We have the money and the know how to tackle most of our social problems. Certainly unemployment, houselessness, and poverty. So, why don’t we?
In large part it is because our socially created wealth remains outside social control. Critical economic decisions are driven by private interests not the public good. One result is hipster economics.
On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.
Called psychylustro, German artist Katharina Grosse’s project is a large-scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia. The city has a 28 percent poverty rate – the highest of any major U.S. city – with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.
Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask North Philadelphia’s hardship with a delightful view. The Wall Street Journalcalls this “Fighting Urban Blight With Art.” Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it “an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day.”
The project is not actually fighting blight, of course – only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.
“I need the brilliance of colour to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence,” Grosse proclaims.
“People,” in Grosse and Thomas’s formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. “People” are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.
Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticised.
In a fancy bit of marketing, U.S. capitalists have been reborn as “job creators.” As such, they were rewarded with lower taxes, weaker labor laws, and relaxed government regulation. However, despite record profits, their job creation performance leaves a lot to be desired.
According to the official data the last U.S. recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. Thus, we have officially been in economic expansion for almost five years. The gains from the expansion should be strong and broad-based enough to ensure real progress for the majority over the course of the business cycle. If not, it’s a sign that we need a change in our basic economic structure. In other words, it would be foolish to work to sustain an economic structure that was incapable of satisfying majority needs even when it was performing well according to its own logic.
A recent study by the National Employment Law Project titled The Low-Wage Recovery provides one indicator that it is time for us to pursue a change. It shows that the current economic expansion is transitioning the U.S. into a low wage economy.
The figure below shows the net private sector job loss by industries classified according to their medium wage from January 2008 to February 2010 and the net private sector job gain using the same classification from March 2010 to March 2014. As we can see, the net job loss in the first period was greatest in high wage industries and the net job creation in the second period was greatest in low wage industries.
As the study explains:
The food services and drinking places, administrative and support services (includes temporary help), and retail trade industries are leading private sector job growth during the recent recovery phase. These industries, which pay relatively low wages, accounted for 39 percent of the private sector employment increase over the past four years.
If the hard times of recession disproportionately eliminate high wage jobs and the “so called” good times of recovery bring primarily low wage jobs, it is time to move beyond our current focus on the business cycle and initiate a critical assessment of the way our economy operates and in whose interest.
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.
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.
Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)
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.”
The executed is a woman named Ruth Snyder, convicted of murdering her husband. The photographer was a journalist named Tom Howard. Cameras were not allowed in the execution room, but Howard snuck a device in under his pant leg. Prison officials weren’t happy, but the paper was overjoyed.
The fact that the image was placed on the front page with the aggressive headline “DEAD!” suggests that editors expected the photograph to have an impact. Summarizing at Time, Erica Fahr Campbell writes:
The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.
It is one thing to know that executions are happening and another to see it, if mediated, with one’s own eyes.
Pictures can powerfully alter the dynamics of political debates. Lennart Nilsson‘s famous series of photographs of fetuses, for example, humanized and romanticized the unborn. They also erased pregnant women, making it easier to think of the fetus as an independent entity. A life, even.
Unfortunately, Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates. To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions. What if things were different? How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today? And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?
There are more women in political office than ever, but the U.S. is not on the forefront of this change. In 2013, the U.S. Congress was 18% female which, internationally, places us in the middle of the pack.
The Democrats can boast better numbers than the Republicans, but it wasn’t always this way. At the Scholars Strategy Network, sociologist Danielle Thomsen observes that the Democratic party (green and blue) has increased female representation much quicker than the Republicans (red and purple), but only since the ’80s or so.
Thomsen argues that part of the reason for this difference has to do with increasing polarization in politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have become more ideologically extreme, but this has hurt Republican recruitment of women more than Democratic ones. This is because Republican women tend to be more moderate, on average, than Republican men. Since there is less room for moderation in the party, the selection process favors more conservative politicians. Among that group, there are very few women.
This hasn’t hurt the Democrats as much, since Democratic women are not more likely than Democratic men to hold moderate views. The opposite, in fact, may be true, increasing the rate at which women may be picked up and supported by the party.
This February, president Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, François Hollande. In the company of the first lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and 12 US varieties of potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese, and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers.
Like the food, nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?
Food provides us with much more than physical sustenance: it is a symbol of relationships among individuals and groups. What was at stake at the February state dinner was not just pleasing the presidents’ palates, but nurturing ties within and between entire nations.
Photo: Dominic Episcopo
Imagine, first, that the diners were served tortillas or spaghetti as a main course instead of the dry-aged, family-owned-farm-raised rib eye beef steak they had. The former quickly evoke images of Mexico and Italy, while the latter tells a distinctly American story.
Serving dishes associated with particular countries is one way of fostering an imagined community – a nation state – which Benedict Anderson describes as being too great to be maintained by personal relationships, and one that must be continuously symbolized in order to persist. Especially on celebratory occasions, food takes part in producing and communicating national identities.
State dinners aren’t the only such example: another is the festive food used in New Year’s meals. The Vietnamese will eat a tet cake, the Belgians will have smoutebollen, and Slovenians will always have potica. In a melting pot nation, sending a message of a coherent community is even more important. France used banquets in it post-revolutionary times to bring together citizens in defiance of regionally specific gastronomies, writes Julia Csergo. Similarly, during the state dinner, a steak symbolizing quintessential America amidst its diversity was the star of the presidents’ meal.
And imagine, second, what would happen if president Hollande refused any part of the meal. If he skipped the cheese, we might think he is suspicious of the way the U.S. regulates its dairy industry. If he only finished half his potatoes, does that mean American produce does not taste good enough for the French? And if he rejected the dinner invitation to begin with, does this indicate the French dislike the US altogether?
Such presidential gestures would transcend his individual palate. Two political representatives sharing a meal are not only communicating their own food preferences, they are shaping a relationship between two communities. Using commensality as a political instrument is as old as the feasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Richard Ascough: the banquets that took place on special occasions served to maintain connections with gods as much as to foster connections between citizens and forming a political identity. Those who partook in the meal were considered part of a tight group, while those who were not invited, or worse yet, refused the invitation, cast themselves as outsiders. The American and the French presidents enjoying a meal together, then, symbolizes the nations’ peaceful coexistence and firm diplomatic ties.
Offering a bottle of Italian wine instead of a French-American one during the state dinner would not be a disaster, but it would certainly convey a different message, one perhaps of a somewhat colder relationship. But if we are to believe Mary Douglas’ classical 1972 text, Deciphering a Meal, just the fact the presidents were sharing more than drinks is promising: we are almost never reluctant to share a drink with strangers, while sharing meals tends to be reserved for those to whom we wish to signal intimacy. The state dinner, conveniently held right before Valentine’s day, was a political sign of affection.
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.
This chart comes from Chuck Marr at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As Marr explains:
The United States is a relatively low-tax country, as the chart shows. When measured as a share of the economy, total government receipts (a broad measure of revenue) are lower in the United States than in any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), even after accounting for the modest revenue increases in the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal and the taxes that fund health reform.
Each year the National Priorities Project releases a visual illustrating how our tax dollars are spent. This is the one for 2013, sans medicare and social security taxes.
At the end of Sociology 101, I like to ask my students: “What is the state for?” This often takes them aback, as most of them have never considered the question before. Is it for defense? It is to maximize happiness or reduce misery? Is it for maximizing GDP? Protecting private property? Do we want to use it to influence other countries? How?
There are many questions to ask and they are not purely theoretical. I like how the spending of our tax dollars helps make the conversation more concrete.