Ernie // Detroit, MI // 07/01/2016

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News broke earlier this month that Detroit artist Tyree Guyton is going to systematically dismantle the Heidelberg Project. Over the years I’ve taken several visitors to Guyton’s found art installation, which sprawls across several blocks in the neighborhood in which he grew up. Guyton painted the street and sidewalks and smothered abandoned houses with clothing, appliances, children’s toys. I’ve written in the past that the unknowable histories of these once-loved everyday objects have a way of driving home the awesome magnitude of what has happened to Detroit.

Guyton’s work always seemed a fitting symbol of Detroiters’ ingenuity in the face of ever-increasing urban disinvestment, and a good counterpoint to the hype that tends to surround the (mostly) white, (mostly) recent transplants among Detroit’s arts scene.

“After 30 years, I’ve decided to take it apart piece-by-piece in a very methodical way, creating new realities as it comes apart,” Guyton told the Detroit Free Press. “I gotta go in a new direction. I gotta do something I have not done before.”

The NYT on Gender Liberation

There’s an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times this morning from Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill of Brookings about how “Women learned to become more like men. Now men need to become more like women.”

Among a number of other arguments for men to take on more traditionally feminine economic and social roles, the article highlights some of the benefits of national paternity leave. In Quebec, the government mandates that at least five weeks of paid leave be offered to new fathers. Since 2006, the proportion of men taking time off after their child is born has jumped from 21 to 75 percent. Not only that, years after taking paternity leave, these men had become more equal participants in domestic work. Pretty cool.

The piece has one glaring weakness, though. It points out that while women are moving rapidly into traditionally male careers in medicine, law, and business, men aren’t moving as fast into traditionally female professions like nursing or early childhood education. But the article makes no mention of the economic incentives at play here: traditionally feminine professions also tend to be traditionally horribly compensated. A women has a strong financial interest in becoming a doctor. A man does not have the same incentive to become a preschool teacher.

Reeves and Sawhill are of course right to call for more gender parity in the labor market. But we would go a long way toward achieving it if we were to start providing bigger paychecks to the highly under-compensated (and still mostly female) workers in these traditionally female-dominated fields.

04/30/2014 // Shoeshine // La Paz, Bolivia

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Many La Paz shoeshiners–of which there are many–wear ski masks while they work. Lonely Planet claims it’s because of the stigma traditionally associated with the job, but I could imagine there are respiratory reasons for it as well.

Massage, Friend? Restaurant? Machu Picchu? Coke? Weed?

I wrote this blog post back in, like, January and never posted it. Better late than never:

Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas is beautiful, but walking through there as a tourist wears on your patience pretty fast.

As a gringo, you’re a walking dollar sign, constantly declining pitches for restaurants, nightclubs, textiles, trinkets, massages (or perhaps “massages”), weed, cocaine, and info about Machu Picchu.

After four months of living in Cuzco and frequently passing through the Plaza de Armas, this got pretty annoying. After a certain point I unfortunately got in the habit of avoiding eye contact and giving cold refusals, or ignoring the hawkers altogether. This was partially a deliberate tactic to minimize intrusion, but also partially just because I was past the point of containing my irritation. I’m actually frustrated with all the previous people, but today I’m taking it out on you, sir.

Of course, the sellers themselves have it even worse. To earn their paycheck, they have to repeat the same pitch over and over and over, nearly always to be rejected by rude foreigners who obviously have money to spare.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it struck me as an interesting example of how economic inequality creates an animosity that feels very personal to both parties, even though it isn’t at all.

The Road To Machu Picchu, Traveled On The Backs Of Its Builders

The Inca Trail is the most popular hike in Peru. Four days, several hundred dollars, and limited space: tourists typically have to book months and months in advance to secure their spot on the trek to Machu Picchu. The memories, insights, and photos that hikers take from the trip are made possible by the group of local porters who carry most of their stuff, set up their camp, cook their meals, wash their dishes.

I hiked the trail in November 2013 with two friends. We had a great time, but were disturbed in a variety of ways by the inequality of the situation. My friend Gustav and I wrote about one facet, the colonial roots of the current porter system:

In 1552, Dominican friar and human rights advocate Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, “[Spanish settlers] used natives like pack animals. They have sores on their shoulders and backs, like much-abused beasts.”

Las Casas and his supporters inspired the Spanish crown to issue the New Laws, which outlawed the encomienda forced-labor system and forbade the “lading of Indians.” Although these laws were widely ignored, they reflected Spanish authorities’ uneasiness with using people as beasts of burden.

Five centuries later, Peru passed the Porter’s Law. The 2001 legislation limited loads on the trail to 20 kilograms (about 45 pounds), set a minimum wage of roughly $16 per day and required tour companies to provide porters with adequate food and clothing. A 2012 article in La Republica found that the law is routinely flouted, with porters sometimes forced to carry up to 40kg.

The whole thing at Seattle Globalist.

Heavy Loads


The spectacles of the Inca Trail (pics here, here, here, and here) are made accessible by the contingent of porters that accompanies each trek group. Last month, the 16 of us tourists were accompanied by 22 men from nearby villages looking to make some extra cash. They carried tents, luggage, food and cooking supplies; they set up camp before we arrived each night and took it down after we left each morning; they cooked our food, served it, and washed our dishes.

The Peruvian government passed a law in 2001 legislating porter working conditions, a job that had gained notoriety for its vulnerability to exploitation. It’s widely believed that the law goes unenforced, though. For instance, porters aren’t allowed to be given more than 20kg each to carry, but many who my friends and I questioned on the Trail claimed that they were carrying 25 or 30kg. Porters also complain of inadequate meals and sleeping arrangements, and not getting paid the $62 per trip minimum wage established by the 2001 law.

Portering for foreigners dates back to the arrival of Spaniards in the Andes. From John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas:

From the outset of the Conquest, Spanish armies and expeditions had commandeered regiments of native porters, and it was manifest that this abuse contributed directly to the country’s depopulation. There were dozens of grandiose attempts to discover eldorados in the forests of the Amazon. Hundreds of Spanish lost their lives on these desperate adventures; but their native porters perished long before their European masters. ‘Some two or three hundred Spaniards go on these expeditions. They take two or three thousand Indians to serve them and carry their food and fodder, all of which is carried on the backs of the poor Indians …. Few or no Indians survive, because of lack of food, the immense hardships of the long journeys through wastelands, and from the loads themselves.’

Gustav and I have been researching the subject. More to come.

Big Questions And Small Questions

I’ve always been a big picture kinda guy, I guess. Some vexing questions that I will be thinking about on my upcoming trip to South America:

Why are some countries rich and others poor? What is the most effective way to change this?

Is there any hope of a world that is both free from poverty and environmentally sustainable?

What lessons can Americans learn from Andean cultures? In what areas might we have insights to share? Read More

Affirmative Action Is About More Than Diversity

I don’t fault the Supreme Court for focusing on diversity in their decision, but the conversation about affirmative action needs to be broader in scope:

“The original goal of affirmative action is to ensure that people who have been historically discriminated against—oppressed—have access to education and jobs. We’ve lost track of that,” said Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute who has written about the Court’s decision and the emphasis on diversity.

A quick look at the data makes the weight of this history clear. As we wrote last week, African-Americans still face unemployment and poverty rates that far exceed the rates for white Americans.

And it’s not just history, either; we still haven’t achieved equal opportunity based on class or race. Just a few examples: Standardized tests are culturally biased. Smith noted that programs like New York City’s “stop and frisk” disproportionately target youth of color and damage their future career prospects. And being born into a rough environment can make learning nearly impossible—The Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “on an average day in middle school [in inner-city Baltimore], fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety.”

Each example speaks to the value of affirmative action, but none are captured by the diversity paradigm. Why, then, does diversity dominate the conversation?

Continued at Campus Progress.

The Unfinished March

Like much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, it turns out that the “March on Washington” has been kinda whitewashed. The 50th anniversary of the event is this year—maybe an ideal time to reclaim the history?

Has Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream truly been realized today? There was a lot more to the 1963 “March on Washington” than just King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it’s reflected in the event’s oft-overlooked full name: March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom.

Marchers rallied not just for civil and political rights for American blacks, but also economic demands including full employment and a livable minimum wage.

We’re doing pretty poorly on those demands:

Despite the Civil Rights Movement’s successes, African-Americans still face residential segregation, segregated schools, unemployment rates twice that of whites and 36 percent work for poverty-level wages.

Read the rest at Campus Progress

Here’s Your Crisis: Student Loan Debt Isn’t A Myth [Infographic]

The student loan crisis is a myth.

So say Nicole Allan and Derek Thompson, who argue in this month’s issue of The Atlantic that the economic returns of college far outweigh the burden of student loan debt.

“Horror stories of students drowning in $100,000+ in debt might discourage young people from enrolling in college, but they are as rare as they are terrifying,” Allan and Thompson wrote in the article. “The economic value of college, meanwhile, is indisputable.”

Allan and Thompson looked for crisis in the wrong places. Six-figure calamities are indeed rare, but millions of Americans are caught between stubbornly weak labor markets and increasingly costly higher education.

1. The employment prospects for young grads are pretty gloomy. According to an Associated Press analysis, 53 percent of recent college graduates are either unemployed or not putting their degree to use

2. Because of the weak job market, borrowers are struggling more and more to keep up with payments. According to TransUnion, federal student loan delinquencies shot up 27 percent between 2007 and 2012. (Private loan delinquencies dropped 2 percent.) 

3.Ddon’t expect the problem to go away once the economy picks up. As Campus Progress recently reported, the growth in Americans with degrees is far outpacing the growth in jobs that require them, meaning jobs that offer a secure path to debt repayment will become ever more competitive.

4. But repayment is already causig hardship: 13 percent of students whose loans came due in 2009 to default on their debt by 2012. Another 26 percent are delinquent, on the cusp of default.

5. It’s not just a debt crisis—it’s an affordability crisis.

CNN Money found that the cost of attending a public university has more than doubled since 1988, even as Americans’ median income stagnated. If our incomes had kept pace with the cost of higher education, the average American would now make $77,000 yearly. 

Finally, the cost of college prevents many low-income Americans from even seeking a higher education. Forty-eight percent of adults aged 18 to 34 without degrees told the Wall Street Journal that they can’t afford to go to college.

Among high schoolers who score highly on the SAT and ACT, 80 percent of kids from wealthy families go on to get college degrees, compared with just 44 percent of those from low-income families. Student loan debt not only makes life miserable for many graduates, it prevents some Americans from even setting foot on a college campus. That’s what we call a crisis.

Posted at Campus Progress.

How America Became So Unequal [VIDEO]

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen this video on the distribution of wealth in America. If not, it’s well worth six minutes of your time.


Created and posted to YouTube by a user named politizane, it graphically illustrates how the United States is much more unequal than Americans perceive and desire it to be.

“One percent of America has 40 percent of all the nation’s wealth,” the video’s narrator said. “The reality in this country is not at all what we think it is.”

The video doesn’t discuss how America became this unequal, though. The answer, in short, is the Reagan Revolution: Over the course of a few decades, Republican politicians created a political environment that allowed America’s richest to wildly increase their wealth.

As the video points out, such egregious inequality is new. Since the 1970s, the top one percent have tripled their share of national income.

“America was much more equal when you go back to the late ’50s, and ’60s,” Nicholas Finio, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, told Campus Progress. “Deliberate policy decisions have allowed this to happen.”

Paul Krugman wrote in “The Conscience of a Liberal,” his account of 20th Century American economic history, that the rise in inequality can be captured in two words: taxes and unions.

In the 1960s, marginal income tax rates for America’s richest were as high as 90 percent, Finio said, but a series of cuts have left the top rate at just 39.6 percent. Capital gains, inheritance and wealth taxes are all lower now than in generations past, as well. The result is that wealthy Americans now keep much more of their cash than they once did.

As for unions, Krugman wrote:

Unions raise average wages for their membership; they also, indirectly and to a lesser extent, raise wages for similar workers, even if they aren’t represented by unions, as nonunionized employers try to diminish the appeal of union drives to their workers.

Shortly after World War II, more than a third of American workers were in a union, compared with just 11 percent today. In correlation to that decline, labor has earned a dwindling share of the nation’s total income, as more cash flows into the hands of capital.

The silver lining: Higher marginal tax rates and better labor protections can make America more equal. “Policy is what made it this way,” Finio said, ”and policy can turn it back.”

Published at Campus Progress.

Robin Hood in Reverse

No redistributive bandit justice in Paul Ryan’s new budget proposal. From the Economic Policy Institute:

Ryan’s plan would cut taxes by roughly $4.6 trillion, with most of the tax cuts benefiting those earning more than $200,000. His proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and food assistance would fall heavily on seniors, the disabled, and children. Ryan’s budget is doubly bad for children because his proposed cuts to public investments (mostly infrastructure and education) would leave our nation’s young people with crumbling roads and bridges—and would cause them to enter the labor market with fewer skills.

Further, Ryan’s budget does nothing to address the nation’s jobs crisis. Conversely, Ryan’s plan would slow job growth. The shock to aggregate demand from near-term spending cuts would result in roughly 1.3 million jobs lost in 2013 and 2.8 million jobs lost in 2014, or 4.1 million jobs through 2014.