Liberals and Democrats are crying in their milk, Conservative and Republicans are celebrating what seems like a clean sweep of the U.S. 2014 mid-terms, and we at the Cranky Sociologists blog are busy celebrating this article in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology on why Big Data and the “Polling Industrial Complex,” where predicting statistically who is going to win and/or prevail, has become just as meaningless and vapid in politics as the standard attack ad.

While the 2012 re-election of America’s first African-American President signaled resurgence in support for social liberalism, it also announced a sea change in our media culture: the triumph of polling statisticians over the “go with your gut” prognostications of traditional punditry. On Election Day, Nate Silver finally burst the bubble of such notable blowhards as Joe Scarborough, Peggy Noonan, and most dramatically Karl Rove, whose on-air denial of the election results and subsequent dismissal by Fox News’s election team quickly became YouTube spectacle. Meanwhile, Silver published quantitative analyses of how minorities’ limited access to voting booths would affect Obama’s chances of victory; the Obama campaign itself received plaudits for its use of statistical algorithms to identify likely voters and encourage turnout. It seemed the era of Big Data had finally come not just to political coverage, but to political activism.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If 2012 was the tipping point for media-savvy statisticians, 2014 is the first cycle where their reign is undisputed. Silver launched the new fivethirtyeight.com under ESPN’s auspices with a self-described manifesto ending with the line “It’s time for us to start making the news a little nerdier.” Other bloggers such as Ezra Klein proudly crow their “wonky” credentials. Wasn’t our media shocked back into shape by Silver’s data-centric journalism?

Apparently not. Data journalism has failed to mitigate the feedback loop governing Americans’ distaste for mass media, and has become a manifestation of the very social phenomenon it was meant to dissect: the bifurcation in media culture between fear mongering and colorless prognostication. The real problem with our media wasn’t that it was bad at predicting elections (although it was)—it’s that it spends so much time on predicting elections at all, as opposed to moderating and shaping a national debate on what is at stake at the ballot box. Statisticians like Silver have helped eliminate bias when it comes to election prognostication, but there hasn’t been a similar commitment to eliminating the bias of spurious political narratives peddled by major media outlets. This leaves data journalism in the unfortunate position of helping to predict our electoral choices without evaluating their significance and pointing to alternatives.

Exactly. Over the past two years I’ve been surprised by the lack of analysis over the quality or point of such predictions (and the general hagiography around Nate Silver). Coming from academia, predictive analysis is great and a gold standard to pursue, but without context, your research data is meaningless.

It’s ironic that Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com is under ESPN’s banner, because when you watch predictive analysis on SportsCenter or MLB’s Quick Pitch, not only do you get quantitative predictions, but you get in-depth evaluation of the significance behind a team or pitcher, and alternatives to quarterbacks, draft picks, etc.

Put it this way: the press coverage and analytics behind the NFL and MLB drafts is far superior to any political reporting that was done in the run up to the mid-term election this year.

This isn’t to say there isn’t value in the technocratic skill and rigor behind data journalism. There is no question that a refined quantitative methodology for predicting election results is leagues beyond the horserace neuroticism of sites like Politico. But if, as Silver has said, he will not “do advocacy” and “won’t do a ton of public policy coverage,” then sites like FiveThirtyEight are really just a more skillful extension of the media circus Silver made a career out of criticizing. This is because eliminating bias when predicting events, in the absence of preventing bias when interpreting them, leaves intact the dysfunctional trajectory mass media has taken: its propensity for navel-gazing and sensationalism over actual journalism. As a result, data journalism runs the risk of statistically aggregating the U.S. political electorate before it can even express itself—and thereby downplaying its potential for transforming the political realities we face.

It’s like being told your team preference before having a chance to figure it out yourself. Not only is that “advocacy” of the worst kind, it circumvents any kind of thoughtful input from the voters themselves. In that sense, Fantasy Football or Fantasy Baseball is far preferable to the media coverage of partisan politics in the U.S. right now.

But I think proof of how meaningless this Big Data dump on people is, without context, is seen in the results on Tuesday. Once you get past the simplistic binary battles between candidates and parties, you find that Congress still, as a whole, has an approval rating of 11% (only pedophiles poll slightly lower), and despite that, the incumbency return rate on Tuesday was 95%. Meaning, 95% of incumbents were voted back into office.

So bravo on being the “most accurate” in calling the election. The predictions and results are simply meaningless.

Getting past partisanship, the real surprise for this blog was in the social issues, which struck a surprisingly liberal/libertarian theme that contradicts the conservative electoral sweep. In every state where the issues were on the ballot, marijuana was legalized, the minimum wage raised, and sentencing reform enacted.

On at least six high-profile and often contentious issues — minimum wage, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection — voters approved ballot measures, in some cases overwhelmingly, that were directly at odds with the positions of many of the Republican winners.

MINIMUM WAGE Initiatives to raise the minimum wage appeared on the ballots in four deep-red states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — and passed in all of them. The new hourly minimums range from $8.50 in Arkansas by 2017 to $9.75 in Alaska by 2016. Minimum-wage increases were also approved in San Francisco (to $15 an hour by 2018) and Oakland (to $12.25 an hour by 2015). In all, an estimated 609,000 low-wage workers will see raises from these approved increases.

MARIJUANA Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes (Colorado and Washington were the first two), while the District of Columbia repealed all criminal and civil penalties for possession and allowed limited, private cultivation of the drug.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM For the second time in three years, Californians voted to shorten the sentences of people serving time in prison. The state — which created the notorious three-strikes law — remains under federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding.

On Tuesday, the measure, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passed with more than 58 percent of the vote. Many politicians are still afraid of looking soft on crime, but California’s experience shows that voters can lead the way.

ABORTION RIGHTS The overwhelming rejection of “personhood” measures in Colorado and North Dakota dealt another well-deserved blow to the effort by some opponents of reproductive rights to ban all abortions (and some common forms of contraception) by passing laws giving fertilized eggs legal rights and protections that apply to individuals.

GUN CONTROL In the aftermath of the school massacre in 2012 in Newtown, Conn., Congress — caving to the National Rifle Association — did nothing to protect the public from gun violence. In Washington State, a campaign started by outraged church and community leaders fared much better. Initiative 594, which will require criminal and mental-health checks on gun buyers, drew an impressive 60 percent voter support on Tuesday.

CONSERVATION Environmentalists who may be singing the blues over the election results can take heart from approval of a record $13 billion in land conservation measures in states and cities across the country.

Again, further proof that Big Data and “predictive” quantitative politics without context is pointless.

When you get out of the cesspool and circle jerk of partisan politics in this country, what you see is how the people really are moving on a variety of social and economic issues. And it has nothing to do with partisanship, Washington, Republicans or Democrats, or the next “big victory.”

Cross posted from: The Power-Elite blog

[The whole TWD blogging series is here.]

So, when we last discussed TWD, several things had happened:

Woodbury had collapsed, Andrea had died, and the Governor had abandoned his survivors. This was all part of the Battle of the Patriarchs.

Anyhoo, the Governor got rid of the handful of other dudes who had escaped with him and was supposed to have some sort of reflective travel thingie until he found a family with two sisters and their elderly father, and the daughter of one of the women. Amazingly, this small group had managed pretty well on their own up to that point, but, as soon as the Governor shows up, the little ladies become powerless, for instance, in getting the elderly man to bed or get him his oxygen tanks. They needed manly rescuing.

After convincing the women that their place, which had been safe so far, no longer is, they all go on the road, under the safe leadership of the Governor (because, really, that’s what women want). They find another group. The Governor kills the current leaders (so much for the whole crisis of conscience thing), takes over (because he’s The Man), and decides to go attack the prison where Grimes and his group are still holed up.

Meanwhile, Grimes is still a horrible leader. When Carol tries to teach the children how to defend themselves (a perfectly reasonable thing to do), Carl sees her, and she tells him not to tattle on her to her dad… because Grimes is a horrible leader but somehow, that never gets questioned. Follows a weird flu epidemic that conveniently kills the rescued members of Woodbury.

The worst of the last season was definitely when Grimes decides, all by himself, to exile Carol because he thinks she killed some of the flu sufferers, including Tyrese’s girlfriend (hence another episode of macho nonsense, with some “let him hit me” stuff, and Tyrese making the other men promise to find who killed her). So, while on a supply round, again, Carol shows she understands what situation they’re in pretty realistically (after the death of a young couple they encountered), and it’s not pretty. This solidifies Grimes’s belief that he has the right to just kick her out of the group. When he gets back to the prison, no one questions him, which is really completely barf-worthy considering the season opener last Sunday.

twd2Then, the prison gets attacked and is set on fire. The one highlight of the season is Hershel’s killing. Big fist fight between the patriarchs, where Grimes gets all bloody, in addition to his being sweaty and gross all the time. In the chaos, the group disperses, and for the rest of the season, we’ll follow the separate groups: Carl, Michonne, and a totally beat up Grimes (whose leadership is inexplicably restored the minute he starts to fee better), then Daryl and Beth (who gets kidnapped by a group of gross dudes), then Maggie, Bob, and Sasha (and with this group, we learned that black lives are less important than white lives, when Bob decides to go with Maggie and abandon Sasha). Tyrese ends up with the girls from the prison, Grimes’s baby, and they end up with Carol, who is left with the task of killing one of the girls who have become, well, insane, and can no longer be trusted to harm them.

Along the way, they pick up a few extra people: a big dude who protects a mullet dude who supposedly has the cure for the plague and needs to get to DC, and a couple of women from the previous group that attacked the prison.

twd1Separately, they are all following signs to Terminus, a supposed sanctuary, which turns out, surprise surprise, to not be that at all! The season begins after they have all been captured by the cannibalistic Terminus people, who used to be good guys, but then, bad guys came and took over Terminus. They took it back and turned bad guys themselves.

The big moral lesson of the opener is that, basically, there are no more boundaries between good guys and bad guys. Everybody is equally awful.

The whole episode is Grimes’s group’s escape from Terminus (in large part, thanks to Carol), killing a whole bunch of Terminus people. Grimes is still as awful a leader as he was before: after their escape, he wants to return to finish them all off. At least, the others dare tell him it’s a bad idea.

But, of course, because it’s TWD, there has to be some patriarchal BS: remember, they escaped thanks to Carol’s intervention (Carol is turning in to the most badass character of the show, without the credit from the other characters). When she is reunited with the group, she cautiously approaches while keeping her distance. We get a big moving reunion with Daryl. And Grimes, asshole that he is, says “did you do that?” (meaning, set Terminus on fire, which allowed their escape), and hugs and thanks her when it becomes clear that she did. Somehow, he has given her her seal of acceptance in the group (patriarchal acceptance is needed), and the others come and greet her as well.

I am waiting to see if the rest of the show will address her shabby treatment in the previous season and if Grimes feels at any point he has to make amends for kicking her out of the group.

But why anyone would still defer to Grimes is beyond me.

KimaAs great a series as The Wire is, one of its major shortcomings is its lack of attention to women and girls. This does not mean The Wire fails to cover gender in the areas of crime, politics, education and work. But within those spheres, The Wire is more or less a drama involving heterosexual males. Hence, we get an array of stories illustrating various pursuits towards hegemonic masculinity.

Research on gangs in the United States shows that women are not absent figures, and under certain circumstances can achieve prominent gang status. Fortunately, at least two significant female characters emerge in The Wire whose attitudes, behaviours and positions within their respective workplaces reflect empirical gang research – Snoop, a gangsta in Marlo’s crew, and Kima Greggs, who isn’t in a gang per se, at least not in the way we normally think of gangs; Greggs is police.

A 2001 study with 369 gang-affiliated youth across 11 American cities (Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen) found that organisational sex composition within gangs influences how much power females and males attain. This study revealed that in youth gangs where there was a more balanced sex ratio, that is where there was a more even number of boys and girls, the female gang members engaged in significantly less levels of delinquency on 12 out of 14 measures.

In contrast, in youth gangs whose composition consisted of predominantly males and a proportionally smaller number of females, female gang members’ involvement in illegal activities were not significantly different from males’. In fact, findings from the study showed that for 12 out of the 14 delinquency measures there were no statistically significant differences comparing the male and female delinquency rates, including the measures for violent offenses.

The authors purport that these contrasting trends reflect organisational theory tied to gender and majority-minority relations:

…minority-group threat hypothesis suggests that as the proportion of the lower status group (i.e., females) increases, the higher status group (i.e., males) increases negative attention and control in an effort to maintain a dominant position. Thus, it would be in sex-balanced gangs – those with a sizeable proportion of female members – that the greater sex differences would emerge with regard to participation in delinquency. Our findings are in line with this prediction. Males and females in majority-male gangs did not report significantly different rates of offending, whereas males and females in sex-balanced gangs did. Thus, it may be that males in sex-balanced gangs, in which the percentage of females in nearly equal that of males, feel a gendered status threat and respond by narrowing girls’ opportunities for involvement in “masculine” activities such as delinquency. (p. 432).

To this end, although The Wire is probably inaccurate in portraying so few female characters, it is spot on in showing how female characters rise in prominence within largely male institutions. Take for instance Snoop, the only visible female gang member within Marlo’s crew. Snoop assumes masculine characteristics verbally (see her purchasing the nail gun, below; video can’t be embedded), through her attire, and behaviourally via her vicious criminality (Snoop shooting from the motorcycle, 2nd video).

http://youtu.be/JDpvkwBBu6U

Following Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen’s (2001) research findings, one would argue that Snoop is granted ascendance within the gang not only because of her masculine demeanor and brutal tendencies, but also because the sex-composition is so imbalanced in favour of males. As the only female within Marlo’s gang, women do not pose a gendered threat to the gang’s masculine order. Hence, Snoop is allowed to become “One of the Guys”, partake in work (i.e., valued criminal acts) along side males, and earn her way up within the organisational hierarchy.

Of course Kima Greggs is not in a gang the way we traditionally think of gangs. However, she also works in an overwhelmingly male institutional setting – the police force – where the law isn’t exactly always followed. Like Snoop, Kima assumes a traditional masculinity, which earns her peer respect and positions of power. And again like Snoop, Kima participates in workplace business along side her male counterparts. See the 2 clips below, where Kima clearly demonstrates highly masculine conduct (click on links, vid’s cannot be embedded):

http://youtu.be/2JVvEmCQrVE

http://youtu.be/zlXsk2tyGDA

One might argue that because the police force is similar to a gang in terms of its organisational, gendered composition and in terms of its masculine, violent inclinations, Kima is permitted to work at the detective level. If more women were in the police force and posed a greater numerical threat to the patriarchal stability, it is possible that even with Kima’s masculine attitudes and behaviours, she would be severely hampered in her career trajectory.

Miss A Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car:

Auto loans to borrowers considered subprime, those with credit scores at or below 640, have spiked in the last five years. The jump has been driven in large part by the demand among investors for securities backed by the loans, which offer high returns at a time of low interest rates. Roughly 25 percent of all new auto loans made last year were subprime, and the volume of subprime auto loans reached more than $145 billion in the first three months of this year.

But before they can drive off the lot, many subprime borrowers must have their car outfitted with a so-called starter interrupt device, which allows lenders to remotely disable the ignition. Using the GPS technology on the devices, the lenders can also track the cars’ location and movements.

The devices, which have been installed in about two million vehicles, are helping feed the subprime boom by enabling more high-risk borrowers to get loans. But there is a big catch. By simply clicking a mouse or tapping a smartphone, lenders retain the ultimate control. Borrowers must stay current with their payments, or lose access to their vehicle.

Awesome…it’s like Big Brother meets Repo Man. Check this clown out, who the article calls the “GPS Man”, a new kind of virtual repo superhero for the 21st Century:

“I have disabled a car while I was shopping at Walmart,” said Lionel M. Vead Jr., the head of collections at First Castle Federal Credit Union in Covington, La. Roughly 30 percent of customers with an auto loan at the credit union have starter interrupt devices.

From his office outside New Orleans, Mr. Vead can monitor the movements of about 880 subprime borrowers on a computerized map that shows the location of their cars with a red marker. Mr. Vead can spot drivers who have fallen behind on their payments and remotely disable their vehicles on his computer or mobile phone.

The devices are reshaping how people like Mr. Vead collect on debts. He can quickly locate the collateral without relying on a repo man to hunt down delinquent borrowers.

Gone are the days when Mr. Vead, a debt collector for nearly 20 years, had to hire someone to scour neighborhoods for cars belonging to delinquent borrowers. Sometimes locating one could take years. Now, within minutes of a car’s ignition being disabled, Mr. Vead said, the borrower calls him offering to pay.

“It gets their attention,” he said.

Mr. Vead, who has a coffee cup that reads “The GPS Man,” has been encouraging other credit unions to use the technology. And the devices — one version was first used to help pet owners keep track of their animals — are catching on with a range of subprime auto lenders, including companies backed by private equity firms and credit unions.

 ”GPS Man”, don’t you love it? “GPS Man…he can disable cars in a single key stroke!” (I feel like I’m reading a really bad Marvel Comic that was pulled from the shelves for lack of sales).

Except it’s not a cartoon…it’s Wall Street providing the capital for these subprime bottom-feeders who then scam low income individuals into taking out loans (up to 29% interest rates) they can’t afford.  Sound familiar?

Without the use of such devices, said John Pena, general manager of C.A.G. Acceptance, “we would be unable to extend loans because of the high-risk nature of the loans.”

If you read the article, this is the same company that turned off a woman’s car while she was on the interstate in Las Vegas, forcing her to cross three lanes and almost killing her and untold other drivers on the road that day.

Across the country, state and federal authorities are grappling with how to regulate the new technology.

Consumer lawyers, including dozens whose clients’ cars have been shut down, argue that the devices amount to “electronic repossession” and their use should be governed by state laws, which outline how much time borrowers have before their cars can be seized.

State laws governing repossession typically prevent lenders from seizing cars until the borrowers are in default, which often means that they have not made their payments for at least 30 days.

The devices, lawyers for borrowers argue, violate those laws because they may effectively repossess the car only days after a missed payment. Payment records show that Ms. Bolender, the Las Vegas mother with the sick daughter, was not in default in any of the four instances her ignition was disabled this year.

All of this is troubling on a number of levels. The fact that the gps tracking systems allows “debt collectors” and other unqualified people access to these borrower’s every move is borderline stalking. And given that the debt collection industry is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents (a “Candy Store for Criminals”), you are basically ensuring this technology will be used in other criminal ways.

But as well all know, Wall Street is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the psychopaths on The Street have figured out a way back into the subprime scams of the 00′s.  The regulations have been tightened to prevent similar predatory lending in the housing market, but apparently not when it comes to auto loans. Just another way the poor are scammed, ripped off, surveilled and controlled by the power-elite in society.

I need GPS Man to go kill ISIS terrorists or Russian insurgents. I don’t need him hounding single mothers with kids and no money, shutting off their vehicles.

Cross Posted From: The Power-Elite Blog

firstcontactI am always on the lookout for some new teaching ideas (I teach a 5/5 load, people, you have to find new things to do if you are not going to insane). So, I got First Contact – Teaching and Learning in Introductory Sociology, hoping it would contain a lot of ideas about teach intro (something I teach A LOT). The book was also reviewed in the July 2014 of Teaching Sociology (which is where I saw it mentioned). So, I decided to read the book before reading the review.

I have to say that this book turned out to be a major disappointment. The only way anyone can find this book useful is if they are completely new at teaching, as in, no teaching experience whatsoever, or completely clueless about this whole teaching business. So, if you are in that position, starting to teach from scratch, and this is your first introduction class ever, then, you might find this book helpful.

So, it may very well be that I have been teaching for a long time (I taught my first class in Spring 1997, language in society, as a graduate student, to linguistics major, at the University of Nice, in France). But I think that no matter how long one has been teaching, there is always room for improvement. And frankly, teaching has changed dramatically in the past 17 years of my teaching career. Technology has dramatically altered how we do things. Online education (or “education”, if one wants to be cranky about it) and hybrids have exploded into the field of digital learning. So, this isn’t your grandfather’s introduction to sociology anymore.

The interesting thing is that the basic building blocks of introductory sociology courses has not changed from where I started to teach in the United States in 2000. You just need to look at the table of content for any sociology text and go back 15 years, you won’t find much change in the way we teach introduction to sociology. So, any changes or innovation have to come from somewhere else. I was hoping the book would address the “somewhere else”.

I was also hoping to get some ideas about the perennial struggle of the sociology instructor: fight the psychology bias of American students, along with commonsense, and half-baked economic ideas.

While the book acknowledges all of these challenges (changes in teaching with increased focus on learning, the persistence of how we teach introduction to sociology, and the individualistic bias of our audience), it never really addresses them. And that is the main problem with this book: it remain much too general to be of use. The book painstakingly goes over every minute components of the syllabus but this is the wrong focus and that is not useful because this is information that is either largely provided by one’s institution, and it is not hard to find a generic template. One does not need a book for that.

The second major issue, to me, was that the book is not enough about sociology. A lot of what is mentioned, whether it’s about assessment or student engagement, could apply to any other discipline. Most of the time, the book reads like a compendium on best practices in teaching rather than specifically about teaching introduction to sociology.

The specific challenges of teaching sociology get only superficial treatment. When it comes to selecting course materials or discussing sociology directly, or reviewing the literature on teaching sociology, some of the references used date from the 80s or 90s. Sorry, but that does not cut it and it does not help dealing with contemporary issues in teaching introduction to sociology. Part of the frustration was that the book never really takes a stance on anything, whether it is on textbook and material options, or anything else. It lays out the issues but never really deals with them or takes a position.

So, again, if you are brand new to teaching, then, maybe, you’ll find this book useful and helpful. But if you have the slightest bit of experience, then, frankly, it will be waste of your time. Which is a shame because there is a need for a book on this topic, but this one is not it.

Grenade Launchers, Armored Personnel Carriers, M-16′s, All Standard Fare on Campus:

At least 117 colleges have acquired equipment from the department through a federal program, known as the 1033 program, that transfers military surplus to law-enforcement agencies across the country, according to records The Chronicle received after filing Freedom of Information requests with state governments (see table of equipment).

Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University). Along with the grenade launcher, Central Florida acquired 23 M-16 assault rifles from the Department of Defense.

Luckily none around these parts, but nice to see Kennesaw University representing in the M-16 assault rifle’s category. Go Owls!

Some argue that the procurement of tactical gear doesn’t help with the types of crimes that occur more frequently on college campuses, like alcohol-related incidents.

Are you kidding? Nothing would clear a rowdy, drunken frat party faster than a mine-resistant personnel carrier, grenade launchers and drawn bayonets.

Here’s the typical myopic, bureaucratic response, justifying the unjustifiable:

“For me, this is a cost savings for taxpayers,” said Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida and chair of the Campus Safety Knowledge Community, a forum for members of Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. When police departments “have the ability to get equipment that will help them do their jobs at a greatly reduced price,” Ms. Shaw said, “it is a benefit for the whole campus.”

That’s the first time I’ve ever seen “scaring your student body into submission and intimidating student dissent” referred to as a “benefit,” but uh, go Gators.

“It is a force multiplier for us,” said David Perry, chief of police at Florida State University and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “Typically, we are not staffed at optimum levels. We are not given budgets comparable to some large cities and municipalities, so we need to find ways to make it reach.”

Maybe you’re not given budgets “comparable to large cities” because, uh, you’re not a large city, Chief.

Michael Qualls, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University, in Georgia, agrees. A retired Army officer, Mr. Qualls worked for several campus police departments before he began teaching. “If we continue on with the 1033 program, as those items become obsolete at the military level and if they become available, why not get ’em?” Mr. Qualls said. “It’s better to be prepared than not prepared.”

For what? An invasion of Fort Valley State in south Georgia?

Most of this is driven by the “active-shooter” scenarios, along the lines of Virginia Tech in 2007. And while there is a remote possibility of this occurring on any campus anywhere in the U.S., the chances are infinitesimally slim.

For Mary Anne Franks, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami, the possibility that an extraordinary event could occur doesn’t justify the procurement of assault rifles and armored vehicles. The real danger Ferguson residents faced came not from a terrorist attack, she said, but from police officers armed with this sort of equipment.

“Mostly, I’m wondering why,” she said. “As much as one might wonder about why major cities are getting this type of equipment—which I think we should wonder about and ask questions about—it seems even stranger to talk about it happening in voluntary communities that don’t experience much violent crime.”

Ms. Franks raised another concern: As students become aware of the military gear some police departments possess, she said, that may curtail their willingness to express themselves and protest.

Precisely. Imagine protesting outside the dean’s office for lower tuition (or whatever) and suddenly the jack boots and body armor, tanks and grenade launchers show up. “Hey, Hey, tuition’s high, I’m going broke, but don’t want to die!”

Anyway, it’s just another extension of the militarization of policing that’s been going on throughout the U.S. the past 40 years or so. At the end of the day, we deploy the same spectacle of brute, state force on college campuses for the same reason we do it in low-income and minority neighborhoods: social control.

Cross posted from: The Power-Elite Blog

A new toon in the gallery of cranky sociologists: Saskia Sassen, thanks to The Cranky Sociologists’s cartoonist-in-chief, Kevin Moore:

saskia_sassen

 

I have long been a big fan of Saskia Sassen’s work. You can read my review of her latest book, Expulsions, here. Sassen gave us the concept of the global city, a place where global flows congregate and clash (as is reflected in the toon above), where the extreme power of the processes of global capitalism encounter the expelled elements of it.

It is also in Sassen’s sociology that one can read about how the nation-states have not disappeared under global conditions, but have reconfigured themselves as part of global assemblages that contribute to global processes, and do indeed process global mechanisms at the national level. The very concept of assemblage is one that is important in Sassen’s work as it brings together elements that are usually conceptualized separately. Again, it is something demonstrated in an accessible manner in Expulsions. I cannot recommend that book enough as, I think it is a highly readable entry point into Sassen’s work. Then, one can work one’s way into more complex work.

It’s not sharing if it involves buying and selling, no matter what price level. It’s more unregulated trading, which is a trait more akin to what is generally called an underground economy (usually the type of only economic system available to the most disadvantaged in a population or country. In this case, it is about the most efficient use of limited resources. If I have a car that works in a deprived environment where people have trouble getting from place to place, except through walking for hours, then, it makes sense for me to use my care to transport people: I make a little money, and they get more efficient transportation.

The only difference is that the current trend often involves Silicon Valley companies providing apps (and making money) and offering the services not to the disadvantaged in a resource-deprived environment. And so, because the media (apps) come from a privileged corner of the economy, it’s automatically defined as hip and cool, and disruptive, and revolutionary. If you read French, you can check out this fawning review of Instacart in Le Monde.

No wonder one finds Obama insiders involved with it.

But of course, the “sharing” economy is well in line with the current labor trends and despite PR work to present it as the ultimate sociability, unencumbered by regulations and laws and all that awful government stuff. Seriously, this is how proponents talk about it:

“So it was that Natalie Foster, the former Obama campaign organizer directing the San Francisco assemblage, enthused that the sharing economy was really one big exercise in community-building. Whenever we crash in a stranger’s guestroom or rent out their car, we aren’t taking advantage of a cheap, convenient service. We’re recreating the virtues of small-town America. “We are rejecting the idea that stuff makes us happier,” Foster said, “that ownership is better than access, that we should all live in isolation.”

The insistence that the sharing economy has tapped into a deep yearning for social interaction is both the most idealistic and least questioned assumption among its boosters. “People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships,” David Brooks wrote in a recent mash note to Airbnb. In a Wired story this spring, John Zimmer, the co-founder of the Uber competitor Lyft, invoked a stint on the Oglala Sioux reservation to summarize his feelings. “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.””

Right, nice whitewashing there. Ignore the forced relocation, the starvation, the deprivation, and all that nasty, racially-based stuff and enjoy the exotic revisionism. But it boils down to a very tired trope: that government interference destroys human sociability. The fact that venture capitalist are flocking to the startups should be an indicator of same old same old.

Thankfully, Dean Baker tells it straight:

“The “sharing economy” – typified by companies like Airbnb or Uber, both of which now have market capitalizations in the billions – is the latest fashion craze among business writers. But in their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law.”

How so?

“Most cities and states both tax and regulate hotels, and the tourists who stay in hotels are usually an important source of tax revenue (since governments have long recognized that a modest hotel tax is not likely to discourage most visitors nor provoke the ire of constituents). But many of Airbnb’s customers are not paying the taxes required under the law.

Airbnb can also raise issues of safety for its customers and nuisance for hosts’ neighbors. Hotels are regularly inspected to ensure that they are not fire traps and that they don’t pose other risks for visitors. Airbnb hosts face no such inspections – and their neighbors in condo, co-ops or apartment buildings may think they have the right not to be living next door to a hotel (which is one reason that cities have zoning restrictions).

Insofar as Airbnb is allowing people to evade taxes and regulations, the company is not a net plus to the economy and society – it is simply facilitating a bunch of rip-offs.”

So, it’s more a parasitic economy.

And Dean Baker does not even get into the labor issues related to this, but Natasha Singer does, in the New York Times:

“In the promising parlance of the sharing economy, whose sites and apps connect people seeking services with sellers of those services, Ms. Guidry is a microentrepreneur. That is, an independent contractor who earns money by providing her skills, time or property to consumers in search of a lift, a room to sleep in, a dry-cleaning pickup, a chef, an organizer of closets.”

In other words, these companies create, and take advantage of, a fully precarized workforce, with no stable income, no benefits, no protections whatsoever, and no labor regulation.

“In a climate of continuing high unemployment, however, people like Ms. Guidry are less microentrepreneurs than microearners. They often work seven-day weeks, trying to assemble a living wage from a series of one-off gigs. They have little recourse when the services for which they are on call change their business models or pay rates. To reduce the risks, many workers toggle among multiple services.

“Having a diverse portfolio is the best protection,” says Sara Horowitz, the founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, an advocacy organization. “People are doing this in the midst of wage stagnation and income inequality, and they have to do these things to survive.””

And that is pretty much the bottom line of it: the economy stinks, stable jobs are hard to come by, insecurity is prevalent and people are desperate:

“A huge precondition for the sharing economy has been a depressed labor market, in which lots of people are trying to fill holes in their income by monetizing their stuff and their labor in creative ways. In many cases, people join the sharing economy because they’ve recently lost a full-time job and are piecing together income from several part-time gigs to replace it. In a few cases, it’s because the pricing structure of the sharing economy made their old jobs less profitable. (Like full-time taxi drivers who have switched to Lyft or Uber.) In almost every case, what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust.

(…)

Add to this the fact that 3.7 million Americans are long-term unemployed (meaning they haven’t had a job in the last six months), and the rise of the sharing economy makes total sense. When wages fall and full-time jobs are hard to get, workers seek out flexible part-time gigs to sustain themselves while they look for something better.”

But it does not work:

“As Sarah Kessler discovered in her Fast Company investigation, it’s hard to make it in the sharing economy. Many of the people renting out their labor and goods through these services will end up making a fraction of what they did at their full-time jobs, and having none of the benefits.”

So, there is no glorious march toward voluntary microentrepreneurship, or a great wave of communitarian and trust revival, simply people who are a lot more financially insecure than before (both on the buyer or seller side).

This is what it looks like from a worker’s perspective:

“To try to insulate herself from the uncertainty, Ms. Guidry makes herself available to drive most weekdays in the predawn darkness. At that time, she figures, ride seekers are likely to be business travelers headed to the airport, a profitable fare.

Around 4:30 a.m., Ms. Guidry ushered me upstairs to her home office, careful not to wake her family sleeping down the hall. She pulled up TaskRabbit on her laptop to check if any new offers had come in. She scrolled through Craigslist, where she occasionally picks up work as a private chef. Nothing doing.

She glanced at the sofa bed by her desk, musing aloud whether she could rent it out on Airbnb. “The thing is, I have kids,” she said, gesturing to a child-size desk on the other side of the room where her son Aden, who is 5, does his schoolwork. So much for the couch-rental idea.

Resigned, Ms. Guidry activated her Uber iPhone, a device that the company issues to its drivers. On her personal Samsung Galaxy phone, she activated the driver modes for her Lyft and Sidecar apps.

Moments later, the Uber phone pinged with a ride request. She accepted immediately. But, ever in risk-mitigation mode, she waited two minutes before leaving, lest the rider change his mind.

“There’s nothing worse than driving all the way over to some place and then having them cancel,” she explained, heading down to the driveway.

A little over an hour later, Ms. Guidry returned home, having completed an airport drop-off. She had made $28, not accounting for the cost of gas. She would do a second airport run, then come back to wake her family and make breakfast.”

Can you feel the entrepreneurial freedom? Rather, this is what the precarized look like. Time for everybody to brush up on Guy Standing’s The Precariat. He laid it all out years ago (I wrote about it then, hereherehere, here, here, and here).

One of the arguments proposed in favor of the “sharing” economy is that either sharing companies can offer services for cheap (but that’s the Walmart model, and that’s not very attractive), or because the current model is bad. Taxicabs are often offered as an example. However, this article shows that the deterioration of taxicab model started with privatization and risk shift:

“t has experienced similar upheaval before. “Forty years ago, drivers went from laborers to independent contractors,” Desai explained. In the seventies, corporations lowered costs by hiring contract labor and leasing medallioned cabs to drivers. As contractors, drivers lost basic labor protections, like health insurance and paid vacations. Ed Rogoff, a professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business (and a former New York City cab driver), told me, “The independent-contractor taxi model is like sharecropping. Previously, cabbies and garage owners split proceeds fifty-fifty, with drivers keeping tips. The new system totally changed the structure of the industry by shifting all of the risk to the drivers.” The erosion of labor’s strength, Desai argues, explains the industry’s vulnerability to companies like Uber.”

But the bottom line is that these sharing companies behave like any other large corporations, attracting venture capital, and hiring political insiders, as I mentioned above. Profit, power, and political access are essential ingredients. But again, that is done on the back of labor. Take Uber, for instance:

“To keep spreading quickly, Uber needs to aggressively recruit new drivers, which could be difficult if price cuts also meant cuts to driver pay. Fiddling with prices has led to driver unrest, and the company’s assurances that drivers can make more than $90,000 per year in New York have been met with skepticism. On Twitter,Kalanick argued that lower prices meant drivers could make more, because increased demand would lead to more rides booked per hour.

(…)

The uncertainty that comes with attempting to regulate Uber out of existence can’t be too comforting to investors, though it also didn’t deter more than $1.2 billion in funding so far. Some of that money is going toward hiring high-powered lobbyiststo push back. But more powerful political leverage comes in the form of popularity. “The more they sort of popularize themselves, the stronger their argument becomes” against crackdowns, New York University Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundararajan told Businessweek.”

But is it yet another high-tech bubble? The labor trends are real and there is no reason to assume they will change anytime soon. This is bad time for labor, organized or not. On the other hand:

“Friday’s Uber valuation should mark a nadir in tech insanity: not only has the last sane person in the Valley left and switched out the lights, but someone probably paid him at least a billion dollars to do it.

Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists have collectively decided that a much-impersonated piece of taxi-despatch software – you might know it as Uber – is worth $18bn.

(…)

In reality, almost no-one will even blink at the number, because this sort of fantasy is created (and marketed) every day. So long as there are greater fools down the line – prepared to buy into the hype and load up on tech stocks – the train will carry on: founders cash in on the venture capitalists, who in turn get rich off the backs of our pension funds and 401ks, who load up on these stocks after buying into the West Coast hype.

Here’s how that theory works: sure, companies like Uber aren’t making much money now. But they’re growing fast and changing the world – so, after they have reach, suddenly it’ll be possibly to turn one’s investment into huge, world-changing profits.

But when you buy a tech stock at a huge multiple – and Uber’s revenues have been (generously) estimated at around $200m a year, which makes $18bn a borderline-insane 90x valuation – you’re making a bet that its profits down the line will be vastly larger than they are today. In fact, you’re betting that they will be almost unimaginably larger.

There is absolutely no reason to believe this is true.”

Why does it matter?

“It’s easy to think that this mad exuberance is victimless idiocy. It’s not. In any society, in any economy, there’s only so much investment cash to go around. The cash that’s getting thrown at overinflated companies in sunny California isn’t doing anything in the rest of the economy.”

Which gets us back to Dean Baker:

“If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.”

That is why they hire political lobbyists, so they don’t have to face a playing field, but to re-engineer a playing field that is vastly favorable to them.

Also, isn’t it amazing that every new innovation is always really good for the same people, and really bad (but good, because disruption!!) for the same people (labor)?

For a really, really good critical analysis of this with cartoons! Go read this.

Via the Pew Research Center, the name of the game is concentration:

It is interesting to note that the only two religions that have  spread far wide beyond their place of origin are Christianity and Islam, and this was accomplished through political means, military expansion, colonialism, not because of any voluntary adoption.

I’ve been writing about the militarization of policing on this blog (The Power-Elite) since I started it in 2007, and have been teaching about it in Criminology and Punishment and Society since 2000. With the grotesque events unfolding in a place called Ferguson, Missouri, suddenly everyone seems to be cognizant of the disaster that comes when you give military equipment to domestic law enforcement with little or no training in how or when to deploy such force. It’s Keystone Cops meets the Battle for Baghdad, right here in your backyard.

In fact, you get classic footage like this SWAT video, posted by a Georgia police department to their website (but recently removed after national outrage).

I particularly enjoyed reading about (and watching) the Ferguson SWAT arrest two reporters at a McDonald’s, decked out in “suburban camouflage.”

The defense for jack boots, body armor and camo at McDonald’s is found in the following exchange:

Ever see St. Louis County cops in camouflage military fatigues on the street and wonder why they’re dressed like they’re going to Iraq instead of Creve Coeur?

That’s the county’s Tactical Operations Unit — the SWAT team — and Sergeant Matthew Pleviak tells Daily RFT that the camouflage is worn so the SWAT cops can “blend in with the environment.”

Blend in with the environment of Creve Coeur?

“If you go to any subdivison, there’s grass and trees and bushes,” Pleviak explains.

Snicker. From Walter Olson at the Cato Institute:

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

Plus, the Hamburgler is often present at McDonald’s, so there’s that.

Oddly (or maybe not, if you can put away your ideological blinders for one second and think rationally), the outrage over the heavy handed SWAT tactics on display in Ferguson have cut across party and ideological lines, one of  the best articulations I’ve found comes from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (Republican):

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Again, “duh” for those of who have been studying this insanity for years now, but welcome to the debate, ideologues right, middle and left.

The one thing that’s missing in all the coverage, however, is historical context. Most of this militarization is chalked up to post-9/11 and the buildup of surveillance, technology, etc. following the advent of the War on Terrorism. But the militarization of policing has been going on since the Johnson administration and the creation of the LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) in 1968.

The LEAA funneled federal monies directly to local police departments to increase training, build up firepower and armor and, among other things, create SWAT teams in any department that wanted one. SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) was designed for urban hostage situations. Now, under Nixon’s increase of LEAA funding, even Chief Smith of the Podunk Police Department in rural nowhere can have a SWAT team (and does).

This continued throughout the 70′s (Ford, Carter), the drug wars of the 80′s (Reagan, Bush), then kicked into high gear following the end of the Cold War in the early 90′s. Once we stood down from the threat of nuclear war and Communism, all the surplus Defense Department equipment began to find its way to the streets and local police. The Clinton administration (via the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; aka “The Biden Bill“), accelerated the flow of bayonets, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers and military firepower to the streets of America.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, which took over LEAA and turned on the spigot of funding for more military equipment (including mine-resistant trucks) in the newly launched War on Terror. The Obama administration has continued the flow, more targeted towards the War on Immigration (for more, see our featured sociologist of the semester Christian Parenti and his book “Lockdown America”).

And so we stand today a true garrison state, as originally envisioned by sociologist Harold Lasswell back in 1941: a state maintained by military firepower (Constitution, Posse Comitatus, and common sense be damned).

As Parenti notes in Lockdown, all of this spectacle put on by local law enforcement is not about the immediate threat of convicts, druggies, rioters or even terrorists. Spectacle is a way you control people through brute force and state terror, and these kinds of egregious uses of force have been on display in poor, minority neighborhoods for decades. What seems to have changed here is the Ferguson PD took this into middle class areas, and the immediate social media reaction was swift and intense.

The debate over militarization is, again, much welcomed by those of us who have been sounding the alarm for years now (and met with essentially deaf ears and eye rolls). Let’s hope we reach the point soon where our local police departments can stand down from militarization insanity and go back to the business of keeping the peace.

Cross posted from: The Power-Elite

I had the privilege of speaking on this panel at The University of Auckland about two weeks ago, which addressed the ongoing conflicts in the occupied Palestinian territories. We had a solid crowd of approximately 350 attendees. Two of the panellists were Palestinian speakers who offered vivid, moving accounts of daily life in Gaza and the West Bank under apartheid. It is a lengthy conversation, but parts of it, I believe, are worth a listen.

Appropriately enough, considering the latest news of police shooting yet another African American young man, Pew had a survey regarding the demographics of gun ownership a few weeks back and they reveal no big surprises.

First, regional map:

wtga1

Except for the Northeast, the other three regions have a roughly the same percentages, with some advantage to the South.

More specific demographics:

wtga2

The gender quasi-equality was a bit surprising considering the fact that American masculinity is so tied up with guns, and, for instance, they are much more likely to use guns to commit suicide compared to women, as noted by the CDC a while back:

Suicide mechanisms gender

So, ownership and use might lead to different data.

The breakdown by race is more interesting and dramatic, with whites almost twice as likely to have guns than other racial and ethnic categories. We can also see that, by age, older individuals are more likely to have guns than younger individuals.

Further demographics:

wtga3

Rural dwellers have the highest numbers (one can suspect that hunting is a factor). The presence of children on household does not seem to make a difference one way or the other. Republicans are more likely ot be gun owners (shocking, I know), followed by independent, and then, Democrats. And unsurprisingly, ideology follows party affiliation when it comes to gun ownership: conservatives are twice as likely than liberals to be gun owners, with moderates somewhere in the middle (where they always are).

So, in other words, the guns are mostly in rural households, populated by conservative, Republican, older, whites, probably the category of people who see themselves as most besieged in 21st century America.