Quinn Norton’s excellent piece on Occupy in Wired

via Crooked Timber and bunch of other places, Quinn Norton’s amazing piece on the good and the bad of Occupy.

I am still trying to make sense of Occupy. I do know that for me, it did expose a shrill hypocrisy among many in the US who give lip service to freedom but who chortled with glee while riot cops bashed young people’s heads because members of occupy dared disrupt the precious social order by using their freedom of assembly. Does freedom mean merely the freedom to earn and buy? But not, I guess, the freedom to band together if I don’t agree with you, or if you represent a class of urban young people I don’t like, or whatever. In that case, shut up, be invisible, and Obey. That struck me as sad throughout, and it still strikes me as sad and as a fundamental inability to understand that liberty entails the obligation to make space for people and ideas you do not like.

Max Stephenson on our Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Max Stephenson writes about members of the US senate scoring some rather cheap political points by refusing to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

This sad episode tarnishes once more the nation’s standing as a leader in human rights and democracy in the world community. That this negative vote occurred at all is testimony to the much-discussed “broken character” of our politics. That it apparently occurred for the reasons it did is doubly distressing as it signals a deeper corruption of the democratic choice-making process in the United States. In the present instance, that process was hijacked neatly by a profoundly misguided, but well-positioned and vocal set of actors who, apparently, for their own narrow political purposes have managed to tar their nation in the eyes of the world and once more to deny the nation’s disabled even a symbolic claim to equal standing with their fellow citizens. This Senate action must be reversed. It not only is morally and substantively indefensible, but also profoundly anti-democratic.

The whole essay is worth reading.

Sigh. I understand the frustration with the UN that many on the right feel, that it is a mechanism for entangling the US with other countries. In my class on social justice, we examined the Texas secession movement and looked at various proposed constitutions, all of which had some provision specifying that the Republic of Texas would have no dealings with other countries except for trade. That kind of backseat governance sounds great in theory, but it didn’t actually work for Switzerland. Are there other examples where isolationism actually works?

Thus the question comes down to what type of entanglement are you going have?

The pragmatist in me thinks it would be more useful to support the UN when it is doing something it might actually be good at such as brokering voluntary agreements about cosmopolitan human rights questions, and to hold out when it wants to send your troops into hairy peace-keeping situations. The US seems to be doing the reverse: rather routinely sending troops to places that make little sense to our democratic populace, with their Black Hawk Down scenarios.

IOW, I don’t actually envision the US ever sending troops to Faroffistan to deal with their failure to provide wheelchairs ramps and government materials in braille. Rights covenants tend to be attempts at expectations- and example-setting and idea diffusion more than policy enforcement. Those seem like very good uses of global governance, even for conservatively minded people to me.

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson on Rawls’ property-owning democracy in the Boston Review

I am not much of a fan of property-owning democracy in Rawls, as I still think incentives are screwed up, but it contains a terrific critique of the welfare state from the perspective of the left. Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson take up POD in the Boston Review. Here’s a teaser.

Boston Review — Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson: Beyond the Welfare State (John Rawls, Property-Owning Democracy):

Merely as a matter of political psychology, relying on redistribution is a decidedly uphill battle. The well-off are inclined to think they have earned their (pre-tax) income—that it’s their money—and to resent giving up some of that income in order to help others who did not earn it. Even societies with a robust sense of social justice would struggle to realize anything like the difference principle via after-the-fact taxation. For societies with a weaker sense of social justice, such taxation typically fails to generate enough funds even to meet the basic needs of the worst-off. Worse still, dependence on redistributive, tax-and-transfer mechanisms opens the door for conservatives to drive a wedge between the “just-getting-by” working class and the out-and-out poor, undercutting the sense of solidarity needed to sustain a just society.

Ultimately, redistribution is a strategy employed too late in a game that is already being lost.

(Via www.bostonreview.net)

Worth reading all of it.

Anand Vaida’s discussion on neoliberalism in All the Beautiful Forevers

Over at n+1, Anand Vaida has a piece worth reading on criticism of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Here’s the set up:

The book was met with a storm of praise in both India and the United States — for the extent and depth of Boo’s research, for her empathy for her subjects, and for avoiding the trap that several recent “big India books” fell into when they took the entire country as their subject and ended up capturing nothing. An almost solitary discordant note came from Mitu Sengupta, a political science professor in Canada. In a review published on the progressive Indian blog Kafila (and later republished on the Dissent website), Sengupta charged the book with having a “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative”—that is, a muted but consistent anti–welfare state and pro-market agenda. The chief evidence of Boo’s neoliberalism, according to Sengupta, is the curious fact that none of Boo’s characters participate in any kind of collective activity; when someone does attempt to assert control over her life, it is always in isolation.

Vaida discussion is both helpful and reasoned, and I don’t have much to add to it. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I do have some confusion about the criticism and its ultimate disposition for those who write about bad conditions. I do have to admit that I have not read Boo’s book, as I am concerned about it being another version of poverty porn.

Because I tend to write about institutions and social justice, I get a lot of criticism from reviewers that I do the same thing that Boo does: that is, I don’t provide descriptions on what people experiencing injustice to fight it. As a result, the writing robs victims of the agency they demonstrate and maintains focus on the institution.

I can understand that. However, in much of my wrting, I am trying to get how institutions should fix their damn selves. While I understand the impulse to focus on how collective action affect change in institutions,  I have several concerns about making that the point of what I write about when I write about injustice and ethics.

1) Describing social movements or what people do when they respond to injustice may or may not be part of the story about why an institution should fix its damn self.

2) If there is a community response, and there often is, I don’t feel like that it’s my story to tell. Surely there are people, analogous to Derrick Bell and Julian Bond, who can and will write and speak for the movement themselves. While I am happy to be resource and support to that writing, it’s not my story and I don’t feel comfortable appropriating it for my own ends–e.g., publication and career advancement.

3) I do want to create the expectation that institutions and the planners within them should fix (did I say this?)  their damn selves without reinforcing the notion that institutional change can not happen unless oppressed people take on the burden of fixing.

4) Plenty of “Oh, lookit what those little community organizations are doing to fight the man!” narratives produced by academics strike me as patronizing, condescending, and reinforcing of the notion that democratic and advocacy coalitions are ‘handling’ the problem and thus, those of us who hold power and privilege don’t need to bother.

Other writers, like Vandana Shiva and James Scott, do an amazing job of writing about people’s movements. I rather feel like that material is covered: it’s obvious that when you treat people poorly, they find way to call you out, and that people power is actually a source of power. I don’t feel the need to echo that in my contributions, as that’s there. It’s evident.

Directions and comments on how I am wrong would be most helpful.

Conversations on Social Justice at the Price School

We launched a series of conversations about social justice and social welfare. You can find them here.

  1. Richard Green, Professor and Director, Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, discussing housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the foreclosure crisis.
  2. LaVonna Lewis, Teaching Professor at the Sol Price of Public Policy, on communities and health
  3. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, on immigration and cities
  4. La Mikia Castillo, community development practitioner and organizer for Get on the Bus, one of my favorite programs for prisoners and their families
  5. Sacha Klein, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University, on child welfare policy and practice in the US.

Brenda Simmons on Martin Luther King, Jr

So worth reading: On Martin Luther King Day, Ask ‘Where Art Thou?’
Brenda Simmons, co-founder of the African-American Museum of the East End and assistant to the Southampton Village mayor, delivered this speech on Rogers Memorial Library on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2008.

These lines are particularly moving:

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

We have a MLK Day parade here in Los Angeles: The parade will begin at 11 a.m. at Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and Western Avenue. From there it rolls west along King Boulevard until it takes a left turn south onto Crenshaw Boulevard. It then marches down Crenshaw to Vernon Avenue, where the parade takes a final turn and ends with a gospel festival at Leimert Park. There will also be lots of food booths and fun things to do throughout the afternoon and evening at the park.

Or if, like me, you social phobias keep you inside, ABC will be live-casting it here.

Foster kids, secondhand clothing, and citizen experts I sincerely wish would STFU

Michigan Senator Bruce Casswell has introduced legislation that would give foster children vouchers only good at used clothing stores, so that they can not “waste” state money buying themselves new clothing. He has argued that it’s a cost-saving measure.

There is an outcry, simply because on its surface, the proposal is mean. There are also all the stories about single mothers who themselves alone without handouts bravely provided for their children with only thrift store clothing, etc. etc. Republicans say that buying used clothing is recycling! So it’s pro-environmental, too! Those of you who think that secondhand clothing are bad need to get rid of your elitist attitudes! Well, MY daughter wears nothing but vintage and secondhand clothing and she looks great!

Blah blah blah blah. Natter natter natter.

I suppose we live in a world where, if you want to call yourself a democrat with a small d, you have to pretend that all these blithering personal anecdotes about secondhand clothing amount to intelligent contributions to policy debate. However, most of these comments just remind me of this story from the Onion: Open-minded man grimly realizes how much life he has wasted listening to bullshit.

Now, I am on the side of single mothers, in general, and I am always impressed by anybody who can tell the story of raising kids on one, female salary.

But that doesn’t mean that everybody can do it, or that it’s desirable, or that we should set policy according to what personally happened to somebody once.

And even if your personal history as a single mother with success using secondhand stores were relevant, which it’s not, and stupendously interesting, which it may be, the policy issue affects foster kids, not you, your children, or children in families headed by an adult, any adult, single, female, or otherwise.

They are, I repeat, foster kids. They may have nobody. And they may have a parent that they, themselves, sneak money to, rather than a gloriously together, competent parent who can make it work (and who can try to get resources from her extended family; remember, these are foster kids, which means the extended family network is thin or stretched.)

IOW, foster care policy is, really, not about you and what worked or didn’t for you, in all your self-mythologizing glory. Go write a memoir if it’s really all that interesting.

I strongly suspect that the money-cutting issue is basic smoke for this Casswell character to get his name in the news because I can’t believe the program change would amount to diddly squat in terms of real money saved. Minutiae politics, again: take a small-money program that serves a powerless group, wrap it up in large-scale emotional tropes for your constitutes (frugality, being independent, staying off the dole), puff like crazy, and then attempt to ride to a political win.

So let’s say this is a big-money program, which it’s not, but let’s pretend.

If there is one SCREAMINGLY OBVIOUS CONCLUSION from our past policy experience with programs for poor families, it’s that programs where we try to engineer their lives and their choices cost us more than any savings we might get from constraining choices, and those additional costs are always time and transactions costs.

Do I want social workers with 300 kid caseloads spending their time in thrift stores? No. Do I want foster parents spending their time in thrift stores? No. Not if they don’t think it’s a good use of time. If they enjoy the treasure hunt, fine. But if it’s taking them away from baseball, helping with homework, or earning extra money, then no.

So if the concern is that the allowances given to children are too high, then cap it and then let them optimize according to their preference. Be done with it.

Republicans supposedly believe in the free market. The reasons for simply giving the allowance and staying out of people’s lives come down to information and preferences–things markets are good at sorting and serving.

So we give a kid $200 a year (I doubt it, but let’s say we do). Who cares if they spend it all on one pair of really fancy jeans and four packs of Hane’s men’s t-shirts, some bras and undies, and a pair of Chuck’s? (my uniform) Plenty of teenage girls are the size they are going to be for a long time: why shouldn’t they buy something that has more wear in it? Or if a kid wants 50 pairs of torn jeans from a thrift store? Again, who cares which one they choose? It’s all the same amount of money. $200 = $200. Kids that prefer the latter can do the latter, and it is a form of recycling. How about you affix an allowance and let kids cash-out or save-forward the benefit they don’t use? There’s an incentive to be thrifty.

The main problem I have with the thrift store idea concerns the transaction costs of thrift store buying. Thrift store buying makes the most sense for little kids and small children who outgrow their clothing before they wear the clothing out. So shopping for younger kids is not much of an issue–people take their kids’ outgrown clothing readily to thrift stores, and there is a lot of choice, and there is often a lot of wear left in that clothing. With smaller kids, you don’t have to spend days on end looking for things.

For older children, the time costs of looking in thrift stores becomes a much bigger factor.
If you are hard to fit, the idea that you will simply roll into the thrift store and buy your size 9 E shoes (my shoe size) is ludicrous. Why? Because there are about 2 pairs of shoes made each year that fit me, and thus I wear them until they fall apart, no matter how ugly or expensive they are. So the foster kid who has size 9E feet is out of luck. Ditto for the teenage boy or girl who is 6’6”.

Do I want people with 9E shoes walking around their feet stuffed into size 9 shoes? No. Even though I did it the entire time I was growing up, largely because what I suffered through, though unfortunate, is not salient except to the degree that it gives me empathy.

Nor do I want a kid who is already probably feeling pretty gawky due to his size having to walk around with Erkel flood pants because that’s all he could find at Goodwill. It wasn’t a good look for Erkel.

I suppose under this “free-market” solution from Mr. Caswell we could require people like me turn in their 9E shoes every 2 years so that the wide of footed foster kids can properly learn frugality and their second-tier place in the blossoming American caste system.

Finally, there’s the idea that poor kids’ time is meaningless, that they can just spend their time sifting through thrift store bins. Brilliant. So while my friends’ children get to spend their time shopping online and studying for the SAT, foster kids get to spend their time not doing those things and looking for their thrift store treasures. BRILLIANT.

I love regulatory time-grabs from poor people. Swell policy! I mean, they have so much time. In between having sex out of wedlock, smoking, waiting in line for their lavish welfare checks, watching soap operas, and feeding Pepsi to their grubby kids, they just have all the time in the world.

I suppose we could feed these kids watery gruel and send them to break up rocks with chain gangs to offset the cost burden to the state. Or we could have them look for Coronado’s gold by digging holes in the desert. Something where they get off the back of hardworking people like me.

My views on Wisconsin, expressed brilliantly by Cosma Shalizi

I haven’t had much to say about the debacle that is Wisconsin, but I wanted to point you to the brilliant comments of Cosma Shalizi. I don’t know Shalizi personally, but I follow his blog, Three Toed Sloth, faithfully because the writing is simply excellent. I’m endlessly fascinated with what he studies.

Here are his comments on Wisconsin. I wish I had written this paragraph:

the single biggest thing which has gone wrong with America during my lifetime has been the economic stagnation for most of the country, accompanied by shifting risk from those who have resources and large organizations to individuals who don’t have much. And that has gone hand in hand with the decline — the repression — of organized labor. Unions are not perfect, but no human institutions are, and to condemn unions, specifically, because they are sometimes hide-bound or self-serving is either folly or deceit. Unions are the only organized force in this country which seriously advocates, which pushes, for the material interests and dignity of ordinary working people. The fight in Wisconsin is about whether there is, finally, a limit to how far the dismantling of American labor can be pushed.

Folly or deceit, indeed.

I’d argue for both folly AND deceit.

The money thing? That’s just smoke and mirrors. The public sector has competed with the private sector for labor largely through offering benefits. I make a much better salary than comparable UC faculty…but they have better benefits than I do. I have to save for my own retirement much more so, etc.

In the end, this shameless power grab will not save the state of Wisconsin much of anything, particularly for professional labor. Civil engineers in the Wisconsin DOT do not have to put up with crap wages and crap benefits. There are consulting jobs out there–with much higher wages and more limited benefits packages. And civil engineers are more valuable to consulting firms once they’ve done their time in state agencies.

I suspect that even though unions do prevent free entry into the lower end of the labor market that the primary beneficiaries of collective bargaining are blue-collar state workers, not white collar bureaucrats as the Republicans claim. White collar workers have more job mobility and more options.

So you gut your benefits and whatever you think you’ll save busting the union, you’ll have to make up for loss of benefits with salary. I suspect there’s revenue parity in that trade for all but the least skilled workers. So this little power play is coming at the expense of snowplow drivers.

Of course, you could try for lousy pay and lousy benefits and see what quality of laborer that gets you. Nothing like a fabulous imbalance in professional capacity between agency professionals and their contractors to make for lots of lost revenue on inept management.

Edited to add: and just like magic, Richard Green points us to an entry from the Economist that makes my point–that, once employed, low-skill workers benefit from unions more than other groups. There is, of course, the remaining issue of those who are worse off because they’d like more hours and can’t get them due to wage constraints introduced by collective bargaining. However, we do have to wonder which group is larger.

Of course, since the politico in question has never made any bones about how little he cares for the security of poor workers, such information is irrelevant in the face of his desire to be on national tv for a presidential run later.

Understanding the Growth Machine From the Inside Out

The new issue of City and Community has a nice manuscript by Sharon Kimelberg:

Kimelberg, S. M. (2011), Inside the Growth Machine: Real Estate Professionals on the Perceived Challenges of Urban Development. City & Community, 10: 76–99. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6040.2010.01351.x

The abstract:

The growth machine framework maintains that coalitions of elites work together to promote and adopt policies and practices that best serve their economic interests and propel cities toward growth. While numerous scholars have subjected the growth machine to theoretical and empirical tests, we know little about the beliefs and perspectives of individual actors within the growth machine. To address this gap in the literature, the present research uses in-depth interviews to examine the subjective views of one segment of the growth machine—real estate professionals. The findings demonstrate that these practitioners see the exercise of power at the local level to be less coordinated, consensus-driven, and growth-oriented than the growth machine thesis suggests. Specifically, they see their own power and capacity to act to be constrained by four factors: the (re)-election interests of politicians; the professional interests of municipal economic development staff; bureaucratic procedures and zoning regulations; and mobilized community members and groups. I conclude with a discussion of the implications for urban political theory and suggestions for future research.

Two things: perhaps it is my time as a practitioner, but these results are hardly startling, even though it’s a nice idea to try to get an in-depth perspective from real estate professionals and b) one of the weird, and unfortunate, things about power is that people seldom recognize what they have of it. So we wouldn’t necessarily expect real estate professionals to think any other way than as they appear to.

One thing that might have been useful here would have been to sample some of the other groups: the bureaucratic staff (oh, the power there! not) and the community members to see what and whom they think the constraints and barriers are. I suspect that you would see exactly the same listing as the real estate professionals’, only with whatever referent group taken out an real estate professionals swapped in for it!