Tag Archives: organizations/institutions

On the False Idea that Money is a Resource

I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower.  Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is.  I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.

Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world.  In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.

All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured.  For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures.  It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.

He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure.  A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch.  It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.

When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?”  This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM.  He says:

They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it.  But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.

So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump?  And what did we have a slump of?  Money.  There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”

“What do you mean no inches?”

“Just inches!  We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”

And people are that crazy!

This is backward thinking, he says.  It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.

I encourage you to watch:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Stay-at-Home Mothers on the Rise among Low-Income Families

“Stay-at-home mother” evokes black and white images of well-coiffed women in starched aprons. Rather than a vestige of a bygone era, stay-at-home moms are on the rise, according to the findings of a new Pew Research study. In 2012, 29% of women with children under the age of 18 stayed home, a number that has been on the rise since 1999 and is 3% higher than in 2008.

However, while more women are staying home with their children, the face of the stay-at-home mom has changed dramatically since the 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” days. Stay-at-home moms today are less educated and more likely to live in poverty than working moms. Younger mothers and immigrant mothers also make up a good portion of stay-at-home moms.

The story of why mothers are staying home is more complex than you may imagine and has more to do with the poor labor market, the exorbitant price of child care, and the contemporary structure of work. In a recent interview with Wisconsin Public RadioBarbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about how this report has been picked up by the mainstream media:

What’s surprising to me is the headlines and how it’s portrayed in the news. Although the numbers are going up, when you look at what mothers say, 6% of the mothers in this study say they are home because they can’t find a job. When you take those 6% of mothers out, the results are rather flat. Part of the real story here then is that it’s hard to find a job that allows you to work and covers your child care, particularly if you have less education and your earning potential isn’t very high.

These days stay-at-home moms, who are more likely to be less educated, are not able to make enough money for working to even be worthwhile. Many times, their pay wouldn’t actually cover the cost of child care. Beyond these important financial considerations, lower wage shift work makes it extremely difficult to coordinate child care in the midst of work schedules that change on a weekly basis.

Erin Hoekstra is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. This post originally appeared on Citings and Sightings and you can read all of Erin’s contributions to The Society Pages here.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Part I

On any given workday, over 31 million lunches are served to children in school cafeterias. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional assistance efforts, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) aims to deliver affordable and nutritious meals to the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, food plays a key part in helping them learn, grow, and thrive.

To reach those who need it most, the federal and local governments work together to offer free lunch to children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it. But money is just one way a meal can be compensated for: the ‘free’ school lunch comes at other costs.

First, there are the health costs. At its inception, the NSLP was not designed as a social program. Instead, it was a response to agricultural overproduction and a surplus of farm produce, writes historian Susan Levine. The policymakers’ goal was to get rid of excess foods while supporting domestic production.

As a result, nutrition was of secondary concern to them: one year, eggs would be on the menu daily; another, they would hardly make an appearance. It wasn’t until the war, when politicians grew concerned about the ability of the nation’s men to fight, and until it became apparent hungry children don’t do well in classrooms they were newly required to sit in, that anyone took a serious look at what kids at school were actually eating.

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By that time, it was too late. The program was already run like a business, and not even the introduction of nutritional standards helped. Today, these normatives are outdated – children snack rather than eat three square meals, and are less physically active, requiring fewer calories – and almost impossible to follow with the budget restrictions school lunch planners face.

The private industry was quick to offer solutions, but is more interested in profits than schoolchildren’s waistlines. Enriched and fortified chips and candies of otherwise dubious nutritional value appear in school cafeterias and vending machines, often a more popular choice with kids than apples. Frozen and convenience foods are replacing fresh meals cooked on premises. And the labyrinthine regulations of meal calorie contents coupled with cafeteria financial realities often mean adding more sugar to students’ plates is the only thing that can bring down its fat content, for example.

The food itself is not the only factor contributing to children’s undesirable health outcomes. Economist Rachana Bhatt finds the amount of time students have to enjoy lunch also matters. Students tight on time – they must squeeze all getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating their food, and cleaning up into their lunch break – might choose to skip the meal, leading them to overeat later, or eat quicker, leading them to consume more due to the delay in feeling full. Even if all school lunches offered healthy options, time would complicate their relationship with health outcomes: Bhatt found students who had less time for lunch were more likely to be overweight.

The lunch may be free when children choose their meal and sit down to eat it, then. But it may come at a substantial cost several years down the line, when a young adult is paying for diabetes medication and visits to the doctor to monitor their blood pressure.

Read Part II of “No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch.”

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Money as a Social Construction

We all know that, on some basic level, money is purely symbolic.  It only works because everyone collectively agrees to participate in the fantasy that a dollar bill is worth a dollar, whatever that is.  Moreover, most of our money these days is purely electronic, represented by ones and zeros and real only in the most abstract sense possible.

Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post offered another way of thinking about money as a social construction: how much it costs to make it.  None of our coins are actually worth what they cost, and pennies and nickels are worth quite a bit less.

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The excess cost of producing pennies and nickels means a budget deficit for the Treasury. In 2013, producing the coins cost the government $105 million dollars above and beyond the coins’ value.

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Interestingly, moves to eliminate pennies have been successfully opposed by the zinc industry for years, illustrating another sociological phenomenon: the power of corporations to shape government decisions.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Security Guards Now Outnumber High School Teachers

There are now more people working as private security guards than high school teachers.

Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev offer the following graph, highlighting the number of “protective service workers”* employed per 10,000 workers and the degree of income inequality in the year 2000 for 16 countries.  The United States is tops on both counts.

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Two things stand out from this graph beyond U.S. “leadership.”  The first is the relationship between the share of protective service workers  – or “guard labor” – and inequality.  As Bowles and Jayadev comment:

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

But however one totes up guard labor in the United States, there is a lot of it, and it seems to go along with economic inequality. States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire.

When we look across advanced industrialized countries, we see the same pattern: the more inequality, the more guard labor. As the graph shows, the United States leads in both.

The second is the rapid rise in the U.S. share of guard labor and inequality from 1979 to 2000.

One can only wonder in what ways and for whom this large and growing dependence on guard labor represents a rational use of social resources.

* For those who like definitions: The category protective service workers includes those employed as Private Security Guards, Supervisors of Correctional Officers, Supervisors of Police and Detectives, Supervisors of all other Protective Service Workers, Bailiffs, Correctional Officers and Jailers, Detectives and Criminal Investigators, Fish and Game Wardens, Parking Enforcement Workers, Police and Patrol Officers, Transit and Railroad Police, Private Detectives and Investigators, Gaming Surveillance Officers, and Transportation Security Screeners.  A broader measure of guard labor might include members of the armed forces, civilian employees of the military, and those that produce weapons to those employed as protective service workers.  That total was 5.2 million workers in 2011.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

What Causes Inequality? Systemic and Individual Frames for Racism in Media

Sociologists who study inequality distinguish between individual bias, negative beliefs about a group held by individual persons, and systemic inequality, unequal outcomes built into our institutions that will produce inequality even in the absence of biased individuals.

A good example is K-12 education in the United States.  School funding is linked, in part, to the taxes collected in the neighborhood of each school.  So, schools in rich neighborhoods, populated by rich kids, have more money to spend per student than schools in poor neighborhoods.  This system privileges young people who win the birth lottery and are born into wealthier families, but it also benefits whites and some Asians, who have higher incomes and greater wealth, on average, than Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, and less advantaged Asian groups.

Now, teachers and school staff might be classist and racist, and that will make matters worse.  But even in the absence of such individuals, the laws that govern k-12 funding will ensure that rich and white children will be given a disproportionate amount of the resources we put towards educating the next generation.  That’s f’d up, by the way, in a society that tells itself it’s a meritocracy.

Sociologists who spend time in classrooms know that young people coming into college are much more familiar with the idea that individuals are biased than they are with the idea that our societies are designed to benefit some and hurt others.  This is a problem because, in the absence of an understanding that we need to change law, policy, and practice — in addition to changing minds — we will make limited headway in reducing unfair inequalities.

But where do people get their ideas about what causes inequality?

One source is the mass media and, thanks to Race Forward, we now have a portrait of media coverage of one type of inequality and the extent to which it addresses individual and systemic biases.  They measured the degree to which news and TV coverage of issues were systemically aware (discussing policies or practices that lead or have led to inequality) or systemically unaware (fails to discuss such policies, explicitly denies them, or refuses to acknowledge racism of any kind).

First, they found that news outlets varied in their systemic awareness, with MSNBC a clear stand out on one end and Fox News a clear stand out on the other. On average, about 2/3rds of all media coverage failed to have any discussion of systemic causes of inequality.  Articles or op-eds that robustly discussed policy problems or changes were extraordinarily rare, “never constitut[ing] more than 3.3% of any individual news outlet’s coverage of race…”

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Second, they found that systemic awareness varied strongly by the topic of the coverage, with the economy and criminal justice most likely to receive systemically aware coverage:

4What this means is that whether any given person understands racism to be a largely one-on-one phenomenon that can be solved by reducing individual bias (or waiting for racists to move on to another realm) or a systemic problem that requires intervention at the level of our institutions, depends in part on what media outlets they consume and what they’re interested in (e.g., sports vs. economics).

There’s lots more to learn from the full document at Race Forward.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s Ikea for? Cultural Differences in Appropriate Behavior

Sociologist Sangyoub Park forwarded us a fascinating account of Ikea’s business model… for China.  In the U.S., there are rather strict rules about what one can do in a retail store.  Primarily, one is supposed to shop, shop the whole time, and leave once one’s done shopping.  Special parts of the store might be designated for other activities, like eating or entertaining kids, but the main floors are activity-restricted.

Not in China.  Ikea has become a popular place to hang out.  People go there to read their morning newspaper, socialize with friends, snuggle with a loved one, or take a nap.  Older adults have turned it into a haunt for singles looking for love.  Some even see it as a great place for a wedding.

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This is a great example of the social construction of spaces: what seems like appropriate behavior in a context is a matter of cultural agreement.  In the U.S., we’ve accepted the idea that the chairs in our local furniture store are not for socializing.  Some of us, depending on our privilege, could probably get ourselves arrested if we took a nap at our local Mattress King.  But this isn’t an inevitable truth.  If we all just collectively change our minds, the people with power included, then things could be different.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.