Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Democrats' policies on work and family: less than meets the eye

Today at The Baffler, I have more on the Democrats' economic agenda for women and the big White House Summit on Working Families that was held on Monday. The bottom line is that while Democrats are talking the talk, they're not walking the walk. The ratio of CEOs to labor-affiliated types who spoke at the summit was approximately 5 to 1. And leading Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not supporting vital policies such as a national paid family leave law, comprehensive child care, pay equity (it used to be known as comparable worth), or even an executive order that would improve the pay of low-wage employees who work for federal contractors.

It's encouraging that Democrats are finally starting to talk about these issues again, after more than 20 years of putting them in the deep freeze. But sadly, the Democrats' economic agenda for women is more about paying lip service than about getting real.

Orange Is the New Black and the women's prison film

Here's my latest Baffler piece, in which I review the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black in the context of some classic Hollywood-era women's prison movies. My take, basically, is that while the show is enjoyable and has moments of real power, ultimately it falls short by indulging in too much audience-pleasing sentimentality and comedy shtick. For a far tougher look at a women's prison that does a much better job at looking at prison as a system, I strongly recommend the classic 1950 film noir Caged. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called Caged “probably the most ferociously effective and politically potent women’s film ever made.” He was right.

Eleanor Parker in Caged (1951)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New discussion at The Nation's The Curve: Will the Democratic Party Deliver for Working Women?

Here's our latest feminist economic roundtable at The Nation's The Curve. This one is on the Democrats' economic agenda for women. Joining me this week is a motley crew of extremely smart and interesting women: journalists Bryce Covert, Liza Featherstone, and Zerlina Maxwell and economist Deirdre McCloskey. I'll have even more to say about the Dems and economic feminism in a piece for The Baffler this week -- it will probably go up tomorrow or Thursday.

Suffice it to say I'm skeptical. One data point: at yesterday's much-ballyhooed White House Summit on Working Families, speakers and panelists who were CEOs outnumbered workers and labor movement types by a ratio of approximately 5 to 1.

Our online conversation took place last week, before the summit. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Debtors' prisons and other catastrophes

Last week, a 55-year old mother of seven was found dead in her Pennsylvania jail cell. She was thrown in the slammer because she was too poor to pay legal fines stemming from her kids' truancy cases. In my latest Baffler post, I explore this ghastly case in more detail. In particular, I look at three insidious trends it exemplifies: sticking poor people with exorbitant legal fees and fines and depriving them of their freedom if they can't pony up, jacking up those costs further even through private probation debt collection firms, and finally, dealing with truancy cases via the criminal justice system. In short, a perfect twenty-first century horror show, American-style.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

New Baffler post: our deadly culture of overwork

The terrible auto accident last week that nearly killed comedian Tracy Morgan was caused by a Walmart truck driver who hadn't slept in over 24 hours. In my latest Baffler post, I cite that accident as an example of America's deadly culture of overwork and the lax labor laws that enable it. Research strongly suggests that working long hours is associated with a host of poor health outcomes that include higher rates of injuries, depression, anxiety, coronary heart disease, and -- yes -- death. Yet there's little evidence that long working hours increases productivity -- in fact, the truth appears to be the opposite. In many countries in Europe, the maximum legal work week is 48 hours. It's long past time the U.S. institute a similar cap.

UPDATE: To be clear, it's professional class workers who are working longer hours these days -- lower-income workers are actually working less, on average. As a recent Economist piece noted, "Americans with a bachelor’s degree or above work two hours more each day than those without a high-school diploma," and the share of college-educated men working over 50 hours a week has risen significantly in recent decades. But the decline in the average number of working hours for low-income workers isn't exactly voluntary -- to a large extent, it "reflects a deterioration in their employment prospects as low-skill and manual jobs have withered," says the Economist.

SECOND UPATE: The New Republic's excellent David Dayen has more on the economics of the trucking industry and the regulatory failures which are contributing to many deadly trucking accidents.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Check out my exciting new project with The Nation: The Curve, a feminism and economics group blog

I'm pleased and proud to announce a new project I am hosting at The Nation. We're calling it The Curve; our tagline is, "Where Feminism and Economics Intersect." The Curve is a group blog that takes on a New York Times Room for Debate-style format. Twice each month, we will gather a roundtable of feminist voices to comment on economic issues that are of vital interest to women. I will be one of the regular commenters but the other voices will vary.

Here's how the editors and I describe the rationale for the project:
The Curve’s editors—Betsy Reed, Sarah Leonard, and Emily Douglas—began this project with Kathy because we have long been frustrated by two phenomena. 
One is the way in which women’s voices are so frequently sidelined in economic debates. Our voices are few and far between in the economics blogosphere. It’s striking that almost none of the reviewers of Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century were women. And as Media Matters recently showed, women are rarely invited to discuss the economy on cable news. 
The flipside of this problem is that, even amongst ourselves, feminists don’t talk enough about economics. Too often, discussions about so-called culture problems like abortion access and domestic violence lack the economic context necessary to appreciate their true causes and repercussions. When topics such as the pay gap or workplace discrimination come up, coverage is often superficial and focused on the experiences of a tiny elite. Meanwhile, the economic pressures on women are mounting: as inequality soars, women make up a growing proportion of the long-term unemployed, low-income women lead a growing majority of single-mother households, middle-income women struggle with few social supports, and even the progress being made by high-income women into the executive suites remains glacially slow.
Hence The Curve—where feminists will hash out economic issues and intervene in feminist debates from an economic perspective. We will draw on the many fine economists, labor journalists, bloggers and academics already producing tremendous work.
For our first forum, we take on a provocative topic: "Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?". In more detail, here's the question we're exploring:
Later, we will get more granular, but for the first round of discussion we are asking our contributors to think big. Given arguments among feminists over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and debate about the firing of Jill Abramson at The New York Times, and in the context of ongoing movements to gain rights for low-wage care workers, we’d like to begin by exploring the very nature of feminist success. How much does it matter for women that gender discrimination persists at the top? Does feminist success mean an equal number of corner office suites and stock photos, or something more? Is there an inherent class conflict within feminism—indeed, has feminism lost sight of class? Is there the potential for a cross-class feminist movement that transforms the economy for the benefit of all women?
You can read my contribution to the forum here.  My fantastic co-contributors are Demos president Heather McGhee, Center for American Progress senior fellow Judith Warner, and the eminent feminist economist Nancy Folbre (whose book on the economics of care, The Invisible Heart, is a feminist classic).

I am thrilled to pieces to be part of this project. The economic side of feminism is so important and it is one that is perennially undercovered in the media -- even feminist media. As recent debates on everything from sex work to Lean In to feminist twitter wars have shown, feminists disagree with each other -- a lot. But the 140 characters that twitter provides is hardly the ideal format to discuss complex ideas and productively air our differences. Hopefully, this format will provide a better way.

I hope you enjoy this week's forum. In future weeks, we'll be exploring issues ranging from the Democrats' economic policy agenda for women to what feminists have to say about Thomas Piketty. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why we need reparations: because without them, deep, race-based economic inequality will persist

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a powerful cover essay for The Atlantic making the case for reparations for black people. My response to his essay can be found here. I concur that reparations are a moral and political necessary. Deep, race-based economic inequality is not going away, and in many troubling ways it is getting worse, not better. I agree with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree's prescription for reparations in the form of a broadly based social democratic agenda that, in Coates' words, “takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” We won't come close to achieving racial equality in this country until structural economic issues are addressed as well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How the American higher education system creates more economic inequality, instead of alleviating it

The Obama administration thinks the answer to soaring levels of student debt and predatory, increasingly powerful for-profit colleges is a new, government-sponsored college ratings system. The administration believes rating colleges would be simple enough: "It's like rating a blender," said an Education Department official recently. In my new Baffler post, I explain why this system is hopelessly inadequate to dealing with the problem.

I also look at a disturbing new book, Suzanne Mettler's Degrees of Inequality, which makes the case that the American system of higher education, which once provided a pathway of upward mobility for millions of Americans, is “evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers” that leaves students “more unequal than when they first enrolled.”