Monday, June 20, 2016

Ramen Noodle Nation Review: "Evicted" (Matthew Desmond)

"There are losers and winners. There losers because there are winners. 'Every condition exists,' Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, 'simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.'"
(Matthew Desmond, Evicted)

If you want an answer to that pesky question, "Why are things so bad for so many?", start by visiting the online pride of Milwaukee: its Consolidated Court Automation Program, which displays evictions and misdemeanors for 20 years (and felonies for 50 years). Let that image stick in your brain for a moment. Got it? Good.

Now replace that picture with a different one: an inner city landlord who lets properties go into foreclosure when they accumulate too many fines or repairs. She escapes liability by registering each property under a different LLC (Limited Liability Company) created online with the city's Department of Financial Institutions.

However, her name never appears on the paperwork, so the city never seems to realize it's dealing with one person who owns multiple properties (an oversight that could be eliminated by changing the LLC rules, and requiring the creator to give their name -- but I digress).  
If this isn't gaming the system -- once the associated costs to the city and its taxpayers are considered -- what it is?

Suffice to say, these details aren't part of Milwaukee's online scarlet letter. It's one of many unsettling details that you'll find in Matthew Desmond's book,
Evicted, which is written in a classic old school approach. The author (who's an academic and social researcher, not a journalist) spent roughly a year getting to know two major landlords -- including the one cited above, who specializes in the inner city, and her white male counterpart, who lords over a trailer park -- and those who rent from them.

What Desmond found, and what the reader will encounter, is a perfect storm of one-sided lawmaking, legal loopholes, and economic forces that leave his subjects living in conditions that might make Charles Dickens blush. Between 2009 and 2013, for example, roughly half of Milwaukee's renters experienced a major housing problem. About one-third lived with clogged plumbing that lasted a day or more, for example. One in five dealt with broken appliances or windows for three days (or longer). Households with African-Americans and children were the most likely to face these problems.

The biggest costs are often the psychological ones, as Desmond suggests -- citing the eight-person family forced to constantly "bucket out" their kitchen sink and toilet, which their inner-city landlord refuses to fix. The experience of "living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged," Desmond writes. "People who were repulsed by their home, who felt they had no control over it, and yet had to give most of their income to it -- they thought less of themselves" (p. 258).

At its core, however, Evicted is a simple snapshot of economic power -- who has it, and who doesn't. In Milwaukee, these imbalances seem far more one-sided than most cities, starting in the 1930s, when the death rates for its African-American residents were about 60% higher citywide, due to poor housing conditions....because the provisions of FDR's New Deal didn't apply to them (pp. 251-52). This is not an accident. This is policy, plain and simple.

Conditions grew markedly worse during the 1990s, as the city's industrial base hollowed out -- just in time for the welfare-to-work movement. As a result, 1 in 2 African-American men are unemployed, such as Lamar, a legless ex-veteran who coughs up $550 of his $628 monthly welfare check for rent...leaving him with the princely sum of $78, which he supplements (like many of Evicted's subjects) with various off-the-book endeavors (p. 78). 

As Desmond suggests, America could correct this imbalance with a federal voucher program that would allow renters to stop spending so much money to rent -- which would pump more money into the economy, and make cities more livable again. One in five of renting families in America spends half its income on housing, yet 67% don't get any federal help. This is an unacceptable state of affairs when -- contrary to neoliberal urban legend -- resources do exist to address it.

Of course, when a one-sided marketplace is allowed to fester, new sub-economies spring up to take advantage of someone else's misery, which Evicted also vividly documents. Consider Eagle Moving & Storage, which only did one or eviction moves per week when it started up in 1958. Today, as Desmond reports, 40% of its business comes from eviction moves, fueled by 35 employees and a 308,000-square-foot building that -- wait for it -- that a now-defunct furniture factory once occupied (p. 113).

Eagle makes additional bank by charging hefty storage fees and insurance to store evicted renters' property, which most of them wind up losing. How would you afford additional fees when all your stuff is sitting on the sidewalk? It's a reminder of the one-sided dynamics that spring up when the powers that be figure (rightly, in most cases) that nobody's really paying attention. "Exploitation. Now, there's a word
 that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate," Desmond asserts.."It is a word that speaks to to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets." (p. 305)

The crushing irony here, according to Desmond, is that half of all evictions in Milwaukee are informal ones -- which those on the receiving end prefer, because there's no formal record to stop them from moving into an equally Dickensian space, a situation that's never addressed through the assembly line rough justice dished out by the city's eviction court. "Something 
has gone very wrong with our justice system when it makes more sense for tenants to skip court and quietly move out when their landlord says go than it does for then to plead their case themselves," Desmond states, "which often leads to an order to move and an eviction on their record" (footnotes, p. 398).

However, this problem could be corrected by giving low-income people the right to civil representation -- as they've already done in many obvious places (France, Sweden), and some not so obvious (Azerbijan, India, Zambia), Desmond notes. Putting pressure on the powers that be also reaps some badly-needed social dividends. For example, Desmond's research persuaded Milwaukee in 2011 to exclude 911 calls involving domestic violence, stalking and sexual abuse from its so-called "nuisance ordinance." Otherwise, renters who find themselves calling the cops in those situations would still potentially face eviction -- or homelessness -- by having those crises going on record, and (fucked-up as it is) count against them.

Of course, this problem isn't confined to Milwaukee. Consider Lagos, Nigeria, where 60% of those residents living in Africa's largest city spend most of their money on rent, with the vast majority confined to one-room units. As the world grows more urbanized, and less affordable, Evicted offers a timely reminder to redress the balance -- especially when many of the protections that Americans take for granted nowadays (child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safety regulations) only came about "when we chose to place the well-being of people above money," Desmond contends.

Keep those words in mind, and burn them into your memory bank forever. The first step in correcting injustice is the admission that it exists -- which is only one of many reasons why neoliberalism, which has singularly failed in addressing economic injustice, belongs in the dustbin. On that level, Evicted offers an appropriate starting point to marshal our collective outrage, and put it to good use. --The Reckoner

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Cure For Political Codependency (The Hillary-Bernie Endgame)

<Deer in the headlights, or waiting
for her ship to come in? You decide...>

Why is Hillary Clinton struggling so much lately on the campaign trail? The coronation cakewalk that once seemed ripe for the taking now seems more like a sidewalk surfer trying to balance on a banana peel. With five months of this spectacle left to go, it's not a pretty picture.

Well, I'm reminded of a headline from your favorite satirical rag and mine, The Onion: "Hillary Clinton To Nation: Do Not Fuck This Up For Me." The last word in the headline is the key one, isn't it? Though it's no secret that most politicians are self-absorbed to some degree, Clinton seems particularly prone to this malady.

More than most of her counterparts, Clinton relishes talking about her accomplishments, her goals, her ideas -- we even have statistical proof, courtesy of Pacific Standard (see below), whose reporter simply tallied up the percentage of "me" versus "we" statements in her 2016 presidential announcement, versus those of President Obama (2008) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (2016).

Guess what? Clinton's "me" statement score clocks in at 100 percent. By contrast, Paul and Obama scored 45 and 65 percent, respectively, in terms of "we" statements. Though hardly a scientific analysis, it's indicative of something, right? Well, go figure.

"J.R. Ewing said it best: 'Once you give up your 

integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.'"

That said, Clinton's problems run deeper than some journalist's scorekeeping. Some of the most perceptive commentary on the campaign is actually coming from the financial press, whose overlords may have a pretty damn obvious dog in the fight -- as in, "no Hillary, no Bernie, maybe Trump, if he keeps my taxes low to nonexistent" -- but whose writers are scoring some solid bull's eyes.

MarketWatch columnist Darrell Dalmaide doesn't need to count how many times Clinton says "I" versus "we." As Dalmaide suggests, just compare the keynote slogans of Donald Trump ("Make America Great Again") and Bernie Sanders ("A Future To Believe In") with Clinton's ("Fighting For Us") in, "her fighting in the trenches against that right-wing conspiracy." In other words, let Hillary handle the heavy lifting; our job, apparently, is to cheer on her efforts from the sidelines.

Conceptually, this makes for a soggy recipe, particularly when compared to the declamatory style that her opponents favor. So what is Sanders getting right on such a regular basis? The answer, as Los Angeles Times commentator David Horsey suggests, lies in the rationale voiced by one of Sanders's college supporters: "Bernie just says what relates to us. He doesn't try to relate to us, he gets us."

Such statements speak volumes about Clinton's struggles to connect with voters beyond superficial levels. Then again, as Fortune's article notes, we're talking about someone known for micromanaging her image, almost comically so, at times....such as asking to read a high school speaker's comments before one of her own appearances, and so on. Go figure, eh?

As many reporters note (in these links below, and elsewhere), Clinton's aides protest mightily that she gets a bad rap. Yes, they acknowledge, she's a Baby Boomer, leaving her open to brickbats from left and right alike -- because she belongs to a generation often derided as the most narcisisstic, self-serving, solipsistic lot seen in recent memory. Behind the scenes, she's warm, thoughtful, and caring. If only she didn't keep such a protective force field around her at all times. And so on, and so forth.

Of course, all these lamentations mean little if that force field doesn't come down. Judging by Clinton's dogged insistence on sticking to her stolidly conventional script -- show us those tax returns now, Herr Trump -- we shouldn't be holding our breath.

So where does this leave Sanders's coalition, then and now? As we had into the final week or so of primaries, I'm not sure it changes a damn thing. Once again, the adults in the room are muttering darkly as they close ranks, and move once more to herd all of us disobedient children back into line. Instead of buzzwords like "Yes, We Can," we get: "Anything's better than Trump!", and, "We can't let that old man blow up the party!"

As the last statements go, the answer to the first one isn't so clear-cut -- recall how many millions rejected Hillary for Obama in 2008, precisely because they felt it was time to shut the book on the Clinton legacy for good. That our system can recycle Bushes, Clintons and other political dynasties like them over and over, without missing a beat, only underscores the need for dynamiting the status quo sky high.

As for the second statement, I'd retort that the Democratic Party has done a pretty good job of blowing itself up without Sanders's help. That trend gathered steam during the 1990s, as Democrats finally cracked the DNA behind the money chase that their Republican rivals had played so much better for so long. However, instead of soliciting support, Democratic elders opted to take hostages in murmuring about "the lesser of two evils." Alas, all the promises of meeting complaints halfway -- or any way at all, for that matter -- typically evaporated with the next election cycle.

This is the logic of political codependency at its most warped and unresponsive. Like an alcoholic's or drug addict's long-suffering partner, we're asked to look the other way and shut our eyes, cross our fingers and hope against hope that tomorrow will miraculously get better, as the dysfunctional behavior that makes us so miserable rolls on. As Sanders suggests, in responding to questions about whether he plans to blow up the Democratic convention:

"So what? Democracy is messy. Everyday my life is messy. But if you want everything to be quiet and orderly and allow, you know, just things to proceed without vigorous debate … that is not what democracy is about."

If you're stranded without health insurance, or struggling to patch together several part-time jobs, I suspect that statement will resonate pretty strongly. And that sentiment, I suggest, is why Hillary is still struggling to close the deal....and why we shouldn't let up in the struggle for a better tomorrow, minus the alibis that got us in this mess. A future that's free of political codependency? How crazy does that sound? Go figure. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hurry Up & Read 'Em
Before Those Endgame Credits Roll):
Fortune: Emails Reveal How Carefully

MarketWatch: Hillary Clinton Needs
To Talk About More About Us,
And Less About Herself:

Pacific Standard:
Hillary Clinton Talks About Herself A Lot:

The Onion: Hillary Clinton To Nation:

USA Today:
Nixonian Palace Guard Now Protects Hillary: