Tag Archives: politics

Millennials are Screwed

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I’ve got another big long article in Highline!

Like everything I write, it began as a nitpick. For years it seemed like every time I opened a browser window, all I saw was the story of how millennials like me refused to grow up. We’re entitled, we’re hipsters, we’re living in basements, we MFA’d when we should have STEM’d. If we could just tear ourselves off of Tumblr for 10 minutes, maybe we’d find a job and quit complaining already.

I always knew this was a caricature, but it was only once I started working on this article that I learned the vast, incredible, profound wrongness of the stereotype we’ve been sold about millennials. Young people are not failing in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy is failing them.

The hardest part of writing a story like this is knowing where to start. One of the first people I interviewed was Emma*, who I met at a homeless shelter in Seattle last spring. She’s 22 years old, trying to get onto the ladder in tech and sleeping in a church annex while she does an unpaid internship. She’s been bouncing in and out of homelessness for two years now—getting a job, starting to climb the ladder and then falling off. It turns out this is a whole Thing, a sub-field of economics called “poverty dynamics.” More than 60 percent of the U.S. population will spend at least one year in the bottom quintile of the income distribution—a percentage that’s been growing since the 1980s.

It was like this for months: Every time I met someone, they led me to a novel way that young people have it harder than their parents. Katie, a midwife who only gets paid when one of her clients goes into labor and is still paying off her occupational license, put me on the trail of domestic outsourcing. Steve, who moved to Detroit to buy a cheap house and now earns $10 an hour “making smoothies for better-off millennials,” opened up the wonderful world of zoning regulations and falling labor mobility.

Last April, when I started on this story, I had no idea I would be looking up 1970s building codes or federal regulations on pension funds or the arcane details of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. But here we are! What I found was, first, that the challenges faced by millennials are larger than I ever expected. Second, these challenges are the result of three huge and deliberate and terrifying paradigm shifts in the way our economy works and how we think about it. They all happened slowly and imperceptibly. But, like the melting of an ice cap (ahem), they are now undeniable.

So this is it, my attempt at understanding and describing and freaking out about all the ways millennials are getting screwed and what we can do about it. It’s long, it’s dark and it’s full of statistics—luckily, there are gorgeous designs to distract you!

UPDATE:
I’ve done a bunch of interviews about the article!

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Filed under Essays, Journalism

Keep the Change

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At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Libya to London, Istanbul to Iberia.

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It was remarkably modern. The Romans collected taxes, they built roads, they negotiated trade deals with the (literal) Slavic hordes.

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The empire’s most critical nervous system was its infrastructure. Mail and goods and information traveled from one end to the other in just two weeks. A network of B&Bs let travelers change horses, rest for the night, eat a hot meal.

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It was a legitimate miracle, a feat of bureaucratic innovation that wouldn’t be matched for a millennium.

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Until, of course, it fell apart.

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The vandals invaded, the military lost, the bureaucracy shattered. Cue dark ages.

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We think of the fall of Rome as an event, a discrete, seeable Thing that happened on a Thursday a thousand years ago.

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In reality, though, it was more like a big long exhale. Yes the barbarians invaded and yes it sucked. But the empire had been faltering for decades beforehand and coasted on its built-up power for decades afterward.

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What happened, slowly and steadily, was that the central authorities lost their ability to project power. Their tentacles of influence—infrastructure, taxes, law enforcement—retracted over decades, leaving power vacuums that filled up with made-up royalty and ad-hoc warlords.

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Province after province, as the shadow of the central authorities lightened, local aristocrats and landowners rose up to replace it. Borders appeared. Mail took longer to deliver. Regions cut themselves off. Trade routes withered. Cities languished.

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It some places it took decades. In others, centuries. To the people living through it, the fall of Rome did not particularly feel like one. It was simply an escalating series of scandals, little mistakes and decisions that rendered centralized power weak, then invisible, then history.

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These are random pictures of Zimbabwe I took over the years.

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It was once the great hope of Africa, a bright spot of prosperity and peace in the (literal) middle of a troubled continent.

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The best universities, the most educated workers, the best infrastructure.

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And then Robert Mugabe, piece by piece, took it apart.

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He confiscated land from industrial farms and gave them to random war generals. He hyper-inflated the economy. He killed rivals and chased off investors and taught his own people to fear him.

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None of this was unexpected or surprising. We did not learn anything new about this man each time he stole an election, disappeared a political rival, inflicted his worst instincts upon his people.

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But each of them mattered.

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There is a human tendency to think that the most important events, the most seismic changes, are differences in kind. Narratives new and unprecedented, developments that erase the past. An earthquake. A fire.

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They make the best stories. Transformations, turns, reversals. Peace to war, prosperity to squalor, progress to backsliding.

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But history does not happen in category changes, lines being drawn and then crossed. History is shifts in emphasis, swapped priorities, the future echoing the past a little louder or slight softer.

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Events from which we learn nothing. Decisions about which we are not surprised, only saddened.

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There’s this thought experiment for human evolution.

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Put yourself on an index card. Then make one for your mother, then her mother, then her mother, and so on.

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Index cards stretching back in time forever. A hundred thousand generations ago you were an ape. A million ago, you were a rat. Ten million ago you were a fish.

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These changes are profound. But pull any two cards out of the stack and you will see no difference between them.

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You’re not so different from your parents and they’re not different from theirs. The ape looks just like his parents, and so does the fish.

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Maybe we’re conditioned to look for differences in kind because we seek stories. Twists, turnarounds, surprises. Differences in degree are less noticeable, harder to find, less tellable in the moment.

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Britain was one of the first outposts of the Roman Empire to go. The farthest corner, a mossy island, a tiny garrison of troops, warring tribes already competing to usurp them.

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For 80 years, Roman currency inflated and dwindled. Without money, the elites couldn’t buy leather or food or pottery. Without income, the peasants making them had no choice but to move back to the countryside.

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As the cities emptied, as tradesmen became backyard farmers, they stole stones from the roman architecture they left behind. Brick by brick, they carried them home along the roads, stacked them in squares around their families. Then they waited for the world to reach them again.

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Filed under America, Personal, Pictures, Serious

The Devil you know

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I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

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I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

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Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

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But so is visiting its capital.

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I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

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Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

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Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

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The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

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In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

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Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

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The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

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There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

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I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

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He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

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You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

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And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

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I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

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‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

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‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

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‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

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‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Yesterday in central Berlin, crying on a bicycle

I happened to be listening to this lecture yesterday on my way to a friend’s house, and I was all quiver-lip  from Tiergarten to Kaiserdamm.

It wasn’t just the speech. Yesterday voters in my home country and my home state decided that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage like milk threatens cereal. We shouldn’t have to vote on this shit, but we did, and we won.

It was also the same day Alex Ross published this lovely essay in the New Yorker:

I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind.

There will always be small-minded politicians, vicious diseases, bigoted thugs. Until recently, it felt like the world was rooting for them. Yesterday, it felt like it wasn’t.

‘Why are your eyes all wet?’ my friend asked when I arrived.
‘It’s cold outside,’ I said.
‘Well come inside, it’s warmer,’ he said, and it was.

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How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

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Why I’m Not Following the 2012 Election

So far I’ve been following this year’s presidential election like a toddler in church.

I don’t know if it’s because I think the result is already preordained, or that I’ve just had my fill of manufactured partisan outrage at meaningless gaffes, but I’m increasingly starting to think that participating in American mass politics is like living next to the freeway.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that all the candidates are the same, and that our choice doesn’t matter. I’m still voting (for Obama, obviously. Viva socialism!), and I’m reasonably familiar with each candidate’s narrative of the problems facing the US and their proposed solution.

I just don’t know what more genuine information I can gather at this point. American political campaigns are basically pantomimes, where we zoom in on the minutae of each candidate’s prescriptions and podium utterances, overlooking the fact that anything that will actually happen in the next four years will be a combination of compromise, serendipity and expediency. Even if Obama is a socialist Muslim, even if Romney hates poor people, their ability to meaningfully implement these agendas is severely constrained by our political system.

Again, I’m not saying their policies don’t matter. They do. I just think American political campaigns are not a particularly good way to assess what will actually happen if either becomes president.

I’m reading Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes right now, and I loved his description of the 1930s rise of the far right:

The past to which they appealed was an artefact. Their traditions were invented.

There’s a little bit of 2012 in that phrasing, isn’t there? Only now it’s not only the past that’s invented, but the future too.

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Government to Welfare Recipients: Get Lost

One of my favorite activities when I’m traveling is to go for a long jog through a foreign city. It’s a safe, pleasant way to cover a lot of ground and still maintain spectator status.

Every time I’m in a new city, I plan a 10k route on the hotel map, marking lefts and rights and trying to see as many parks as possible in 45 minutes.

And every time I implement my route, I get hopelessly lost.

I’ve unintentionally jogged between domino highrises in Prague and through a strangely silent bazaar in South Beirut. I once accidentally ran a half marathon in London because I ran west for 45 minutes thinking it was north.

These accidental detours usually end with me giving up on my sweaty map and just asking a pedestrian for directions. I know the name of a train station or some other landmark near my hotel, and I ask people which way I need to go to get there. Every time I have this conversation, it goes pretty much like this:

Me: Excuse me, I’m trying to get to [landmark]
Resident: Oh, you’re miles away.
Me: I know, it’s pretty far. Can you tell me what direction it is, so I can start heading back?
Resident: It’s terribly far away. It’s not smart to be jogging without knowing where you are.
Me: I agree. Can you tell me what direction it is?
Resident: It’s really very far. You should have brought a map with you.

I invariably have to go through three or four cycles of ‘you shouldn’t be here’ before I get to ‘here’s how you get where you need to go.’

I’ve been thinking about this as a metaphor for the way we think about social policy. Every person in need of welfare payments, unemployment benefits, old-age pension, disability, etc, are basically people in places they shouldn’t be. Every unemployed autoworker should have seen the hollowing-out of their profession coming, and begun developing other skills. Retiring workers should have spent their productive years saving money. Single moms should have known about birth control, had an abortion, whatever.

It’s easy to look at people receiving social welfare and think ‘they should have considered the consequences before they got pregnant, dropped out of high school, didn’t get a vocational degree,’ etc. It’s easy to be the person saying ‘why are you here in the first place?’

This is understandable on an individual level, but at the scale of a population, governments need to be utterly unconcerned with why people are in the situation they’re in. You’re 21 years old and pregnant with your third child? … How can we help?

Obviously government has a legitimate interest in reducing the number of unemployed autoworkers, teen moms, poor pensioners and so on. But those are systemic interventions, not individual ones.

Governments make systemic efforts to reduce rates of smoking, for example, through taxes, education and age limits. Governments don’t withhold treatment of lung cancer, however, on the grounds that patients knew the risks, and should have acted differently when they could. Yet that’s the guiding principle behind much of our social policy.

I’m not saying this to be ideological, or bleeding heart about reducing suffering. I think there’s an economic case to be made for this. Retributive social policy (you shouldn’t be pregnant again, therefore you’re not entitled to child benefits) just perpetuates the systemic problems that end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

It’s inarguably a bad economic decision for that 21 year old to go through with her third pregnancy. She shouldn’t be here. But wouldn’t the economically intelligent policy be to support her children to the extent possible, so they don’t make the same mistake? Doing otherwise places the principle of retribution above the practical benefits of trying to get the most societal gain from her children possible.

It’s the same thing with the unemployed autoworker. Yes, they should have developed job skills beyond low-grade manufacturing. But what makes more economic sense? Punishing them through barely-scraping-by unemployment benefits? Or enough assistance to help them transition to a new profession and, if necessary, a new city, where they can be economically productive?

I know the counterargument to this is that generous social policy just encourages people to have that third child, to drop out of high school, to retire early. But surely there are ways to discourage those beyond perpetuating the factors that drive them in the first place. Government should be in the business of getting you where you need to go, not  telling you why you shouldn’t be lost.

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It Is Easy To Be Beautiful; On The Outside, Less So

Yeah I’m not gonna bother reading anything about Rick Santorum. I’m sure he has unacceptable opinions on any number of important policy issues. I’m sure that the media will reveal hypocrisy between these opinions and his personal conduct. I’m sure there are skeletons in his closet waiting to be illuminated by the reporters and paraded on a stick by the bloggers.

But really, what’s the fucking point? He’s not going to win the nomination, nor the presidency. It’s only been five weeks since Herman Cain quit the primaries, and I’m already thinking that all those minutes I spent gathering news and opinion about him could have been spent reading a short story, or learning German, or shitting into my cupped hand and throwing it at my neighbors.

Looking back on this election in five years, whatever its outcome, I don’t see myself saying ‘Drat, I wish I had spent more time gathering information about the personality, achievements and thoughts of Richard John Santorum.’ Maybe I don’t have better things to do, but I do have other things to do.

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Every Generation Throws a Hero Up the Pop Charts

This NYTimes Magazine profile of the hipster mayor of a Rust Belt small town is really interesting.

Here was a guy in biker boots bringing the Park Slope (Aspen, Marin, Portland, Santa Fe) ethos — organic produce, art installations, an outdoor bread oven — to the disenfranchised. “What was Braddock like before we took office? Braddock was a notorious community that was steeped in violence. But as of — knock on wood — today, we are now 27 months without a homicide.” The audience began to clap and didn’t stop for a long time.

The piece ends up revealing that the mayor doesn’t have any actual political power, and the only people he’s managed to attract to the city are big-city runaways who want to live as cheaply as possible, and have little interest in contributing to the betterment of the city. In sum, it’s an indictment of the idea that bringing fixie bikes, Barcelona chairs and PhDs to downtrodden areas is a recipe for upward mobility.

James Smith, a 32-year-old Braddock native, often hangs out in the dollar-store parking lot with a group of friends. A graduate of the local high school, Smith can find only temp work, like cleaning Heinz Stadium after Steelers games. The weekly farmers’ market in Braddock is O.K., Smith says, but even if he wanted to shop there, he couldn’t afford it. Jobs and public transportation to get to them remain in short supply.

Nothing that was happening in Braddock — not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign — has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects.

When I was in Taipei, I randomly came across a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Since all the pieces were written in the ’60s, most of them are accounts of hippies and other lefty counterculture types.

I was really surprised at how moronic the hippies seem, reading about them 40 years later. The overall goals of racial and gender integration, breaking oppressive social mores and letting your hair touch your collar and beyond all sound great from far away, but not every  hippie thought deeply about these ideas and their implications.

One of the stories (the totally great ‘Charlie Simpson’s Apocalype’) follows some antiwar kids in the aftermath of one of their number killing four cops with a machine gun in the middle of a Missouri town square. The ‘longhairs’ refuse to condemn their compatriot, and offer lame defenses like ‘he’s fighting the system, man!’ It’s shocking to hear a bunch of pacifists (the good guys, dammit!) defend the murder of cops and citizens in cold blood, and about halfway through the article you realize these people are idiots.

I have to admit I had a somewhat similar reaction reading the Rust Belt mayor piece. I mean, what was this chick expecting, exactly?

Morrison grew up a few towns over and moved to Braddock from Brooklyn in 2008 after learning about its progressive mayor. Morrison, who is 33, was showing me the colossal bank building she bought almost three years ago for $125,000. At the time, Morrison wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it but figured it didn’t matter. She’d come to Braddock, and the spirit of the place would move her. Not long after that, the roof sprang a massive leak.

It’s sort of reassuring that our ideological fads are just as palsied as our parents’. I feel like they deliberately didn’t warn us, just so they could watch.

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Defending The Nutella Lawsuit

In the kind of news designed for talk-show monologues, a woman is suing the makers of Nutella for claiming that the chocolate-and-hazelnut goop is good for you.

There’s a tendency to look at these stories and have a kneejerk reaction against the woman filing the lawsuit. How the hell didn’t she know that Nutella is bad for you? Look at it! Taste it! Read the label! The comments on the article are almost exclusively of the ‘give me a break!’ variety.

But do we really want to live in a country where a product that is less nutritious than a milkshake can be marketed as a reasonable breakfast food for children?  The government in this case failed to do its job of preventing a company from lying to its customers. This woman, and this lawsuit, are trying to fill that gap.

This is not an isolated incident. As Marion Nestle’s always pointing out at Food Politics, food companies are allowed to say all kinds of bonkers shit on their packaging. This cereal, for example, is at least one-third composed of marshmallows:

The fact that Nutella lied and that this woman is an idiot are not mutually exclusive. In cases where an ignorant individual is fighting against a dishonest corporation, though, I think our contempt should go first toward the one doing the lying, rather than the one who believed what they were told.

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