see, that makes a big difference. If you want people to be happy, give them money. That sense of financial comfort is traditionally not something that we associate with the American economy, which is much more cutthroat and ruthless than other advanced economies in the world. All of a sudden we have these people who are flush with cash from government stimulus, and I think that and the vaccine has people feeling pretty good right now.

I want to talk a little bit about you launching independently. I have enjoyed your work a very long time, you were at Wonkblog for a while at
The Washington Post, you'd been at The Washington Post for a little while. Two weeks ago you left and started your own shingle at The Why Axis. What are you looking to work on?

First let me say, I will always love the Post. The Post is such a great newsroom and there, as you probably know, there are a lot of problems with American journalism right now, and I think the Post actually does it a lot better than most other places. But I was just beat, man, I was in the doldrums at the bottom of this well-being chart. The past year was rough, being locked down with the pandemic and stuck with the kids and doing homeschooling and trying to work and dealing with the election and the rising authoritarianism and like, "Are we going to have a coup or are we not going to have a coup?" I was just burnt out. I needed to do something different.

One thing that I had in the back of my mind is trying to recapture some of that old bloggy spirit of old school Wonkblog of 2015, 2016, basically the pre-Trump era. In my mind, and this is probably a function of just working in a weird niche in the media, but after Trump, everything changed. Before that, there was a big audience and appetite for offbeat stuff and random stuff and casual and lighthearted and funny and conversational stuff. When Trump came into power, and the 2016 election, everything got a lot more dark and a lot more serious. It was a lot harder to joke around because you say something offhand and somebody picks it up and takes it out of context and then the entire Washington Post is being attacked for some dumb joke you made or whatever.

I wanted to step back from that a bit and just get back to what really got me into data and writing to begin with, which is just the offbeat stuff. There are so many facets of our lives that are quantified now, and it's really interesting. I wanted to step back to be able to capture some of that, do some experimenting with it and see where it takes me.

It's been a really great start. You could say it's offbeat but, again, folks will remember the last time that you came talking about your book, you wrote an offbeat blog that eventually led you to move to Minnesota. There's a lot of fun stuff out there that I felt we were missing out on for a few years.

I've heard this too from other people who work in the space who do data reporting — they're like, "Man, it is harder to pitch just the fun stuff right now," and in part because especially over the past year, there's just been so much fundamentally broken with society that like, "Okay, I want to write 500 words about goats," or whatever, this is not going to fly because there's only so much space in the paper and we need to write about the pandemic that's killing 600,000 people. But one thing that I think is I wonder how many stories the press has just missed over the past year because there's just so much horrible stuff going on that we needed to focus on. This isn't just about data either, this is just about everything. What is flying under the radar and what have we not been able to focus on?

There's a lot of great stuff out there, there's a lot of government agencies just churning out all sorts of interesting stuff. Yeah, my own life, it was upended by an errant blog post back in 2015 about the most beautiful and the ugliest places in America based on government data. And as a result of that, I ended up moving out to the "ugliest place" in America, which is Northwest Minnesota, which I will just say to the haters and skeptics who thought that I would only last a winter or two out here, I am still here, I'm going into my sixth year! We'll be doing my sixth Northern Minnesota winter coming in, starting in September, basically. We're still here, we're doing it.

Do you have any remarks on the explosion of the cricket population in the area, Chris?

I have absolutely no comment on that. My lawyers and my wife especially have instructed me to not say anything about cricket, cricket is a verboten word in this house now.

To your point, we've missed out on so much. You had a really fun post, I want to say a week or two ago, about the jorts and how they've exploded in popularity and that's just not the kind of thing that you'd be able to write under the constant doom and gloom.

Yeah, exactly. When I think about data and when I think a lot of people think about data they think about it as something very serious and very objective and it's numbers, people hate numbers or whatever and it's just like it has to be boring and dry and it's just facts. But I think of data — and I know you do too — I think of it as a type of communication, it's just like words. Anything that you can do with words, you can do with data. You can be ironic, you can be lighthearted, you can have fun, you can mislead and you can be full of it. But it's a method of communication.

I think a lot of that communication in mainstream sources right now tends to be very serious and very to the point and like capital-D Data, but there is a whole other way of looking at and communicating and exploring data and using data to understand yourself. I think we're shortchanging ourselves, so I'm trying to capture some of that and see what other things can we do with that to make it a little more fun and to tell us things that we had no idea we even had questions about.

It's so interesting that you highlight that because that is a thing that I've just noticed where a lot of places that really thrived on fun data stuff, I don't know whether it was the algorithms from social media companies changed that started to disincentivize it, I don't know if it was the prevailing national narrative that you were getting at a moment ago, or if it's just changing tastes or people gunning for awards more, but it just felt so weird that the internet used to be full of fun data-oriented takes and whatnot and it just seemed to really flatten out for a period there. It's just really good to see that you're really getting back to form, I'm really enjoying it so far.

Yeah, I think you're absolutely right, and I think your point about the algorithm changes, I think that's absolutely part of it. A lot of that was driven by Facebook traffic back in the day, and that was what Facebook was looking for. I think it's a combination of that change and that just Trump narrative and the national crisis.

But, yeah, it's fun. It's weird not being restrained by the, how shall I say it, the style guidelines of a national newspaper that bills itself as a family newspaper. Because I can feel some of that relaxation and casualness coming back. It's nice to get back into that form and I feel like I'm able to communicate a little bit more as myself and I think readers are responding to that, which is nice to see.

What can we look forward to over the rest of the summer as you find your sea legs on this?

I'm going to be doing all sorts of offbeat data stuff. One of the things I really want to dig into is there's a lot of cool data about Mars out there because this year is such a big Mars year with the rovers and everything. There's just a lot of really interesting stuff about space that doesn't get talked about much outside of space and science journalism context. I'd like to dig into that, just from a pure exploratory standpoint.

Basically, I've just got my ear to the ground for anything interesting, offbeat and surprising. I will say if you or any of your readers have any data that they've been curious about or any questions, drop me a line, I'm happy to dig into whatever.

The newsletter is
The Why Axis. The book is If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now. Where can folks find you and your work and all that?

The Why Axis — W-H-Y Axis, aha, play on words there — I'm a fellow Substacker just like you. You can also find me on Twitter @_cingraham. I'm basically on Twitter all the time so if anyone has any questions, drop me a line, drop me a message, I'll be there. And otherwise, thanks so much for having me today.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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