Saturday, December 28, 2013

Inequality journalism: my favorite essays and articles of the year

On one of my listservs, we were discussing some of our favorite essays and long-form pieces of journalism from 2013. I thought I'd share my favorites on this blog; the only catch is that I'm only going to list those articles that in some way touch upon the subject of economic inequality, broadly defined. I'm sure there's plenty of great stuff I've missed, but these are some of the pieces that I did happen to catch and enjoy.

But first, a warning: as I started compiling these, I realized that if you're a fragile soul and you start binge-reading them, they may land you in slit-your-wrists territory. Yes, they are that depressing -- at least, most of them are. Kevin Drum's article is not; it's about how the crime rate has fallen dramatically, and may fall further still, if we enact sane lead abatement policies. And the Katie J.M. Baker piece is downright inspiring -- you'll want to move to Denmark, permanently.

But that's kind of the point. The rest of the pieces make America look like a hellhole, a dystopic nightmare from which you wake screaming. Maybe your best plan might be to read them on New Year's Eve during the day, and then go out during the evening and drink yourself blotto to forget.

Kevin Drum, "America's Real Criminal Element: Lead," Mother Jones, January/February 2013 - Kevin Drum takes you through the research and makes a compelling argument that the reason why crime rates have fallen significantly over recent decades is the declining exposure to lead. I believe he has a strong case -- I certainly don't know of another explanation that sounds this plausible and that is a better match to the data.

Rebecca Solnit, "Diary: Google Invades," London Review of Books, February 7, 2013 - A sharp-eyed and sobering personal essay about how the tech boom is destroying the social fabric of San Francisco. This is economic inequality in action, and it ain't pretty.

Haley Sweetland Edwards, "He Who Makes the Rules," Washington Monthly, March/April 2013 - Edwards' scrupulously reported piece about how Washington’s byzantine rule-making process was exploited by Wall Street lobbyists, all but gutting Dodd-Frank. This is how the sausage is made, folks. It's the single best explanation I've read about why and how financial elites continue to dominate our democracy.

Jonathan Cohn, "The Hell of American Day Care," The New Republic, April 15, 2013 - America's scandalously underfunded and under-regulated child care system doesn't serve anyone particularly well, but it's particularly brutal on poor folks. Devastating and heartbreaking.

David Graeber, "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs," Strike! Magazine, August 17, 2013 - Once, economists and social theorists predicted that in the future, people would enjoy ever-expanding quantities of leisure time and a 15-hour work week. What happened? According to David Graeber, bullshit jobs are what happened. Bullshit jobs are pointless jobs that do not actually need to be done and have no benefit to society. Think: lobbyists, public relations flacks, telemarketers, legal consultants, etc. Moreover, "there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it." This is one of the most insightful and provocative essays I've read in years.

Monica Potts, "What's Killing Poor White Women?" The American Prospect, September 3, 2013 - Researchers have found that, in recent years, unlike every other demographic group in America, the least educated white women have experienced declining longevity -- they've lost a shocking five years from their life span. Moreover, no one knows quite why. Monica Potts talks to researchers and explores various theories; she also interviews poor women and their families. The result is a first-rate piece of journalism that combines empathetic observation and penetrating analysis.

Katie J.M. Baker, "Cockblocked by Redistribution: A Pick-up Artist in Denmark," Dissent, Fall 2013 - An American "pick-up artist" goes to Denmark to hit on women, but keeps getting humiliatingly shut down. Why? It seems that Danish women, empowered by feminism and a robust social democracy, have no tolerance for his sleazy come-ons. Perhaps the single most satisfying piece of journalism I've read all year.

Ann Friedman, "All LinkedIn With Nowhere to Go," The Baffler No. 23, 2013 - Friedman's witty skewering of the popular social media site for desperate job-seekers unmasks it as that ancient American capitalist standby: the aspirational, if futile, self-help project.

Andrea Elliott, "Invisible Child," The New York Times, December 9, 2013 - The Times' heartrending series achieves a feat that is vanishingly rare: it gets inside the head of a person who, in the normal course of events, is completely marginalized and made invisible in our society: a homeless child. A major piece of journalism about an utterly failed public policy and a morally bankrupt mayoral administration.


  1. Cohn's ""The Hell of American Day Care," - is truly heartbreaking. Governments around the world should give ample attention to health care. In Plunket, new moms experience post-natal home visits to make sure that they are breastfeeding correctly and the maternity benefits are enviable. - Layce, a new mom and essay writer.

  2. I have no words to describe this beautifully written article. Good job, keep it up! who can help me with my essay