March 19, 2015

There’s a deep-seated problem with how we measure the so-called “standard of living”

Filed under: Economics,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

My family are tired of hearing me say any variation on the expression “the past is a foreign country”, but I ring the changes on that phrase because it at least frames some of the problem we have in trying to comprehend just how much life has changed even within living memory, never mind more than a couple of generations ago. At the Cato Institute, Megan McArdle tries to avoid saying exactly those words, but the sense is still very much the same:

The generation that fought the Civil War paid an incredible price: one in four soldiers never returned home, and one in thirteen of those who did were missing one or more limbs. Were they better off than their parents’ generation? What about the generation that lived through the Great Depression, many of whom graduated into World War II? Does a new refrigerator and a Chevrolet in the driveway make up for decades and lives lost to the march of history? Or for the rapid increase in crime and civic disorder that marked the postwar boom? Then again, what about African Americans, who saw massive improvements in both their personal liberty and their personal income?

We should never pooh-pooh economic progress. As P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, I have one word for people who think that we live in a degenerate era fallen from a blessed past full of bounty and ease, and that word is “dentistry.” On the other hand, we should not reduce standard of living to (appropriately inflation adjusted) GDP numbers either. Living standards are complicated, and the tools we have to measure what is happening to them are almost absurdly crude. I certainly won’t achieve a satisfying measure in this brief essay. But we can, I think, begin to sketch the major ways in which things are better and worse for this generation. Hopefully we can also zero in on what makes the current era feel so deprived, and our distribution of income so worrisome.

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26 years old. He married my grandmother on Thanksgiving because that was the only day he could get off. Their honeymoon consisted of a weekend visiting relatives , during which they shared their nuptial bed with their host’s toddler. They came home to a room in his parents’ house—for which they paid monthly rent. Every time I hear that marriage is collapsing because the economy is so bad, I think of their story.

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them. With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prize winning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

March 16, 2015

Comparing statistics from different sources

Filed under: Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Forbes, Tim Worstall points out that you need to be careful in using statistics sourced from different organizations or agencies, as they don’t necessarily measure quite the same thing, despite the names being very similar:

There are certain sets of statistics put out (largely by the OECD nations like the US and so on) which we really can believe as saying exactly what is indicated upon the tin.

However, that isn’t the same as saying that we should be willing to just accept all such US or OECD statistical numbers. Take, for example and this is one that I have banged on about for many a year now, The US and other OECD measures of poverty. The standard OECD measure of who is in poverty is below 60% of median income, adjusted for housing costs and household size. This is a measure of inequality, not actual poverty. It is also after all of the things that are done to reduce poverty, benefits, redistribution and all that. The US measure is, again adjusted for household size but not for housing costs, a measure of actual poverty. It is not related to average incomes but to what was low income in the early 1960s updated for inflation. And more significantly, it is before almost all of the things done to try to alleviate poverty. The OECD poverty measure is thus a measure of how much (relative) poverty there is after the things done to reduce poverty and the US standard number is a measure of how much absolute poverty there is before attempts to reduce poverty.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with either measure. But we’ve got to be very careful in acknowledging the difference between the two before we go and do something stupid like directly compare them, US poverty rates against the poverty rates of other OECD countries. Yet we do in fact see such comparisons being made all the time.

Another such little mistake of current interest is the way that we’re continually told that US average wages haven’t risen for decades. And it’s true, in one sense, that they haven’t. But wages aren’t actually what we should be looking at: total compensation from work is. And that’s been rising reasonably nicely over that same time period. The difference is in the benefits that we get over and above our wages from going to work. That health care insurance for example. This is more a matter of manipulation in the presentation of the statistics and if you see someone bleating about “wages” be very careful to check and see whether they are talking about what is of interest, compensation, or about wages which is a sign that they’re trying to mislead.

March 11, 2015

QotD: Inequality

Filed under: Economics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The left has a habit of framing “inequality” (their current social-justice hobbyhorse) in economic terms, which is fortunate because it makes debunking their nonsense easier. The left’s fundamental bit of chicanery lies in their failure to define “inequality” in any rigorous way. This is very intentional, for it allows them to frame inequality however they please — generally in the usual race/gender/class terms and using money as a yardstick. Rich white men have too much money; poor brown people (especially poor female brown people) have too little; therefore equality demands a reapportioning of the money so everybody has more or less the same amount. This is not socialism, they insist (bizarrely, given that this is pretty much the textbook definition of socialism). This is fairness.


Ultimately, the left’s vision of “equality” is not an empowering vision; it is a cramped and stingy philosophy of reduced expectations and lowered hopes. The unspoken (but never unclear) theme is that it is the State, not individuals or families, who should own and dispense of wealth. A happy man, in the view of the left, is one who receives money from the State and then spends it on consumption with no thought given to the future (for the future belongs to the State). Legacy is what the State says it is. The citizen should always be a creature of the now, concerned with nothing but short-term needs and gratifications, and with no allegiances beyond the vital one to the State.

Monty, “Wealth as an end and wealth as means to an end”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-06-24.

March 3, 2015

“Residual” racism and the breakdown of the African-American family

Filed under: Business,Law,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Reason, Steve Chapman looks at the tangle of issues still causing problems for African-Americans in the United States:

The breakdown of the black family is a sensitive topic, though it’s not new and it’s not in dispute. President Barack Obama, who grew up with an absent father, often urges black men to be responsible parents.

Nor is there any doubt that African-American children would be better off living with their married parents. Kids who grow up in households headed by a single mother are far more likely than others to be poor, quit school, get pregnant as teens and end up in jail.


It’s true that whites don’t force blacks to have children out of wedlock. But it’s wrong to suggest that whites bear no responsibility. Poverty is often the result of lack of access to good jobs or any jobs, and discrimination by employers didn’t stop in 1965 — and hasn’t stopped yet.

The impact of drug laws, and the harsher treatment black men get from the criminal justice system, means that many have records that scare employers away. But research indicates that white applicants with criminal records are more likely to get interviews than blacks without criminal records.

A lot of the well-paid blue-collar jobs once abundant in cities have vanished. Moynihan lamented that unemployment had long been much higher for black men than for whites, and the gap is bigger today.

Without decent jobs, these men are not likely to be able to find wives or support families. They are not likely to get married or stay married. If family breakdown causes poverty, poverty also causes family breakdown.

African-Americans often find it hard to leave blighted neighborhoods. They can find themselves steered away from white communities by real estate agents or rejected by landlords. The Urban Institute reports a fact that ought to shock: “The average high-income black person lives in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate than the average low-income white person” (my emphasis).

February 12, 2015

Petty fines and “public safety” charges fall heaviest on the poor

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Megan McArdle on the incredibly regressive way that American municipalities are raising money through fines and other costs imposed disproportionally on the poorest members of the community:

During last summer’s riots in Ferguson, Missouri, reporters began to highlight one reason that relations between the town’s police and its citizens are so fraught: heavy reliance on tickets and fines to cover the town’s budget. The city gets more than $3 million of its $20 million budget from “fines and public safety,” with almost $2 million more coming from various other user fees.

The problem with using your police force as a stealth tax-collection agency is that this functions as a highly regressive tax on people who are already having a hard time of things. Financially marginal people who can’t afford to, say, renew their auto registration get caught up in a cascading nightmare of fees piled upon fees that often ends in bench warrants and nights spent in jail … not for posing a threat to the public order, but for lacking the ready funds to legally operate a motor vehicle in our car-dependent society.

So why do municipalities go this route? The glib answer is “racism and hatred of the poor.” And, quite possibly, that plays a large part, if only in the sense that voters tend to discount costs that fall on other people. But having spent some time plowing through town budgets and reading up on the subject this afternoon, I don’t think that’s the only reason. I suspect that Ferguson is leaning so heavily on fines because it doesn’t have a lot of other terrific options.

QotD: Poverty-stricken Little House on the Prairie

Filed under: Economics,History,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Consider the Little House on the Prairie books, which I’d bet almost every woman in my readership, and many of the men, recalls from their childhoods. I loved those books when I was a kid, which seemed to describe an enchanted world — horses! sleighs! a fire merrily crackling in the fireplace, and children frolicking in the snow all winter, then running barefoot across the prairies! Then I reread them as an adult, as a prelude to my research, and what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

There’s a scene in one of the books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. No, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget — because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas.

There’s a reason old-fashioned kitchens didn’t have cabinets: They didn’t need them. There wasn’t anything to put there.

Imagine if your kids had to spend six months out of the year barefoot because you couldn’t afford for them to wear their shoes year-round. Now, I love being barefoot, and I longed to spend more time that way as a child. But it’s a little different when it’s an option. I walked a mile barefoot on a cold fall day — once. It’s fine for the first few minutes, and then it hurts like hell. Sure, your feet toughen up. But when it’s cold and wet, your feet crack and bleed. As they do if the icy rain soaks through your shoes, and your feet have to stay that way all day because you don’t own anything else to change into. I’m not talking about making sure your kids have a decent pair of shoes to wear to school; I’m talking about not being able to afford to put anything at all on their feet.

Or take the matter of food. There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn’t quite enough of that.

These were not the nation’s dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don’t tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I’m not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I’m talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is “a lot less of everything”: food, clothes, entertainment. That’s even before we talk about the things that hadn’t yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.

Megan McArdle, “When Bread Bags Weren’t Funny”, Bloomberg View, 2015-01-29.

February 10, 2015

The cautionary tale of the Kosovo intervention

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Michael Brendan Dougherty looks back at the UN’s intervention in Kosovo and the situation in Kosovo after more than a decade and a half:

It’s been almost 16 years since a NATO coalition banded together to defeat Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević in Kosovo. Ever since, it has been exhibit A in the case for “humanitarian intervention.” A swift short war, a thug removed from power, a series of oppressions redressed. After the hostilities ceased, Kosovo’s government was overseen by the United Nations, and declared full independence from Serbia in 2008.

In the meantime, the U.N. bungled possibly the easiest show-trial in world history, letting Milošević score a lot of points from the stand as the trial dragged on longer than it took F.D.R. to declare war on Germany, mobilize a few million men, and beat Hitler. Milošević died of a heart attack in prison before his trial finished. NATO troops are in Kosovo, a decade and a half after the “short” 78-day campaign.

What’s the political scene like in liberated Kosovo? Well, here’s a story. Last week Aleksandar Jablanovic, an ethnic Serb who served in the cabinet as minister of communities, was sacked by Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, in order to appease ethnic Albanians who were planning riotous protests against him. Kosovars threw rocks at government buildings. About 170 people were injured in the clash between protesters and police.

What did Jablanovic do to cause the unrest? He had described a group of Albanians as “savages” in January. Why? Because they had blocked (with the threat of violence) the route of Serbian Christians making a traditional pilgrimage to a monastery in Western Kosovo.

Sounds unpleasant, right? It gets worse. Unemployment in Kosovo is around 45 percent. (That’s not a typo.) The electricity is very unreliable, and Kosovars often don’t pay their electricity bills to the state. The government is considering canceling all debts that citizens owe to the government, to rebuild trust (and popularity) and start putting services on a firmer footing. About a third of Kosovars live on less than $2 a day.


But there’s also no doubt that Kosovo should serve as a permanent warning against the idea that humanitarian interventions are easy. The bombing was a perfect example of the moral hazard involved in “Responsibility to Protect” interventions. The roar of NATO jets so raised the stakes for Serbian forces and for Milošević, that Serbians killed five times as many people after the intervention became a fait accompli than they had before that time, under the theory that rubble makes less trouble.

February 1, 2015

India’s experiment in improving how welfare services are delivered

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall looks at a recent book on an Indian experiment that investigated how to improve poverty relief programs:

In terms of the Indian experience one of the reasons that these trials worked well was because they were trials. Effort was put into making certain that those who were supposed to be receiving the cash were in fact receiving it. Such care and attention to people getting what they’re supposed to get is not an outstanding feature of the various welfare systems currently in use in India, as the book makes clear. So, just making sure that people were getting those modest amounts that they were supposed to get is going to be an advance. And it wouldn’t be possible to simply roll out such a scheme across the country, however beneficial, without a lot of preparatory work to make sure that the right people really would be getting the money.

It’s also true that the current systems fail badly in other ways. Purchasing grain to ship it around to special shops where it will be sold hugely under the market price is always going to be a leaky system. Some number of the middlemen will be sorely tempted to divert produce to sell onto the market and there’s considerable evidence that some succumb to that temptation. If people simply have money to buy on the standard market in the normal manner then it’s a lot easier to keep a control on that sort of thing.

However, the most important thing for the design of the American welfare system is the points they make about how the poor value being given goods as against being given money. $100 (far in excess of the amounts being discussed here) is worth more than $100 of food for example. Or $100 worth of medical care. There’s two reasons for this. One is simply that everyone values agency. The ability to decide things for oneself. And money does that. It’s possible to decide whether you want to purchase food, or to save a bit and buy a goat next week, or more fertiliser for the fields and so on. What the peasant on the ground would like to do with any increase in resources is most unlikely to accord with what some far away bureaucrat thinks said peasant ought to be doing. So, the choice itself increases value.


So, we could actually make poor people richer by abolishing food stamps. Assuming, of course, that we just gave them the same amount of money instead. The same would be true of Medicaid and housing vouchers of course. Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments against doing this. But it is still true: converting goods and services in kind into cash would make the poor richer at the same cost to the rest of us. So it is at least something we should consider, no?

And the main reason switching to cash from the current system is … paternalism. Governments really do think that they are better equipped than the recipients of aid in how to spend that money. And it’s quite true that some welfare recipients would blow the payments on booze or drugs or what-have-you, but the majority of peoples’ lives would improve if they got cash rather than food stamps or other in-kind assistance.

January 28, 2015

Employment skills at the very basic level

Filed under: Business,Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Warren Meyer says what the US needs to do is to make changes to the structure of the working world to allow companies to profitably hire low-skilled workers:

A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them. School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system). But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist. Why is that?

When one says “job skills,” people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code. But for new or unskilled workers — the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities — even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald’s. In fact, back in the 1970’s, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO’s had their first work experience at McDonald’s.

Part of what we call “the cycle of poverty” is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations. Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things — that is the American dream after all. But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork — understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work. The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.

But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job. Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work. And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent’s cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job. As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills. I am not an economist, I am a business school grad. We don’t worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present. So a question we business folks might ask instead is: If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren’t entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?

January 14, 2015

“This is what happens when you let the half-wits take charge of economic policy”

Filed under: Americas,Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tim Worstall on the very sad economic plight of Venezuela:

As times go on the stories about how far and how fast the economy of Venezuela has fallen apart become ever more dramatic. They now actually have the Army, seriously, the armed forces, guarding food supplies. And the police are handing out toilet paper. We can just about imagine such things happening in the wake of some massive natural disaster, the levee breaks, the hurricane comes ashore, but not as day after day activity as something normal for the nation. But there has been no natural disaster in Venezuela, this is just the result of some years of idiot socialism. What makes it all so tragic is that there was and is another way to achieve the stated aim: making the poor better off. And when we consider what we might want to do to make the poor better off we’d better pay attention to this, admittedly extreme, example.


Sure, Venezuela’s an oil exporter, sure the price of oil has fallen. But this isn’t what happens in a commodity producer when the exports fall in price. This is what happens when you let the half-wits take charge of economic policy for a nation. Actually, in Venezuela, calling them half-wits is probably a mite too polite.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with the intention of making the poor better off. Indeed, I share that aim: that’s why I’m this capitalist free marketeer type, as it’s the only socio-economic system we’ve ever had that has made the poor substantially better off for any period of time. However, there are good ways and bad ways of going about doing this and if we want to succeed in our aim, in the US, of making the poor better off then we’d do well to pay attention.

The short answer is don’t screw with the market.

January 9, 2015

QotD: Britain in the “New Elizabethan Age” of the 1950s

Filed under: Britain,Economics,History,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The euphoria of the New Elizabethan Age was all the more striking when set against the backdrop of the deprivation and austerity of the immediate post-war years. For many people, things had actually got worse after the war. The shortages — of food, of fuel, of housing — were such that on the first anniversary of VE Day, as Susan Cooper later recalled, “the mood of the British was one not of festivity but of bleak resignation, with a faint rebelliousness at the restrictions and looming crises that hung over them like a fog.” “We won the war,” one housewife was quoted as saying. “Why is it so much worse?” The winter of 1947 was the coldest of the century: there were shortages, and strikes, and everyone shivered; and in the spring the floods struck, closing down the London Underground, washing away the crops of thirty-one counties and pouring into thousands of homes. By the following year, rationing had fallen well below the wartime level. The average adult in 1948 was entitled to a weekly allowance of thirteen ounces of meat, one-and-a-half ounces of cheese, six ounces of butter, one ounce of cooking fat, eight ounces of sugar, two pints of milk and one egg. Even dried egg, which had been a staple of meals in wartime, had disappeared from the shops. Children at the beginning of the 1950s still wondered what their parents meant when the reminisced about eating oranges, pineapples, and chocolate; they bathed in a few inches of water, and wore cheap, threadbare clothes with “Utility” labels. It was just as well that the British prided themselves on their ability to form an orderly queue; they had plenty of opportunities to prove it. Not until July 1954 did food rationing finally come to an end.

Austerity left its mark, and many people who had scrimped and saved through the post-war years found it hard to accept the attitudes of their juniors during the long boom that followed. As one housewife later commented: “It makes you very careful and appreciate what you have got. You don’t take things for granted.” Caution, thrift, and the virtues of “making do” had become so ingrained during the long years of rationing that many people never forgot them and forever told each other, “Waste not, want not”, or reminded themselves to put things aside “for a rainy day”, or complained that their children and grandchildren did not “know the value of money.”

Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good: A history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, 2005.

December 10, 2014

US child poverty is bad … but nowhere near as bad as they say

Filed under: Media,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

Tim Worstall debunks a headline statistic from earlier this month:

We’ve a new report out from the Mailman School of Public Health telling us that in some urban parts of the US child poverty is up at the unbelievable rates of 40, even 50% or more. The problem with this claim is that it’s simply not true. Apparently the researchers aren’t quite au fait with how poverty is both defined and alleviated in the US. Which is, when you think about it, something of a problem for those who decide to present us with statistics about child poverty.


Everyone else [in the world] (as well as using a relative poverty standard, usually below 60% of median earnings adjusted for family size) measures poverty after the effects of the tax and benefits systems on alleviating poverty. So, in my native UK if you’re poor you might get some cash payments (say, unemployment pay), some tax credits, help with your housing costs (housing benefit we call it), reduced property taxes (council tax credit) and so on. Whether you are poor or not is defined as being whether you are still under that poverty level after the effects of all of those attempts to alleviate poverty.

In the US things are rather different. It’s an absolute standard of income (set in the 1960s and upgraded only for inflation, not median incomes, since) but it counts only market income plus direct cash transfers to the poor before measuring against that standard. Thus, when we measure the US poor we do not include the EITC (equivalent of those UK tax credits, indeed our UK ones were copied from the US), we do not include Section 8 vouchers (housing benefit), Medicaid, we don’t even include food stamps. Because the US measure of poverty simply doesn’t include the effects of benefits in kind and through the tax system.

The US measure therefore isn’t the number of children living in poverty. It’s the number of children who would be in poverty if there wasn’t this system of government alleviation of poverty. When we do actually take into account what is done to alleviate child poverty we find that it’s really some 2-3% of US children who live in poverty. Yes, that low: the US welfare state is very much child orientated.

(Emphasis mine)

December 6, 2014

Everyday life in “The Ghetto Archipelago”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Law,Media,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Reason, J.D. Tuccille reviews On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman:

The police presence in 6th Street is pervasive. Residents, young black men in particular, can expect to be frequently stopped, questioned, and searched. Many initial arrests are for drugs, often possession of marijuana. After that, as Goffman records, the system takes on a horrible logic of its own. Criminal records make employment hard to find, and recurring court dates devour time that might be devoted to work, job searches, or family responsibilities. Without regular income, court fees add up and may prove unpayable. Many of the people Goffman writes about are essentially constant low-level fugitives, hunted by police for missed appointments. Some end up committing additional crimes to pay their accumulating debts to the courts.

People living on the wrong side of the law are both dependent on and vulnerable to those around them. Goffman documents how chronic legal problems prevent young men from attending the births of their children or the funerals of their friends, since the authorities often monitor those occasions looking to make arrests. Those legal problems also provide opportunities for angry girlfriends and other acquaintances to avenge perceived wrongs with a simple phone call to the cops.

Neighborhoods heavily populated by young men on the run (usually in the most figurative sense, since their lives become circumscribed by familiar people and streets) also create business opportunities for those willing to serve their idiosyncratic needs. One memorable character in On the Run is Jevon, whose memory and ability at mimicry allow him to earn money impersonating men to their parole officers for curfew-checking phone calls. Another, Rakim, augments income from his passport photo business selling clean urine to men facing drug tests. Many local businesses-such as rental car lots and motels-have two price sheets, one for mainstream customers and one for those who have no credit cards or ID.

Identification itself is a commodity, with employees inside the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation selling drivers licenses-basically, new identities — for a substantial fee. (Other public employees, from court clerks to prison guards, also find it lucrative to sell favors and services.) “The level of social control that tough-on-crime policy envisions-particularly in a liberal state-is so extreme and difficult to implement,” Goffman writes, “that it has led to a flourishing black market to ease the pains of supervision.”

H/T to ESR who wrote:

Linked article explains why, though I’ve defended the shooting of Michael Brown as a prudent and ethical response to an imminent threat of deadly force, I’ve had little patience with those defending the Ferguson police in general either before or after the shooting.

Yes, the system oppresses people like the blacks in Ferguson, in a way that has little to do with “institutional racism” but everything to do with a vicious cycle of deteriorating ghetto culture coupled with perverse incentives on the police created by “tough on crime” laws.

How do I know? I’ve never been to Ferguson…but Philadelphia is my city. I used to live there, mere blocks from the ghetto archipelago. I’ve seen some of the overspill from what Goffman is writing about. She speaks truth, and we would do well to heed her.

November 25, 2014

QotD: Rand Paul and the war on drugs

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I’ll do everything to end the war on drugs. … The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country. Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know … at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling … Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it’s wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.

Rand Paul, speaking to Bill Maher, 2014-11-15.

November 23, 2014

Working and middle class pushback against Obamacare

Filed under: Health,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:20

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at some of the reasons Obamacare is not being embraced by the working and middle classes the way many expected:

Obamacare winners and losersHere’s an interesting chart that follows up on a post I wrote a few days ago about Democrats and the white working class. Basically, I made the point that Democrats have recently done a lot for the poor but very little for the working and middle classes, and this is one of the reasons that the white working class is increasingly alienated from the Democratic Party.

I got various kinds of pushback on this, but one particular train of criticism suggested that I was overestimating just how targeted Democratic programs were. Sure, they help the poor, but they also help the working class a fair amount, and sometimes even the lower reaches of the middle class. However, while there’s some truth to this for certain programs (unemployment insurance, SSI disability), the numbers I’ve seen in the past don’t really back this up for most social welfare programs.

Obamacare seems like an exception, since its subsidies quite clearly reach upward to families in the working and middle classes. Today, however, Bill Gardner points me to a Brookings paper from a few months ago that suggests just the opposite. The authors calculate net gains and losses from Obamacare, and conclude that nearly all its benefits flow to the poor. If I interpolate their chart a bit, winners are those with household incomes below $25,000 or so, and losers are those with incomes above $25,000.

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