According to this graphic by NPR, “truck driver” is the most common occupation in most US states:

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But truck driving isn’t what it used to be. In 1980, truckers made the equivalent of $110,000 annually; today, the average trucker makes $40,000. What happened to this omnipresent American occupation?

At the Atlantic, sociologist Steve Viscelli describes his research on truckers. He took an entry level long-haul trucking job, interviewed workers, and studied its history. He found that the industry had essentially eviscerated worker pay, largely by turning truckers into independent contractors, misleading them about the benefits of this arrangement, and locking them into punitive contracts.

Viscelli argues that few truckers are fully informed as to what it means to be an independent contractor, at least at first. Trucking companies sell them on the idea that they’ll be their own boss and set their own hours, but they don’t emphasize that they will pay significantly more taxes, their own expenses, and the lease on a truck. Viscelli interviews one man who took home the equivalent of 50 cents an hour one week; another week he’d ended up owing the company $100. As independent contractors, he writes, truckers “end up working harder and earning far less than they would otherwise.”

If truckers want to get out of these contracts, the companies can hold their lease over their heads. Truckers sign a years-long contract to lease their truck along with a promise not to work for anyone else. If the contract is violated, the worker is on the hook for the entire lease. This could be tens of thousands of dollars, so the trucker can’t afford to quit. He’s no longer working, in other words, to make money; he’s just working, sometimes for years, to avoid debt.

The decimation of this once strongly middle class job is just one story among many. Add them all up — all of those occupations that no longer provide a middle class income, and the rise of lower paying jobs — and you get the shrinking of the middle class. Since 1970, fewer and fewer Americans qualify as middle income, defined as a household income that is between two-thirds of and double the median, or middle, household income.

You can see it shrink in this graphic by Deseret News using data from the Pew Research Center:

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Part of the reason is that we have transitioned to an industrial economy to one that offers jobs primarily in service (low paying) and knowledge/information (high paying), but the other part is the restructuring of work to increasingly benefit owners, operators, and investors over workers. As the middle class has been shrinking, the productivity of American workers has been climbing, but the workers haven’t been the beneficiaries of their own work. Instead, employers have just been taking a larger and larger share of the value added that workers produce.

Figure from the Wall Street Journal with data from the Economic Policy Institute:

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Between 1948 and 1973, productivity and wages increased at close to the same rate (97% and 91% respectively), but between 1973 and 2014, productivity has continued to climb (increasing by 72%), while wages have not (increasing by only 9%).

This is why so many Americans are struggling to stay afloat today. We’ve designed an economy that makes it ever more difficult to land in the middle class. Trucking isn’t the job it used to be, that is, because we aren’t the country we used to be.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Wealth inequality in the U.S. is extreme, but global wealth inequality, illustrates a video by The Rules, is even more stunning. Some facts:

  • The top 20% control 80% of the world’s wealth.
  • The richest 2% control more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • The richest 300 people on earth have more wealth than the poorest 3,000,000,000.
  • 200 years ago, rich countries were three times as rich as poor countries. Today, they are eighty times richer.
  • Rich countries give $130 billion dollars worth of aid to poor countries every year, but they extract $2 trillion each year thanks to global economic rules.

Here are their sources; or watch the four minute video:

The Rules wants to reveal and challenge the laws that govern our global economy. It is a distinctly sociological project, looking at how factors outside of individuals — or, in this case, countries — shape lives. Shaped strongly by the richest countries in their own best interest, rules governing the trading of goods and money are determining the economic solvency and future of countries.

When those rules are invisible, it can seem like struggling countries are just poorly managed or culturally problematic when, in fact, the rules ensure that the deck is stacked against them.

Hat tip to Martin Hart-Landsberg.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Yep. Economics majors are more anti-social than non-econ majors. And taking econ classes also makes people more anti-social than they were before. It turns out, there’s quite a bit of research on this, nicely summarized here.  Econ majors are less likely to share, less generous to the needy, and more likely to cheat, lie, and steal.

In one study, for example, economists Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose noted the consistent finding that econ majors were less generous and asked whether the effect was do to selection (people who are anti-social choose to take econ classes) or indoctrination (taking econ classes makes one more anti-social). They found that both play a role.

Students at their institution — University of Washington — were asked at registration each semester if they’d like to donate to WashPIRG (a left-leaning public interest group) and ATN (a non-partisan group that lobbies to reduce tuition rates).  Bauman and Elaina crunched the data along with students’ chosen majors and classes. They found that econ majors were less likely to donate to either cause (the selection hypothesis) and that non-econ majors who had taken econ classes were less likely to donate than non-majors who hadn’t (the indoctrination hypothesis).

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What should we make of these findings?

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni takes a stab at an answer. He argues that neoclassical economics isn’t a problem in itself. Instead, the problem may be that there are no “balancing” classes, ones that present a different kind of economics. In other part of the academy, he argues — specifying social philosophy, political science, and sociology– there is “a great variety of approaches are advanced, thereby leaving students with a consolidated debasing exposure and a cacophony of conflicting pro-social views.”

Being exposed to a variety of views, including ones that question the premises of neoclassical economics, may be one way to make economists more honest and kind. And doing so isn’t just about sticking one to econ, it’s an issue of grave seriousness, as the criminal and immoral behavior of our financial leaders is exactly what triggered a Great Recession once… and could again.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

“That’s private equity for you,” said Steve Jenkins. He was standing outside the uptown Fairway at 125th St. about to go to breakfast at a diner across the street. He no longer works at Fairway.

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Steve was one of the early forces shaping Fairway back when it was just one store at 74th and Broadway. He hired on as their cheese guy. “What do you want that for?” he growled at me one day long ago when he saw me with a large wedge of inexpensive brie. “That’s the most boring cheese in the store.” He was often abrasive, rarely tactful. I tried to explain that it was for a party and most of the people wouldn’t care. He would have none of it. He cared. He cared deeply – about cheese, about food generally.

He helped Fairway expand from one store to two, then four. He still selected the cheeses. He wrote the irreverent text for their signs, including the huge electric marquee that drivers on the West Side Highway read. And then in 2007 Fairway got bought out by a private equity firm. The three original founders cashed out handsomely. Steve and others stayed on. Much of their their share of the deal was in Fairway stock, but with restrictions that prevented them from selling.

Fairway kept expanding – stores in more places around New York – and they aimed more at the median shopper. Gradually, the store lost its edge, its quirkiness. With great size comes great McDonaldization – predictability, calculability. “Like no other market,” says every Fairway sign and every Fairway plastic bag. But it became like lots of other markets, with “specials” and coupons. Coupons! Fairway never had coupons. Or specials.

The people who decided to introduce coupons and specials were probably MBAs who knew about business and management and maybe even research on the retail food business. They knew about costs and profits. Knowing about food was for the people below them, people whose decisions they could override.

“I gotta get permission from corporate if I want to use my cell phone,” said Peter Romano, the wonderful produce manager at 74th St. – another guy who’d been there almost from the start. He knew produce like Steve knew cheese. Peter, too, left Fairway a few months ago.

Maybe this is what happens when a relatively small business gets taken over by ambitious suits. Things are rationalized, bureaucratized. And bureaucracy carries an implicit message of basic mistrust:

If we trusted you, we wouldn’t make you get approval. We wouldn’t make you fill out these papers about what you’re doing; we’d just let you do it. These procedures are our way of telling you that we don’t trust you to do what you say you’re doing.

The need for predictability, efficiency, and calculability leave little room for improvisation. The food business becomes less about food, more about business. It stops being fun. The trade-off should be that you get more money. But there too, Fairway’s new management disappointed. They expanded rapidly, putting new stores in questionable locations. In the first months after the private equity firm took Fairway public in 2013, the stock price was as high as $26 a share. Yesterday, it closed at $1.04. The shares that Steve Jenkins and others received as their part of the private equity buyout are practically worthless.

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Steve Jenkins will be all right. He’s well known in food circles. He’s been on television with Rachel Ray, Jacques Pepin. Still, there he was yesterday morning outside the store whose cheeses and olive oils had been his dominion. “I’m sixty-five years old, and I’m looking for a job.”

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog; re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

There is a light bulb in a fire station in Livermore, CA that has been burning since 1901. It was manufactured in the late 1890s. And, yes, there is a BulbCam.

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According to Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writing for Collectors Weekly, the first homes that had electricity were serviced entirely by electric companies. He explained:

Generally, customers would purchase entire electrical systems manufactured by a regional supplier who would handle installation and upkeep. If a bulb “burned out,” meaning the filament had deteriorated from repeated heating, someone would come and replace it for you [for free].

Given this business model, it made sense to try to develop bulbs that would burn out as infrequently as possible, and the goal was to make ones that would last forever. The one in Livermore was made by the Shelby Electric Company and, interestingly, no one remembers what they did to make their time-defying bulbs. For now, at least, their secrets are a mystery.

Only later, when electric companies turned over the job of replacing lightbulbs to homeowners, did they decide that it would be more profitable to make cheap bulbs that burned out frequently. As of around 1910, companies were charging the equivalent of $33 for a 1,500 hour lamp (which is about the same life of an incandescent bulb today). Yikes. At least the price has gone down.

We call this planned obsolescence: the practice of designing products with a predetermined expiration date aimed at forcing consumers into repeat purchases. Since the mid-1900s, more and more products have been literally designed to fail. In some cases, we seem to have fully accepted cyclic purchasing (think, for example, of the constant replacing of our electronic devices) or we are embarrassed into doing so (think fashion and the stigma of driving an old car). Other times, like with the lightbulb, we just assume that this is the best engineers can do.

Planned obsolescence is criticized for being wasteful. How many light bulbs sit in landfills today? How many natural resources have we extracted or burned up to make their replacements? How many cargo ships and semis have been filled with lightbulbs and taken around the world?

The little lightbulb in Livermore is a great reminder that just because we live in technologically advanced societies doesn’t mean we always have access to the most advanced technology. Other forces are at work.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Is there really a clean-cut difference between work and sex work? Is sex work really or always sexual? Are all the other jobs asexual? Where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line? Should we?

These were some of the questions that we discussed in my power and sexuality class this past semester and, like magic, an article appeared asking whether “bikini-clad baristas” at sexy-themed coffee shops are sex workers. Well, are they?

These coffee shops require women to wear bikinis or lingerie. At The Atlantic, Leah Sottile writes that “bikini” is an overstatement. On that day, a Wednesday, the employee slinging coffee wears lacy underwear. It’s their slow day, she explains, because on Tuesdays and Thursdays she wears only a thong and pasties.

“It’s like a really friendly drive-through peep show,” writes Sottile.

School administrators have re-routed buses.

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There are some interesting players in this debate, people who sociologists would call stakeholders.

Mike Fagan is one. He’s a politician and some would say that he’s responsible for making sure that city rules match the values of his constituents. He’s pro-regulation, explaining:

In my mind we’re talking adult entertainment. We don’t want to shut down the stands. We want to say, “Look, you either put the bikinis back on, or you move your business to an appropriately zoned area.”

Business owners — at least the ones that own sexy coffee shops — are generally anti-regulation. They’re not interested in relocating their businesses to an “appropriately zoned area,” the sad, skeezy corners of the city where we find strip clubs. One explains that she’s “just selling coffee” and if her girls want to wear a bikini when they do, who’s to say they shouldn’t?

Sex worker advocates are also involved. Savannah Sly, a representative of the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project, argues that bikini baristas are sex workers:

…because their work involves using sexual appeal… Because they may be stigmatized or their place of employment scrutinized due to the erotic nature of the work, I deem it worthy of the label of sex work.

Right or wrong, this is a convenient conclusion for Sly. If more workers are classified as sex workers, than sex workers become more powerful as a group, enabling them to better advocate for better working conditions, more protection, and rights.

The bikini baristas themselves surely have a variety of opinions. The one interviewed by Sottile points out that models often wear as little or less clothing, but no one’s debating whether they’re sex workers.

It’s a fair point. And it gets back to our question — and the question for the cities of Spokane, WAClovis, CAForest Grove, OR; Aurora, CO and more — where do you draw the line between sex work and not sex work?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible.

Sex is a part of lots of jobs. It’s not a binary, it’s a spectrum. Sex is a part of modeling, dancing, and acting. The bartender, the waitress, and the hostess all sometimes deploy their sex appeal. How much does sex play into how lawyers are viewed in courtrooms or personal trainers are evaluated? Is sex a part of pro sports? The therapist’s relationship with their client? Selling pharmaceuticals to physicians? Heck, even college professors are evaluated with chili peppers.

Maybe the difference is the contact or the penetration? But there are other jobs that centrally involve bodies and some involve kinds of penetration. What about the dentist climbing in your mouth? The phlebotomist drawing your blood? The surgeon opening up your chest? All these things are invasive and risky, but we manage them.

If not the penetration, maybe it’s the stigma? But there are other jobs that are stigmatized, too: undertakers, sewage plant employees, slaughterhouse workers, abortion providers, politicians (only sort of kidding), and many more.

The truth is that the things involved with sex work — emotional vulnerability, intimacy, emotional manipulation, physical contact, health risks, and moral opprobrium — all characterize at least some other jobs, too. So, the only thing that separates work from sex work is sex.

And, this might sound weird but, I don’t really think that sex is a thing that lines can be drawn around.

Is penile-vaginal intercourse sex? Is oral sex? Is manual stimulation of the genitals? Is making out? Is kissing? Is thinking about kissing? Would you offer different answers if I asked if those things were sexual? Would you answer differently if the question wasn’t about what counted as sex, but what counted as abstinence?

Is the penis a sexual body part? The clitoris? The anus? Breasts? The inner thigh? The back of one’s knee? The back of one’s neck? How do you decide? Who gets to?

So when is work sex work? I can’t conceive of an answer that would satisfy me.

So, what should be done about bikini baristas? A strong minimum wage. Unions. Protection from harassment. Sick days. A nice vacation. Penalties for wage theft. Predictable schedules. A nice benefits package. I want all those things for bikini baristas. I want them for all the other “sex workers,” too. I want those things for all workers because the important word in the phrase “sex work” isn’t sex, it’s work.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Tony Piro, at Calamaties of Nature, has a great cartoon exposing how commodified forms of rebellion can be quite expensive. I cut out the last panel so the cartoon would fit better, view the whole strip here.

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When tokens of resistance can be bought and sold, rebellion becomes something you purchase and perform.  The irony is that this, as Piro points out, can actually connect you even deeper to the very structures you want to resist.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.