Manufacturing Generation Me
April 2, 2012

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Two intellectual trends dominate the burgeoning, nonexistent field of Millennials Studies: one is a few years old, but the other one seems to just be catching on. The older trend is, of course, the growing body of work in social psychology purporting to demonstrate that kids these days are more narcissistic than their parents or grandparents. The younger trend is the growing body of work purporting to demonstrate that kids these days will spend the rest of their lives being fucked sideways by the unsustainable economic consumption and political myopia of the Boomer generation. There are reasonable critiques you can make of either of these theories, but I find them both provisionally persuasive — that is, enough to at least entertain the possibility that my age bracket is, statistically speaking, both uniquely solipsistic and uniquely screwed. Which is enough to make a body wonder if there’s any connection between the two phenomena.

So what follows is a blog-sized sketch of how one might go about marrying the two theories. It’s crude, but I think it carries some conceptual force.

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Pelosi, Maher, and Cosmopolitan Bigotry
March 18, 2012

In the above clip (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), Bill Maher says, “When I see the toothless guy, as a liberal, what I say is, I want to help you get teeth. Why does that make me an asshole?”

Of course, wanting dental care for the poor is not what makes Maher an asshole. What makes him an asshole is that he feels compelled to add a crude imitation of a Southerner saying, “You damn Yankee, trying to get me teeth!”

That moment perfectly crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the above clip, in which Maher and Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of Nancy Pelosi) take aim at “both sides” by portraying both poor white rural Southerners and poor black city-dwelling Northerners as equally grotesque, stupid and lazy. Maher may support policies that would ease the suffering of the poor, but he’s also roundly contemptuous of the poor’s experiences. Those experiences aren’t real and meaningful in the sense that the white coastal elite’s experiences are real and meaningful — instead, they’re just a canvass onto which Maher can impress his own moral sophistication and enlightened sensibilities.

The irony is that Maher and Pelosi’s “enlightenment” corresponds to a total incuriosity regarding the lives of people who don’t reside on their lofty socioeconomic stratum. While Pelosi might pat herself on the back for having, “intelligent conversations with these people,” (these people being poor white Southerners), the clips she shows of those conversations don’t tell us anything about them beyond their willingness to reiterate certain right-wing shibboleths. “This is what they believe,” she says, but she never bothers to explore the nature of their belief, the why of it, nor anything of the world in which they live. By the same token, she thinks she can score a point against the “entitlement culture” by showing a clip of a young black man in New York who admits he can’t find work because he has a criminal record. But she never asks why a young black man in a city with notoriously racist policing policies has a criminal record, or why that record might disqualify him from finding work.

But perhaps the starkest moment of willful ignorance comes when Maher uses a permutation of the “some of our best friends are black” defense as a way of excusing Pelosi from charges of racism (Pelosi actually uses the expression “welfare queen” repeatedly, evidently without irony). “I mean, I, after all, just gave my imaginary child’s college fund to Barack Obama,” he says, “and your mother is Nancy Pelosi.” The charitable reading of that defense is that Maher has absolutely no understanding of how racism perpetuates itself, and no desire to learn.

Moments like that make Maher’s mockery of poor Southern ignorance especially pungent. “Maybe it’s you,” he says, addressing the camera. Of course, there’s no way it could ever, in a million years, be him.

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There is No Alternative, Restaurant Work Edition
March 12, 2012

Union members picketing outside the National L...

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Nona Willis Aronowitz has a good article in the latest issue of GOOD about young, frustrated restaurant employees trying to organize. In a generally shitty and abusive service sector, restaurants stand out as particularly exploitative; half of all workers making below minimum wage work at restaurants, with the burden falling especially hard on women. Yet despite that, Aronowitz writes, a lot of younger restaurant workers are reluctant to support unionization efforts:

Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. It happens all the time—Levi lost his job this fall, for reasons having nothing to do with the union. Turnover is what the industry depends on.

The problem with middle class kids strikes me as one of education: like students in unpaid internships, it seems like white-collar hopefuls seeking temporary restaurant labor have no recognition of themselves as part of a broader worker class, and don’t see how the exploitation in the restaurant industry can distort the entire labor market. Efforts like the Wobblies’ admittedly sort of quixotic Starbucks campaign (which Aronowitz shouts out in her article) are encouraging because they provide a vehicle for raising these issues.

Levi’s problem is not one of education. As a member of the permanent underclass, he’s better informed about the structural violence of the restaurant industry than those middle class kids. But he also recognizes that, if he openly supports the union, he’ll be fired and pushed into (at best) an identical job at another restaurant. In part this is because what’s left of the social safety net is structured, as I’ve written before, to force people into whatever work is available. In part it’s because modern labor election law is firmly on the side of employers. Levi may have the formal right to organize within his workplace, but that doesn’t mean his boss can’t fire him for whatever other reason — and if he takes up what smells like a wrongful termination with the NLRB, there’s virtually no chance they’ll move fast enough for even a positive ruling to make a difference.

So the remedy, if it exists, is a holistic one: education and organizing, a restructured and reinvigorated welfare state, and strengthened worker protections in labor law. But in addition to that, I wonder if any attempt at restaurant organizing doesn’t need to be an industry-wide effort, with UNITE HERE’s modern hotel organizing work serving as a model.

I’m still a labor neophyte — one who’s also still working out his own feelings on this stuff — so on that question I’ll defer to any more experienced movement hands who want to weigh in. But for now, an industry-wide restaurant organizing push is almost surely a pipe dream — a lot is going to have to change before that becomes conceivable.

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What is Welfare For?
February 17, 2012

I see Kevin Drum has replied to my criticisms. He writes:

Actually, Resnikoff’s response was pretty weak. Yes, sanctions are penalties. That’s the point: to push people to take jobs when they’re available. And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

The race argument is the only decent one, but Mike didn’t excerpt nearly enough of that in his post to make it clear what’s really going on. Besides, with a race-neutral correlation of .95, there’s really not much room for anything else to have a big effect.

However, I endorse Bill Cat’s suggestion below that anything coming out of Florida should be suspect by default. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this program is worse than it looks on the surface.

A couple small points and then a big one:

First, Drum and I must hold very different understandings of what penalties are supposed to be for. By my lights, the application of a penalty implies that some sort of infraction preceded it. Not only that, but a penalty, justly applied, would be in response to what was understood to be an infraction by both parties under the terms of a prior agreement. So for example: if I break the law, I can rightfully expect some sort of penalty from the state based on our mutual understanding that penalties are what happen to people who break the law.* However, the law and legal repercussions cease to mean a whole lot if the state just arbitrarily punishes me whenever it wants to modify my behavior for whatever esoteric reason. But when it comes to welfare sanctions, Drum seems to not only be fine with that sort of lawlessness, but encourage it.

Second, I’m not quite sure what Drum means when he says it’s not clear that “the race argument” is “what’s really going on.” I assume he means that neither Mike Konczal nor I provided evidence that Florida welfare caseworkers are being maliciously, intentionally racist. And that’s true! But it’s also irrelevant. All that Mike and I are doing is pointing out that the statistical correlation I alluded to earlier becomes stronger in counties with larger African American populations. Here’s the graph:

And now for the big takeaway: these other issues aside, I think my disagreement with Drum comes down to a broader philosophical disagreement about the purpose of welfare. Here’s Drum again, but the emphasis is all mine:

And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

Should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down low-wage, temporary, degrading work that represents only an intermediate step between this welfare check and the next one? Are welfare recipients grown ass adults who should have some say in the way their lives are run? Yes to both.

Let me flip it around and try out a little thought experiment: You’re a welfare recipient in Florida. March is rolling around, which means that soon college kids are going to be flooding in from up north, and local businesses are looking for some temporary work. The money they’re offering is not significantly above that you receive in your regular welfare check — in fact, it might even be a little less. And there is absolutely no chance that the work you do for them might lead to steadier employment. In fact, the only significant that working this job will affect on your life is that you’ll have to do more menial labor, and that you’ll temporarily be at the mercy of a boss instead of a caseworker.

Now here’s the question: Why should you chase after that job? Is there something wrong with you if you choose not to do so? Is the problem with you, or with a policy regime that forces you to pick between two flavors of shit sandwich?

If welfare is to be a social good, it cannot just be a means of putting the spare worker bees on ice until the capitalist class finds them to be of use again.

*Whether the law is just is a question we should bracket. Let’s also bracket the point that penalties are often applied inconsistently and on the basis of socioeconomic status.

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The Best College Essay Money Can Buy
August 7, 2011

You could base an entire blog around the demented class dynamics that play out in New York Times lifestyle features.* Take this past Friday’s “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” and its utterly dismaying nut graph.

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

For example? [Emphases and annotations my own.]

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety[1] that summer must be used constructively[2]. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

Let’s talk about anxiety[1]. Anxiety over what? Some neurotic compulsion to help one’s fellow man? Discover one’s true calling? Better one’s self? Nope: as the nut graph makes clear, this all about one’s need to have a sparkling college application.

Now let’s talk about constructively[2]. If your goal is to get into a good university, what’s constructive about studying veterinary medicine in the Caribbean? Sure, there’s value in studying veterinary medicine if that’s the sort of track you intend to follow in college — but why the Caribbean? What does that signal?

A personal statement about one’s sumer internship in the Caribbean (or Rwanda, or India) might very well signal to admissions officers that the author possesses an unusual amount of intelligence, eloquence, maturity, or civic virtue. But the one thing it is guaranteed to signal is the author’s affluence. Because that shit is expensive, yo.

So basically this is an incredibly costly way to circumvent the ostensible need-blindness of so many elite American universities. Just another competitive advantage for the advantaged. And oddly, the New York Times article on this trend — like so many similar New York Times articles — seems to exist in an alternate universe populated solely by those advantaged and no one else.

Take this gem of a sentence: “Suddenly, the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past.” As a matter of fact, working as a waitress** or a lifeguard is still the norm for hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who can’t afford to hit up their parents for textbook money, much less a trip to Nanjing. Lots of people wait tables after college, too. In fact, there are waiters and waitresses working in your home town, at this very instant, who will never attend college. Crazy, right?

If the Times is going to keep feeding its audience wealth porn (and hey, I don’t judge, because there’s clearly a market for that stuff) then it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the existence of the other 98%.

*In fact, maybe I’ll make a regular thing out of it! 20 points to whichever commenter comes up with the best name for the ongoing post series.

**Aside: dig the unnecessarily gendered noun.

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