Alms from the Poor

The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.

— Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (2001)

This week everybody was talking about … well, actually nothing really caught on

I couldn’t get excited about the death of Hugo Chavez, maybe because I never got that excited about him when he was alive. I did like the discussion Chris Hayes had about Chavez Sunday, because it seemed like he really wanted to know who this guy was and what he meant for Venezuela, rather than to force him into a stereotype.

And I don’t have a lot of hope for the next Pope, so that story didn’t grab me either.

so I wrote about dysfunctions in media and democracy

Who Do Representatives Represent?” looks at a fascinating new study: Politicians on both sides tend to think their districts are more conservative than they actually are. An earlier study said that legislators’ votes are influenced mainly by the opinions of the wealthy, so I wondered this is all one phenomenon: Maybe politicians correctly estimate the positions of the constituents they really represent — the rich.

How Bubbles Look From the Inside” considers how you could tell if you were living inside a news bubble, cut off from actual reality. Day-to-day, you probably couldn’t. But the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion reminds us that a fantasy world is vulnerable to sudden shocks from events that are too big to spin.

and you also might be interested in

As President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage faces predictable opposition (in spite of its popularity — another one of those dysfunctions of democracy), the public should educate itself about the realities of minimum-wage life. If you didn’t read it when it came out in 2001, I suggest picking up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, where she makes three attempts (in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota) to find entry-level jobs and live on her wages for a month.

Middle-class people have trouble grasping the reality of what economists call poverty traps: when you can’t raise enough money to live cheaply. If you don’t have security-deposit-plus-first-month’s-rent for an apartment, you’ll have to rent a motel room week-to-week. It won’t have a kitchen or refrigerator, so you’ll have to eat fast food. Maybe the only car you can afford guzzles gas. Or you can’t afford a car at all, so you can’t get to the better-paying job opportunity. At Ehrenreich’s lowest point, she’s working seven days a week and can’t find a food bank that is open when she can go.

Ehrenreich has a tough time even though she has many advantages: She’s white, healthy, and physically fit. Low-wage jobs are plentiful during the boom at the end of the Clinton administration. She only has to support herself, not a child or parent. Because she’s only trying to survive for a month, she doesn’t face the unpredictable-but-unavoidable challenges that eventually derail even the thriftiest minimum-wage budget: illness, injury, car repair, or toothache. As you read, you’ll simultaneously sympathize with Ehrenreich and realize (as she does) that real minimum-wage workers have it much worse.

And while Ehrenreich takes pride in her ability to work hard and keep up, she quickly realizes that her Ph.D. brain doesn’t stand out. No manager or co-worker ever says, “You’re really smart” or “You pick this up fast.”

Ezra Klein explains why Obama can’t make a deal with Republicans. Here’s a clear case of a Republican saying that a deal would be possible if only Obama would accept X. Informed that Obama accepted X some while ago, he still says there’s no deal.

Tod Kelly compares Portland, Oregon to a nearby city in Washington, concluding that people actually like paying taxes if it buys them visible public amenities.

If you’re stuck for examples of “wasteful government spending”, you can always pick on some science project, because it’s easy to make them sound stupid. If there’d been an NSF in colonial American, somebody would have denounced that wasteful grant to fund a guy flying a kite during a thunderstorm.

The economy added an unexpectedly high number of jobs in February and the unemployment rate fell to 7.7%, the lowest number in four years. But Fox News found a way to spin this gold into straw.

New research indicates that global temperatures are higher than they’ve been in 4,000 years and are near an 11,000-year high. (That would be the highest temperatures ever, if you’re a young-Earth creationist.)

Even that understates the severity of the situation, because the real problem is the speed of change, not the absolute temperature. The NYT brings in Penn State climatologist (and Climategate smear victim) Michael Mann for comment:

Dr. Mann pointed out that the early Holocene temperature increase [12,000 years ago] was almost certainly slow, giving plants and creatures time to adjust. But he said the modern spike would probably threaten the survival of many species, in addition to putting severe stresses on human civilization.

“We and other living things can adapt to slower changes,” Dr. Mann said. “It’s the unprecedented speed with which we’re changing the climate that is so worrisome.”

The picture explains it:

Steven Lloyd Wilson captures how so many fans of Orson Scott Card’s fiction feel about his ever-uglier political activity: sadness, puzzlement, revulsion. I’m a firm believer that the artist is not the art, and that a lot of world’s great achievements were probably created by people I wouldn’t choose to hang around with. (Yeah, Frank Miller is probably a fascist, but I still like Dark Knight Returns.) At some point, though, what I know about the author starts to interfere with my appreciation of the work. Card has reached that point. I wish I knew less about him.

Continuing the human-interest theme: NYT Magazine has a brilliant feature on an aging physics professor with previously harmless levels of cluelessness and self-delusion. Then an online-romance scam pulls him into a drug-smuggling plot.

A new study claims that religion may help criminals rationalize their crimes. I like the interpretation of Slate’s Justin Peters: It’s not that this is the Great Definitive Study — it’s based on a small sample and blah-blah-blah. But the idea that prison ministries help rehabilitate criminals is also based on pretty flimsy research.

As that Bureau of Prisons report put it, while “religious programs in the correctional setting have been the single most common form of institutional programming for inmates,” nobody really knows whether those programs are effective.

You know you’re in trouble when your defense is that you miscalculated your opportunism.

That’s more-or-less where Jeb Bush is on immigration, which is supposed to be his signature issue. For years, he’s been projecting an image as the reasonable Republican, the one most likely to forge a workable compromise with Democrats. This week we saw that the image is the point, not the policy.

Bush’s book Immigration Wars came out Tuesday, and the shocker was that his proposal — legal residency for undocumented immigrants, but no path to citizenship —  is more conservative than bipartisan Senate framework that came out in February. (It calls for “a tough but fair path to citizenship”.)

But as soon as he’s questioned about it, Bush flip-flops, saying that he could support a path to citizenship. Explanation? “We wrote this book last year, not this year.” In other words, at the time the book was written, the Republican nominee’s immigration proposals (self-deportation) were so extreme that Bush could stake out a centrist position without calling for citizenship. But by the time the book is out, the center has moved. So Bush moves too. He has never really been for or against citizenship; he just wants to be in the center.

So this whole discussion has nothing to do with immigration; it’s about running for president.

Rand Paul does an old-fashioned talking filibuster, holding the floor of the Senate for nearly 13 hours. Eric Holder responds with one word:

It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American citizen not engaged in combat on American soil?” That answer to that question is no.

I’m torn about Paul’s filibuster. Many of the points he was making were points I’ve made here: It’s very dangerous to allow the executive branch to assemble a “kill list” without oversight from somebody who doesn’t answer to the President. (Even a secret “star chamber” court would be better, if it had independent judges.)

But Paul was also phrasing his questions in ways that made them unanswerable. (Holder’s version puts in key caveats, like “not engaged in combat”.) At a time when well-armed Americans — many of whom seem to have Paul’s sympathythreaten revolution if the political process doesn’t go their way, the President can’t categorically swear off military operations inside the U.S.

Last month, Elizabeth Warren was expressing her concern that “Too big to fail has become too big for trial.” This week, Eric Holder basically admitted she was right:

I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.

So when you set out to regulate the banking system, your very first principle should be not to let any bank get too big to regulate.

The Menendez prostitution scandal is looking more and more bogus, vindicating news outlets that refused to break it.

OK, everybody knows that news stations sometimes edit tape to make a public figure look bad. But a 4-year-old?

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  • Krissy  On March 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Theres no excusing the CIAs drone program. Its their job to take pictures, not shoot people. Paul’s gun loving base may appreciate that for other reasons but for now I will just assume that they are having an aha moment about what drones actually do.

  • Kirk  On March 16, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Having read Barbara’s book years ago, I was left with the distinct impression that, despite her advanced degrees, she wasn’t as smart as she though she was. Her employers – those who HAVE to be able to identify talent, work ethic and drive, were easily able to identify that she wasn’t the ideal employee. I also found it telling that she worried about failing a drug test because she had smoked pot recently – a behavior that exemplified her lack of intelligence. Not because she smoked pot, but because she did it without realizing the implications on her upcoming project.

    • weeklysift  On March 17, 2013 at 6:09 am

      I didn’t see any evidence in the book that her employers treated her any worse than they treat all workers. She didn’t have much trouble finding jobs or holding them as long as she wanted to.


  • By Good Intentions | The Weekly Sift on January 20, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    […] Ehrenreich revisits some of the territory of her book Nickel and Dimed in an Atlantic article “It’s Expensive to be Poor“. The point she’s making […]

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