By SocProf.

The heart of sociology then is definitely the relation of individual experience to social patterns. Which sounds an awful lot like the classical Mills formulation of personal troubles / public issues, biography / history. But, as it applies here, to contemporary phenomena:

With a nice nod to Durkheim’s study of suicide, which is still such an important foundation of sociology for the idea that the most individual act as a social shape and form.

Burrows then moves on to the fact that we have now a greater opportunity to not just ask people questions (surveys) but actually look at what they do through the data traces they leave behind that create patterns in the digital world, now visible through transaction data (connecting one type of practices with another type of practices). So, sociologist no longer have to rely on just what people say they are doing, but what they are actually doing (I would argue that, insofar as Tweets, Facebook status updates and other are still forms of performance, it is still “what people say they do”).

Burrows then uses the distinction between individual action and social patterns to question and reformulate some common dichotomies.

Production / consumption = prosumption

Play / labor = playbor

Text / visualization

Check it out.

By SocProf.


“Indeed they are, in many ways. First of all we have a new line of division between northern European and southern European countries. Of course this is very evident, but the background from a sociological point of view is that we are experiencing the redistribution of risk from the banks, through the states, to the poor, the unemployed and the elderly. This is an amazing new inequality, but we are still thinking in national terms and trying to locate this redistribution of risk in terms of national categories.

At the same time there are two leading ideologies in relation to austerity policies. The first is pretty much based on what I call the ‘Merkiavelli’ model – by this I mean a combination of Niccolò Machiavelli and Angela Merkel. On a personal level, Merkel takes a long time to make decisions: she’s always waiting until some kind of consensus appears. But this kind of waiting makes the countries depending on Germany’s decision realise that actually Germany holds the power. This deliberate hesitation is quite an interesting strategy in terms of the way that Germany has taken over economically.

The second element is that Germany’s austerity policies are not based simply on pragmatism, but also underlying values. The German objection to countries spending more money than they have is a moral issue which, from a sociological point of view, ties in with the ‘Protestant Ethic’. It’s a perspective which has Martin Luther and Max Weber in the background. But this is not seen as a moral issue in Germany, instead it’s viewed as economic rationality. They don’t see it as a German way of resolving the crisis; they see it as if they are the teachers instructing southern European countries on how to manage their economies.

This creates another ideological split because the strategy doesn’t seem to be working so far and we see many forms of protest, of which Cyprus is the latest example. But on the other hand there is still a very important and powerful neo-liberal faction in Europe which continues to believe that austerity policies are the answer to the crisis.”

Also take note of this important conceptual distinction between risk society and catastrophe society:

“The term ‘risk’ actually signifies that we are in a situation to cope with uncertainty, but to me the risk society is a situation in which we are not able to cope with the uncertainty and consequences that we produce in society.


We have to make a distinction between a risk society and a catastrophe society. A catastrophe society would be one in which the motto is ‘too late’: where we give in to the panic of desperation. A risk society in contrast is about the anticipation of future catastrophes in order to prevent them from happening. But because these potential catastrophes are not supposed to happen – the financial system could collapse, or nuclear technology could be a threat to the whole world – we don’t have the basis for experimentation. The rationality of calculating risk doesn’t work anymore. We are trying to anticipate something that is not supposed to happen, which is an entirely new situation.”

Read the whole thing.

By SocProf.

As I often tell my students, when examining social arrangements, always ask yourself, “who benefits the most from this?” That is, who accrues the most benefits, privileges and capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) from them? Once one has answered that question, it is easy to see why certain things persist even though they seem to not make sense or to be failing (e.g., the War no Drugs, mass incarceration, US health care system).

Now, this (via Mark Thoma):

As the article states:

“Profitability used to be lower when there was high unemployment, but in this downturn we have already seen the share of income going to profit exceed the high point reached in the last recovery or at any time in the last five recoveries. We now have an economy built to assure high corporate profitability even when it’s operating far below capacity and when most families and workers are faring poorly. This is further evidence that there is a remarkable disconnect between the fortunes of business and those best-off (high-income households) and the vast majority.”

By SocProf.

I saw this only in the Guardian. An accidental sociologist:

“The course of Worsley’s career was decisively shaped by the interventions of MI5, on account of his communist associations. They snooped on his Swahili teaching in east Africa and spiked his plan to do fieldwork in central Africa, despite the support of the formidable Max Gluckman, professor of social anthropology at Manchester University, where Worsley had a postgraduate studentship. So Gluckman suggested he go to the new department of anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra, where he completed his PhD thesis on Aboriginal kinship on an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

When, back home, he was yet again blocked by MI5 from doing African fieldwork, he decided that he had no choice but to move sideways from anthropology into sociology, and in 1956 he was appointed to his first teaching post, a lectureship in sociology at Hull University. The eight years he spent at Hull were perhaps the most creative – personally, politically and professionally – of Worsley’s life. With his wife Sheila (nee Wilson), whom he had married in 1950, he now had a young family.

He was fully caught up in the ferment that engulfed the left after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Leaving the Communist party, he became active in the New Left, alongside such figures as Ralph Miliband, EP Thompson and his Hull colleague John Saville, and in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He broadcast and wrote on colonial issues, particularly in the New Reasoner, which later merged into the New Left Review.”

His Marx and Marxism is still a must-read for undergraduate sociologists. Read the whole thing or read his autobiography.

So, the Taliban tried and failed to kill Malala Yousafzai and now she’s famous, is getting a book contract and everything. That has to be frustrating for your average medieval patriarch. So, how does one compensate?

“A teacher in Pakistan has been murdered in an attack similar to that on Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl blogger.

Shahnaz Nazli was shot dead in Shahkas, near the town of Jamrud in the Khyber tribal district, between the north-western city of Peshawar and the Afghan border.

Reports said the 41-year-old was hit in what as described as a drive-by shooting.

According to the AFP news agency, the teacher was on her way to the government girls’ primary school in Shahkas when gunmen fired at her about 200 metres from the school and then fled the scene.

“The teacher was killed after unknown gunmen on a motorbike shot her and fled,” said a local government official, Asmatullah Wazir.

No groups have so far claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, though the Taliban has previously been behind numerous attacks on girls’ schools and teachers. Hundreds of schools have been bombed and destroyed in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Of course, the Taliban do not have the monopoly of gender violence. The rape culture in South Africa has had devastating consequences, especially in light of the Pistorius case:

“”The massive problem we need to understand in South Africa is the level of men’s violence against women and against each other,” said Lisa Vetten, a researcher who specialises in domestic abuse. Police statistics on domestic violence are limited. But 15,609 murders and 64,500 reported rapes in 2011-12 suggest massive levels of violence in South African homes.

Household surveys by the MRC have found that 40% of men have hit their partner and one in four men have raped a woman. Three-quarters of men who admit to having raped women say they did so first as teenagers. The MRC found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2% of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police.

Experts say South African society features all the known causes of rape and violence, including a historical culture of “might is right”, a wealth gap that makes men feel weak, an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate childcare, which results in the neglect of boys, and high male unemployment.

Jewkes, a British doctor and director of gender and health at the MRC, said: “Having a father at home is really unusual here. South African children are more likely to be raised by a non-biological parent than by both biological parents. So you see high levels of neglect, humiliation and abuse, which develops into domestic violence. We also have a high rate of teenage pregnancies and those young mothers are not equipped to raise their children.

“South African men think women should be under their control. There is an idea that violence is justifiable as a means to keep women in their place. This has not changed in 20 years and even though the South African murder rate has dropped by 50% since 1999, rape figures have not,” said Jewkes.”

But there are some positive developments out of Ecuador:

“Ecuador hopes to move forward in the fight against violence against women by typifying femicide – gender-motivated killings – as a specific crime in the new penal code.

The first statistics on gender violence in this South American country were presented in 2012, indicating that 60 percent of women had suffered some kind of mistreatment.

The aim now is to include the crime of femicide in the penal code reform introduced in Congress in late 2011. The new code is expected to be approved by the legislature to be sworn in on May 24.

The bill describes femicide as the murder of a woman “because she is a woman, in clearly established circumstances.”

It goes on to describe these circumstances: the perpetrator unsuccessfully attempted to establish or re-establish an intimate relationship with the victim; they had family or conjugal relations, lived together, were boyfriend/girlfriend, friends or workmates; the murder was the result of the “reiterated manifestation of violence against the victim” or of group rites, with or without a weapon.

Femicide is to be punishable by up to 28 years in prison – similar to the sentence handed to hired killers.”


“Ecuador thus follows on the heels of other Latin American countries that have adopted femicide in their legislation: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.

However, in several of those countries – most notoriously Mexico and Guatemala – the classification of femicide as a crime has failed to reduce the wave of violence against women.”

It might be because femicide is tied to other social and cultural issues that governments have a hard time controlling (such as a deeply macho culture and drug trafficking). Still, at least  it might raise awareness.

By SocProf.

So, here we are again. MOOCs are very much still the talk of the academic town. And I am still working my way through a few of them. I actually just completed edX’s Statistics 2.1x – Descriptive Statistics out of BerkeleyX. The course itself, I thought, was very good and very well done. It was a 5-week long course, with strict deadlines, weekly graded assignments, a mid-term and a final. The courseware itself consisted of videos of about 15 minutes (except for the last week where one of the videos was 39 minutes long… Yikes). The main instructor was Berkeley’s Ani Adhikari and she was an excellent teacher. Overall, the again, the videos were well done (mostly powerpoint-style presentations with voice-over, both – video and pdf files – downloadable), the content was perfectly appropriate, the teaching sound, the exams quite rigorous but quite doable if you paid attention to the lectures (and you needed to pay very close attention). This was not a casual course. So, that is for the positive aspect.

The main negative thing, for me, was the discussion board. In MOOCs, discussion boards can be used for peer review grading or simply for discussion and for students to get some help if they get stuck. By definition, a MOOC will not offer access to professors the same way that credit-bearing course will, no office hours. So, a message board can be a valuable tool. Except, in this case, the board was terrible. Very clearly, in this course, with about 47,000 students, message boards can get crazy. In this case, the population for the course was obviously very diverse, with a lot of non-English speakers, people with different levels of education, age, occupations, and Internet access. Let us not forget that MOOCs do nothing to alleviate the digital divide. In this sense, they are not as open as one might think. They are open to those with time, access to hardware, software and skills.

So, after the very first few days, the message boards were inundated with a lot of overlapping posts, protesting the tight deadlines, a few typos and errors in Week 1 assignments, the video streaming speed, the number of possible submissions for graded exercises (“Coursera allows 3, Udacity, as many as you need, why are getting only one or two?”) and pretty much everything that could possibly be protested (including a quite funny argument regarding the meaning of GMT that Ani Adhikari herself blogged about… and yes, she has a blog specifically for her MOOC experience). There were initially breaches of the code of conduct where students posted answers to the graded exercises (or asked directly for such answers). Now, obviously, with so many students, even if a minority never participates in the message boards, only 5 to 10% participation can create a gigantic mess.

The nasty part was when what seemed to be a tight groups of students who had already taken edX courses (and therefore knew the format) took it upon themselves to police the message boards. They started berating the other students, sometimes being downright insulting. Then they would pat each other on the back for their wit and smarts, and how everybody else was stupid. Overall, they behaved like a pack of bullying juniors and seniors in high school going after hapless freshmen. This was very unpleasant, and, in many ways, inappropriate. I don’t know if these students were tasked by edX to manage the boards. If not, then they had an enormous amount of time to devote to the task anyway as they were omnipresent, always at the ready to slam down other students. And from the comments they made, I gathered that at least one of them had behaved the same way in a previous course. At one point, she commented that boards need order, and, apparently, she decided it was her job.

I know message boards are supposed to be self-managed and it would take a lot of resources for MOOC providers to have full-time moderators but it is simply not acceptable to have one group of people bully everyone else who dares show up on the board without what these students considered to be appropriate behavior (I did struggle as to whether I should step in and push back a bit, ultimately, I decided to stay away from the boards… cowardly, I know). And if a few students fought back against the bullies, then, the immediate retort was that they should not complain because the course was free so they should be happy with what they were given. No teacher would let such dynamics develop in-class or online.

In the end, I would be curious to know what percentage of the initial 47,000 completed the course. As we know, completion rates tend to be abysmal in MOOCs, as demonstrated by this rather not-very-nice interactive graphic (thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan to the left (Alberto Cairo might have a heart attack). It is interactive, so, click on it to go play.

Overall, it shows that the MOOC with the highest completion rate got about 20%. Everything else, is very low. Auto-graded-only courses seem to have slightly higher completion rates. Those are usually math or computer science courses. Peer-graded-only courses seem to be at the bottom, and that includes an introduction to sociology (:-().

Maybe courses that require more reading, writing and discussions have higher drop / non-completion rates than courses, like statistics, where the completion of problems and exercises is straightforward. If that were the case, this would be rather indicting for the format especially for those who think that freshmen survey courses should be offered as MOOCs as cost-saving. As we already know, MOOCs will not save money. And at this point, there is actually no business model for MOOCs.

I am currently enrolled in other MOOCS (statistics again, but this time, at Coursera) and I plan on taking Stats 2.2 with edX again. That is the thing about MOOCs, though, they don’t seem to be full of students. They seem to be full of people like me: with jobs, middle age or around that, mostly there for knowledge and professional development, or refreshers on the topics.

For those of you who read French, check out this report from Remy Besson from Culture Visuelle, after is MOOC experience at Coursera, taking E-Learning and Digital Culture.

Also check out Sister Edith blog post on why we should not be so hung up about the poor retention / completion rates in MOOCs (the sister is, like me, an alumna of Alberto Cairo’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualization).

By SocProf.

I know this is Todd’s territory here but I found this article on the Portuguese approach to drug policy quite interesting:

“One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.


“The police still search people for drugs,” Goulão points out. Hashish, cocaine, ecstasy — Portuguese police still seize and destroy all these substances.

Before doing so, though, they first weigh the drugs and consult the official table with the list of 10-day limits. Anyone possessing drugs in excess of these amounts is treated as a dealer and charged in court. Anyone with less than the limit is told to report to a body known as a “warning commission on drug addiction” within the next 72 hours.”

In other words, decriminalization. This was passed in 2000, so, they have had this policy in place for about 12 years. Enough time to have some evaluation.

So, what are the results?

“The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly. What, though, do these numbers mean? With what exactly can they be compared? There isn’t a great deal of data from before the experiment began. And, for example, the number of adults who have tried illegal drugs at some point in their lives is increasing in most other countries throughout Europe as well.”

Not bad. The whole idea is to treat addiction as a disease and not a crime.

What is interesting, from the article, is that the opposition to this law and policies is a based not on the possibility that it might actually work but on the moral idea that people should NOT want drugs and should be punished for wanting to use. It is a puritan argument and that is as far as it goes. There is nothing else:

“”It’s important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal,” says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão’s experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugs that much of the rest of the world conducts.”

Of course, it is a war on drugs that does accomplish much except filling up prisons and keeping criminal justice systems overwhelmed with low hanging fruits. Perhaps we should have a Gans-type “functions of drug policy” list.

Again, it is not policy, it is moral standing irrespective of the results. It is interesting to have failing policies defined as “normalcy”.

By SocProf.

Needless to say, the three of us Cranky Sociologists are not the first cranky sociologists. Sociology has a long tradition of crankyness. Cranky is not a matter of mood. It is a matter of having always the tendency, when faced with social behavior, actions and events, to pull back the curtain and look behind to find out the mechanisms of power and structure that explain them. One’s critical spidey sense is always at the ready.

So, I thought it would be a cool feature of this blog to have a cartoon gallery of cranky sociologists. But I can’t draw for doggie poop, not even XKCD-style stick figures. Thankfully, the talented Kevin Moore agreed to lend his skills to this feature.

And so, behold, our first cranky sociologist: Herbert Gans.

[Please don’t copy or download image without permission. Links welcome.]

Why Gans? Well, just because I am a big fan of the functions of poverty (pdf):

  • Poverty ensures that society’s ‘dirty work’ will get done. Poverty provides a low-wage labor pool that is willing–or rather, unable to be unwilling–to preform dirty work at low cost.
  • Because the poor are required to work at low wage, they subsidize a variety of economic activities that benefit the affluent. The poor pay a larger share of their income in property and sales taxes.
  • Poverty creates jobs for many occupations that serve the poor: police, social services, etc.
  • The poor buy goods others do not want and thereby prolong their economic usefulness.
  • The poor can be identified and punished as alleged or real deviants to uphold the legitimacy of conventional norms. To justify the desirability of hard work and thrift, for example, the defender of these norms must be able to find persons they can accuse of being lazy and spendthrifts.
  • The poor offer vicarious participation in deviant activities in which they are alleged to participate.
  • The poor serve as culture heroes and as cultural artifacts.
  • Poverty helps to guarantee the status of those who are not poor. In every hierarchical society, there has to be someone at the bottom to hold up the rest of the population.
  • The poor aid the upward mobility of groups just above them in the class hierarchy. Many persons have entered the middle class by providing goods and services to the poor. (The “Teach for America” gimmick)
  • The poor help to keep the aristocracy busy as providers of charity.
  • The poor, being powerless, can be made to absorb the costs of change and growth in American society (e.g., ‘urban renewal’ vs. ‘poor removal’).
  • The poor facilitate and stabilize the American political process because they vote and participate less than other groups.
  • Not only does the alleged moral deviancy of the poor reduce the moral pressure on the political economy to reduce poverty, but socialist alternatives can be made to look unattractive if those who will benefit most from them can be described as lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous.

By SocProf.

There are some good points in this speech and it makes a good, relatively short, video to show in class and that would probably trigger discussion with students. But, I confess to not liking the whole TED “let’s make it cool, yo” (and she does actually say “yo” in the video) attitude.

Also, a quick read of Karen Sternheimer‘s Celebrity Culture And The American Dream would have told her that the “celebrity and motherhood” trope is not new exactly new.

But anyway, see for yourself:

By SocProf.

Thanks to Google Glass. Specifically this:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Now pretend you don’t know a single person who wears Google Glass… and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public – any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway – you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you – and all 49 other passengers – could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.

Now, I know the response: “I’m recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn’t bother me, what’s the difference?” Hear me out – I’m not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it’s a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.

First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.

Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google’s search index.

Now our stage is set: not for what will happen, necessarily, but what I just want to point out could technically happen, by combining tools already available within Google.

Let’s return to the bus ride. It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.

I’m still not done.

The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

This is the discussion we should have about Google Glass. The tech community, by all rights, should be leading this discussion. Yet most techies today are still chattering about whether they’ll look cool wearing the device.”

All this is, of course, highly reminiscent of Minority Report, depicting a futuristic society where your retina is the source of constant stream of information, advertising and surveillance (both public and private), and where the only escape is to literally get a new set of retinas on the black market. A more advanced version of this technology was also deployed in David Brin’s Existence, combined with some “Wisdom of Crowds” stuff.

The worst part of it is that we will get used to it.

By SocProf.

Over at The Guardian:

What is new about these social movements? As Castells tells it:

  • emergence on the Internet
  • physical occupation of urban space
  • reconstruction of democracy from the ground up
  • reference to commonalities rather than national specificities
  • focus on raising awareness and encouraging people
  • empowerment of people in the context of lack of trust of political and financial institutions

Castells contrasts Iceland (where these new social movements ultimately led to a new constitution and new financial rules) and Cyprus (which represents the negative effects of deregulated capitalism).

If these movements do not succeed in their positive politics or if the established political classes do not resolve the crises, one can witness the rise of right-wing populist movements (Finland, Greece, UK).

By SocProf.

Chrystia Freeland:

“The one thing pretty much all of us agree on is the importance of equal opportunity. Opinion is divided about the significance of rising income inequality per se. Some see it as a problem in and of itself. But for others, a growing economic divide, so long as it is meritocratic, is a healthy characteristic of a growing, entrepreneurial society.

Nowadays, though, no one is in favor of a caste-based society. Income inequality is one thing, but a permanent division into the haves and have-nots is an entirely different thing – and much less acceptable.

That is why new economic research, released at a conference this week at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is so important. The comprehensive study is by five economists, including two who work at the Federal Reserve Board, Vasia Panousi and Ivan Vidangos, and one, Shanthi Ramnath, of the U.S. Treasury Department. It draws on a powerful new data set: a one-in-5,000, random and confidential sample of the population of U.S. taxpayers.

Its conclusions are sobering: Rising inequality in the United States is “permanent.” It isn’t the function of a bad year, a temporary economic downturn, or personal decisions to move to new jobs or new places, with consequent dips in income. Instead, rising income inequality is the statistical reflection of an increasingly calcified society – the rich are staying rich, and the poor are staying poor, even as the gap between them grows.”

That, in itself, is not new. There is already a lot of data out there regarding the lack of social mobility in the US.

So, what is the news here exactly? Well, for one, it’s not the Dirty F*cking Hippies saying so, it is Very Serious People. I can’t believe we still have to deal with these kinds of asinine argument. Isn’t Krugman not enough? What about Stiglitz? And yet:

“This study is powerful partly because the data that supports it is so robust and because the researchers investigating that data are so deeply rooted in the American establishment. This is no Occupy Wall Street critique – it is a sober analysis done by economists at the Fed and the Treasury.”


But then this:

“Their conclusion that rising income inequality is overwhelmingly permanent is also striking because this stratification is so strongly at odds with the increasing political openness of those same 2-1/2 decades. Even as class divisions have hardened, other forms of structural inequality have been eroded.

Full rights, including marriage, for gays and lesbians are swiftly becoming the status quo. Ethnic minorities have increasing demographic power, as reflected in their growing political strength on issues like immigration, or indeed in the fact that the president of the United States is black. The earning power of women is growing, and women are increasingly likely to be the breadwinners in their families.

This is the great paradox of our age – political inclusion of groups that were once beyond the pale is steadily increasing. But at the same time, the economic divide between the top and the bottom is becoming both wider and deeper.”

I don’t think there is a contradiction here. To accept gay marriage or relative (and ever so slow) equalization of the wage gap or increased minority political representation do not pose challenges to the economic system.

The relative success of identity politics has provided a cover for the hardening – by design – of class distinctions through wage compression, destruction of organized labor and inequality-increasing public policy (such as a wealth-favorable tax code and rolling back of the social safety nets, flimsy to start with). So, greater acceptance of LGBT, hopeful as it is, provides a veneer of progress over a reality of massive reactionary and contractionary public policy that calcify social classes and has led to the redistribution of wealth to the top, as my previous post showed.

The state of inequalities in the United States was already extreme, compared to other wealthy countries, before the recession. But it does seem that there is a hardening of these inequalities as the recession triggered more predatory extraction not only by the private sectors but also by policy, as the Obama administration and Congress only disagree on how fast benefits and social insurance should be cut on the already vulnerable.

Here are a few examples of this hardening of predatory accumulation.

First off, wage theft:

“Even as the ranks of low-wage workers have swelled since the recession, Democratic and Republican legislatures in more than a dozen states have quietly slashed funding for the agencies that enforce minimum wage law. Budget cuts are no surprise in an era of austerity. Yet the effect of these cuts on wage-and-hour investigative units—charged with examining and settling wage disputes—has seriously compromised an essential line of defense for already vulnerable low-wage earners, according to experts. State labor officials and researchers around the country tellIn These Times that low-wage workers facing abusive employers increasingly have nowhere to turn.

The victims of nonpayment of owed wages—referred to as “wage theft”—are most frequently workers at the bottom of the income scale. The U.S. Department of Labor, which significantlyexpanded its investigative force under former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, can take wage theft cases, but it is less familiar with local particulars and is prohibited from investigating many employers covered by state laws. Most private attorneys are unwilling to take wage theft cases, since they involve comparatively small sums of money.

Former investigators interviewed for this article say that budget cuts over the past decade have impeded their ability to perform meaningful investigations. They paint a stark picture of weakened enforcement divisions, lacking both necessary staff and funding, that regularly close claims of wage theft that appear legitimate. Such closed cases represent de facto wins for employers.

“This sends a powerful message to employers that they’re not likely to get caught and that following minimum wage laws isn’t a priority,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s to the point where, in some industries, there’s no minimum wage floor at all.”

Cuts to state minimum wage investigative units have happened with almost no fanfare. The change reflects budgetary realities and also a successful decades-long attempt by business groups to frame employee protections as a partisan issue, not suitable for public dollars. As union ranks shrink and average wages decline, weakened labor law enforcement represents yet another locus of power shifting away from the interests of the labor movement.”

Ultimately, this boils down to people being evicted from their homes because a late paycheck means late rent. Weak or non-existent enforcement also provides an incentive for unscrupulous employers to not pay people properly or wait to see if people put up a fight to get their due. But wage theft is probably much more widespread than we think as there is little incentive to report and some people might not even date protest being underpaid or not realized of exactly how much they are being cheated. And with no enforcement, they are on their own.

Another way of redistributing wealth upward, rather than just not paying people, is to squeeze those at the bottom even more:

““If you are not happy, I will give you $25,000 cash,” he recalled the landlord’s representative telling him.

Though barely getting by on Social Security, Mr. Machan, a 68-year-old retiree, turned down the offer, saying he had nowhere else to go. But some of his neighbors in the building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — where the 71 rent-paying residents share bathrooms and there is no kitchen — told others they accepted similar cash payouts with the excitement of lottery winners and quickly vacated.

The landlord, Alan Lapes, was clearing out these tenants to accommodate a group of people not often regarded as desirable: New York’s homeless.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services pays many times the amount the rooms would usually rent for — spending over $3,000 a month for each threadbare room without a bathroom or kitchen — because of an acute shortage in shelters for homeless men and women.

Indeed, the amount the city pays — roughly half that amount goes to the landlord, while the other half pays for security and social services for homeless tenants — has encouraged Mr. Lapes to switch business models and become a major private operator of homeless shelters. He is by most measures the city’s largest and owns or leases about 20 of the 231 shelters citywide. Most of the other shelters and residences are run by the city or by nonprofit agencies, but his operation is profit-making, prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless and elected officials.”

Why is it so lucrative?

“The fact that these modest living spaces have such high rents opens a window on a peculiarity of the city’s overall homeless policy. That policy, which was put in place in response to court settlements in 1979 and 2008, requires the city, under threat of sizable fines, to find a roof immediately for every homeless person. It has given landlords willing to house the homeless leverage to dictate rental prices and other terms.

Although the 95th Street shelter where Mr. Machan lives has been opened under “emergency” rules, the contract is for five years at $122 daily per room and will cost the city a total of $47 million. “We’ve tried hard to make sure we’re getting the best deal for the city,” Seth Diamond, the commissioner of homeless services, said at the meeting in response to the criticism.

With the number of homeless people rising to 30-year record levels — over 47,216 people as of early this month, 20,000 of them children — the city has struggled to find landlords willing to accommodate a population that includes people with mental health and substance abuse problems. So the city has resorted to housing adults in single-room-occupancy buildings originally designed for long-term residents who pay stabilized rents.”

And, unsurprisingly, the conditions are less than optimal:

“At several of Mr. Lapes’s shelters, tenants — both homeless and longer-term residents — say the buildings are often characterized by violence, drug-use, mice, broken elevators, periods without heat and hot water, and violations of fire safety laws. At 237 West 107th Street, a six-story women’s shelter formerly known as the West Side Inn, many of the 200 tenants said they often waited for an hour or more to take a shower at one of the shared bathrooms on each floor.”

I believe the correct term for this is slumlording, and in this case, at the taxpayer’s expense, funneling public monies into private hands, with much profitability and no risk.

Another older form of extraction is through usury payday loans and if some states ban you, find friendlier ones or go offshore:

“Major banks have quickly become behind-the-scenes allies of Internet-based payday lenders that offer short-term loans with interest rates sometimes exceeding 500 percent.

With 15 states banning payday loans, a growing number of the lenders have set up online operations in more hospitable states or far-flung locales like Belize, Malta and the West Indies to more easily evade statewide caps on interest rates.

While the banks, which include giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, do not make the loans, they are a critical link for the lenders, enabling the lenders to withdraw payments automatically from borrowers’ bank accounts, even in states where the loans are banned entirely. In some cases, the banks allow lenders to tap checking accounts even after the customers have begged them to stop the withdrawals.”

The incentive for the banks is the overdraft fees they can collect on their clients’ accounts, so, they won’t stop the payments even when people ask them to:

“While the loans are simple to obtain — some online lenders promise approval in minutes with no credit check — they are tough to get rid of. Customers who want to repay their loan in full typically must contact the online lender at least three days before the next withdrawal. Otherwise, the lender automatically renews the loans at least monthly and withdraws only the interest owed. Under federal law, customers are allowed to stop authorized withdrawals from their account. Still, some borrowers say their banks do not heed requests to stop the loans.

Ivy Brodsky, 37, thought she had figured out a way to stop six payday lenders from taking money from her account when she visited her Chase branch in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn in March to close it. But Chase kept the account open and between April and May, the six Internet lenders tried to withdraw money from Ms. Brodsky’s account 55 times, according to bank records reviewed by The New York Times. Chase charged her $1,523 in fees — a combination of 44 insufficient fund fees, extended overdraft fees and service fees.

For Subrina Baptiste, 33, an educational assistant in Brooklyn, the overdraft fees levied by Chase cannibalized her child support income. She said she applied for a $400 loan from and a $700 loan from in 2011. The loans, with annual interest rates of 730 percent and 584 percent respectively, skirt New York law.

Ms. Baptiste said she asked Chase to revoke the automatic withdrawals in October 2011, but was told that she had to ask the lenders instead. In one month, her bank records show, the lenders tried to take money from her account at least six times. Chase charged her $812 in fees and deducted over $600 from her child-support payments to cover them.”

And, of course, the most institutionalized way to create a permanent underclass that will, at some point be subject to wage theft, slumlords and payday loans, are the ranks of the massively incarcerated.

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