Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Are "The Poor"?

Rev. John Cullinan, in his blog "Your Life is a Gospel" discusses the leaked Mitt Romney 47% video. He expresses frustration with the way pundits on both the left and the right have been reporting on it.

America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat. Let’s begin with the most basic question: “Who are the poor?”

Actually, it may be easier to answer the question of who the poor are not. To begin with, the poor are not a distinctive, discrete class. Not an ethnicity, not a race. Not some secret society whose mysteries are impenetrable. Not some strange alien species bent on invading our home territory. The poor are not a monolithic block of partisans, either. Hell, they’re not even the same people from year to year. But, mainly, the poor are not something “other” than us.

Hopefully, this is not an earth-shattering revelation for most of you.

And yet, there is so much rhetorical energy spent in this country on painting just that picture...
In America, we tend to think of “the poor” as a distinct, discrete class – a “them” – and tend to speak of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy as fixed segments of the population...

Census statistics could conceivably bear this idea out. Looked at from year to year, the percentage of the population that could be classified as “poor” remains relatively stable. However, when we track the life of an individual throughout its course, we are presented with a very different picture.

Since 1968, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) has studied the economic situation of nearly five thousand Americans household... According to the findings of the PSID, over the course of a lifespan, by the age of 75, nearly 80% of Americans will have lived at least one year, and most likely more than one, at or below 1.5 times the poverty line. Not just 47%, but nearly 80%. Poverty is a systemic issue. We are all part of the system. We are all at risk of paying the price. Who are the poor? We all are... If we are the poor, then the responsibility falls to us to contribute to the end of poverty. Not only is it the right thing to do, but now it falls well and squarely into the realm of our own self-interest and sense of self-preservation (just in case “the right thing to do” is not a compelling enough argument for you).

Friday, September 21, 2012

NFL Economics

“...maybe all human capital is not interchangeable …and maybe there are some noticeable downsides to a market in which whoever will work for the least gets the job.”-a writer named Ed on the blog Gin and Tacos comments on the NFL referee strike. His essay was picked up by Sociological Images.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hidden Beneficiaries of Federal Programs: From Sociological Images

Notably, the programs recipients seem least likely to recognize as a government program are among those the middle (and higher) classes are most likely to use, while those more common among the poor are more clearly recognizable to those using them as government programs. Yet allowing you to write off mortgage interest (but not rent), or charitable donations, or the money you put aside for a child’s education, are all forms of government programs, ones that benefit some more than others. But the “submerged” nature of these policies hides the degree to which the middle and upper classes use and benefit from federal programs.
Read the full article at Sociological Images

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Does Everyone Need to Think More Like a Business?

We hear a lot in the political season about running this-or-that "like a business." I found a quote today on a religious web page that talks about how congregations need to "think like a business."

Thinking like a business still seems to be something many entrepreneurs feel is beneath them. [Chris O'Brien, "Twitter bruised by wheels of industry," San Jose Mercury-News, 24 August 2012, p. C1.]

See, some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs think all they have to do is create some beautiful new idea, and everything else will take care of itself. This is analogous to congregations that think all they have to do is religion (or not even religion, but mere community), and everything else will take care of itself.

But what does it mean to "think like a business." Think like a business in what way? Putting aside the fact that businesses are not people and can't think (regardless of what the Supreme Court may say) what aspect of business-think is it that should be applied to every situation in life?

There are a lot of different aspects to running a business. Some are directly applicable to other contexts and some are not.

When someone says that churches should be run "like a business" I assume that they do not mean "for profit." So right there, we have a big divergence from thinking "like a business."

The Daily Show had a segment a couple of weeks ago during the Republican convention in which the correspondents agreed that the country should be run "like a business" and that under performing states-- those that took in more in Federal money than they put in-- should be fired and let go from the union.

Is that what we mean by "thinking like business?"

Often when people say we should "think like a business" they mean we should focus on efficiency and eliminate waste. How does this apply to a church? It would be a much more efficient route to harmony to just prevent annoying people from coming through the doors.

I, in fact, do think there are many things that successful businesses do that can be held up as an example and applied to other areas, but that does not mean that every aspect of running a business needs to come with it.

Maybe you begin by saying "we should be more like a business" meaning we should have clear, measurable goal. But down the line that often ends up being translated as "we should make our financial goals the most important." It risks making the financial bottom line the only line.

It can become quite literal in questions of politics when "thinking like a business" does not mean streamlining government organizations, making sure everyone on the team is goal oriented (even when the goal is not financial profit, but making sure the children are well educated or the roads are well paved). It comes to mean selling them to a for profit business because only "business" is efficient and results oriented. (Incidentally, in some cases a for profit business may be a better way to get a result. The question should not be is it a for profit business or a government organization but is it doing the job we need it to do the best way.)

The other problem I have with this expression "think like business" is that it implies that other fields do not have certain qualities that, in fact, they do. My associations with the positive ideals of "thinking like a business" are that businesses are supposed to be efficient, well-managed, accountable (if they don't reach their goals their stock price will fall or they will lose customers), hard working and goal oriented. Sometimes people add "team players" to that list.

In the case of the quote above, I believe from context that the writer is defining "thinking like a business" as "doing practical work toward goals."

But is taking practical steps toward goals only a quality of "business?"

That's great. A well-run business is all of those things. But are those qualities only found in business? Doesn't a parent have to be an efficient time manager? Isn't she directly accountable? Who will be held responsible if the children are not fed or do poorly in school and so on?

As a writer and ballet producer, I personally find the pervasive idea that artists do not possess these qualities offensive. Perhaps we are less "accountable" in the sense that no stock indicators are riding on whether or not we finish the novel. And we are certainly not doing it because it is the fastest track to improving the financial bottom line. Although a certain amount of daydreaming is part of the creation process, you are unlikely to meet a more dedicated and hard working person that one who is choreographing a stage production or deep in the process of creating a painting, or making the final revisions on a novel. Artists are goal oriented, they take the practical steps necessary to reach those goals and are surprisingly efficient at times when it comes to the creation of their work. In fact, working artists have a lot in common with serious business people. The business person might put all other concerns aside as she focuses on reaching financial goals, while the artists might put all other concerns aside (such as whether there is a paycheck at the end) as she focuses on reaching her artistic goals.

Shouldn't we describe being dedicated to a goal as "thinking like an artist?"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nonmarket Economy

Not the least surprising feature of this economic system was that if functioned without money. True, the lack of currency did not surprise the Spanish invaders -- much of Europe did without money until the eighteenth century. But, the Inka did not even have markets. Economists would predict that this nonmarket economy -- vertical socialism it has been called--would produce gross inefficiencies. These surely occurred, but the errors were of surplus, not want. The Spanish invaders were stunned to find warehouses overflowing with untouched cloth and supplies. But to the Inka the brimming coffers signified prestige and plenty; It was all part of the plan. Most important, Tawantinsuyu "managed to irradicate hunger," the Peruvian novelist Mario Varsa Llosa noted. - From 1491 by Charles Mann (p. 81)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Art of Manliness has a feature today on vintage business motivational posters. 

"Two (now defunct) printing companies — Parker-Holladay Company and Mather & Co. — were at the forefront of this burgeoning motivation business. Both companies created a line of motivational materials that business owners could subscribe to (new posters and cards would arrive each month) and hang up and hand out in the workplace. The two companies hired some of the best illustrators of the day such as Willard Frederick Elmes and Hal Depuy to create these handsome motivational posters."

The "now defunct" part struck me as pleasingly ironic.  (I did write a book once called Schadenfreude, Baby!)

Anyway, this particular poster brought to mind a section of the book Broke is Beautiful that praises "groping."

Gordon MacKenzie wrote a wonderful little book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball.  The titular “hairball” is the corporate group-think that grows in an organization over time.  Corporations don’t begin as giant hairballs.  They begin life as simple, effective concepts, one or two strands of the ideas that will produce success.  As success builds on success, more and more strands of “things that have worked in the past” get woven together.  Next thing you know, you’ve got a giant hairball.

“It is a common history of enterprises to begin in a state of naïve groping, stumble onto success, milk the success with a vengeance and, in the process, generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success: groping,” MacKenzie wrote.

Picture Michael Douglas delivering this line:  “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that groping -- for lack of a better word -- is good.  Groping is right.  Groping works.  Groping clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.  Groping, in all of its forms -- groping for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.  And groping -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

"Cartpushers" by Guante

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How Things Got Made

"It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought...we talk about millions of 'shovel ready' jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel."-Mike Rowe, testimony before the U.S. Committee on Commerce

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Saving Sci Fi

Arts Technica today ran a story about a Brooklyn based book shop that is trying to rescue obscure science fiction from disappearing into a not-profitable-enough-to publish, and hung up with rights claims black hole.

Lawyer Ash Kalb, musician-anthropologist Cici James, stylist-writer Jamil V Moen, and former Gawker media community manager Kaila Hale-Stern are the intrepid crew behind the Brooklyn-based bookshop. Each month, Singularity & Co—with the help of its community—chooses one great out-of-print or obscure science fiction novel, tracks down the copyright holders and makes that work available in DRM-free PDF, Epub, and Mobi format for subscribers.

Founded in April, after a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that earned them 350 percent of their $15,000 (£9,500) goal and kudos from authors like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow and Ken McLeod, Singularity & Co hasn't always had the easiest time unraveling vintage sci-fi's copyright issues. "We knew it would be difficult to track down the legal status of the books, but it's simply much harder than we though it would be," said James.

Books get lost along the way for a variety of reasons. There could be no perceived demand for it, publication rights become muddled, or the books are simply forgotten. Sometimes, things get political. "It's really sad because a lot of really great books get lost not because nobody wants them but because people with lots of money who claim they have the rights are stopping people who have the rights from actually doing things. We hope to help these people down the road," said Kalb, the lawyer of the group, who takes charge of helping authors and author estates untangle the copyright mess.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Service Work and Inner Lives

Discovered this quote from the Utne Reader on a Word Press blog I'm newly following "The Floating Library." 

Service workers are also emotionally exhausted. Service work requires emotional exertion yet is less fulfilling than jobs in the creative class. “[Manufacturing workers] are able to retain their inner lives while they’re on the job,” says labor historian Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College, “as opposed to service workers whose inner lives are being f--ed with.”

– Nona Willis Aronowitz