When a Heart Turns Rock Solid

This week I start reading Timothy Black's When a Heart Turns Rock Solid: The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off the Streets. From the introduction: 

Unlike most ethnographic studies, this book is not about a community, it is not bounded by geographical space, nor is it about a particular topic or a sociological theory. It is about an eighteen-year journey ... and as that journey unfolds, we will see how Fausto ended up addicted to heroin, emerging from his self-destructive patterns from time to time to take stock of his life, before plunging again into his addiction routines. We will see how his brother Sammy, despite occasional cocaine binges and continued street involvement, adopted a life of low-wage work organized around fathering. We will see how their older brother, Julio, ended up driving an eighteen-wheeler, making a union wage, and buying a home. But we will also see how the plunging economy in mid-2000 has affected Julio as he struggles to pay increasing gas prices to keep his truck on the road and as he and his wife, Clara, brace themselves for the looming spike in their variable mortgage interest rate. Further we will examine the life of Jorge Rodriguez, a successful, charismatic drug dealer, who has had to adjust to working in a furniture warehouse after a five-year bid in federal prison. Among others, we will also consider the lives of two of Jorge's brothers--Mundo, a street maven when my study began, who took advantage of employment opportunities to leave the streets and to become the father that his father was not, and Alexander, one of Springfield's drug kingpins, now doing twenty-five years in prison for murder. 

This is sociology at its best. 

Why academics' writing stinks

Steven Pinker has some insights on effective writing: 

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

Just the kind of thing academics suck at, in other words. I wouldn't disagree, either. Though, to be frank, I'm not I sure needed any more reason to be anxious about my own writing. Anyway, there it is. Not a bad piece of writing, actually. 

Teaching vs. writing

C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination

Teaching, by the way, I do not regard as altogether in the same case as writing. When one publishes a book it becomes a public property; the author's only responsibility to his reading public, if any, is to make it as good a book as he can and he is the final judge of that. But the teacher has further responsibilities. To some extent, students are a captive audience; and to some extent they are dependent upon their teacher, who is something of a model to them. His foremost job is to reveal to them as fully as he can just how a supposedly self-disciplined mind works. The art of teaching is in considerable part the art of thinking out loud but intelligibly. In a book the writer is often trying to persuade others of the result of his thinking; in a classroom the teacher ought to be trying to show others how one man thinks—and at the same time reveal what a fine feeling he gets when he does it well. The teacher ought then, it seems to me, to make very explicit the assumptions, the facts, the methods, the judgments. He ought not to hold back anything, but ought to take it very slowly and at all times repeatedly make clear the full range of moral alternatives before he gives his own choice. To write that way would be enormously dull, and impossibly self-conscious. That is one reason why very successful lectures usually do not print well.  

Published in 1959, which goes to explain the gender-specific language, but, but... such a great quote, otherwise. Exactly one week until the start of classes, and very much looking forward to it. 

Some thoughts on leaving India

I left India early yesterday morning bound for Edinburgh, where I landed last night. I already miss it. This always happens, by the way. Even when I lived in New York, I’d come back from India and feel… underwhelmed. Not that there’s anything wrong with New York. There isn’t. And there’s nothing wrong with Grinnell, Iowa, where I live now, and where I’m headed next. I like New York; I like Grinnell. I sure as hell like Edinburgh. But India is different, and not in the ways people on the outside looking in tend to think. 

I almost feel sorry for the foreigners who buy into the idea of India as some mystical, other worldly place, where ordinary people are isolated from material concerns. It’s a fiction sold by political and economic elites to unsuspecting or perhaps just willfully ignorant tourists. Everyday life in India is anything but other worldly. Indeed, it’s very much of this world, all the more so because of the size of the population and the number of cultures and languages represented therein. There's more than a billion in all across India, most of them in the countryside, but not for long. Soon there will be ten million in the city of Bangalore. Twenty-plus already live in metropolitan Delhi and Mumbai. And nowhere—not in the cities, not in the villages—is there a singular vision or plan to pull these masses of people, cultures, and languages together. 

All of which makes for tough living, certainly, not least for poor and working people. It also makes for great sociology, which is why I keep coming back. Living in India, I’m on, all the time, criss-crossing cities (mostly), visiting with rich and poor alike, sometimes when and where their paths intersect, other times not. In India, my sociological imagination—what C. Wright Mills refers to as the effort to mingle history and biography to understand the social world—is tapped on a near daily basis. It’s intellectually, emotionally, and physically stimulating, yes. More than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, I must say. It’s also, perhaps, why, every now and again, I need a break. 

Till next time, India. 

The "undeserving" rich

I just started reading Leslie McCall's The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and RedistributionAs McCall points out, much of the discussion around inequality centers on in/equality of opportunities and conditions. If we want to see greater equality across the society, so the argument goes, then we need to ensure a level playing field from birth. With that achieved, we would have a better, more efficient means of allocating resources, rewarding those who genuinely deserve it with higher pay and less do those who don't. 

This, in a nutshell, is the case for the "deserving" rich. It sounds good and fair, all right, but McCall turns this concept on its head in the introduction, drawing from work by Daniel Bell and Michael Young: 

This approach has an unintended consequence, however. It tends to focus attention only on the starting gate because it assumes that any resulting distribution of outcomes is fair if the starting gate is equal. Inequities in the allocation of pay, another avenue through which opportunity can be derailed, are brushed over or not even contemplated as a problematic aspect of inequality. But both Bell in his "unjust meritocracy" and the ironic originator of the term "meritocracy," Michael Young, recognized that the distribution of rewards can itself lead to the corruption of a meritocracy even if everyone is sorted correctly according to their talents. In his 1958 classic dystopian novel, The Rise of Meritocracy, Young tells the story of greedy technocratic elites hoarding resources and crushing the souls of the meritless masses. Ultimately this behavior is dysfunctional for the economy as well as for society.

The "undeserving rich" is a conceptual intervention that follows from Young and Bell and identifies the actors that are involved in the making of an unjust, and inefficient, meritocracy. It is meant to include unfair inequalities not only in preparation and access but in pay. Pay disparities are unfair when earnings exceed the contribution and performance of those in the driver's seat of the economy, those who are seen as economic leaders and are expected to deliver economic prosperity for all. Conversely, pay disparities are also unfair when earnings fall short of the contribution and need of hardworking Americans farther down the ladder. The "deserving rich," by contrast, corresponds to a scenario in which the rich are extolled for their ingenuity and contribution to equitable growth. Under these conditions, the amount of inequality in pay between those at the top and bottom is not the primary consideration; the tolerable level of inequality is any level that is compatible with widespread opportunities for a good job with fair pay for most workers. Thus another common explanation of beliefs about inequality--that they reflect abstract considerations of fairness pertaining to the absolute level of inequality--matters less than practical considerations about the availability of opportunities, in the broadest sense of the term, and the role of the rich in securing or subverting those opportunities. 

The argument would seem to go well with Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which shows that capital, over time, however it is obtained, tends toward unfair advantages, as capital has a way of growing out of proportion to original investments in time and money. It's why you see sons and daughters of rich folk living high (literally, sometimes) off the wealth of mom and dad, without doing much, if anything, to deserve it. That's certainly a problem, but that's not where the discussion should end, as McCall claims, and I agree.  

Read the rest of McCall's introduction here

 

Through a Windshield Darkly

Last night, it took all of two hours—I kid you not—to travel a distance of ten kilometers north from where I was staying in Colaba, South Bombay, to Lower Parel. I checked up on Google Maps before I headed out, learning that it would take only thirty minutes to drive, one hour by bus, and two hours to walk. I don't have a car here, and if I did, I'd be scared as hell to drive--anywhere in India, actually. I don't know the bus routes. As for walking, well, it was raining heavily, so that was definitely out of the question. This is monsoon season, after all. Which left taking a taxi as the only viable option, and even then, it took half an hour to catch one. People do this every day, mind you, by all manner of transportation--I really shouldn't complain. 

Anyway, stuck in traffic steps from the front of Chhatrapati Shivaji Station, formerly Victoria Terminus, which opened in 1887, I snapped this picture from the backset. Turned out okay, I think. Almost made the whole ordeal worth it, in the end. Almost. 


Where the sidewalk ends

A version of the following appears in the Sunday edition of the Vijaya Karnataka, the state's largest Kannada language newspaper, with a readership of four million. 

IMG_2586.JPG

Near where I stay in Indira Nagar, on 100 Feet Road, stands a shiny new Starbucks. Inside, customers are treated to air-conditioning, plush seating, free wifi, and, of course, coffee. I suppose I could sit back in comfort, just knowing that Starbucks in Bangalore is a sign—finally—of economic progress and development. But I’ve been here before, many times before, dating back to January of 2006, and too much about the city rings familiar for me to join Bangalore’s legion of cheerleaders, foreign and domestic. 

I’ve spent a total of two and a half years living in Bangalore, traveling back and forth between here and the US carrying out a study on social mobility—or, more precisely, social immobility, but that’s another matter, for another day. In all this time, I’ve seen the introduction of private residences and malls, name brand clothing stores and restaurants, and Mercedes Benz dealerships, among other things bearing the faux-imprint of development. Still, it amazes me the state of the city’s public sidewalks, most of which remain cracked, uneven, strewn with filth and debris, in a word, impassable, even after all this time. This says more about the city, I think, and the interests of its political and economic elites, than the appearance of so many Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, or Nike stores.

It’s not that city officials lack the necessary technology or know-how to build sidewalks. And it’s not that they lack the political will, either, as so many pundits put it. No, it’s for lack of profits. There isn’t any money in making it safe and easy for ordinary citizens to get around. Indeed, there are many pucca sidewalks already in place throughout the city. They just happen to be tucked away in private gated communities and shopping complexes, where flat, smooth, contiguous sidewalks are just one of many perks. Venture out to Palm Meadows, in Whitefield, or UB City, near MG Road, or any number of other private enclaves, and you get the point. If you can’t afford to be in these spaces, say the politicians and the middle and upper classes they pander to, who undoubtedly live and work in them, then you have no right to these sidewalks, and maybe no right to the city at all. 

The public sidewalks in the city, or the absence of them, hardly trouble me a bit, I should say, at least as a practical matter. I get along just fine, walking wherever, whenever. But I’m also able-bodied, fortunately, and relatively young and fit. I do all right. This isn’t about me, then, and it may not even be about you, if you’re reading this and happen to be a resident, salaried employee, or shopper in these private spaces, and find it just as easy to get around as I do, or, more easily still, by way of car or bike.

It is, however, about the pregnant mother-to-be, the child, the senior, the blind, the disabled person on crutches or confined to a wheelchair. It’s about the city’s mass of poor and working people, more than anything, who roam about, set up shop, and, in many cases, live on these sidewalks. They alone, in plain sight, endure the constant risk of tripping and falling down, and, worse, into traffic, or else being swept aside by the newest Starbucks or some other physical manifestation dreamed up by an enterprising industrialist.  

In the end, the city’s sidewalks are just the surface, as it were, of a much larger problem. It’s not just public sidewalks that have been relegated to disrepair, after all. It’s infrastructure, more generally; garbage collection, sewage, and waste; rivers, lakes, and streams; schools and hospitals. Basically, anything untethered to market forces, without any immediate or longterm potential for profit, is left to ruin. It’s true in Bangalore; it’s true all over India, maybe all over the world.  

Indeed, on the question of public interests—really, public anything—India is a model. Everywhere, it seems, the world is turning its back on public space and the people who inhabit it. Even in the west, our sidewalks are crumbling, too, wouldn’t you know, and with them, just about everything else.

Of course, India wasn’t the first to annex public space, and it won’t be the last. But it is one of the most efficient, having never really invested all that much in the public to begin with. Now, with so little faith in government, if also too much hope in the private sector, we’re left to wonder about what comes next, in India and elsewhere. Not the end of history, certainly. Just the end of the sidewalk.  

Solving poverty, with education and a stiff back

This past weekend I visited Shanti Bhavan, an English language boarding school for poor and disadvantaged children ages three to seventeen located in rural Tamil Nadu. It was my second visit in as many weeks, and just like the first, I was again taken by the various individual and collaborative projects on display: a twelfth grade girl reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace; another twelfth grade girl practicing Mozart’s “Turkish March” on the piano; a group bangra dancing in sync to a Bollywood classic; a choir singing a Tamil tune; a spirited debate on the merits and potential limits to free speech; among many, many other things. All of it amazing, of course. 

More than anything, though, what struck me about the children were their interactions with others, whether teachers, administrators, volunteers, or visitors, like me. Remarkably, and thankfully, the whole time I was there I was never addressed as sir. Mr. Patrick was as formal as it got. Most of the children transitioned to using only my first name when asked. It was the same for other adults, I noticed. In the classrooms I observed, there was a steady stream of questions clarifying, and even challenging, what the teacher had said. Such engagement carried over into the hallways and dining hall, where students huddled together reviewing materials and preparing for the next class. 

This critical discourse seemed guided by a deep and abiding concern for fairness, evident in one exchange, in particular. Saturday the school was visited by a corporate social responsibility group attached to a big name firm based in Bangalore. At the end of a talk advising students how to start a business, one student asked if it was ethical for a company to market and sell a product at ten or twenty times the cost of production. The speaker paused for a second before launching into neoclassical economics speak about the inevitability that new entrants into the market would bring competition and, eventually, a fall in prices. What else. The point is that this student had the good sense to ask the question. Judging by the mood in the room, and the encouragement this student received after the fact, he wasn’t the only one. 

What a contrast to the poor and lower-caste golf caddies I study, men and boys who carry the bags of wealthy members at Bangalore’s exclusive golf clubs. It’s not just these caddies, either. Indeed, most poor and working class Indians I’ve encountered regularly display extreme acts of deference and servility in the company of social and economic betters. It's there in the rounded backs and shoulders, for instance, the quiet speech, the “Yes, sir” that begins and ends every conversation, the incessant nod of the head, forever aiming to please, and so on. None of it, in my estimation, owing to some holdover of caste or tradition. Rather, it’s for want of basic sustenance. The poor--these caddies among them--need to eat, after all, find shelter and protection, and educate their children, and if that means genuflecting at the alter of middle and upper class men and women who present themselves as mortal gods, then so be it. 

It’s hard to think these dynamics between rich and poor in India will change without narrowing the enormous gap between them--not an easy thing, by any stretch, given the forces allied against this move. At present, opportunity in India--real, genuine opportunity, not the kind that appears as so much charity--is limited to a small minority who retain a stranglehold on quality education, health care, and jobs. Time will tell, of course, if Shanti Bhavan--and many more Shanti Bhavans--can help turn the tide, whether it can play a part in extending equality of opportunity to India’s untouched masses. For now, perhaps, it’s enough that these children have the time and space to cultivate the critical minds it will take to one day make good on that promise, and the confidence necessary to question and stand up to the naysayers along the way. 

Fair hike?

Today, India’s railways minister hiked passenger fares fourteen percent and freight fares six-and-a-half percent. Protests, predictably, are already underway, and will continue, I would think, into next week. The reason why is clear enough to discern—travel by rail remains one of the cheapest, most effective, if not quite efficient, means by which India’s still majority poor, rural, and underemployed travel for work or pleasure. Any hike in fares directly impacts this constituency more than any other.  

A couple years back, another railways minister, Dinesh Trivedi, tried this gambit and lost his job. This time, however, would appear to be different, much to the excitement of Modi supporters. Finally, a prime minister who just might make good on his commitment to improving infrastructure and services and rationalizing the bureaucracies that manage them. 

I’m somewhat ambivalent, I must admit. I’ve traveled on India’s railways a few times, once taking forty-plus hours to get from Jamshedpur, in the northeast, to Bangalore. They’re slow and rickety, all right. Worse, they’re dangerous, in myriad ways, as this New York Times attests. Obviously, they’re in dire need of improvement, which takes money, of course, and, hence, the new fares. 

Two sets of questions come to mind: First, is there any guarantee that increased revenues will, in fact, be put to use repairing and upgrading the existing network? That’s a big question in a country whose politicians and bureaucrats have made so many promises and fulfilled so few of them going back to independence, in 1947, all the while enriching themselves at great cost to nation and society. Yet again Indians, and especially the poor, are being asked to put their faith in government, when the results to date have been less than stellar. Will this time be different? 

Second, and perhaps more important in the short-term, what policies will Modi consider in bringing up wages, formalizing labor, and improving working conditions, overall, as a way to make this fare hike palatable? The worry—a very real one, I think, again, if the past is any indication—is whether government will continue the trend of increasing daily costs, while doing little to nothing in the way of improving daily life.

On both counts, it's wait-and-see time all over again. 

What to do

I’m squatting on the backs of my legs, pants down around my ankles, and defecating in the forested area out behind the back of a slum on the edge of Bangalore. It’s a Monday evening and I’ve been visiting with a couple of golf caddies whose lives I’ve been tracking and writing about. (More on this research here.) One of them, whom I’ll call Ganesh, has provided me with a plastic bucket full of water to aid with the clean up. He’s also given me a pair of chappals, or sandals—they’re two or three sizes too small for my feet, but I appreciate them, nonetheless, given the bumpy terrain. 

It’s dark, and somewhat peaceful, I suppose. Maybe too peaceful, as if this area isn’t worthy of the kind of development on view elsewhere in the city. Just a few hundred yards away, blocked by a line of trees, sits the Embassy Golf Links Technology Park, home to IBM, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and other giants of global capital, and adjacent to them, the Karnataka Golf Association, or KGA, one of the most exclusive golf clubs in all of India. All are equipped, for sure, with running water and toilets. Not out this way, though. At least IBM, Microsoft, and the rest light up the night sky, making it easier for me to find my way to Ganesh once I’m done with my business. He’s been waiting patiently by the narrow lane that connects his house to this otherwise empty field beyond.

I follow Ganesh to the front of his house, where there’s another bucket of water he’s prepared for me. He shakes off his own chappals to show me what to do. Like this, he says, certain that I need an explanation. He pours water down his legs and rubs together the soles of his bare feet. I do the same, washing away the dirt and whatever else I’ve picked up in the last few minutes. His wife has now appeared, too, handing me a bar of soap. 

A friend of Ganesh’s, another caddy, is standing a few feet off to the side. He can’t help but laugh at the sight of this tall white man newly inaugurated into the practice of relieving himself in the open, and in the dark, no less. I can’t blame him. I’m laughing, too. He’s still laughing when he says, “See how we live, Patrick?” I do, I guess, but not really. I nod, for want of something meaningful to say. I’m resting my forearm on Ganesh’s shoulder, with my left foot tucked behind my right ankle, trying not to fall over.  

"What to do,” Ganesh adds, and this time it’s quite all right that I say nothing. It’s not really a question, anyway, more a statement of fact. 

Street sweeping, Bangalore style

Street sweeper, Bangalore (2014)

Street sweeper, Bangalore (2014)

In Bangalore, India’s supposed “Silicon Valley,” the poor not only sweep the streets—a Sisyphean task if there ever was one—but they do it bent over, a short broom made of thinly cut and bounded straw in one hand. Here a man sweeps the street at the edge of a sidewalk outside a posh Coffee Day on 80 Foot Road, in Indira Nagar. A pair of well-to-do men a few feet away carry on a conversation in complete disregard, it would seem. A similar implement and scene is common enough throughout the city, indeed, across urban India, especially in and around middle and upper middle class homes.

This is my fourth trip to Bangalore, and yet the archaic practice of sweeping while hunched over is no less prevalent this time around than when I first came here, in 2006. I suppose this man and others in his position—physically, socially—should be happy to have a job, any job, given the declining fortunes of the Indian economy, which has seen a sharp dip in GDP from near double digits in the mid-2000s to 2-3% today. Not that the lives of the poor were much improved during the “boom” years, mind you, but that’s for another post, another time.

I can’t help thinking this is just one of the many ways the poor are reminded of their place in the society. After all, so many residents of this neighborhood seem to be doing just fine, downturn or not. Same with the businesses in the area. At the very least, you’d think these folks and businesses could afford a proper, full-length broom. You’d think. 

Reading the economy: From Harvey to Piketty

John Fram over at the Billfold provides a nice little introduction to Marxist readings on the state of the global economy. This part tying together David Harvey's The Engima of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is especially useful--plain and simple, too, without being simplistic:   

Harvey asserted theoretically in 2010 what Piketty has now asserted mathematically in 2014. When the economy is expanding at three percent (or the more common 2.25) those who have the money to get involved in the growth will do much better than the people in their employment. If you inherit, say, your father’s glove factory and $10 million in cash, and use that cash to open a second factory, even if you only net a profit of 2.25%, you’ll have $10,025,000 next year. In three years this factory will be making you $11 million a year. I think. As your income compounds, you can soon—by combining the income of your two factories and maybe an attractive low-interest loan—open a third factory. Soon you could open five. You could buy a stake in a new restaurant chain or buy some mortgage bonds. Eventually a broker will come knocking with news of a new investment scheme made possible by his friends in Washington that could provide returns of five, 10 or even 50 percent. Through a number of complex algorithms and workarounds, it is guaranteed to succeed. You’d be a fool to miss out on such an opportunity.

Granted, there is an element of risk involved, but provided you don’t invest too much of your father’s money into the system and overextend yourself, you could always just shut down a factory that isn’t turning a profit or close a few restaurants, at which point the newly unemployed workers are no longer your problem, but the government’s (though, theoretically, they could still be your problem by proxy, if you’ve been paying your taxes, but if you’re smart and have your company headquarters in Ireland, you haven’t been). And what does growth look like for your employees? A raise, the rate of which you, the owner of the factory, have set.

What's truly remarkable is that anyone finds this remarkable. I don't, and neither should you, dear reader. 

What is a degree worth?

Alan Schrift, professor of philosophy at Grinnell College, has an idea. A very good one, I'd say, and it doesn't involve the market--radical, right? As published in the New Yorker's online letters section: 

Adam Gopnik makes many pertinent observations in his essay on the relationship between college athletics and higher education (Comment, May 12th). Unfortunately, measuring higher education itself in terms of “market values” has now become the norm, in both public universities, which have to answer to state legislatures, and élite private universities and liberal-arts colleges. Administrators are increasingly appointed because of their ability and willingness to bring the values of the market to bear on their day-to-day decision-making. This results in an emphasis on job placement and starting salaries for recent graduates, and often in the elimination of foreign-language and other humanities departments, because they add no demonstrable “value” to students. What is most distressing is that many administrators appear to accept the self-evidence of market values. Instead of defending the humanities by arguing for the value of a well-educated citizenry, they defend them only by referring to data showing that, by the time college graduates with degrees in the humanities reach their mid-fifties, they can earn as much as or more than those who majored in pre-professional fields. If we are to escape judging college success in terms of market values and student earning potential, it will be up to educational leaders to make the case for values beyond those of the market.

Congrats, class of 2014: You're totally screwed

Here's Thomas Frank putting things into perspective for this year's graduating class: 

Welcome to the wide world, Class of 2014. You have by now noticed the tremendous consignment of debt that the authorities at your college have spent the last four years loading on your shoulders. It may interest you to know that the average student-loan borrower among you is now $33,000 in debt, the largest of any graduating class ever. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, carrying that kind of debt will have certain predictable effects. It will impede your ability to accumulate wealth, for example. You will also borrow more for other things than people without debt, and naturally you will find your debt level growing, not shrinking, as the years pass.

And on it goes. Eventually, Frank touches on adjunct labor, as he should. While college tuition has gone up, so has the number of part-time adjunct lecturers, as well as the number of staff and administrators. Not just at lower-tier colleges and universities, either, but across the spectrum. What to do? Well, he writes: 

We might begin by understanding college less as a mystical place of romance and achievement and more as a cartel or a predator, only a couple of removes from a company like Enron or a pharmaceutical firm that charges sick people $1,000 per pill. We might ask why the numbers of university administrators have grown by some 369 percent since 1976, why college presidents are sometimes paid over a million dollars a year, and why state legislatures keep cutting education budgets and passing the burden along to students and their parents.

Short, and worth a read. 

h/t @davidgraeber

Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Setting the scene

Timothy Shenk, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, has a great review piece up on the Nation website about Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century and other books and periodicals interested in the relationship between capital (and capitalism) and social inequality. Piketty, in fact, isn't even mentioned until two-thirds of the way through Shenk's review. I didn't mind a bit--actually, I quite appreciated it. What so many reviews of Piketty's book lack is any sense of the political and economic context in which inequality operates, why it matters, and why now. Shenk does a fine job of connecting the dots. Check it out.  

The economics of neoliberalism

Pierre Bourdieu, writing in the late 1990s, on the role economists play in producing and defending neoliberal dogma:  

Economists may not necessarily share the economic and social interests of the true believers [of neoliberalism] and may have a variety of individual psychic states regarding the economic and social effects of the utopia which they cloak with mathematical reason. Nevertheless, they have enough specific interests in the field of economic science to contribute decisively to the production and reproduction of belief in the neoliberal utopia. Separated from the realities of the economic and social world by their existence and above all by their intellectual formation, which is most frequently purely abstract, bookish, and theoretical, they are particularly inclined to confuse the things of logic with the logic of things.

These economists trust models that they almost never have occasion to submit to the test of experimental verification and are led to look down upon the results of the other historical sciences, in which they do not recognise the purity and crystalline transparency of their mathematical games, whose true necessity and profound complexity they are often incapable of understanding. They participate and collaborate in a formidable economic and social change. Even if some of its consequences horrify them (they can join the socialist party and give learned counsel to its representatives in the power structure), it cannot displease them because, at the risk of a few failures, imputable to what they sometimes call "speculative bubbles", it tends to give reality to the ultra-logical utopia (ultra-logical like certain forms of insanity) to which they consecrate their lives.

Full post here

Peter Evans on state capacity and regulation of finance

One of the key take-aways from Peter Evans's piece, "The Eclipse of the State? Reflections on Stateness in an Era of Globalization," published in 1997, bears repeating, I think, given the recent excess and pillage in the world of global finance these last few years:  

The "dictatorship of international finance" is really closer to a mutual hostage situation. The operation of the international financial system would descend quickly into chaos without responsible fiscal and monetary policies on the part of international actors. Financial markets can easily punish deviant states, but in the long run their returns depend on the existence of an interstate system in which the principal national economies are under the control of competent and "responsible" state actors. Those who sit astride the international financial system need capable regulators. The lightning speed at which transactions of great magnitude can be completed makes for great allocational efficiency in theory, but it also makes for great volatility in practice. "Rogue traders" are (as the name implies) supposed to be aberrations: yet the possibility of enormous returns from speculative activity makes the rogue role a continual temptation. After a certain point, reducing the power of states to interfere increases collective exposure to risk more than it expands the possibilities for individual profits. 

Prescient, and true. Article here

Sociology of elites

Just now reading Shamus Khan's review essay, "The Sociology of Elites," and it's great. Highly recommended. Khan's focus is the American elite, and, more specifically, how, and why, it has changed character in the period of the last thirty to forty years, and what this means for a sociology of elites, in general. In summary: 

First, present economic shocks notwithstanding, today’s elite are wealthier than any elite we have seen since before World War II (Atkinson & Piketty 2007). Second, increasingly elites are engaged in the finance sector. Looking at the Forbes 400, one can see that in 1982 finance was the primary source of wealth of only 9% of the world’s richest. In con- trast, by 2007 those working in finance made up 27.3% of the Forbes list. This superelite is also more international than 30 years ago, and it is increasingly likely that such superelites are self-made (Bernstein & Swan 2007). Such trends from a rather tiny sample of the Forbes 400 are in evidence among the broader elite: There has been a decline in dynastic wealth since the 1970s and a rise of self-made elites (Edlund & Kopczuk 2009), and elites are less likely to own capital and increasingly likely to rely upon earnings for their incomes (Piketty & Saez 2003). In brief, members of today’s elite are less likely to have inherited their wealth than those a generation ago (though this is relative), more likely to work in finance, more likely to rely upon earnings than ownership of capital, more global, and more diverse geographically and racially (Domhoff & Zweigenhaft 1999). 

The whole piece is here.

Social mobility and institutional support

I'm reading lots of stuff these days on social mobility in India to do with my book project on rich-poor interactions at private golf clubs. It's really only in the last ten to fifteen years that much ground has been made on this question of social mobility, and that's because only until recently has there been much in the way of massive surveys yielding multi-generational data. Something I came across a while back but which I'm returning to now is Anirudh Krishna's study of changing--and often not changing--prospects for those living in fourteen Bangalore slums.

Tracking these communities over time, Krishna finds that social mobility for most is a matter of luck, which makes sense: in a society such as India where the investment in education, health care, and other basic social provisions is abysmal, poor people are left to survive on their own. He pays special attention to how illnesses within families can be especially devastating. An important paragraph, near the end, reads:    

Illnesses, accidents, hospitalisations, deaths, and marriages are the adverse events that have mattered most within these slums. Compared with households whose economic conditions improved or remained the same, such adverse events occurred more frequently among households whose economic status has deteriorated. Average expenditures on health care were substantially higher among house- holds who suffered reversals of fortune. On average, a slum household spent Rs.13,415 on health care over the 10-year period preceding the survey. But 10-year medical expenses were 65 per cent higher among households who experienced downward movements (Rs.22,180). The incidence of regular medical outlays on account of chronic ailments is also higher among these households. Astonishingly, medical expenses were also higher among the poorest compared to the richest slum households (Rs.17,450 v. Rs.14,770). 

Families fortunate enough to avoid major illnesses can get by, investing money in other things, like education, most importantly. Those not so fortunate suffer, and suffer for generations, according to Krishna.

Read the whole thing here

In Search of poor "smart" kids

From an article by Robin J. Hayes, in the Atlantic Monthly, on why Ivy League schools struggle at promoting economic diversity on campus:  

Like most elite universities, Yale has a very specific view of what that means: high GPAs in “demanding” high schools and extraordinary character-defining extra-curricular activities. By the time I applied to Yale, I had been groomed as a scholarship student in majority-affluent feeder schools to succeed in conditions that guaranteed healthy GPAs. My attentive teachers in small classes delivered a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking skills, leadership capacity, and participation in mainstream institutions. Athletics and creative activities, studying in well-resourced libraries, and sessions with a seasoned well-connected college counselor were all required of me. Unsurprisingly, these nurturing environments allowed me to gain the credentials elite universities require. By society and the job market, I continue to be seen as a “high-achiever” in essence because I was never set up to fail.

It's not a small thing that elite colleges now want to diversify their student bodies, especially when you consider the history of these institutions. The bottom line is that few individuals arrive at an elite college without having at least some exposure to elite-like education. This is precisely Hayes's point. The poor have little to no opportunities in this regard, and that's why places like Yale--and Grinnell College, too, I should say--find their economic diversity efforts hamstrung. Seems to me that raising this issue would lead to more honest conversations about diversity, more generally, in higher education and beyond. 

(h/t Anya Vanecek)