This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis here belongs on the word forcing, because employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good. After all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.
Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.
Archive for February, 2012
When the Work Stops Working
February 29, 2012
February 23, 2012
A couple nights ago, Tucker Carlson told Fox News that “Iran deserves to be annihilated.” Nothing to see here; just some standard yuppie pundit chest-beating. But I found his pseudo-mea culpa absolutely fascinating:
It’s my fault that I got tongue tied and didn’t explain myself well last night. I’m actually on the opposite side on the Iran question from many people I otherwise agree with. I think attacking could be a disaster for the US and am worried that Obama will do it, for fear of seeming weak before an election. Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed. But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq it seems to me.
See, the problem with declaring war on Iran is that it would be a “disaster” … for the US. It might cause problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq.
You could argue that this position is less monstrous than the one that tongue-tied Tucker seemed to profess on Fox News. After all, he’s saying that we shouldn’t take actions that would lead to the senseless slaughter of thousands of Iranians. But he’s doing so while also making clear that the lives of those thousands of Iranians are not the main issue. National interest, dammit!
If the “main lesson” of Iraq was really that one should refrain from committing inexpedient atrocities, then no one’s really learned anything. Just remember Tucker’s words the next time he castigates the Iranian government for how poorly they treat Iranians.
Workers Never Act, But Are Merely Acted Upon
February 19, 2012
Today’s New York Times reports that conditions are improving at China’s infamous Foxconn plant. For this, they credit: Foxconn management for raising salaries and cutting overtime; anonymous “critics” of Foxconn management; “labor rights groups”; an audit by the Fair Labor Association; and, by the transitive property, Apple, for requesting the audit.
Oddly enough, the only people to not get any credit at all are the workers at the plant. This despite the fact that we’re only talking about Foxconn right now because hundreds of the plant’s employees threatened mass suicide in protest of appalling labor conditions.
In other words, that higher pay and reduced overtime is a concession that the workers won through a remarkable act of defiance and solidarity. That sounds like a pretty good story! How odd that the Times decided to tell a different story, in which the workers are merely passive objects. (Even the article’s single oblique acknowledgement of worker agency is framed in the passive tense: “Foxconn facilities in China have experienced a series of worker suicides.” Poor Foxconn facilities!)
What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012
Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):
Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.
Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.
While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.
According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.
I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.
Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.
some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists
What is Welfare For?
February 17, 2012
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.
Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012
From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.”
In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.
Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:
Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.
Drum misses a few things.
Art Finds a Way to Take Care Of You
February 16, 2012
And these country musics that are just so—you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.” And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable… But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?… That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.
— David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself