Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Psychological Effects of Money

Wealth has its perils, especially if you are trying to live "the good life" according to Aristotle. The results of several groundbreaking empirical studies reveal that people of means are, well . . mean. And what they lack in ethics, they sure make up for in the moral certitude department.

The richer, more superior, and thus entitled the folks in these experiments are made to feel, the more likely they are to lie, cheat and steal. They become increasingly prone to attributing their successes and (unearned) advantages to individual greatness, not accidents of birth, circumstance or history - or in this case, a blatantly rigged monopoly game.

Unsurprisingly, when a reversal of fortune demotes them from riches to rags, the wealthy become instantly kinder and more generous. With the world no longer trod-able underfoot, kindness and compassion become key to survival.  

These experiments offer fascinating insight into the mindset of a status driven, wealth obsessed society like our own. Which by the way is experiencing the highest level of wealth inequity in over a century (the highest amongst all advanced OECD nations in the world). Extreme economic disparities aren't good for anyone. You don't need to be a scientist to understand why, but these experts do some invaluable explaining by excavating the deep psychological machinery and systems of thought at work in our lives and society.

To slay the ogre of greed, we first have to understand it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Empathy Gap

"Rich People Just Care Less" - Daniel Goleman, NYT

Money is obviously a corrupting force, but in the editorial above Goleman discusses the "the empathy gap," or what I call "the politics of contempt." Science is showing that wealthy folks struggle to see the people below them as worthy of attention, meaning they are unable to recognize the humanity of others.

The well-heeled disregard ordinary folk. They're predisposed to tuning into people in equal or higher positions of power. The rest of us they just ignore. That partly explains why wealthy politicians can shut the government down in our face and aggressively dismantle key life-saving programs like EBT and WIC. 

It's ironic we valorize the rich when in reality they are the most dangerous class among us. The desire for power and wealth always involves a certain degree of narcissism and entitlement. But in reality it takes a village to raise a millionaire. They build their empire on the backs of our labor and talent utilizing an infrastructure paid for by our tax dollars. And then claim we're lazy, while refusing to share in the increased wealth resulting from increased worker productivity. 

We should stop glamorizing the rich because according to the newest research they exhibit some basic sociopathic tendencies. If money makes people less humane, then we can conclude that rich people are bad for society and the survival of our species. They certainly shouldn't be our leaders because they don't value us little people, their constituency.

Further reading: "The Money-Empathy Gap: How Money Makes People Act Less Human" - The New Yorker 

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's the Economy, Stupid

This week I had the pleasure of catching up with several old friends. Some I hadn't seen for almost a decade. Most are in their late forties or early fifties, and despite the fact that their careers crisscross diverse fields and economic brackets, our conversations were dominated by a single theme: the tanking economy and the plight of the poor and working classes.

At first I assumed the choice of conversation was my own fault, as someone fixated on and negatively impacted by the "prestige economy." Perhaps it was my orbit pulling them in, I thought. But I was wrong. No one was orchestrating a thing, conversation was organic and the topic compelling because we were articulating our individual needs.

And surprisingly, those I thought best poised to dodge the recession hadn't.

Pretty accurate.

My friends are not optimistic about the future. For the most part, they fear it. It's a bugbear of sorts because they are all job insecure, even if currently employed.

Two were recently laid off decades deep into their careers. Another fears his company will be liquidated at any moment due to shareholder cupidity and corruption. Another hasn't found good work despite years of unflagging effort. Sometimes she wonders if she has a better shot of building a secure life in her hometown of Baghdad, despite it being ranked the least inhabitable city in the world by reputable Mercer 2011 Quality of Living Survey. (Thanks 'Merica.)

My professor at Evergreen is the only one fairing well, besides the open-heart surgery he's anticipating next month (I'm confident he'll make a full recovery). His age and career have allowed him to sidestep the carnage of the recession, but he reassured me my exasperation wasn't unique. Most of his former students are experiencing chronic underemployment as well, including the one who joined our lunch halfway through. She's currently a part-timer at a local NGO. Part-time nonprofit work, no matter how worthy the cause, is always precarious and poorly compensated and rarely provides health insurance.

My professor tried to cheer me up with a loving barrage of boosterism about the brightness of my future, but with my nerves so raw, I found myself feeling worse, less deserving, as I caught myself losing faith in those who have the most faith in me.

Everywhere I turn, people are telling me the same distressing story. Swapping gloomy tirades, I recently wrote to a friend:

"This job market is fucked." Precisely. And so is this country. I don't see a future here for me. Neither do most people I know my age. Your story is one I hear repeated over and over again, especially among those I lost touch with. It's surreal. I am glad to hear you feel these times are unprecedented. Nice to know things weren't always this way, even though I'm extremely cynical about the future. The American Dream is dead.

I am part raging and part demoralized by this new(ish) reality. The richer get richer while the rest of us languish. With the middle class shrinking, wages stagnating, benefits shrinking, disproportionate income gains going to the wealthy, and student debt (over $1 trillion) outpacing credit card debt, the possibility of a decent life recedes.
It's all fucked.

I don't see a Master's being a way out credential wise, but studying abroad will help me internationalize my network. I see myself living abroad for years.

Hell, if I don't find work here in three months I am willing to head back to Egypt. At least I can teach English there and study Arabic. I rather face chronic political instability and violent clashes than this bullshit state of permanent vassalage. So tired of it and I haven't even established a career yet.

My dream job? Writing, academia, activism. But the first two are extremely elite occupations. The amount of credentials and prestige it takes to enter those fields is seriously unattainable for me. I'm not sure I would want to be part of such a prestige network that locks so many people out. Rather work to dismantle it. But activism is tough, pays poorly, if at all. But it will definitely define some aspect of my future work.

So I don't know. Head overseas in two years to Belfast for a masters and hope I don't return.

Right now I am just looking for something to pay the bills. Thank god I have no student loan debt. Average person under 35 has $27,000 worth. Why completely cripple the next generation? It's madness.

Each conversation (especially in person) leaves me more fired up but weary; the adrenaline fades as quickly as the malaise sets in. I currently have no job to provide me with a buffer, or the illusion of security. And I'm too aware of the structural constraints and injustices of our system to fault the individual.

The problem is huge, systemic, jarring. It's not a recession issue but a human rights issue. The people are at the mercy of a colluding, two-fold juggernaut: corporate greed and dysfunctional government.

So to make my life easier, I decided to marshal the statistics I use most when discussing the economy. Some sound obscene, impossible. And I admit, I've had to double check the numbers a few times after feeling ridiculous reciting them. But yeah, they're kosher.

Humbly, I present them, read 'em and weep.

The Economy:

  • "Top 1 percent own more than 40% of the nation’s approximately $54 trillion in wealth, they earn about 19% of the income. That leaves the bottom 80 percent with a meager 7 percent of the wealth, or, to look at it another way, the wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth of the nation’s poorest – more than 150 million people, which is almost half the population" (Could America's Wealth Gap Lead To A Revolt? - Forbes).

  • Massive generational wealth gap - "The wealth gap today between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record. The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494, 42 percent higher than in 1984, while the median net worth for younger-age households is $3,662, down 68 percent from a quarter century ago, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center." (Are Millennials the Screwed Generation? - Newsweek).

  • "Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net, or, more generally, countries whose governments "tax and spend" at higher rates, reflecting the greater range of services and protections offered by the state. (These findings come from analysis of data from the World Values Surveys for the 21 Western industrial democracies from 1981 to 2007 for my book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness." Similar findings have been reported in peer-reviewed journals like "Social Research" and the "Social Indicators Research.")" (Western nations with social safety net happier - CNN).

  • Americans work the longest hours for the least in return - "Meanwhile, the average German worker puts in 394 hours less than an American each year -- or nearly 10 fewer weeks. Germany is way smaller than the United States in area, population and resources, but still manages to be the fourth largest economy and third largest exporter in the world"(Why the 40-hour workweek is too long - MSNBC)

Higher Education:

$1 trillion in student debt. [Bloomberg]

Millennials and the economy

- See more at:

Millennials and the economy

- See more at:
Don't get me started on healthcare: "Epic Failure: The American Healthcare System."

Some solutions:

Redefining our values:

Redefining the economy:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Taking On The Prestige Economy

The first step to a collective solution is to realize this is a collective problem.

If you are under 30 (and probably older), you are on the same sinking ship. It does not matter if you work at Burger King or at a think tank; odds are you can’t pay your bills and have an education you are being told is worthless. You are also told, either explicitly or tacitly, not to talk about it.

We need to remove the shame from struggle and privation. The exploiter should feel ashamed, not the person exploited. If people do not feel comfortable discussing their financial hardship, or their misgivings about an economy in which they are unfairly advantaged, then no progress will be made. Erase the stigma. Redefine success and failure. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. You are not your job — especially because you probably do not have a job.

If you grew up in the prestige economy, you have been trained to see life as a competition. But if you are young, you are losing no matter what. You will have better luck in the long run by rearranging the social order, rebuilding broken institutions, and broadening opportunity for all.

And that means you need to look out for the people at the bottom, because they know the score. Go talk to people — all kinds of people. There are lines of class and race and geography that are drawn — cross them and find similarities. If I had a more direct solution than this, I’d tell you. But we are in the beginning of this fight, and broadening the conversation, finding out what people want and what barriers they face and how to eliminate these barriers. That is the first step.

A denied dream is something that matters; it is not something to be dismissed for anyone, regardless where they come from or whose “fault” people believe it is. Mistaking bad luck for bad character is one of the great cruelties of our time.

A prestige economy promotes superiority through affiliation. Make your affiliation other people, not institutions set to screw you. Build new affiliations through empathy. You are in this together, so fight together — through legal channels, through public dialogue, through organized protest, but most of all, through standing up for others, seeing their struggle as your own. 

Prestige is not the same thing as respect. You can have self-respect; you cannot have self-prestige. Show respect to yourself and to others.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Great Sarah Kendzior Catch-Up!

I had been avoiding Sarah Kendzior for weeks, no, months. Not the person, but the writer. I knew if I went to her blog and read her latest work for Aljazeera English I would get steamrolled by a heady mix of emotions and enter a state of permanent agitation. That is the power of her research and writing. Her prose is effective and clear, even aphoristic. She crystallizes complex suffering and ignites a productive anguish under the feet of the reader, a kind of rage that pulsates, that doesn't want just answers, but solutions - and a fight.

However, reading her work can be a risky affair because her texts are heavily hyperlinked, leading to a long chain of detours that's hard to resist. By the time I have recovered any sense of time or space I am hours into a righteous tailspin, consumed by one good piece of writing after the next. But I can't stop myself because Kendzior and others are speaking truth to power, to the fundamental injustices of our economic system, an increasingly aristocratic system that transpires to enrich the richest at the expense of the rest.

These days we labor harder than ever, productivity is up, profits are up, executive compensation is up - but workers' wages are down. For decades they have flat-lined. Wealth is not distributed (in any sense of the word) in this society, it is hoarded, stockpiled and locked away by the captains of industry and finance, despite the fact that such a cruel, unsparing picture is at odds with our deepest sensibilities as individuals and as a people. As Kendzior writes:
Based on data from a 2011 study, the video showed that most Americans seek a more equitable distribution of wealth than what they believe exists - but that the reality of income inequality is far worse than they had imagined. When income was graphed, the middle class was barely distinguishable from the poor. 80 percent of Americans have 7 percent of the nation's wealth, while 1 percent of Americans have 40 percent of the nation's wealth.
Here's the video, based on the Harvard study, that went viral:

Forbes notes:
A recent YouTube video that went viral brings home just how stark the wealth gap in America has become. According to the video, almost all of us perceive the wealth distribution as unfair, and 92% of the 5,000 Americans polled think that it should be more equitable – Republicans and Democrats alike. That’s nothing new. 

However, what is striking is the vast disparity between what the average American believes the wealth gap to be, and what it actually is. The reality in graphic form shows that the bottom 40% barely register, and the top 1 percent already own more of the wealth than most Americans think the top 20% should own in a fair society.

Our own exploitation is being normalized. Where are our economic rights? Our healthcare rights? Our educational rights? Economic inequality (The Movie!) is reaching a dangerous tipping point in American history, and new terms signal new defeats: precariat, permatern, etc. We are in trouble, a trouble etched into my own being as a precariat currently engaged in a demoralizing race-to-the-bottom just to save enough money to say my goodbyes and pursue an affordable education abroad.

So in order to exorcize these demons and spur catharsis I am going to return to blogging (as if my presence was missed lol) and narrow my focus to the economy, this prestige economy, as Kendzior puts it. At least this way, insha'allah, I can sleep at night while sharpening my senses during the light hours.

Warning: hyperlink party ahead!

"Zero opportunity employers"
The recent death of an impoverished adjunct professor in the US highlights the broader case for workers' rights.

A US Senate panel's attempt to define 'journalist' pleases some and dismays others.

"Mothers are not 'opting out' - they are out of options"
In the United States, mothers are increasingly finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"The American dream: Survival is not an aspiration"
Equal opportunity and upward mobility is a long-lost American Dream.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Epic Failure: The American Healthcare System

Why do Americans pay so much for healthcare and get so little in return? Our current system is one of - if not the most - expensive system in the world. PBS NewsHour reports that we pay $8,233 per year per person: "That figure is more than two-and-a-half times more than most developed nations in the world, including relatively rich European countries like France, Sweden and the United Kingdom."

An ongoing year long investigation by The New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal reveals that it "costs $13,660 for an American to have a hip replacement in Belgium," while "in the U.S., it's closer to $100,000." 

That modest $13,660 sum even covers airfare and rehabilitation, while the price range for the American version can top out at a stiff $130,000. What's even more astonishing is that both surgeries utilize American manufactured hip joints. Same product. But absurdly divergent prices.  

But Americans are some of the healthiest specimens on earth, right? Wrong. It's time we ditch this falsehood. Considering costs, our healthcare system performs poorly with embarrassingly dismal outcomes.

Here's where we stand:

Life-expectancy: #51

On the CIA World Factbook page you will find that citizens of the EU, Jordan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Australia, Bermuda and Hong Kong enjoy a longer life on average than Americans. Number one on the list is Monaco with Monacans enjoying more than an extra decade of life.

Infant mortality:  #30

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that for infant mortality we have fallen "behind most European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Israel (5)." In 1960 we were #12. CBS News also reported in 2013 that we have the highest first-day infant mortality rates in the industrialized world.

Premature death: #16

Out of 16 high income nations, the US comes in dead last. The Common Wealth Fund writes: "The United States placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care, according to a Commonwealth Fund–supported study that appeared online in the journal Health Policy."

Reuters reports that France, Japan and Australia rank best in preventing premature death. Again, the USA is last - out of 19 leading industrialized nations.

Such vastly inferior healthcare outcomes compared to other wealthy countries that spend much less can mean only one thing: that our healthcare system disappoints (sucks) when ranked internationally. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the 2000 World Health Report ranks the performance of America's healthcare system 37th in the world.

Yeah that's right: #37. To say we are in need of reform is an understatement. A major overhaul is calling. Our system is inadequate, inferior, and more importantly, inaccessible to huge numbers of folks. Still, Americans who do have healthcare pay too much. The majority of medical bankruptcies are declared by the insured and more than half of bankruptcies are medically related, reports CNN:

"Unless you're a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you're one illness away from financial ruin in this country," says lead author Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School, in Cambridge, Mass. "If an illness is long enough and expensive enough, private insurance offers very little protection against medical bankruptcy, and that's the major finding in our study."

The Washington Post's "21 graphs that show America’s health-care prices are ludicrous" makes it heart-attack-inducingly clear that costs are ridiculously exorbitant for us all. But why? 

NPR Terry Gross's recent interview with NYT's reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal explains why our medical bills are prohibitively high and what solutions can be gleaned from our European counterparts. It's definitely worth listening to:

Americans pay more for health care than people in many other developed countries, and Elisabeth Rosenthal is trying to find out why. The New York Times correspondent is spending a year investigating the high cost of health care. The in her series, "Paying Till It Hurts," examined what the high cost of colonoscopies reveals about our health care system; the explained why the American way of birth is the costliest in the world; and the third, published this week in The Times, told the story of one man who found it cheaper to fly to Belgium and have his hip replaced there, than to have the surgery performed in the U.S.

As she details the case of the American medical tourist in Belgium, getting his hip replaced for a mere $13,660 compared to $100,000 in the States, Rosenthal exposes the factors driving up costs for Americans. The core issue is a lack of regulation, which creates a free-for-all for those providing the products and services. And because everyone wants to skim the fat off the top, the whole process is itemized - or what's called "unbundled" in technical terms. Unbundling is rarely done in Europe and elsewhere where prices are much lower.

Unbundling means that for a typical surgical procedure, like a hip replacement, you are charged an exorbitant fee for every aspect or thing involved in the process, down to the baby aspirin. Because the government doesn't use its massive bargaining power in setting prices and bargaining with medical providers and suppliers (like it does when setting electricity rates), companies can charge what they see fit; and of course, what is fit to them is profit. Rosenthal reports that in the rest of the developed world the government intervenes to set rates. In Europe prices are bundled and highly regulated. Without this sort of regulation, the capitalists running the show monetize the whole system and profit off our bodies.

My mom has been an RN (Registered Nurse) for nearly thirty years and has worked for non-profit as well as for-profit hospitals. She says they are all the same. The end goal is maximizing revenue. I asked her about this à la carte markup of medical costs. What goes into the excessively high cost of that hip replacement surgery? In no specific order she rambled off:

Operating room fee, recovery room fee, other floor fees, anesthesiologist/drugs, surgeon, hip joint and tool kit, medication (routine and/or prescribed), pain meds, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, lab work - CBC, PT, PTT, CMP, IV fluid, IV starts, heating pad, tedhose, oxygen, pre-op nurse, recovery nurse, any other supplies. 

If she had specifics about the surgery, she claims the list would carry on. For each of these items we are charged outrageously inflated prices, by the time the bill is tallied we face the following nightmare: 

Source: Washington Post

Bottom line, we are getting shafted. Big time. Don't worry, the only thing at stake is our lives. What we have here is a case of mercantile principles overriding basic human principles, rights and values. Really, it's unconscionable. Medical care is a human right, not a privilege. This axiom is the philosophy underpinning healthcare systems elsewhere that are managed better than ours, are cheaper and more effective. As one of the wealthiest nations on earth we are capable of much more. A humane, affordable system is not unthinkable; it exists and is exemplified throughout the world.

After listening to the NPR segment, I would definitely check out Rosenthal's first three pieces in the New York Times series to gain a broader understanding of the issue. Ironically, the problem is not as complicated as it is enormous. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Must Watch: Demystifying Unions (National Public Radio)

Bill Fletcher (Image via
Why are Americans so willing to give up their rights in the workplace? Where are we in the long (and storied) fight for worker rights? How do we best address the power differential inherent in the relationship between worker and employer? Listen to the discussion with activist and scholar Bill Fletcher: "Demystifying Unions with Bill Fletcher Jr."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Race On Trial

For all the unbelievers who doubt the Zimmerman/Martin trial had anything to do with race, I suggest browsing the following statistics.

The stigma attached to "racial difference" is so deeply embedded in the American psyche I doubt we will ever be totally free of it. 

"The Death Penalty, Race, and the Victim" - Lisa Wade, PhD, Sociological Images
There is much to be worried about when one considers the role racial discrimination plays in delivering the death penalty.  Scholars are newly looking to the way that the race of homicide victims, instead of the defendants, shape outcomes.  It turns out a disproportionate number of people who are executed under the death penalty have been convicted of murdering a white person (Amnesty International):

See also, "Framing Children's Deviance" by Lisa Wade

"Whites and African-Americans in America by the numbers" - Prof. Juan Cole, Informed Comment 
Average household net worth of whites: $110,000. Average household net worth of African-Americans: $5000

"Selective Responses to Threat: The Roles of Race and Gender in Decisions to Shoot" - E. Ashby Plant, Joanna Goplen, Jonathan W. Kunstmam,  Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA, Sage Journal
Extensive work over the past decade has shown that race can bias perceptions and responses to threat. However, the previous work focused almost exclusively on responses to men and overlooked how gender and the interaction of race and gender influence decisions regarding use of force. In the current article, two studies examine the implications of gender (Study 1) and both race and gender (Study 2) for decisions to shoot criminal suspects on a computerized simulation. In Study 1, participants were biased away from shooting White female suspects compared to White male suspects. In Study 2, White participants showed a pronounced bias toward shooting Black men but a bias away from shooting Black women and White ingroup members, providing evidence of a behavioral threat-related response specific to outgroup men stereotypically associated with aggression. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

"Racism Without Racists (LAPD version)" - Jay Livingston, Montclair SocioBlog 
Los Angeles police are much more likely to stop blacks and Latinos than they are to stop whites. And when they stop someone, they are more likely to frisk or search minorities than whites. Here’s a graph from the ACLU report that collected the data. The principle author is Ian Ayres. (The full report and data set are here.)

"Who Would You Shoot?" - Lauren McGuire, Sociological Images 
They found that people hesitated longer to shoot an armed white target (and they were more likely to accidentally not shoot). Participants were quicker and more accurate with black armed targets but there were more “false alarms” (shooting them when they were unarmed). These effects were present even though participants did not hold any explicit discriminatory views and wanted to treat all targets fairly.

The effect we see here is a subconscious but measurable preference to give white men the benefit of the doubt in these ambiguous situations. Decision times can vary by a fraction of a second, but that fraction can mean life or death for the person on the other end of the gun.

"Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men?" - Philip N. Cohen, PhD, Sociological Images
In conversation, I keep accidentally referring to Zimmerman’s defense lawyers as “the prosecution.” Not surprising, because the defense of George Zimmerman was only a defense in the technical sense of the law. Substantively, it was a prosecution of Trayvon Martin. And in making the case that Martin was guilty in his own murder, Zimmerman’s lawyers had the burden of proof on their side, as the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin wasn’t a violent criminal.

This raises the question, who’s afraid of young black men? Zimmerman’s lawyers took the not-too-risky approach of assuming that white women are (the jury was six women, described by the New York Times as five white and one Latina).

"How America has Failed African-American Youth, by the Numbers" - Prof. Juan Cole, Informed Comment
By some measures, African-American youth unemployment is 42%. Graph: Youth unemployment by age and race:

"Racial profiling experiment done by ABC": Talk about jaw-dropping... check out this racial profiling experiment done with actors posing as thieves. Arguably, the people in this experiment are interpreting what they are seeing through a racialized (and gendered) lens, linking up blackness to delinquency and crime. It's an extraordinary and depressing demonstration of racial profiling.

[Spoiler alert: The white thief is mostly left to his own devices as he saws through the bike chain, while the black thief is nearly set upon by an angry, mostly white mob that appears to have the police on speed dial.]

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sarah Carr On The Deepening Crisis In Egypt

I've amassed quite a link dump since my last post, but lucky for you there's just one piece of required reading: Sarah Carr's recent article in Mada Masr, "On sheep and infidels" -- a well-reasoned distress call over the tectonic shifts of the past week and what they bode for the future.

No one on the scene is as alert and articulate as Carr. She's a go-to source for coverage that's fiercely independent, morally consistent and rooted in an intimate knowledge of local affairs. Carr was the last voice I quoted before the coup. Her words were premonitory and accurate.

Army fires on pro-Morsi crowds in the early hours. (Aljazeera)

For further reading, here are some of those other links:

On the recent bloodshed; Army kills 51 Mosri supporters:


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sexual Harassment Blights The Whole Nation

From Mashallah blog:

Drawing posted by ‎The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, concerning the incidents of sexual harassment in Tahrir.

Important organizations that fight sexual harassment in Egypt:

Harassmap: @harassmap
Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault: @OpAntiSH
Tahrir Bodyguard:  @TahrirBodyguard

Also: Shoft Tahrosh ("I Saw Harassment") and horrific first-hand accounts from survivors at Nazra for Feminist Studies.

Please consider donating to Harassmap's latest effort, a brilliant nation-wide media initiative aimed at changing society's attitude toward sexual harassment and assault - not just in Tahrir, but across the nation, where its everyday manifestations make life and the public sphere inhospitable for women as they work, study, travel and socialize.

The following article is Aljazeera's latest reporting on the sexually violent turn protests have taken since the original protests that overthrew Mubarak. At that time, winter 2011, Tahrir was a utopic space in which men and women demonstrated and camped out together without incident. It's recalled with great nostalgia by those who lived it. Sexual assault as a political tactic to terrorize dissent is not new and preceded the revolution, but an overall social impassivity toward sexual harassment and violence has allowed assaults of all kinds - politically motivated or not - to flourish. The situation is nothing short of a public health crisis.

While chants and songs boomed in the city's packed Tahrir Square, the epicentre of million-man marches that toppled two presidents in three years, mobs of sexual predators blended within the crowds, hounding female prey.
Although there are no official chronicles of the number of victims, local human rights groups claim more than 100 women were abused since protests started on June 28, with at least two cases of rape recorded.
"It's no longer accurate to refer to such assaults as mere sexual harassment. They are sexual terrorism," Fathi Farid, coordinator of local human rights group I Saw Harassmenttold Al Jazeera.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wealth And Poverty In The USA

Some economic news and analysis making the social media rounds:

I. On poverty:

The majority of poor people in the US are white and suburban. With non-Latino whites making up 64% of the general population, which is highly suburbanized, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet putting a white face on American poverty clashes with prevailing attitudes that strongly associate poverty with non-whiteness, and whiteness with wealth. While the assumption that (most) communities of color are generally poorer than their white counterparts is an accurate reading of racial gaps in wealth, it fails to capture the sharp polarization of wealth in American society as a whole.

Thinking of poverty as simply a minority issue obscures the nature of class conflict in our society. The poor person racializied as white and the poor person racialized as a person of color have more in common than they imagine. Realizing this disrupts the expectation that the laboring classes will remain divided among themselves and in thrall to the political, economic and cultural interests of the elite - an identification that is at odds with our own possibilities of freedom. Looking at poverty holistically shows us who our natural allies are and that economic deprivation must be looked at through the lens of both race and class.

Doctoral candidate Kara McGhee discusses the rise in suburban poverty rates, whose yearly growth rate now outpaces those in urban centers (though urban poverty is still higher in general).

"Poverty in Suburbia: The Rise of the Outer City Poor" - Kara McGhee, Sociological Images
Poverty’s expansion to the suburbs is a symptom of an increasingly unequal society. The geographic isolation of the suburban poor in the inner and outer rings of suburbia troubles the validity of the claim that poverty moved to the suburbs. More accurately, people are getting poorer and more people live in the suburbs—or areas now designated as such. It’s plausible that economic inequality and leapfrog developments have changed the sociogeographic landscape. Low-income earners are displaced to the outskirts of the city (inner-ring of the suburbs) due to gentrification, and the rural poor are now more easily counted among the suburban poor due to suburban sprawl. Whatever the case, suburban poverty presents unique challenges to policy makers because federal antipoverty resources are tailored for densely populated urban areas. The stereotypical images of inner city poverty and suburban affluence are the ultimate fiction.

II. On wealth:

Science is showing that the wealthy are stingy and less compassionate, and that they steal twice as much candy from children. No surprise there. Yes, it takes money to make money but being wealthy isn't just about making money, it's about hoarding money.

PBS's fascinating segment on the psychology of the wealthy (linked to below) shows us that what the poor lack in financial assets they make up for in a heightened awareness of suffering and a deepened sense of cooperation (humanity's best asset and what's enabled our success as a species on earth).

Probing the "wealthy mind" (like we did the so-called Arab mind, right? not!) is important because these are the people holding disproportionate sway over the direction of our lives. We should get inside the minds of the folks marching through the halls of private and public power and discover how wealth influences their behavior, choices, appetites, inclinations etc. Just as the nature of "whiteness" is scrutinized when studying the mechanics of racial domination in a white supremacist society like our own, so too must the nature of wealth be examined when seeking to understand a capitalist society based on gross inequality where an exceptional minority control the vast majority of wealth. What is the cast of mind behind the policies engineering such a flawed system?

"The Psychology of Wealth" - Gwen Sharp, Sociological Images (VIDEO, PBS)
As this video clip explains, having wealth appears to affect us in a number of ways. Having more tends to make individuals feel entitled to even more; research shows they feel less generous and more entitled to take resources (such as candy they have been told is for children coming in later), more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behavior. Privileged individuals — even those whose privilege is just having Monopoly rules rigged to ensure they win in an experiment — tend to believe they deserve their privilege.

What is it that wealth does to people? On Thursday's Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to examine the connection between wealth and happiness. His report on the psychology of wealth, which appears above and is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Friday, shows that people who feel less well-off, whether in real terms or in simulated settings, tend to act more charitably.

III. On the prestige economy:

We are in trouble. Here's where the American Dream betrays the myth of equal opportunity. Whole generations, not just those on the racial and economic margins, are paying the price for our growing plutocracy.

"Study: 30-somethings worse off than their parents' generation" - Terrell Brown, CBS
WELLFLEET, Mass. - Americans in their 30s are the only age group in this country worse off than their counterparts three decades ago. A recent study by the Urban Institute shows the net worth of today's 30-somethings -- adjusted for inflation -- is down 21 percent from what 30-somethings enjoyed in 1983.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Think Inside The Box, Baby

Unreal. Absolutely unreal. I had a hard time believing this as I read it. No system is perfect, but policy this smart is a great place to start:

- Helena Lee, BBC

For 75 years, Finland's expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It's like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.


"There was a recent report saying that Finnish mums are the happiest in the world, and the box was one thing that came to my mind. We are very well taken care of, even now when some public services have been cut down a little," she says.


Testimonial: Mark Bosworth Finland

My partner Milla and I were living in London when we had our first child, Jasper, so we weren't eligible for a free box. But Milla's parents didn't want us to miss out, so they bought one and put it in the post.

We couldn't wait to get the lid off. There were all the clothes you would expect, with the addition of a snowsuit for Finland's icy winters. And then the box itself. I had never considered putting my baby to sleep in a cardboard box, but if it's good enough for the majority of Finns, then why not? Jasper slept in it - as you might expect - like a baby.

We now live in Helsinki and have just had our second child, Annika. She did get a free box from the Finnish state. This felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life. And now when I visit friends with young children it's nice to see we share some common things. It strengthens that feeling that we are all in this together.

A little Finnish baby in a box enjoying its safety security blankie.

All in this together? Did you hear that? A sense of social cohesion and unity? Magic. Well done Finland.

Kenya's “Mutumia”

- Wambui Mwangi

Wambui Mwangi writes a compelling piece at The New Inquiry (of course) entitled "Silence Is a Woman." It's a studied assault on the continuities of imperial systems of control in Kenya, namely indigenous and colonial forms of patriarchy and ethno-supremacy. By recounting the long and storied history of Kenyan women's resistance against these forms of domination, Mwangi carves out new spaces of imagining, justice and moral responsibility, or "structures of feeling" as coined by cultural critic Raymond Williams.

I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing. It is both a formidable assault on patriarchy - its unique perversions of power - and a lyrical description of the postcolonial condition. I love how she moves effortlessly between poetic and institutionalized language, making both serviceable to higher social ends like political empowerment and freedom. 

This metonymic association between “Kenya” and “Kenyatta” is no accident. The first president gave himself that name. He was also the author of Facing Mount Kenya, which he wrote as his doctoral dissertation in anthropology and in which he examined at scholarly length the working of Gikuyu society and cultural practices. This work is so iconic in post-colonial Gikuyu culture that now it does not so much describe as generate Gikuyu identity. In the Gikuyu language of Jomo and Uhuru Kenyatta’s core supporters, “mutumia” is one of the generic words for a woman. The literal translation of “mutumia” is “the silent one” or “one who does not speak.”

Continue reading.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kendzior Keeping It Real

Here's a healthy, heaping dose of Sarah Kendzior for ya'll.

Kendzior writes about the plight of the millennials, the so-called lost generation, and what their condition signals for the larger economy and the American dream. She interrogates these issues as an intellectual and publicly engaged anthropologist, meaning, she's a rare breed. Kendzior represents the power and promise of anthropological work when it sheds its inter-disciplinary insecurities and engages the public on important issues affecting our lives.

Anyone concerned with addressing the major concerns of human history and society through socially committed critique will find in her work a focused passion worthy of emulation. An enemy of conformity, I'm sure Kendzior would insist you follow your own path. But you get what I mean. She's a role model, and that's cool.

"The millennial parent"

In today's society, opportunity is open to competition - but it's a pay-to-play game which excludes many.

You know our economic straits are dire when perseverance is no longer a survival strategy but a mode of privilege. With a single anecdote Kendzior captures the precariousness defining the millennial experience:

I have a friend who was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up poor in the rural Midwest and earned his BA from a top school in the region. But when the recession hit in the early 2000s, he could not find a job. He decided he needed more training and applied to graduate school. When Harvard accepted him, he was thrilled. Within one generation, his family's highest level of education went from a high school diploma to an Ivy League degree.

A Harvard education was supposed to provide opportunity. But with the degree came debt. Now in his early 30s with children of his own, my friend's social mobility has stalled. He wants his sons to have the same quality of education he did, and the professional advantages that came with it. But he does not see how this is possible. When his sons are old enough for college, he will still be paying back his own student loans. With wages stagnant and tuition fees well outpacing inflation, there is little chance he will be able to afford their education. His children will be back where he started. Mobility was a mirage.

"It kind of sickens me to think I might have to say to my kids, 'Hey, I went to Harvard but you can't'," he said. "The whole thing is turned inside out. People imagine that you are supposed to build legacies around things like that, and instead they can't go there because I did."

My friend is part of the so-called millennial generation: young adults born roughly between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. While the start and end dates of the millennial generation are up for debate - and the idea of inherent generational traits is dubious - people of this age group share an important quality. They have no adult experience in a functional economy.

As someone who graced her way through grad school (while birthing and raising children), Kendzior isn't afraid to tell us academia is a Ponzi scheme before it's a meritocracy (itself an elitist concept because it assumes everyone has equal access to the tools needed to succeed). She clearly critiques a system like academia because there's value in that critique; what Kendzior is battling isn't the idea of higher education but its corruption. 

Now onto your second question — what are you going to do with that? First of all, higher education and the economy are both such disasters that you cannot assume any major or degree will guarantee you a good, secure life. STEM, liberal arts, law – no profession is safe. Industries are disappearing or being restructured out of existence. Practical training you get in college will likely be useless ten years from now. There are no safe bets.

So what is the point of an education? The point is to think critically, become an informed citizen, gain some specialized knowledge, gain broader insight into the world, and communicate well. Some people will say they don’t need to go to college to do this. I actually agree with that. But since college is a prerequisite for most jobs, you might as well get a solid education.

As a UN internship mistakenly goes up for auction, focus must be given to the nature of unpaid UN internships. 

Seeing unpaid work as a form of "charity to the powerful," as Kendzior argues, is to see it as a form of servitude, a knid of modern bondage with the rich and well-connected as overlords. When will we fully own ourselves and the value of our labor? 

The United Nations is far from the only organisation refusing to pay its interns. Most human rights, policy and development organisations pay interns nothing, but will not hire someone for a job if they lack the kind of experience an internship provides. Privilege is recast as perseverance. The end result hurts individuals struggling in the labour market but also restructures the market itself.

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labour to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labour has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Worst of all, unpaid internships in policy and human rights send the message that fighting poverty, inequality, and other issues of injustice is something that only rich people should do. Qualities that should be encouraged in society– like empathy and the willingness to stand up for others – are devalued when ordinary people are told that they literally cannot afford to care.
What happens to the American Dream deferred? The UN internship auction – whatever it may actually entail – is in the end a good thing, because it made plain a system of privilege and bias few want to acknowledge. Economic discrimination is often not visible. Nor are the people it leaves behind. 

What a relief it would be if every unpaid internship was an auction – if instead of a vague line about how the intern must “cover their own costs”, the organisation would tally up those costs and see who is able to pay them. The rest of us could watch, from the sidelines, as bias long denied plays out in public, as wealth morphs into merit before our eyes. Let them do their bidding in the open, and show us what it costs to succeed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Is Alma Har'el's Film Bombay Beach A Case Of Poverty Porn?

By the looks of it, online at least, the majority of folks watching the film Bombay Beach have been thoroughly duped by the emotive conceits of surrealist cinematography. Barely able to contain their excitement, they craft their reviews of the film holding firm to the belief that the director, Alma Har'el, did the long-neglected desert town a favor by filming it.

Never has a quick trip through poverty been quite this beautiful. Critics praise this documentary for "weaving a miraculous poem," calling it a stunning, visually rich, ethereal portrait of the death of the American dream (which is still very much alive for Wall Street bankers, corporate executives and international filmmakers).

But lets get real. All the American Gothic atmospherics in the world can't gild the ugly truth of this film: Bombay Beach is a one way street. Any "favors" are the prerogative of the director who trades in her conscience for a camera (because she can) and shows us that there's no better springboard for raising an artist's profile (and fortunes) than someone else's misery. Consequently, the viewership's only relationship to the individuals in the film is the voyeur's gaze, a crude rubbernecking that fails to sensitize them to the magnitude of what they are seeing.

Unsurprisingly, Har'el states in a Guardian article that she doesn't think her film is about the demise of the American dream because she sees the protagonists' privations as a variation on that dream. From her pretty perch, Har'el empties the word "dream" of any meaning. In her world there's little difference between struggling, living, and dreaming because the systematic pressures of poverty, inadequate healthcare, racism, and rural neglect are inspirational abstractions. But the disturbing degree of socio-economic disintegration we see in the decaying town of Bombay Beach is very real and it's not a dream. It's a nightmare - that ill-informed film directors see fit to sugarcoat with choreographed dance numbers.

Har'el's project embodies a classic exploitative dynamic: well-connected, hip western academic film director enters a land of penury, goes native embedding herself in the community, gains trust, forges bonds, gathers enough raw materiel to sate ego, exits, edits, promotes, and attends film festivals to wild acclaim -- where she makes promises to the cameras interviewing her to send the subjects of the film (her so-called collaborators who had no role in editing the film and never saw a rough cut) some photos of her having a great time clinking glasses. At least that's the way it appears after trawling the Internet. Example: "Bombay Beach -- Interview with Alma Har'el at the Berlinale 2011" 

As the director and producer, Har'el I am sure, doesn't believe she's doing this unpaid cast of characters a disservice. But she pays homage to their destitution without compensating them for their efforts. Instead, she exploits an isolated community for personal gain, profiting off a weaker party. Har'el didn't make a film about mobile, privileged folks after all, like, lets say, a group of dentists (as far as Kramer is concerned that's a touchy subject too). No, she made a movie about people who will never know her jet-setting lifestyle. Har'el has obligations as a filmmaker toward her subjects. Artists are not exempt from ethical responsibility.

The important questions here concern the sort of capital Har'el is exchanging, the value she is imparting to the community of Bombay Beach. Is she proffering anything other than five seconds of fame? Is she promoting anything more than the feel-good bromide that the poor possess a unique dignity, an admirable ability to persevere and "create community" against all odds? Glamorizing poverty whitewashes the crushing reality of what it means to be poor, to lack, to confront inaction in the face of great need.

What's the difference between Bombay Beach as a film and the so-called fine feeling cultivated by the sentimental novel? Both extoll the virtues of "rightly-motivated" empathy, yet generate reductionist responses from the reader/viewer (as James Baldwin argued). One does this via literary realism, the other through whimsical cinematic experimentation. And both are deeply troubling. Even if all parties are consenting, a film like Bombay Beach lends its power to classist structures. When do marginalized classes get to march camera in hand into the Hollywood hills and gawk at the wealth and bounty found there? Such a reversal of roles is unthinkable. Humanist smut like Bombay Beach reinforces the status quo, challenging nothing, expanding zero horizons.

I can't find anywhere on the Internet an explanation of how the actors/subjects were remunerated financially (if I am mistaken please let me know), though it does look like there's been a public campaign to respond to their basic needs. I just hope that the spotlighting of these folks' unfortunate condition as a function of Har'el's fantasies isn't being interpreted as fair enough payment. Five seconds of fame is not legal tender. Har'el didn't passively document human lives, she asked people to don masks and dance. I mean that literally, it's a scene in the film. She put her subjects to work. 

Despite what the critics say, the artistic value of Har'el's film does not provide us with powerful commentary on class relations in America. If this director didn't supply us with an endless supply of insipid garbage, I would expect more than poverty porn from her.

In her interview at the Girls Can Play blog Har'el is oblivious to questions of power and privilege and her implication in them as a filmmaker. The most damming evidence comes from her own mouth. Har'el is clearly not capable of confronting the value of her own creation by forcing it to answer to larger political realities. So instead we end up with a documentary where real content is replaced with highly affected aesthetic pleasures that make the viewer feel good about humanizing the poor as an "object of comfortable concern," as Edward Said put it.

One film critic described Bombay Beach as a "visual feast for the eyes." Indeed it is. But as a big bold slice of poverty porn it is anything but a guilt-free indulgence.