Sunshine Recorder

Link: Aid In Reverse: How Poor Countries Develop Rich Countries

The problem is not that poor countries cannot manage to drag themselves up the development ladder, the problem is that they are actively prevented from doing so. Beginning in the early 1980s, Western governments and financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF changed their development policy from one that was basically Keynesian to one that remains devotedly neoliberal, requiring radical market deregulation, fiscal austerity, and privatization in developing countries as a condition of receiving aid.

We were told that this neoliberal shock therapy – known as structural adjustment – would help stimulate the economies of poor countries. But exactly the opposite happened. Instead of helping poor countries develop, structural adjustment basically destroyed them. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has demonstrated that while developing countries enjoyed per capita income growth of more than 3% prior to the 1980s, structural adjustment cut it in half, down to 1.7%. When it was foisted on Sub-Saharan Africa, per capita income began to decline at a rate of 0.7% per year, and average GNP shrank by around 10%. As a result, the number of Africans living in basic poverty nearly doubled. It would be hard to overstate the degree of human suffering that these figures represent.

Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, estimates that developing countries have lost roughly $480 billion in potential GDP as a result of structural adjustment. Yet Western corporations have benefitted tremendously. It has forced open vast new consumer markets; it has made it easier to access cheap labor and raw materials; it has opened up avenues for capital flight and tax avoidance; it has created a lucrative market in foreign debt; and it has facilitated a massive transfer of public resources into private hands (the World Bank alone has privatized more than $2 trillion worth of assets in developing countries).

Poverty in the Global South is not just a static given; it is being actively created. And the striking thing is that these atrocities are being perpetrated under the cover of aid. In other words, not only does aid serve as a powerful rhetorical device that cloaks takers in the guise of givers, it also operates as a powerful tool in the global wealth extraction system.

(Source: rs620)

Link: Defending Wealth in America

Democracy poses unique challenges to wealth defence, and yet market democracies have achieved some of the highest degrees of wealth inequality in human history. How have the rich managed the contradiction between formal equality and material disparity?

As discussed in Part 1 of this essay, extreme wealth stratification is the single most enduring social pattern across all polities from Mesopotamia to the present. Sustaining extreme material inequality is neither easy nor automatic. It requires constant and active strategies of wealth defence by the rich, or by those their material resources engage for this purpose. An important transformation over the centuries was the movement of violence out of the hands of the rich in exchange for their support for impersonal institutions of coercion whose first priority has been the defence of property rights that make great fortunes viable politically.

Abundant wealth attracts far greater threats than do ordinary possessions, and protecting it from redistribution demands an unusually conscious and multi-faceted defence. Partly for this reason, great wealth concentrates the political attention and heightens the class consciousness of the rich far more than great poverty does for the poor.1 As with any minority, the wealthy few are more acutely aware of their small numbers than the non-rich are of their enormity. The rich therefore tend to prioritise wealth defence in their political activity, dampening many of the social cleavages that divide and distract the poor. This becomes especially significant in democracies.

Democracy poses unique challenges to wealth defence. If oligarchs have laid down their arms in exchange for an armed state bound by the rule of law that provides a secure space for property and riches, what happens if the non-rich use the democratic state to threaten wealth? Dispersed participation power and concentrated wealth power are incompatible as a matter of democratic principle, and yet have coexisted in every democracy from the eighteenth century to the present. Indeed, modern market democracies have achieved some of the highest degrees of wealth inequality in human history: never before has so much equality coexisted with so much inequality.

The experience of the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present day tells us much about how this potentially fatal tension has been managed.

Taming democratic temper

As the wealthy class of the newly independent United States soon discovered, before democracy can coexist with extreme wealth stratification it must first be crippled.

The United States began as an amalgam of semi-sovereign states united by what amounted to a weak executive committee. Democracy was a hard-won local affair. The basic American building blocks were towns, and strong sentiments of individual liberty and equality had been whipped up in the mobilisation against the British crown. Having just broken free from external dictatorship, few leaders in the states were in the mood for strong domination from above. Had the post-War period been one of economic prosperity, the current US Constitution may not have been written at all—certainly not as early and as urgently as 1787. But the United States was gripped by a deep and painful economic crisis in the years immediately following the war. A recession combined with deflation plunged ordinary farmers, who had sacrificed mightily during the revolution, into severe tax and mortgage debt. 

This convergence of factors set the stage for a dangerous clash between participation power and wealth power in America. There were no sophisticated institutions of ‘financial intermediation’ such as banks or stock exchanges to mask the looming class conflicts between creditors and debtors. The richest Americans had personally purchased government bonds that funded the war and also held the mortgages on farms across the states. Small farmers were the ones who would have to repay them with interest. Enormous sums of oligarchic money were tied up in these legal contracts, and their owners fully expected to be paid. Taxation was the wealth defence mechanism for making sure the public debts would be covered in an orderly fashion, and bond holders who dominated the legislatures repeatedly raised taxes on the population to fund the payments they themselves would ultimately receive.2 To recover mortgage debt, the creditors turned to the coercive capacities of the civil state—courts and sheriffs seized the livestock and tools of farmers, and if necessary the farms themselves were taken in foreclosure. Recalcitrant Americans were thrown into debtors’ prisons to serve multi-year sentences while their families were pushed off their plots.

If all of this had been unfolding under an authoritarian regime, the story might have ended with the rich getting made whole and ordinary citizens suffering the pain of it. But the states were participatory democracies and the indebted many possessed vastly more votes than the creditor few. To complicate matters, the firm grip on politics long held by wealthy colonial gentlemen had loosened in the years after the war. In many states, ‘a new breed of politicians, often from lower social backgrounds’ began to win seats in the various legislatures.3 Wealth defence would be impossible under such extreme economic conditions if these powerful bodies were captured by the electorate and began to respond to their desperate pleas for fairness and relief. If the people was not stopped, the new nation threatened to devolve into an insecure economic space for those holding the most property.

The wealth defence crisis had two faces. One, represented by Rhode Island, was the money printers.4 These state legislatures solved the debt problem in favour of the poor by printing paper money that was worth far less than the gold and silver creditors had loaned and were demanding in repayment. This amounted to using democratic power to redistribute wealth from the few to the many. The other face was that of hard currency, represented most brutally by Massachusetts. These legislatures refused to print money and insisted on enforcing contracts, foreclosing on farms, and filling the prisons with debt scofflaws. To the horror of the rich, indebted farmers responded by taking up arms and attacking the state apparatus they saw as doing the bidding of the wealthy few.5

US elites were alarmed by the growing democratic threat to property. When word reached of the debtors’ uprising in Massachusetts, George Washington was beside himself:

The commotions, and temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof… that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression.…6

Their solution was the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which redesigned the Constitution to better insulate oligarchic wealth from democratic commotion. The new Constitution created a much stronger federal government with less democracy below and a tighter concentration of power at the top—including an upper chamber of senators that could constrain the people’s House, a Supreme Court of just nine persons that would play a particularly important role in property and wealth defence, and a single executive president.

Written in language intended to leave most powers to the states, the document nevertheless included an explicit statement of things states could not do, all of which were a direct reflection of the wealth defence scare that motivated many at the Convention. Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power to establish ‘uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States’. This removed from the states the ability to intervene is this sensitive zone of contestation between creditors and debtors. Article I, Section 10 contained a laundry list of prohibitions on states that concisely summarised every injustice that hyper-democracy in the 1780s had perpetrated on the rich. No state shall ‘coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts’. The last two states to ratify the Constitution were the staunchest paper-money states—North Carolina resisted for 23 months after the first state signed, and Rhode Island held out for 30.7

The Framers of the Constitution thus built powerful oligarchic defences into the structure of democracy itself to impair the ability of the many poor to act democratically against the rich few. ‘Private wealth was now placed on a surer foundation than ever before in the youthful nation’s history’,8 as the Framers had ‘placed inequality at the centre of American constitutionalism’:

For the Framers, the protection of property meant the protection of unequal property and thus the insulation of both property and inequality from democratic transformation. Effective insulation, in their view, required wealth-based inequality of access to political power. It also meant that the illegitimacy of redistribution defined the legitimate scope of the state.9

But instead of explicitly saying that they were defending a rich minority against democratic redistribution—which might have sounded harsh and self-interested, given all the delegates were rich—the Framers reached for the moral high ground and cast the matter as a general defence of any minority against dangerous majorities. This concept would come back to haunt the body politic from the start of the twentieth century forward, which saw a new income tax on the rich, the New Deal and welfare and ‘entitlement’ programs created to cushion America’s underclass. 

Crises of wealth defence

Over the course of the nineteenth century wealth inequality in the US, already significant, widened dramatically. In the recession-hit early 1890s, popular forces led by William Jennings Bryan of the Democratic Party mobilised to impose a new federal income tax targeted exclusively on the wealthiest citizens—the first such tax to be imposed in peace time.10 The tax amounted to a political redistribution of America’s oligarchic wealth. After a cantankerous legislative debate, the bill passed both the House and the first line of wealth defence crafted by the Framers, the Senate. This left the last line of defence: the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. Within a year, the Court struck the tax down as unconstitutional by a vote of 5 to 4. Chief Justice Melville Fuller, writing for the majority, attacked the tax as a ‘communistic threat’. 

Over the next 18 years, the movement to outflank the wealth-defending Justices gained momentum, and in 1913 the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, followed immediately by the first permanent peacetime tax on the richest one-half of one percent of Americans. This victory—in the event, short lived11—marked the greatest democracy-driven setback American oligarchs had endured since the passage of paper money laws over 125 years earlier.

The next big crisis for wealth defence occurred in the wake of the Great Depression, when the government’s role in protecting ordinary and poor Americans expanded dramatically and an unprecedented level of wealth redistribution commenced. Many rich Americans, corporations, and associations championing the interests of both, bitterly opposed government intervention. But others recognised that the political-economic situation was fragile, and that failing to address the pains of poverty and dislocation could lead to far worse consequences.12 In this dangerous moment, wealth redistribution became vital not just to wealth defence, but to preempting radical ideologies and movements from challenging the foundational structure of the wealth edifice itself. 

The Second World War extended the sense of crisis still further. The New Deal and the rise of the American welfare state were responses to this particular historical moment. And yet those responses created institutional changes and material precedents that were at odds with the dominant ideology of the nation constructed during the Federal Convention. This contradiction has been at the heart of the conservative backlash against redistribution and the role of the state that gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century and continues with a vengeance into the 21st:

The modern welfare state does not fit easily within the Federalists’ conceptual framework. Property once provided the conceptual boundary to the legitimate scope of government. That boundary is now threatened by the changing meaning of property and the demands of equality which simultaneously challenge traditional rights of property and the traditional scope of the state. In many crucial respects, we have accepted the New Deal but rejected its conceptual underpinnings. As a country, we routinely engage in redistribution to ameliorate social ills, but we have not simply accepted property as a mere social construct to be redefined or redistributed without constraint. The status of property as boundary lingers despite its disintegration as a constitutional concept. We countenance redistribution as a means, but we have no consensus on a vision of the state that clearly defines redistribution as a legitimate goal.13

The glaring disconnect between the practice of democratic wealth redistribution and the principle of wealth defence, established decisively at the nation’s founding, has seethed below the surface of the national debate for decades. It meant that, when President Ronald Reagan announced in 1981 that ‘Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’, he found wide resonance, even amongst the poor.

The Wealth Defence Industry

Reagan and his successors dedicated themselves not merely to wealth defence—to preventing democratic majorities from distributing wealth—but to actively rolling back an entire state apparatus of poverty relief and government investment in social opportunities that had grown up over half a century—programs which boosted the non-rich and stalled the decades of gains the wealthy had enjoyed. The story of what happened next is by now well known. Suffice to say, whereas the middle decades of the twentieth century had been tremendously beneficial for average Americans and stagnant for the ultra rich, the four decades of economic growth between 1970 and 2010 saw incomes of the top tenth and top hundredth of 1% of Americans soar even as real incomes for average Americans remained flat.14

One under-appreciated reason for this was the rise of a multi-billion dollar Wealth Defence Industry. Comprised of armies of expensive tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, wealth management professionals, and think-tank ideologists (who were networked and organised domestically and transnationally through firms and client networks), the Industry ensured that, even as the myriad processes associated with economic ‘globalisation’ undermined the wealth-threatening power of workers and unions, the wealth defence capacities of the richest Americans increased rapidly.15

In addition to winning gains on the shop floor and in offices, average Americans had for decades been winning major democratic battles of wealth redistribution. Nowhere was this more evident than in taxation; and nowhere was the power of the Wealth Defence Industry more effective. During the decades after WWII, marginal tax rates rose like a grand staircase up the income distribution of the country. From 1954 to 1963 there were 24 tax brackets, with a top rate of 91 percent for incomes over three million dollars. Between 1958 and 2009 they were compressed into six. Nineteen of those twenty-four had been higher than the highest 2009 tax bracket of 35 percent. Someone who made $1 million or $1 billion in 2009 would now be taxed at the same low rate as someone who made $100,000 in 1958. Shifting the tax burden downward to the mass affluent and the upper middle class had the political benefit of broadening the base of resentment against high taxes and welfare spending. For America’s millionaires and billionaires, the elimination of the upper brackets represented a massive cut in wealth redistribution. If the 1958 tax structure had still been in place in 2007, the wealthiest Americans would have paid an additional $100 billion in taxes. Wealth defence pays.

The Wealth Defence Industry, and especially its lobbying arm, helped deflect damage away from the ultra-rich in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in the United States. Unlike in the Great Depression, which dealt a major blow in terms of new regulation and financial costs for oligarchs, wealthy Americans were bailed out in this most recent crisis while the middle class and the poor faced chronic unemployment, financial collapse, bankruptcies, and property foreclosures. This imbalance was augmented as the Supreme Court rendered a series of decisions equating the deployment of wealth in politics to speech protected by the Bill of Rights. These decisions have facilitated the conversion of wealth power into political influence, particularly during elections.16

As the concentration of wealth has changed over the centuries, and as crises large and small have triggered action and presented political opportunities, democracy has repeatedly posed threats to those holding great fortunes. And the rich have responded with vigorous wealth defence efforts. Responding to clear wealth-defence failures, the Framers of the US Constitution arrived at an elegant formula for achieving wealth defence for the richest Americans. The interests of the wealthiest Americans would be lumped together with all other vulnerable minorities whose individual rights deserved protection against potentially tyrannical majorities. This would be accomplished initially by addressing a range of ominous democratic malfunctions that arose during immediately after the revolution, and later through a strong, property-favouring judiciary that could use the Bill of Rights to frame wealth defence as a civil right of the rich, ultimately safeguarding their deployment of massive wealth power as a form of ‘speech’ throughout the democratic process.

The Wealth Defence Industry is purely an expression of wealth power—a material as opposed to a mobilisational power resource. The aggregate wealth power of the masses is vastly larger, but is unavailable in sufficient liquidity and concentration to be of political significance. This is not the case for the ultra-rich, whose wealth power is concentrated, available, and oriented in the same wealth defence direction without the need for organisation. So strong and unanimous is oligarchs’ political demand for wealth defence that an entire industry populated by non-oligarchs has arisen in their service (and, in many instance, their own disservice, insofar as one of the greatest successes of the ultra-rich has been to shift tax burdens downward to the mass affluent, populated by millions of educated professionals, many of whom are gainfully employed in the Wealth Defence Industry). Oligarchs, once forced to defend their wealth personally through force of arms, can now effectively do so through wealth itself.

Link: The Marriage of Poverty and Inequality

Who is responsible when people don’t have enough?

Poverty and inequality are inextricably linked. That’s because poverty is not a personal attribute such as hair color or height, but a relationship between poor people and the society in which they live. The experiences and behaviors of the affluent — the wages they take home, the bonuses they receive, the price they pay for basic goods, the amount of taxes they pay, and the political policies they support — all help constitute what it means to be poor.

And yet many rich people insist that their fast-increasing wealth has nothing to do with the fact that others are poor, and everything to do with merit and just desserts. A number of politicians and pundits have recently given credence to this position, seeking to divorce the fight against poverty from the push for greater equality. In arguing that poverty and inequality are unrelated, they suggest that to help the poor, we must focus on addressing the attributes of people that make them poor in the first place. This is called an “attributionalist” stance.

One of the best representatives of this point of view is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently suggested that the uneducated poor “can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.” He’s not alone: other so-called experts point to divorce and teen pregnancy rates among the poor to illustrate the moral failings of irresponsible behavior and sexual promiscuity — failings that lead to cycles of poverty wherein parents transfer their immorality to their children, creating generation after generation of poverty.

This attributionalist stance is false and misleading. It is seductive because it offers a convenient excuse for elites who benefit from today’s extreme levels of inequality in America.

Greed and growth

In the attributionalist’s view, people are poor because of personal traits — especially their moral failings. In order to relieve poverty, we must make poor people into better human beings, by essentially regulating their behavior. The opposing “relationalist” view contends that economic positions are largely explained by relationships between groups, and that we all share a responsibility to alleviate poverty because the experiences and behaviors of those who aren’t poor have an effect on the lives of those who are.

We can debate these points theoretically, but we can also look directly to evidence of the relationship between poverty and inequality to evaluate whether the relationalist or attributionalist stance makes more sense in the real world. The rich have become richer in the United States, but they haven’t done so simply by creating new economic value through their own hard work. Instead, they have seized considerable value created by others.

Look, for example, at the relationship between productivity and wages. From the 1950s through the 1970s, productivity increases and wage gains kept pace with one another. Workers took home much of the value created by their increased output. But starting in the late 1970s, the relationship between wages and productivity began to diverge. American workers continued to be more productive, but they didn’t enjoy anywhere near the wage increases they once did. As economist Lawrence Mishel has shown, productivity from 1973 to 2010 increased about 80.4 percent, but wages increased by only 11 percent over the same period.

If workers became so much more productive, what happened to the extra value they were creating? The answer is simple: Executives and shareholders took it for themselves. This is evidence that supports the relationalist point of view. The rich aren’t getting richer just because of their personal attributes; they’re getting richer because they’ve been able to appropriate the value created by others.

Mind the gap

There’s even stronger evidence for the relationalist position. In his research, the president of the Russell Sage Foundation, economist Sheldon Danziger, has asked how different factors — the changing racial composition of the U.S., shifts in family structure, education, growth and inequality — have affected the poverty rate since the 1980s. His findings are powerful and instructive. While the attributionalists point to divorce and “the breakdown of the family” to explain why poverty persists in America, Danziger demonstrates that inequality is four times as important for explaining poverty as the other factors faced by American families. One basic relationship — the gap between the richest and the poorest — is perhaps the most important reason behind the current poverty rate of 15 percent (about 45 million people).

But why does inequality have such a strong effect on poverty? Danzinger and his colleague Peter Gottschalk argue that as economic growth in America slowed down, the rich managed to be largely unaffected by the declines by seizing a larger share of others’ productivity. In other words, slowing economic growth has hit the middle classes and poor far harder. Writing recently in The New York Times, Jared Bernstein has drawn on Danziger’s work to argue that “Inequality serves as a wedge or a funnel … redirecting growth from a broad swath of households across the income scale to a narrow slice at the top.”

The entitled rich

Given this sort of evidence, it’s not a stretch to conclude that the affluent are morally obligated to do something for the poor. After all, they’ve seized a much larger share of economic growth than they’ve contributed. Yet few members of the upper classes see the world this way; instead, many of them believe they are entitled to virtuallyall the increase in our nation’s growth. There is an irony to their stance. The rich credit their own attributes — hard work, skill, discipline and intelligence — for their good fortune. They shame the poor, painting them as immoral and lazy no-gooders waiting for the next handout. But who really lives off the gains of others? Who really reaps the rewards of economic gains for which they are not responsible?

While a tiny fraction of Americans enjoy almost all the spoils of our national growth, the majority of Americans have a radically different experience. About 40 percent of Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives, and many more will scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck. The universality of this experience suggests that there is something other than personal attributes (or as some would have it, personal failings) that explain the condition of poverty. The attributionalists need to redirect their sanctimonious moral grandstanding and think more carefully about social and structural causes for poverty. It’s only then that we will uncover effective strategies to deal with it.

Programs that focus on the “culture of poverty” and the alleged “attributes” of poor people don’t get to its root cause, which is, quite simply, that millions of people don’t have enough money. Poverty is not a fixed trait; we can easily make people less poor by giving them enough money so that they’re no longer poor.

There’s considerable evidence that this method works. Progressive thinkers have recently suggested that, in light of such evidence, a guaranteed basic minimum income should be central to addressing poverty and building a better society. But let’s not assume that this is just a liberal idea cooked up by the economically naive: Conservative economist Milton Friedman argued that a similar idea, in the form of a “negative income tax,” might be the path to prosperity. In imagining the poor as moral failures, we have created an elaborate system of government surveillance, security and regulation, infantilizing and demonizing those who are suffering. Instead, we might look to policies like a guaranteed basic income or a negative income tax, in which we give people money and treat them with the dignity their humanity entitles them to.

That can be achieved by giving them the means and the freedom to choose. Not only would it help those who are suffering get by, but rather than treating them like social degenerates, it would trust and empower them to make their own financial decisions. Given how much responsibility the more fortunate among us have for the problems plaguing the poor, it is the least our society can do.

Link: The Biological Inferiority of the Undeserving Poor

…if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. — Charles Darwin (1839)

For most of recorded history, poverty reflected God’s will. The poor were always with us. They were not inherently immoral, dangerous, or different. They were not to be shunned, feared, or avoided. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a harsh new idea of poverty and poor people as different and inferior began to replace this ancient biblical view. In what ways, exactly, are poor people different from the rest of us became – and remains – a burning question answered with moral philosophy, political economy, social science, and, eventually, biology. Why did biological conceptions of poverty wax and wane over the last century and a half? What forms have they taken? What have been their consequences?

The biological definition of poverty reinforces the idea of the undeserving poor, which is the oldest theme in post-Enlightenment poverty discourse. Its history stretches from the late eighteenth century through to the present. Poverty, in this view, results from personal failure and inferiority. Moral weaknesses – drunkenness, laziness, sexual promiscuity – constitute the most consistent markers of the undeserving poor. The idea that a culture of poverty works its insidious influence on individuals, endowing them with traits that trap them in lives of destitution, entered both scholarly and popular discourse somewhat later and endures to this day. Faulty heredity composes the third strand in the identification of the undeserving poor; backed by scientific advances in molecular biology and neuroscience, it is enjoying a revival. The historical record shows this idea in the past to have been scientifically dubious, ethically suspect, politically harmful, and, at its worst, lethal. That is why we should pay close attention to its current resurgence.

This article excavates the definition of poor people as biologically inferior. It not only documents its persistence over time but emphasizes three themes. First, the concept rises and falls in prominence in response to institutional and programmatic failure. It offers a convenient explanation for why the optimism of reformers proved illusory or why social problems remained refractory despite efforts to eliminate them. Second, its initial formulation and reformulation rely on bridging concepts that try to parse the distance between heredity and environment through a kind of neo-Lamarkianism. These early bridges invariably crumble. Third, hereditarian ideas always have been supported by the best science of the day. This was the case with the ideas that ranked “races”; underpinned immigration restrictions; and encouraged compulsory sterilization – as well as those that have written off the intellectual potential of poor children.

In its review of the biological strand in American ideas about poverty, this article begins in the 1860s with the first instance of the application of hereditarian thought I have discovered; moves forward to social Darwinism and eugenics, immigration restriction, and early IQ testing. It then picks up the story with Arthur Jensen’s famous 1969 article in the Harvard Educational Review, follows it to the Bell Curve, and ends with the astonishing rise of neuroscience and the field of epigenetics. It concludes by arguing that despite the intelligence, skill, and good intentions of contemporary scientists, the history of biological definitions of poor persons calls for approaching the findings of neuroscience with great caution.

Link: Too Poor for Pop Culture

Where I live in East Baltimore, everything looks like “The Wire” and nobody cares what a “selfie” is

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.


I arrived, fifth of Black Watch clenched close to me like a newborn with three red cold-cups covering the top. We play spades over at Miss Sheryl’s place in Douglass Housing Projects every few weeks. (Actually, Miss Sheryl’s name isn’t really Miss Sheryl. But I changed some names here, because I’m not into embarrassing my friends.) Her court is semi-boarded up, third world and looks like an ad for “The Wire.” Even though her complex is disgustingly unfit, it’s still overpopulated with tilting dope fiends, barefoot children, pregnant smokers, grandmas with diabetes, tattoo-faced tenants and a diverse collection of Zimmermans made up of street dudes and housing police, looking itchy to shoot anyone young and black and in Nike.

 Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Surprisingly, as tight as Miss Sheryl’s unit may be, it’s still more than enough space for us to receive affordable joy from a box of 50-cent cards and a rail bottle.

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

It’s amazing how the news seems so instant to most from my generation with our iPhones, Wi-Fi, tablets and iPads, but actually it isn’t. The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.


Miss Sheryl doesn’t have a computer and definitely wouldn’t know what a selfie is. Her cell runs on minutes and doesn’t have a camera. Like many of us, she’s too poor to participate in pop culture. She’s on public assistance living in public housing and scrambles for odd jobs to survive.

Sheryl lost her job as a cook moments after she lost her daughter to heroin, her son Meaty to crack and her kidneys to soul food. It took 15 to 20 unanswered applications a week for over a year for her to realize that no company wants to employ a woman on dialysis. Sometimes Bucket-Head and I chip in and buy groceries for her and her grandson Lil Kevin who has severe lead-paint poisoning, but was diagnosed late and is too old to receive a check.

Bucket-Head is a convicted felon but not really. He was charged with a crime that he didn’t commit. I know this because my late cousin did the shooting and our whole neighborhood watched. Bucket was in the wrong place at the wrong time and as many know, we are products of a “No Snitching” culture.

As a result, the only work Bucket can find after 10 years of false imprisonment is that of laborer with the Mexicans who post up in front of 7-Eleven, or as a freelance dishwasher. Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay, who represents the definition of redemption to me.


I placed our cups at the table and the bottle in the center. “Me and Miss Sheryl are gonna whip ass tonight, hurry up, Dontay!” I yelled.

Dontay cleans nonstop. Roaches sleeping in the fridge, roaches relay racing out of the cabinets carrying cereal boxes, purchasing homes, building families, slipping through cracks for fun and weaving in and out of death — Dontay bleaches them all. Dontay doesn’t take handouts from us and won’t go on government assistance. He couldn’t contribute to the chips and vodka that week so he’s cleaned for Miss Sheryl and would clean for Miss Sheryl even if there were no chips and vodka.

“Boy we ready to play the cards. Stop acting selfie and sit yo ass at the table!” yelled Miss Sheryl from another room. We all laugh. Miss Sheryl’s rooms are separated by white sheets; they look like a soiled ghost at night when the wind blows. Her son Meaty stole and sold her doors years ago and housing never replaced them.

Dontay joined us at the table. “Takin forever, boy, wit dem big ass feet!” yelled a happy Bucket. Dontay was wearing my old shoes. They are 13’s and busting at the seams but Dontay’s a size 8 and his foot is digging through the side. His arms are chunked and wrapped in healed sores from years of drug abuse. He’s eight years clean off of the hard stuff now, but I met him way back when I was 13, in his wild days.

He was huddled over his girlfriend in the alley behind my house. I watched moments before as she performed an abortion on herself with a twisted coat hanger. She screamed like the sirens we hear all day. I couldn’t stop looking at her. He gazed too, in and out of a nod and then signaled me for help. I joined them. Together we dragged her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was under a mile away. Blood scabbed and dried on my hands, Nikes and hooping shorts; she lived until she OD’d months later. I’ve been cool with Dontay ever since.

“Tryin get dem roach eggs, tee-he, tee-he he he, gotta get the bleach on da roach eggs! Den dey won’t come back!” Dontay replied as he sat at the table.


I dealt the first hand. Miss Sheryl reminded me to deal to the left. “Always deal to the left, boy, the rule don’t change!” she said. She has the widest jaws in the history of wide and jaws, thicker than both of her bloated caramel arms, which are thigh-size. I collected the cards, reshuffled and dealt to the left. And there we were — my job-hungry unemployed old heads and me the overworked college professor.

College professor?

Not the kind of professor that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for teaching one class a year but a broke-ass adjunct who makes hundreds of dollars for teaching thousands of classes a year. The other day I read an article about an adjunct who died in a homeless shelter and I wasn’t surprised; panhandlers make triple, and trust me, I’ve done the research, I should be looking for a corner to set up shop.

I have a little more than my friends but still feel their pain. My equation for survival is teaching at three colleges, substituting, freelance Web designing, freelance graphic designing, rap video director, wedding photographer and tutor —  the proceeds from all of these are swallowed by my mortgage, cigarettes, rail vodka and Ramen noodles. I used to eat only free-range organic shit, I used to live in Whole Foods, I used to drink top shelf — I used to be able to afford pop culture.

But long gone are the days when I pumped crack into the very neighborhood where we hold our card game. Eons since I had to stay up all night counting money until my fingers cramped. Since I had to lie on my back to kick my safe closed and I wore and treated Gucci like Hanes and drove Mercedes CL’s and gave X5 beamers to my girlfriends — my good ole days.

Eventually the mass death of my close friends caused me to leave the drug game in search of a better life. Ten-plus years and three college degrees later, I’m back where I started, just like my card-playing friends: too poor to participate in pop culture. Too poor to give a fuck about a selfie or what Kanye said or Beyoncé’s new album and the 17 videos it came with.

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

The Obama feeling in 2008 isn’t the same as the Obama feeling in 2014. Obama had us dream chasing in 2008. My friends and I wanted him to be our dad and  best friend and mentor and favorite uncle. Shit, I wanted to take selfies with him. He was a biracial swirl of black and white Jesus sent to deliver us. To bless people stuck under the slums like Sheryl, Bucket, Dontay and I with jobs, access to the definition of words like selfie and hope — REAL HOPE.

But in 2014 it feels the same as Bush, or Clinton, or any other president. The rich are copping new boats and we still are using the oven to heat up our houses in the winter, while eating our cereal with forks to preserve milk. America still feels like America, a place where you have to pay to play, any and everywhere even here at our broke-ass card game.


1 a.m. rolls around and we’re faded, everyone but Miss Sheryl, that is, because dialysis prohibits her from drinking. My kidney pounds, her 2008 Obama for Pres T-shirt stares back at me all stretched out of shape, making Barack look like Sinbad. No one knows who won because really, we all lost. Dontay is asleep because I saw the roaches creeping back and Bucket staggered out.

I looked at Miss Sheryl, “We could take a late night selfie now but I swapped my iPhone for a boost mobile, $30 payment!”

She laughed and said, “Baby, what’s a selfie again?”

D. Watkins is an author, filmmaker and native Baltimorean who graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University. He teaches at Coppin State University and runs a writing workshop on Creative Nonfiction at the Baltimore Freedom School. Watkins also conducts artist interviews for and Watkins work also be seen on Niche Literary Magazine, Welter, Artichoke Haircut, The Baltimore Fishbowl, Hippocampus Magazine and a host of other literary publications. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter @dWatkinsWorld and read more at

Link: The Logic of Stupid Poor People

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.

To be fair, this isn’t about Eroll Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?

One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That’s how generational wealth happens where I’m from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.

We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk’s once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is  you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.

In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

Link: The Embarassment at Lampedusa

The deaths of some 300 illegal migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa has caused a stir, as spectaculars tend to. But, really, this is no more than freak news. Like mass shootings in America or (middle-class white) child abductions, it is a statistically insignificant event attached to an emotive story. Freak news events don’t actually mean anything, but they look like they should. 

It would be silly to make policy on the basis of such events. And yet the stir itself is worth looking into. The pope said such tragedies are shameful, but I would describe Europe’s emotional state as one of embarrassment

The embarrassment relates to our reluctance to confront the hypocrisy embedded in how we think about immigrants from the poor and broken parts of the world. On the one hand, we have high moral standards about our duty of care to refugees fleeing lives of squalor, fear, and oppression and these are embedded in various international treaties and national laws. On the other hand, if we applied those standards generally, we would have to accept that over a billion people have some legitimate claim to refugee status. (Including most women in the middle-east and perhaps central America; homosexuals from most of the world; most inhabitants of failed states like Somalia and the Central African Republic; everyone but the elite in totalitarian dictatorships like Eritrea, N. Korea, and Uzbekistan; the 12 million people without citizenship of any state; religious minorities in intolerant countries like Pakistan and Burma; all the civilians in war zones like Syria and Baghdad; India’s untouchables; China’s Tibetans; the vast number of refugees interned for decades in long-term camps in poor countries, like the Somalis living in Kenya or the ethnic Nepalis expelled by Bhutan. And so on.)

We who are lucky enough to live in rich countries are understandably reluctant to live up to our moral standards when we realise the full scale of what that would require. Yet we don’t want to admit that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, that we can’t have our sense of moral superiority and also carry on as usual. That would be embarrassing, in an ‘the emperor has no clothes’ way. Such a conflict between our values and our interests is particularly hard to avoid when we are directly confronted by people in need asking for our help. It is distinctly embarrassing to have to tell obviously suffering people to their face that, actually, we don’t care enough about them to want to help.

So just as we might cross the street to avoid the pleading gaze of a beggar, we instruct our governments to protect us from being put into that situation. Thus, European governments on the Mediterranean, acting on the clear desires of their citizens, have spent vast amounts of money trying to prevent such embarrassments from occurring by bribing North Africa’s dictators to ‘deter’ refugees from ever setting off. (A ‘dirty hands' policy with some success, until the Arab Spring removed several of those dictators.) The result is that we proudly offer refuge and asylum to all the deserving people of the world who ask for our help, but only if they can climb over all the walls and laws we've erected to keep them from asking.

Given this, it is easy to see why events like Lampedusa cause us such acute embarrassment. When refugees die trying to reach our beaches it is hard for us to avoid acknowledging how very bad their lives must have been to drive them to take such a risk for such a cold welcome. It is hard for us to avoid recognising the scale of the problem that our own moral standards identify: more than a billion people living in fear, squalor, and oppression.

So we pretend such events are merely inpidual tragedies, dramas of human suffering that are no one’s particular fault. And in a sense that is true. As long as people refuse to live in squalor and oppression, and as long as people like us refuse to let them have a chance at a better life that might dilute our birthright prosperity, there will be a lot of human suffering. But preventing the refugee boats from setting out would merely prevent telegenic catastrophes that might embarrass our moral bankruptcy. It would do nothing about the real tragedy of vast human suffering in the places refugees come from.

From a moral perspective what is perhaps most strange is the reflexive inter-nationalisation of our moral standards. The suffering of people who happen to live in other countries is not considered to be our problem. Helping them is seen as an exercise in charity rather than a strict moral duty, an act of magnanimity that we might fit in after our day to day concerns have been taken care of. As a result, levels of international aid are a tiny fraction of what we are willing to spend to help needy members of our own society. Helping our own is a matter of justice and a real moral priority; helping foreigners is an afterthought at best. It is as if our moral concern ends at our borders. Hence, it is only when refugees actually manage to cross our borders that we feel a moral obligation to help them (an obligation we would prefer not to feel). We seem to be in the grip of a peculiar prejudice or moral delusion: that political borders delimit a moral boundary, with justice on the inside and mere charity on the outside.

I know there are good moral reasons for modern states. Amongst others, they’re better at justice and prosperity than anything else we’ve tried, when they work. Yet states clearly don’t always work - the persistence of large scale human suffering in a world of plenty mainly relates to state evil, failure and corruption. Inter-nationalism doesn’t offer very clear moral guidance in such cases. The people born into such states hold the losing tickets in a birthright lottery that seems morally arbitrary. Can one seriously claim that people with Malawian nationality don’t really want or deserve things like dignity, food, shelter, safety or justice because their parents were Malawian citizens?  

The best way to deal with this injustice would be to address its causes by fixing the world’s monstrous or broken political institutions. But inter-nationalism means that is difficult or impossible to do from outside (and also from inside, as the Arab Spring reminds us). Yet there is something else that we could do, and that in our better moments we declare we want to do, but that we refuse to seriously contemplate at the necessary scale. We could give everyone who can escape their broken states the chance at a better life in ours.

Of course this is politically unthinkable. Once invented, nation states generate good political reasons for immigration control. In particular, welfare states require control over the risk and economic productivity profiles of new entrants if their insurance financing models are to be sustainable [previously]. But as morality this comes down to, “I got mine, Jack”. The problem with such an argument is that while it succeeds in explaining our attitudes to illegal migrants, it doesn’t justify them. A justification is an argument that others could in principle accept. John Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a good tool for illustrating the difference. If you didn’t already know what country you would have to live in, would you choose a world with this kind of inter-national birthright lottery? Sometimes, when our moral standards don’t fit with how the world works, it is the world that we should change. 

Perhaps there are better moral arguments for immigration controls that I don’t know about - perhaps some form of communitarian/cultural identity argument that isn’t racist. But I doubt it. If we who live in the lucky countries really had good moral reasons for keeping poor oppressed people from sharing our good fortune, we wouldn’t be so embarrassed by their presence that we would pay dictators to keep them away. 

Does it have to be this way? Will it always be this way? Slavery, torture, racism and so on are all now condemned around the world. Yet there was a time when they were each seen as natural, proper, and right, even by the foremost intellects of the age. They were entrenched in how the world worked - ending them also seemed unthinkable. Might there also come a time when the very idea that a person’s right to a decent life could be determined by what country they happened to be a citizen of - whether they had the right pieces of paper - will seem like a piece of craziness from another world?

Are those who went along unthinkingly with evil practises like slavery and torture morally culpable? Perhaps not. Yet there must have been a point, when counter-arguments began to be made and promulgated, at which those who went along could no longer shelter behind their ignorance of the immorality of their actions. Perhaps it is unreasonable to condemn the Romans for slavery, but one can certainly condemn those in mid-19th century America who cleaved to racialised slavery despite the abundance and superiority of the abolitionist arguments. Those who go along with evil when they know, or should know better, are complicit in it.

Our treatment of animals seems another case in the making. Humans have long taken for granted our right to use and abuse animals to serve our interests, including the aesthetic pleasure of eating meat. That complacency cannot be sustained in the face of the increasing visibility of counter-arguments, like Peter Singer’s. Our practices stand in need of explicit defence or else rejection. Otherwise we may find ourselves struggling to explain our personal complicity in a great evil to our more enlightened - vegan - grandchildren, whose history books put us in the same category of monsters as white apartheid South Africans. Call this the grandchild test for bad ethics.

Immigration control hasn’t yet had its Peter Singer. Or perhaps we aren’t yet even willing to hear the arguments being made by moral cosmopolitans. Yet one can already suspect that when such arguments become visible and inescapable the status quo will not have much to call upon to defend itself. Merely because ending immigration controls is unthinkable with the way the world is now set up does not make them right. Will we be able to defend the justice of a global birthright lottery to our grandkids? Or will our sense of embarrassment finally turn to shame?

Link: The Russia Left Behind

Link: It Captures Your Mind

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir Times Books, 288 pp., $28.00                

Economists focus on the problem of scarcity—on how people allocate their resources (including both time and money) in the face of many competing demands. In their extraordinarily illuminating book, the behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the cognitive psychologist Eldar Shafir explore something quite different, which is the feeling of scarcity, and the psychological and behavioral consequences of that feeling. They know that the feeling of scarcity differs across various kinds of experiences and that people can feel “poor” with respect to money, time, or relationships with others.

But their striking claim, based on careful empirical research, is that across all of those categories, the feeling of scarcity has quite similar effects. It puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity. If any of us were similarly situated, we might end up with a character a lot like theirs. An insidious problem is that scarcity produces more scarcity. It creates its own trap.

Because they lack money, poor people must focus intensely on the economic consequences of expenditures that wealthy people consider trivial and not worth worrying over. Those without a lot of time have to hoard their minutes, and they may have trouble planning for the long term. The cash-poor and the time-poor have much in common with lonely people, for whom relationships with others are scarce. When people struggle with scarcity, their minds are intensely occupied, even taken over, by what they lack.

Mullainathan and Shafir offer a somewhat macabre illustration. Toward the end of World War II, the Allies knew that they would find a lot of Europeans on the edge of starvation, and they wanted to learn exactly how they should start to feed those whom they were liberating. Are full meals a good idea? Should they begin with small quantities? To answer these questions, researchers at the University of Minnesota engaged in an experiment with healthy male volunteers whose calories were reduced to the point right above the level where they would be permanently harmed. The most surprising finding was psychological. The men became not merely hungry but completely focused on food:

Obsessions developed around cookbooks and menus from local restaurants. Some men could spend hours comparing the prices of fruits and vegetables from one newspaper to the next. Some planned now to go into agriculture. They dreamed of new careers as restaurant owners…. When they went to the movies, only the scenes with food held their interest.

A participant in the study recalled the experience as horrific, not so much “because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one’s life…food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.” For Mullainathan and Shafir, the central point is that “scarcity captures the mind.”

Here’s a less grisly illustration. Researchers asked people to view a screen with words flashing across it very quickly (1/30 of second), and to say whether they could identify those words. The words included RAKE, TAKE, and CAKE. Participants were invited to come to the lab three or four hours before the experiment began; some of them were asked to go out and get lunch during that time, while others ate nothing. In general, the hungry participants did about as well on the test as those who had eaten. But they did a lot better on food-related words. When the word CAKE was onscreen, they saw it, even when it escaped the attention of those who had had lunch. Importantly, they saw it subconsciously, not deliberately; the flash was far too fast to allow any kind of conscious control. (For people who are thirsty, the same test works with words like WATER.)

Something similar happens for scarcity of all kinds. Lonely people do not do better than others in remembering what they have read, but they stand out in their ability to recall parts of a narrative that involve interactions with others. Remarkably, poor children systematically overestimate the size of bigger coins (quarters and half-dollars), evidently because they loom large to them. At restaurants and airports, people who are going through divorce are especially alert to the presence of couples and families.

Mullainathan and Shafir emphasize that scarcity can have distinctive benefits, simply because it focuses the mind. If you face scarcity, you may end up in a kind of psychological tunnel, and your focus may well have a beneficial effect. People often work best in the face of an imminent deadline—not only more rapidly, but also more creatively. In his book on Winston Churchill, Max Hastings quoted the diplomat Lord D’Abernon: “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” Studies of meetings establish that it is only as time gets short that people start to make progress. (A lesson for institutions of all kinds: consider cutting the length of all meetings in half.) After a trip to the supermarket, most people do not remember how much they spent on particular items, but poor people do.

Psychologists and behavioral economists have found that with respect to money, many people make what economists regard as a series of cognitive mistakes. For example, most of us value a ticket to a sports event as the amount that we paid for it, rather than as the amount we could get for it if we sold it on the open market (the right measure from the economic point of view). Intensely focused on their economic situation, poor people are far less likely to make that particular mistake.

The downside is that by occupying the mind, scarcity can prevent people from attending to other matters. If the mind is full, it will have a hard time absorbing new material. When sixth-graders take classes near a noisy railroad line, they learn a lot less, ending up a full year behind their counterparts. Social scientists have done a lot of experiments involving “cognitive load.” In such experiments, they ask people to solve complex problems and then test whether the effort affects their behavior in other respects, for example by leading them to choose chocolate cake over fruit. The standard finding is that their self-control is diminished; they are more likely to go for the cake. Mullainathan and Shafir think that scarcity works in the same way. It imposes a kind of “bandwidth tax” that impairs people’s ability to perform well.

In one experiment, they asked a group of people to imagine that their car needed to be fixed, that the repair would cost $300, and that they were making a choice between getting it fixed immediately or waiting (and hoping that the car might work for a while longer). Then the authors asked: How would you make this decision? Would it be an easy or hard decision to make? After receiving people’s answers, the authors asked them a series of questions of the sort that appear on conventional intelligence tests. Well-off people and poor people did not show any difference in intelligence.

In a second version of the experiment, the authors posed exactly the same problem, but with a single difference: the cost of the repair was $3,000 rather than $300. Here is the remarkable finding: After encountering the second version of the problem, poor people did significantly worse than well-off people on the same intelligence test. What explains the difference? The answer is not more challenging arithmetic. When the authors posed nonfinancial problems, the use of small or large numbers produced no difference between poor people and rich people. Nor did the problem involve a lack of motivation. When the authors paid people for correct answers (and thus gave poor people an especially strong incentive to do well), the $3,000 version continued to create a large difference between poor people and well-off people on general intelligence questions.

Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the result to the fact that for people without a lot of money, it is extremely challenging to try to figure out a way to come up with $3,000. To meet that challenge, they have to think extremely hard, which is depleting, and which makes it harder to do well on subsequent tasks. After people are depleted in that way, they do worse on intelligence tests. (Recall the sixth-graders who learned less because of background noise, and the food-obsessed participants in the University of Minnesota study; it is a fair bet that they would not have done so well on intelligence tests.) Mullainathan and Shafir replicated their general result with sugar cane farmers in India, finding that they do far worse on intelligence tests before a harvest, when they have little money and are preoccupied with how to make ends meet, than after a harvest, when cash is plentiful. Stunningly, the effect of plentiful cash was equivalent to a nine-to-ten-point boost in IQ.

A depletion of bandwidth also reduces people’s capacity for self-control. After being asked to try to remember eight-digit numbers, people are more likely to be rude in difficult social situations. The general lesson is that when people’s attention is absorbed by other matters, they are more likely to yield to their impulses. With this lesson in mind, Mullainathan and Shafir insist that certain characteristics that we attribute to individual personality (lack of motivation, inability to focus) may actually be a problem of limited bandwidth. The problem is scarcity, not the person. Compare a computer that is working slowly because a lot of other programs are operating in the background. Nothing is wrong with the computer; you just need to turn off the other programs.

In this light, it should be easy to see why Mullainathan and Shafir think that scarcity tends to produce more of the same. For example, most of us are susceptible to “the planning fallacy,” which means that we are unrealistically optimistic about how long it will take to complete a project. But busy people are especially vulnerable, since they are attending to their past and current projects and so are “more distracted and overwhelmed—a surefire way to misplan.” Poor people are unlikely to take the time required to understand the small print on low-cost mortgage forms, even if they contain information that they need to understand. They are also more likely to resort to payday loans, which have high fees, and which can create a kind of trap, in which people end up taking out payday loans to pay back their payday loans. The underlying problem is that when people “tunnel,” they focus on their immediate problem; “knowing you will be hungry next month does not capture your attention the same way that being hungry today does.” A behavioral consequence of scarcity is “juggling,” which prevents long-term planning.

Those who live in circumstances of abundance have a kind of cushion, which allows them to avoid depletion. If wealthy people are confronted with a serious economic “shock,” requiring them to spend a great deal of cash on an emergency, their lives are not turned upside-down. With respect to money itself, this point is self-evident, but Mullainathan and Shafir want to draw attention to its psychological and behavioral consequences. When bad surprises occur, those who live under circumstances of abundance (with respect to money or time) do not have to devote a lot of mental energy to them.

Link: Steal This Article

If a rich person has something you need, you should take it. And if a big corporation has something you want, you should steal it. Instead of paying retail prices when you go to a chain store, just don’t pay. After all, you earned it.

The rich people who run these big corporations like to act as if we live in an age of austerity. So do their spokespersons in politics. We just don’t have enough money anymore! We’re running out of things. In this economy, you are lucky to have a freelancing gig. Full-time jobs are a stop on the way to collecting unemployment, not a career with a picket fence and a pension. It has something to do with the economy and it is all very confusing.

The truth is the human race has never been better off. We live in an age of plenty. The problem is one of distribution: Instead of being used for the benefit of all, that plenty is exploited for the benefit of a select, privileged few, who profit from polluting and in some cases sabotaging the commons. Natural resources, from the land beneath us to the electromagnetic spectrum all around us, are monopolized by corporations bound by law to maximize quarterly profits, not the good of society. Our mutual inheritance is passed on to a handful of wealthy people who rely on the labor and genius of others to make themselves wealthier.

Those at the top take all the credit in the best of times and blame everyone beneath them the rest of the time. At all times, though, they take the money.

But the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is not the result of some higher law and a can-do attitude. It does not reflect the way things always were and always must be. The reason some dads are rich and others poor is that the rich dads (and moms) got together and created a political and economic system that benefits rich people. As the saying goes, you need money to make money.

Having money means defining right and wrong. Under capitalism, property is defined by those with the most dollars. Historically you could go to prison for “stealing” a slave or letting them liberate themselves. Human beings were property until a shift in values and a bloody civil war decided they weren’t. Isn’t it possible that what is considered private property today will be rendered illegitimate by future generations? And why wait?

Change comes about when those in power feel scared: when they feel that conceding to the public interest is the only way to maintain their status. Charity may build a few hospital wings, but fear builds a universal health care system. If you want to improve your life, start thinking outside the ballot box and the system the rich created and the values it teaches. Start thinking about getting what is yours.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of our sample experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. The average worker lost $51, out of average weekly earnings of $339. […] That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings.

—2008 UCLA

It’s easy to steal back your money from the rich. You probably do it all the time. Ever buy a movie on iTunes instead of downloading it for free on The Pirate Bay? Yeah, keep not doing that. Ashton Kutcher will be just fine, unfortunately. Send some money to a janitor at Universal Studios if you really feel bad about it.

If you really want to scare the rich while enriching yourself, you’ll eventually want to advance from stealing bogus “intellectual” property to actual, in-real-life stealing. At a big-box retailer and feeling a little bold? Grab what you can and run out the door. No minimum wage employee really wants to chase you—they’re more likely to steal from their workplace than anyone else is. They have no right to detain you once you reach the great outdoors either. You should probably have a friend waiting in a car.

Like most things in life, the key to getting away with something you are not supposed to be doing is acting like you are supposed to be doing it. If you act suspiciously, people are going to get suspicious, so please don’t do the whole, I’m-doing-something-shady, glance-over-the-shoulder thing you see potheads do at music fests. Be cool.

Find a store with a self-checkout line to build your confidence. If management wants to replace the working class with computers that maybe aren’t quite as good at protecting company property, make them pay for it. Yeah, scan a few items—but don’t scan a few more. Nonchalantly pass your items a bit too high over the scanner and into your brand-new backpack. Oh, did that barcode not register? Guess we’ll never know.

You could, of course, get caught. That’s always a risk and it shouldn’t be downplayed—guess who owns the justice system? So it’s best to be prepared. Try scoping out the place you plan on liberating goods from beforehand. Get acquainted with where all the cameras are, the exits, stuff like that. The less bogged down by details you are come go-time, the less anxious and better off you’ll be.

“Security experts say that as many as 30 percent of the average company’s employees do steal, and another 60 percent will steal if given a motive and opportunity.”

—National Federation of Independent Business

Everyone hates their boss. Despite all those empty words about the office as a “team,” we all know there’s a hierarchy: The workplace is a coercive environment, and you’re not the one doing the coercing. You are not there because you want to be there, but because the alternative is impoverishment, a fact your boss knows as well as you. No matter how cool the guy or gal in charge, they can ruin your life as soon it becomes convenient. The company your labor helped build could dismiss you any day now.

Besides the constant risk of dismissal, we all know that there’s nothing “fair” about work; those who do the most of it are never the ones to reap most of its benefits, and that careerists who say what those in charge want to hear fare better than the ones who tell those in charge the truth.

Collective action is the ideal, but individual direct actions aren’t without merit, least of all to the individuals in question. You can always lift office supplies at the same time you try to organize fellow office workers.

Consider working less. Not working fewer hours (you get paid for those), but expending less effort. Slow down, speed racer. Worker productivity is not a good thing in the context of capitalism and it should raise a few red flags that those most invested in increasing it are the idle rich. They want you to work harder so they can pay you less. Indeed, Americans are already working harder than ever, the productivity of the average employee increasing more than 80 percent in the last 25 years. That increase in productivity has created an amazing amount of wealth, just not for those who produced it. Don’t feel lousy about taking some of it back from those who took it from you.

Remember: While you maybe don’t want that extra stapler or Keurig coffeemaker, Bed Bath & Beyond will probably accept it for in-store credit.

“It’s fun pretending to be a cop chasing and capturing a robber. It can be even more fun to be the robber because you take things and try to get away with them before your buddy, the cop, catches you.”

—“Learning and Emotional Problems: Stealing,”

There is $118 trillion of wealth in the United States alone, or about $375,000 per American. For every homeless person in the country, there are 28 empty homes waiting for them right now. Laws and culture deny them a roof over their head, not a dearth of roofs. It is our legal system that funnels a disproportionate amount of wealth to a small handful of people, not the benevolent hand of a just and caring god.

Even by the standard of 20th century capitalism, things are pretty not okay. If income had kept pace with growth in the economy since 1970, the median household would be making around $92,000. The actual number is $50,000 and falling. A record 46 million Americans are living below the U.S. government’s official poverty line. Debt is one of few things the country produces anymore: Go to college and you’re liable to make tens of thousands of debt dollars, graduating into a job market where getting an unpaid internship is something to gloat about on Facebook. Working harder isn’t an option. We’re being worked hard enough and it isn’t enough to pay the bills.

All the hard work undertaken over the last several decades has been accumulating wealth not for the workers but for their bosses. Since 1970, the average income of those in the top one percent has grown by more than 240 percent. These days, the average CEO of a company makes 354 times as much as the average worker, up from a ratio of 42:1 when Ronald Reagan was president. There is no reason to believe that CEO-ing has gotten that much more difficult. They’ve just gotten greedier. They’ve gotten away with it.

The Rev. Tim Jones caused an uproar by telling his congregation that it is sometimes acceptable for desperate people to shoplift—as long as they do it at large national chain stores, rather than small family businesses. Shoplifting, he added, can be justified if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by. Jones’ Robin Hood-like sermon drew rebukes Tuesday from fellow clergy, shop owners and police.

—“English Priest Says Stealing Not Always Wrong,”

We are almost all taught that stealing is wrong. In some cases, it really is. Stealing from your dear old grandmother’s purse is wrong (unless she’s mean). Do not sneak into town to steal gifts from poor kids on Christmas Eve. That guy in high school who stole my portable CD player just after I got the thing for my birthday—that guy was wrong. Seriously, don’t be a dick about it.

But the head of Walmart is not your grandmother. Stealing from a corrupt class of corporate elites who would rather a thousand Bangladeshis die horrific deaths in burning sweatshops than see profits fall half a percent, for example, is not wrong at all. Indeed, taking from the unjustly rich and giving back to the undeservedly poor, even if that’s just you and your own, is the most morally upright thing one can do in an age of multinational robber barons exploiting and polluting the commons.

Legally, corporations get all the attendant benefits of being considered “persons” but none of the consequences. They don’t even face the risk of prison. When banana mega-distributor Chiquita was caught funding the murder-by-death-squad of Colombian union organizers, the executives who authorized the blood payments got off with a fine and maintained their anonymity. After Wall Street trashed the global economy, the bankers responsible were sentenced to 18 months of stern rhetoric.

If there aren’t any consequences for greed, there will be more of it. We tried voting, but since Barack Obama became president America’s ultra-rich have seen their net worth grow 28 percent while 9 out of 10 Americans have seen their net worth fall. Any good Democrat will tell you a Republican would be worse, so what’s left? If you want a more just and equitable world, it would be insane to continue doing the sorts of things that delivered this one. Let’s try something different. Let’s try and see if that HDTV will fit in my trunk.

Link: Allen, South Dakota

Allen is a census-designated place in Bennett County, South Dakota. As of the 2010 census, the CDP had a population of 420. It is considered the poorest place in the United States.

The median income for a household in the CDP was $7,578, and the median income for a family was $3,819. Males had a median income of $10 versus $12,188 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $1,539. About 95.9% of families and 96.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 97.1% of those under age 18 and 100.0% of those age 65 or over.

As of 2010 the racial makeup was 96.4% Native American, 3.3% white and 0.2% of two races. 1.0% of the population was Hispanic or Latino of any race. The racial makeup of the CDP was 4.30% White, 94.03% Native American, and 1.67% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.43% of the population.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt: Introduction
Joe Sacco and I set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks life when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit. We wanted to look at what the ideology of unfettered capitalism means for families, communities, workers and the ecosystem.
The rise of corporatism began with the industrial revolution, westward expansion, and the genocide carried out in the name of progress and Western civilization against Native Americans. It does not denote simply an economic system but an ideology, a way of looking and dealing with each other and the world around us. This ideology embraces the belief that societies and culture can be regenerated through violence. It glorifies profit and wealth. This is why we went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It was there that the disease of empire and American exceptionalism took root. The belief that we have a divine right to resources, land, and power, and a right to displace and kill others to obtain personal and national wealth, has left in its wake a trail of ravaged landscapes and incalculable human suffering, not only in Pine Ridge but across the country and the planet. What was done to Native Americans was the template. It would be done to people in the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and it is now finally being done to us. This tyranny and exploitation have become our own.
The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world where everything and everyone is expandable. Nothing is sacred. It has blighted inner cities, turned the majestic Appalachian Mountains into a blaster moonscape of poisoned water, soil, and air. It has forced workers into a downward spiral of falling wages and mounting debt until laborers in agricultural fields and sweatshops work in conditions that replicate slavery. It has impoverished our working class and ravaged the middle class. And it has enriched a tiny global elite that has no loyalty to the nation-state. These corporations, if we use the language of patriotism, are traitors.
The belief that human beings and human societies should be ruled by the demands of the marketplace is utopian folly. There is nothing in human history or human nature that supports the idea that sacrificing everything before the free market leads to social good. And yet we have permitted this utopian belief system to dermic how we structure our economy, labor, education, culture, and our relations foreign nations, as well as how we treat the ecosystem on which we depend for life.
All the airy promises of unfettered capitalism are starkly contradicted in the pockets of despair we visited. The hollow protestations of the courtiers in the media, the government, and the universities, who still chant the official mantra of free markets, have little substance when they are set agains reality. Corporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us, as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internet colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in the devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our nation’s produce fields.
The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state of control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system.
This book, from its inception, was called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. But when we began, the revolt was conjecture. The corporate state knows only one word: more. We expected a beleaguered population to push back, but we did not know when the revolt would come or what it would look like. We found pockets of resistance, courageous men and women who stood up before the gargantuan forces before them in Pine Ridge; in Camden, New Jersey; in souther West Virginia; and in the nation’s agricultural fields. But the nationwide revolt was absent. It arose on september 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park in New York City, as we were in the final months of the book. This revolt rooted our conclusion in the real rather than the speculative. It permitted us to finish with a look at a rebellion that was as concrete as the destruction that led to it. And it permitted us to end our work with the capacity for hope.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt: Introduction

Joe Sacco and I set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks life when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit. We wanted to look at what the ideology of unfettered capitalism means for families, communities, workers and the ecosystem.

The rise of corporatism began with the industrial revolution, westward expansion, and the genocide carried out in the name of progress and Western civilization against Native Americans. It does not denote simply an economic system but an ideology, a way of looking and dealing with each other and the world around us. This ideology embraces the belief that societies and culture can be regenerated through violence. It glorifies profit and wealth. This is why we went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It was there that the disease of empire and American exceptionalism took root. The belief that we have a divine right to resources, land, and power, and a right to displace and kill others to obtain personal and national wealth, has left in its wake a trail of ravaged landscapes and incalculable human suffering, not only in Pine Ridge but across the country and the planet. What was done to Native Americans was the template. It would be done to people in the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and it is now finally being done to us. This tyranny and exploitation have become our own.

The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world where everything and everyone is expandable. Nothing is sacred. It has blighted inner cities, turned the majestic Appalachian Mountains into a blaster moonscape of poisoned water, soil, and air. It has forced workers into a downward spiral of falling wages and mounting debt until laborers in agricultural fields and sweatshops work in conditions that replicate slavery. It has impoverished our working class and ravaged the middle class. And it has enriched a tiny global elite that has no loyalty to the nation-state. These corporations, if we use the language of patriotism, are traitors.

The belief that human beings and human societies should be ruled by the demands of the marketplace is utopian folly. There is nothing in human history or human nature that supports the idea that sacrificing everything before the free market leads to social good. And yet we have permitted this utopian belief system to dermic how we structure our economy, labor, education, culture, and our relations foreign nations, as well as how we treat the ecosystem on which we depend for life.

All the airy promises of unfettered capitalism are starkly contradicted in the pockets of despair we visited. The hollow protestations of the courtiers in the media, the government, and the universities, who still chant the official mantra of free markets, have little substance when they are set agains reality. Corporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us, as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internet colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in the devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our nation’s produce fields.

The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state of control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system.

This book, from its inception, was called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. But when we began, the revolt was conjecture. The corporate state knows only one word: more. We expected a beleaguered population to push back, but we did not know when the revolt would come or what it would look like. We found pockets of resistance, courageous men and women who stood up before the gargantuan forces before them in Pine Ridge; in Camden, New Jersey; in souther West Virginia; and in the nation’s agricultural fields. But the nationwide revolt was absent. It arose on september 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park in New York City, as we were in the final months of the book. This revolt rooted our conclusion in the real rather than the speculative. It permitted us to finish with a look at a rebellion that was as concrete as the destruction that led to it. And it permitted us to end our work with the capacity for hope.

Link: Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? A Look At The Bottom 1%

When customers who live and work on the nearby Crow Indian reservation don’t make their car payments, there’s not much Square One Finance of Billings, Montana, can do. Going to state court to repossess the car or garnish wages is not an option. Instead, Square One enters the murky realm of international affairs. The reservation is a separate nation—judgments in American courts can’t be enforced. And the chances of finding the customer and the car on the sprawling rural reservation, or winning in the unpredictable Crow courts, are slim. “We take on such a huge extra risk with someone from the reservation,” says Square One’s Nancy Vermeulen. “If I knew contracts would be enforced, then I could do a lot more business there.”

At a time when there’s a spotlight on America’s richest 1%, a look at the country’s 310 Indian reservations–where many of America’s poorest 1% live–can be more enlightening. To explain the poverty of the reservations, people usually point to alcoholism, corruption or school-dropout rates, not to mention the long distances to jobs and the dusty undeveloped land that doesn’t seem good for growing much. But those are just symptoms. Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations often have neither. They’re a demonstration of what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent.

The vast majority of land on reservations is held communally. That means residents can’t get clear title to the land where their home sits, one reason for the abundance of mobile homes on reservations. This makes it hard for Native Americans to establish credit and borrow money to improve their homes because they can’t use the land as collateral–and investing in something you don’t own makes little sense, anyway.

This leads to what economists call the tragedy of the commons: If everyone owns the land, no one does. So the result is substandard housing and the barren, rundown look that comes from a lack of investment, overuse and environmental degradation. It’s a look that’s common worldwide, wherever secure property rights are lacking—much of Africa and South America, inner city housing projects and rent-controlled apartment buildings in the U.S., Indian reservations.

More than a third of the Crow reservation’s 2.3 million acres is individually owned, and the contrast with the communal land—often just on the other side of a fence—is stark, as Google satellite maps show. Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, co-authored a study showing that private land is 30-90% more productive agriculturally than the adjacent trust land. And this isn’t because the land is better: A study of 13 reservations in the West put 49% of the land in the top four quality classes, while only 38% of the land in the surrounding counties was rated that highly. For the Crow reservation, 48% of the land made the top four classes; only 33% of the adjacent land did. “The raw quality of the land is not that much different, it’s the amount of investment in that land that’s different,” he says.

Canada faces the same issues with its 630 bands—as tribes there are called—but thanks to the effort of a dogged reformer, there’s a push to allow reservation land to be privatized. Manny Jules, a former chief of the Kamloops Indian band in British Columbia, is lining up support for the First Nations Property Ownership Act, which would allow bands to opt out of the government ownership of their land and put it under tribal and private ownership. Reserves would become new entities that would have some of the powers of municipalities, provinces and the federal government to provide schools, hospitals and other services, and to enact zoning laws. He expects that the bill will be introduced in Parliament early in 2012 and is confident of approval by the end of the year. What’s forcing the issue is an acute housing crisis on the reserves. Without private property rights, little housing is being built even as the Indian population grows, and the Assembly of First Nations estimates that the reserves need 85,000 new houses immediately; the government is building only 2,200 a year.

Honor the Treaties

National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey is no longer a witness. For seven years he’s photographed the people of the Sioux Nation on their lands among the Black Hills of South Dakota. And though he was originally drawn to the Pine Ridge Reservation by a compelling story of poverty and desperation, he now plies his talents toward sharing the travesty of injustice that continues to rob these once proud Native Americans of their legal rights and sacred land. Accepted into the community as an advocate Huey has crossed the line from journalist to activist.

“The people who took me in they just happen to be in a dark world,” he says in the new film Honor the Treaties. “And so I use that as an opportunity to talk about genocide and to talk about what it’s like to grow up in a prisoner of war camp where one day the guards went away.”

In the August edition of the magazine Huey reveals images and stories of a forgotten people. Confined to reservations following the plains wars of the late 1800s Native Americans began a horrific cycle of slow death that could mean the end of their civilization. Relegated to a world of gang violence, substance abuse, disease and malnutrition a narrative unfolds to demonstrate that the Sioux perpetually suffer the ill-effects their systematic destruction at the hands of the U.S. government over more than a century.

“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves,’ while we watch them die.” Huey says. “This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny.”

As an artist Huey aims to raise awareness for the plight of native people. Through a series of photographs, posters and murals he and others are working to bring into focus an ongoing tragedy that has faded from public view.

“The amazing thing about art is that it can hit people in the gut and effect them emotionally and remind them they have to intellectually rigorous about the things that make them feel,” said famed poster artist Shepard Fairey. “We’re so numb to so many things because there’s so much white noise. But art can remind people that they need to care.” The film “Honor the Treaties” helps to illustrate a portion of Huey’s work. 

The Poor in America: In Need of Help

America’s poor were little mentioned in Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. They deserve better.

…Once upon a time the fates of these people weighed heavily on American politicians. Ronald Reagan boasted about helping the poor by freeing them from having to pay federal income tax. Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s running-mate in 1996, sought to spearhead a “new war on poverty.” George W. Bush called “deep, persistent poverty…unworthy of our nation’s promise”.

No longer. Budgets are tight and the safety net is expensive. Mitt Romney famously said he was not “concerned about the very poor” because they have a safety net to take care of them. Mr Obama’s second-term plan mentioned poverty once, and on the trail he spoke gingerly of “those aspiring to the middle class”. “Poor” is a four-letter word.

Mr Obama’s re-election and Democratic control of the Senate give federal anti-poverty programmes a level of security they would have lacked under a Romney administration. But America’s poor face systemic challenges beyond the aid of any single administration or programme. Once diligent high-school dropouts could get a job on a factory line and work their way into the middle class: no longer. The low-skill, high-wage jobs that many used to climb out of poverty in the 20th century are largely gone. Deteriorating family structure among the poor threatens to trap poor children at the bottom of the income ladder for life. And looming cuts to discretionary spending threaten America’s already thin safety net.

The 15% poverty rate is calculated using the official federal poverty threshold of $11,702 in annual income for an individual or $23,201 for a family of four, which is about 44% of median income for an individual and 30% for a family of four. The OECD, a rich-country club, provides comparative figures for a poverty line of 40% of median household income after tax and transfer. On that basis America’s rate is 11%, well above the OECD average of 6% (see chart 2).

Popular images of American poverty summon up Appalachia or Oakland—rural whites and urban blacks—and there is much truth in that. Most counties exhibiting persistent poverty—meaning counties with poverty rates of 20% or higher, consistently, from 1990 to 2010—are indeed in rural America (see map). And the overall rate of poverty is highest in large cities. While a plurality of the poor—19.2m—are non-Hispanic white, the rates of poverty are higher among minorities; over a quarter of both blacks and Latinos live in poverty, while only a tenth of whites do.

The child-poverty rate is higher, according to a UNICEF report, than that in Japan, Canada or any European country other than Romania, and it blights lives. A child from a family in America’s bottom quintile of earners is markedly less likely than a child born into the top quintile to be ready for school at five. He is less likely to graduate from high school with decent grades; he is more likely while still of school age to become a parent or be convicted of a crime. Degrees and high earnings are even less probable.

For most, poverty will be a temporary condition; chronic poverty remains relatively rare. But it does seem to be growing more common. Only 2.8% of Americans were poor throughout the 36 months starting in January 2004. In 2009-10, after the crisis, that share rose to 4.8%. Another problem which got worse during the crisis, but was growing beforehand, is suburban poverty. The number of poor people living in the suburbs grew 53% between 2000 and 2010 as decades of suburban flight reversed and America’s cities once again became desirable places to work, attracting back better-off suburbanites and damaging marginal suburban economies. The financial crisis made things worse, particularly in the once-booming sunbelt. As of 2008 more than a third of America’s poor live in suburbs.

That said, America is unusually reluctant, compared with other rich countries, about giving cash transfers to the poor. The country has a long-standing political aversion to anything that seems to “reward” being poor; instead, it fights poverty using a progressive, if somewhat paternalistic, tax code.