Friday, October 17, 2014

New at The Nation: my review of a stunning book on economic inequality in America

The latest edition of the Nation's The Curve is up. I'm particularly proud of this one. The theme is college, and this time around the brilliant contributors include the excellent Anna Clark, who writes about student debt, as well as two of the most renowned feminist economists in America, Nancy Folbre and Susan Feiner. Feiner addresses the war on public higher education, especially the state university system where she teaches in Maine, which has been particularly hard hit. Folbre, noting that the job market no longer reliably rewards educational credentials, argues that the "golden age of human capital" is over.

My piece is a review of one of the most brilliant works I have ever read about class in America. The book, Paying for the Party, was published last year and it's by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. The authors followed about 50 incoming college women for five years, from their first year on the "party floor" of a dorm at a large, well-respected state university, to their graduation and beyond. After five years, fully half of the women were on a downward economic trajectory, and their fates sorted out almost perfectly according to their class backgrounds. The daughters of the upper class were working at glamorous jobs in the big city, while the working class strivers, who often had arrived with much stronger academic records than their wealthy counterparts, had often returned to the small towns they grew up in and were toiling away in low-wage retail jobs.

What happened? The authors indict both our government's defunding of higher education and the modern university, which has reconfigured itself to cater to the desires of the elites to turn college into a social, rather than an academic, experience. Fraternities and sororities and the party lifestyle they promote are heavily implicated. When a party culture is so prevalent, as it was at the university the authors studied, it's hard for students to resist it, because there's not much of an alternative if you want a social life.

But if you devote yourself to partying nearly 24/7, academics will suffer. The university provides a ready solution to that, in the form of bullshit majors like "fashion merchandising" and "sports communication," that don't build skills and are mostly useless on the job market. The rich women didn't suffer a whit from this; their family connections ensured that they'd land good jobs after graduation, regardless of their major or academic performance. But for the less privileged women, forsaking solid preprofessional majors in favor of the bogus ones proved disastrous. The ones that managed to graduate discovered that their degrees were virtually worthless.

There are so thick and fascinating observations in this book, from the class-tinged, frequently painful social interactions of the women on the floor (there's enough material for any number of sequels to Mean Girls), to the way that class intersects with sex. For example, the authors found that the working class women were significantly more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, and also more likely to be labeled as "sluts"in spite of having fewer sexual partners. Read all about it, and more at the linkincluding some bonus Ross Douthat bashing!

Better yet, read Armstong and Hamilton's stunning book. It belongs on the shelf next to Piketty as one of the great works about economic inequality in our time. Armstrong and Hamilton give you a vivid, startlingly personal look at what economic inequality looks like in America today. It's an unforgettable and at times heartbreaking portrait.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Baffler's conference on women and work this weekend

As some of you may know, I am co-organizer for The Baffler's conference on women and work which, at long last, will be taking place this Saturday in New York City. Why this conference, and what's it all about? I've written up a preview for the Baffler website.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:
This Saturday, September 13th, in New York City, The Baffler will be hosting an exciting event: an all-day conference devoted to the theme of feminism and work.  We’re calling it “Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace After Lean In,” and as of this writing, a few tickets are still available (you can purchase them here).

The impetus for the conference was Susan Faludi’s attention-getting 2013 Baffler essay about the Sheryl Sandberg phenomenon. Like many feminists, Faludi was troubled by Sandberg’s message. In her best-selling book Lean In, not only does Sandberg unabashedly address herself mainly to professional class women, she focuses on women’s internal obstacles to advancement on the job, rather than any structural barriers. Sandberg seems to argue that what women need most are not better workplace public policies, but to change their own attitudes and behaviors.
Faludi strongly suggests otherwise, and presents an alternate vision of feminism she presents—skeptical of capitalism, deeply class conscious, grounded in the economic realities the overwhelming majority of workers face. The tension between Lean In and Faludi’s alternative view have served as the guiding inspiration for this conference. “Feminism for What?” is an effort to move the conversation about gender equity in the workplace well beyond the  mainstream media’s perennial obsession with elite women’s issues such as opting out and breaking glass ceilings. We’ve chosen to organize the conference by focusing on several major themes that might be said to be missing from Lean In.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

This week at The Nation's The Curve: the criminalization of motherhood, and how we can stop it

In recent months, nightmarish stories about the criminalization of poor mothers have made headlines. There was, for example, the case of Debra Harrell, charged with child abuse for letting her 9-year old play in a nearby park while she worked her shift at McDonald's, and Eileen Dinino, who was thrown behind bars for being too poor to afford the legal fees from her kids' truancy cases -- and ended up dying in jail.

What is driving the assault on poor mothers, and how can we end it? Writer and activist Mariame Kaba, journalist Sarah Jaffe, economist Randy Albelda, and I explore these issues in the latest edition of The Curve.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mark your calendars: exciting Sept. 13th Baffler conference on women and work!

All, I am thrilled to announce an exciting project I've been working on for The Baffler magazine. On Saturday, September 13th, The Baffler will be hosting an all-day conference on women's work issues. The conference is entitled Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace after Lean In and it will take place at John Jay College in New York City. The conference was organized by me and my Baffler colleague, Noah McCormack.

Susan Faludi will deliver the keynote, and the conference will include four panels on the following topics:

- the advantages and pitfalls of self-help as as strategy for women's workplace advancement;
- intersectional issues (race, immigration status, and LGBT identity) at work;
- class and economic inequality;
- and finally, feminist visions of economic justice for women.

Other speakers include such brilliant women as E.J. Graff, Zerlina Maxwell, Imani Gandy, Sarah Leonard, Heather Boushey, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Liza Featherstone, Irin Carmon, Nancy Folbre, and Kathi Weeks.

You can find out more about the conference at its main webpage, here. The Facebook page is here and the Eventbrite page, where you can buy tickets, is here.

Admission to the conference is $20 for the general public, but it's free if you're a Baffler subscriber or a member of the press. Email me if you want to get on the press list.

The issues we'll be exploring at this conference are close to my heart and it's been an honor and a privilege to help put this together. Please spread the word about this exciting event and help us move the conversation about women's workplace issues into the twenty-first century!

This week at The Nation's The Curve: feminists discuss gender and Thomas Piketty

And now for something completely different: for this week's edition of The Nation's The Curve, feminists discuss gender and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

If you've read everything there is to read about this watershed book and think there's not much more to say, think again! I can promise you that you will find ideas and insights here that you haven't seen anywhere else. Joining me in this exciting roundtable are the following outstanding participants: economist Heather Boushey, political scientist Zillah Eisenstein, and two younger women you may not be familiar with but from whom you will, I'm sure, be hearing much more: Kate Bahn, economics Ph.D. student and blogger for the wonderful site, Lady Economist, and Joelle Gamble of The Roosevelt Institute (who is, to my knowledge, the first women of color to have written about the book).

The discussion of this book has, thus far, been shockingly male-dominated. Only a handful of women and people of color have written about this book, and only two women reviewed it in major American print publications. You already know what 27,000 white dudes have had to say about Capital. It's long past time you listen to what feminists have to say.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

New edition of The Nation's The Curve: The Supreme Court's economic war on women

For the latest edition of The Curve, Sarah Jaffe, Sheila Bapat, and I look at recent Supreme Court decisions in which the Court expanded its economic war on women: Hobby Lobby, McCullen, and Harris. In my piece, I write about the Harris v. Quinn decision, which invented out of wholecloth a separate-but-unequal class of worker known as the "partial public" employee, and then granted this type of worker far weaker union protections.

I focus on an aspect of the decision that has not attracted nearly the attention it warrants: its blatant sexism. I wrote, "With its decision in Harris v. Quinn, not only did the Court target this largely female workforce [of home care workers], but it also undermined broader feminist goals. In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work. It also attacked the larger feminist project of advancing women’s economic equality by recognizing care as work and insisting that our society compensate female workers fairly."

The other major point I make in my piece is that the Court is hardly likely to stop here. Though they have shrewdly and carefully tailored this ruling to just one group of vulnerable workers (home care workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income women of color), the Roberts Court, as the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin has noted, often decides a case in a relatively narrow way, then uses that ruling as a precedent for far more sweeping decisions. Clever bunch, these boys are. Next time, they'll be coming after public sector unions more broadly -- make no mistake. And after that, who knows?

Friday, July 11, 2014

From "defining issue of our time" to flavor of the month: the Dems abandon economic inequality talk

As you may have heard, the Democrats have abandoned economic inequality as a campaign theme. Now the Dems' talk is all about "mobility" and "creating opportunity" and that holiest of holies, the "middle class," and oily Wall Street middle men like Chuck Schumer, as well as various Third Way wankers, are practically wetting themselves with excitement.

In my latest Baffler piece, I explain that, contrary to the claims of Schumer et al., polling data on inequality actually show a solid basis on which to build an anti-inequality politics. Did you know, for example, that 65 percent of Americans believe that economic inequality continues because it benefits the rich and powerful? That 69 percent say the government should act to reduce inequality? That given a choice, a whopping 92 percent of Americans would prefer to live in a society with a wealth distribution that resembled Sweden’s, as opposed to the one we have here? Oh, and for decades in public opinion polls, some 45 percent of Americans have consistently identified as working class -- about as many who identify as middle class.

Sadly, however, most Democrats have no real interest in doing anything about inequality. They'll support an increase in the minimum wage and some mild welfare capitalism, but that's it. And it's hardly enough.