Manufacturing Generation Me
April 2, 2012

Cover of "Generation Me: Why Today's Youn...

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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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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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Show a Little Class
January 9, 2012

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

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So it looks like shortly after I gave up on Saturday night’s Republican debate, Rick Santorum said something interesting: that there’s no such thing as the middle class, because America is fundamentally a classless society.

Now, the second part of that claim is obviously, patently false. But I suspect that Santorum may be on to a partially correct conclusion based on false premises. Is American society stratified by class? Yes, absolutely. Are the top and bottom classes separated by a gooey center? Depends on what metric you look at. The middle class may exist as a (rapidly shrinking) income bracket, but as a sociopolitical signifier it obscures more than it illuminates. If you believe otherwise, consider this paragraph from Kevin Drum’s essay on the decline of organized labor (which, yes, does reference the “middle class” in its title):

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that’s not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that’s not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

If the “middle class” has so little political clout with their own representatives (nearly all of whom are, by the way, exceedingly wealthy), then what do they have? I’m reminded of a debate I had with Matt Yglesias about a month ago over whether “workers” still existed as a class. Matt ended up saying that “your average workaday fat cat CEO is,” by virtue of his technical status as an employee “just a very well-compensated wage slave.” That did, and still does, treat me as a deeply wrongheaded claim. Workers, commonly understood, don’t sit on the boards of other corporations. They can’t max out contributions to political candidates, attend $5,000-dollar-a-plate fundraisers, or hobnob with their fellow wage slaves at Davos and Aspen. Nor do workers sit on top of the fat stock portfolios that, in recent years, were the main driver of inequality. There is a culture, sociology and politics to wealth, and mostly what that logic does is generate more wealth for the wealthy. The “middle class” has about as much access to that world as acknowledged members of the lower class.

If the middle class is anything, I suspect it is a historical curiosity; a moment in twentieth century American economic history during which union strength, the New Deal and WWII-era military policy all gave a large chunk of the working class the means to significantly increase their material wealth. Some members of that group even entered the upper class, but most of them just hovered around the upper echelons of the working class, only to be brought low by the current crisis.

The distinction between an “upper working class” (sometimes called, when referring to blue collar union members, a “blue collar aristocracy”) and a “middle class” might not seem like much, but it’s hugely important in terms of social and political clout. After all, when the post-collapse decline of the middle class began, it seemed utterly powerless to defend itself. Now one party wants to exacerbate the problem, and the other wants to preserve the political impotence of the non-rich, but bring relative comfort back to a slice of the lower class (e.g. pity-charity liberalism).

So allow me to ask a question that flips around Matt’s turn of phrase regarding “well-compensated wage slaves”: If middle class Americans have so little political power, and if so much of their relative material comfort is merely a product of the 1%’s largesse, why should we think of them as more than just generously compensated members of the underclass?

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