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Anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg

April 5, 2009

There are organized and escalating protests taking place against the NATO summit in Strasbourg this week (news; news; Aljazeera report). Calls for protest have come from anti-war and leftist organizations throughout Europe, and there is rising concern in the French and German press about the possibility of violence in the streets. These concerns are realistic, since clashes between demonstrators and police have taken place already in the past twenty-four hours.

These protests are separate from those taking place in London at the G20 meetings, and there appears to be an escalating cycle of violent clashes between demonstrators and police and security forces. Various European anti-war organizations have been mobilizing to bring their supporters to Strasbourg — for example, see this website for Manchester Stop the War Coalition and this call for action from Americans for Peace and Justice (posted in Italy).

What is the composition of the protest movement in Strasbourg today? It would appear to be largely organized by anti-war and pacifist groups; groups who are opposed to European involvement in Afghanistan; some groups protesting the recent war in Gaza; and, presumably, a scattering of anti-globalization and anarchist groups from various parts of Europe. Anti-NATO demonstrations have taken place with some regularity in a variety of locations in Europe in the past year.

President Obama will be visiting Strasbourg and Baden-Baden this week for the NATO conference, and security in the city is very intense. The French public is very tuned into the developments that are taking place in the city. There will be a great deal of American and European attention to his visit. It is very striking, though, that there is virtually no coverage of the protests and clashes that are currently taking place in Strasbourg in the American press. The New York Times appears not to have covered the story, though it has covered the NATO conference itself.

It would be very interesting to use the tools available on the web to do a sociology of the protests taking place today, based on the links it is possible to discover among organizations through websites and calls for mobilization. Sidney Tarrow is one of the contemporary social scientists who has made a substantial effort to provide detailed analysis of the networks and organizations that have converged in anti-globalization protests in the past decade or so (The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national And Transnational Perspectives).


Unemployment in the US

April 1, 2009

There is a good interactive map of unemployment rates at the county level across the US in the March 29 New York Times. Here is a snapshot, but be sure to visit the Times site for the interactive version. The map is based on January 2009 data, and it represents a national rate of unemployment of 8.5%. But there is a tremendous range across regions and counties.

There are many noteworthy details on the map. Northern California and Oregon somewhat surprised me; Harney County, Oregon, has a rate of 19.7% unemployment, and Trinity County, California, has a rate of 20.9%. These are staggering numbers for these locales.

My own state, Michigan, has a very wide range of unemployment rates across both rural and urban counties. Wayne County, home of the city of Detroit, has a relatively high rate of 14.2%, and Genesee County, home of Flint, also has a high rate (14.8%). (By comparison, Onondaga County, home of Syracuse, New York, has a rate of 7.4%.) Several Michigan counties with mid-sized cities show relatively low unemployment rates: Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Kalamazoo County (Kalamazoo), and Kent County (Grand Rapids) have relatively low rates (7.3%, 8.4%, 9.8%). But several other counties in the state show rates in excess of 18%: Cheboygan County (21.8%), Baraga County in the Upper Peninsula (23.4%), Sanilac County (18.9%), and Iosco County (18.5%). What this shows is that the unemployment crisis is not evenly distributed across the state or the region; some counties are much more seriously affected than others. And some of the highest rates are in counties with agriculture and extraction as primary industries — manufacturing counties in Michigan are generally in the middle rank.

A quick visual inspection suggests that Michigan and South Carolina are the states with the highest proportion of high-unemployment counties; California and Oregon are also clearly on the high end of the unemployment crisis.

The tool also allows the user to select for rural, manufacturing, metropolitan, and “housing bubble” counties.

I suppose that the central truth that this map supports is the fact that the employment crisis has affected regions and economic sectors very differently — across large regions and within states. So here, as with so many social variables, it is important to disaggregate the national and state data, to get a better idea of the range of effects a given economic circumstance is creating for individuals and families.

Impact of the crisis

March 18, 2009

We’re now months deep into a financial-economic-employment crisis across the country, and it’s especially severe in Michigan. What are some of the real impacts of this economic downturn on ordinary people?

The most visible impacts are on jobs and homes. Michigan’s unemployment rate has increased sharply in the past three months, to a current national high of 11.6 percent in January. There have been large layoffs in the auto-related industries in the state, and non-automotive businesses are now reducing their workforces as well as a result of reductions in business and consumer spending. Restaurants, retail shops, law firms, and accounting firms are eliminating positions, so job insecurity extends across the blue collar and white collar spectrum.

The loss of jobs feeds into a worsening mortgage foreclosure crisis in Michigan. Even before the surge on job losses Michigan had a high rate of troubled mortgages. That number now threatens to increase as a result of families’ loss of income, though there are a variety of new measures designed to help families to hold onto their homes.

A measure of the social distress for families in Michigan is the volume and nature of 2-1-1 calls that have been received over time. (2-1-1 is a growing national service in many areas that provides referrals to agencies and other resources for families and individuals facing difficult issues.) The United Way of Southeast Michigan provides detailed reporting of the volume, subjects, and demographics of its callers (link), and the results over the past 12 months are striking. Calls received in January 2009 are up by 30% compared to January 2008, at 22,518. The top five services for which referrals were provided included utility assistance, food, housing, temporary financial assistance, and employment. And emergency food providers such as Gleaners report a sharp increase in the amount of demand for their services in the past six months.

So how about the 80-85% percent of Michigan families who are still employed? (In addition to the 11.6% of people who are officially unemployed, there is a population of “hidden” unemployed people who are not counted in the official unemployment figures.) How has the crisis affected the majority who have not lost their jobs? It’s pretty clear that just about everyone in Michigan has been affected by the crisis. Anxieties about retirement investment accounts are at the top of the list — especially for people in their fifties or older. But a second major anxiety stems from job insecurity. With all the bad economic news, whose job will be the next to go? There is worry too about employers’ health benefits — will these benefits continue in their current form in the current economic environment? And these anxieties have led people to rethink their spending and consumption habits — leading, of course, to less demand in many sectors and perhaps another round of job reductions. Sales tax collections in Michigan fell by 18% in February from January; this is a direct indication of sharply reduced consumer spending (link). (Here is a report from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank describing recent trends in Michigan retail sales.) And major purchases like automobiles and trucks seem to be on hold — witness the roughly 50% drop in demand for cars and trucks in recent months.

Another hardship that many families are experiencing is the frozen credit market and the stagnant home sales performance. Families who need to sell their homes are finding that there are few prospective buyers. And families looking to buy a home or a car may have substantial difficulty in finding a lender to provide the mortgage or car loan.

Add all these problems to a chronic American issue — the lack of medical insurance for upwards on 50 million Americans — and you have a rising financial and personal crisis for thousands of households in Michigan: how to pay for medical treatments when health benefits go away, or when you don’t have insurance at all. Unreimbursed care has increased sharply in hospitals in Michigan, resulting in severe financial pressures and the need for further cost-cutting; health systems in Michigan are currently laying off workers to adjust their budgets to current revenues.

So the impact of the current recession is sharply differentiated between people who have lost their jobs and those who haven’t. The first group is in serious, daily distress, having a hard time keeping their families provided with the necessities of life. The second group probably divides into segments with different levels and kinds of anxiety — those who have realistic fears of losing their jobs in the next wave of layoffs, those who are concerned that they may lose lose benefits or wages in the next year or so, and those who are anxious about the future value of their retirement savings. And it all adds up to a set of communities that are being forced to cope with a wide range of personal hardships, almost across the board.

Social hate

March 11, 2009

This is a difficult posting to write. The impetus comes from an exhibit presented by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan (link). The curators have put together a set of artifacts that capture horrific attitudes towards African-Americans, Asians, gays, women, and other individuals and groups in American society, extending over a century of our history. There are photos of mass rallies of the Ku Klux Klan in the midwest; images of the lynchings of Emmett Till and other African-American victims; t-shirts with racist images of blacks, Jews, Asians, Latinos, and gays; photos from the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing; and recent examples of racist depictions of President Obama. And, of course, it’s not just about iconography; it’s also about real violence against individuals from these groups. Hate-based murders continue to occur in the United States.

Just viewing these images is a profoundly disturbing experience. But here is the really difficult part: our society continues to embody these strains of hatred somewhere. And it continues to reproduce these hateful beliefs and attitudes for the next generation. We want to imagine that our society is peace-loving, tolerant, respectful of difference, and ultimately “good neighbors” for all members of our society. And this is certainly true for a very high percentage of Americans. But the exhibition makes it all too plain that this is not the case for everyone. There are individuals, and more importantly, there are groups, for whom racial, sexual, and religious hatred is a fundamental social and psychological reality. As investigators for the Anti-Defamation League (link) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (link) have documented, these extremist groups continue to exist, and they continue to recruit new adherents using sophisticated social media (web pages, video games, chat rooms), as well as more old-fashioned means of mobilization.

How are we to come to grips with the idea that some of our fellow citizens — in our own communities, in our state, and in our country — have such despicable attitudes and behaviors towards other human beings? And what precautions should our society take to defend itself against the violent manifestations that these attitudes and groups sometimes lead to?

It seems that schools have done a pretty good job of conveying the values of racial equality and social tolerance to our children. This has been an important priority for the past several decades. But at the same time, the hatred documented in the exhibits mentioned here can still be found among young people as well — not just gun-toting aging militia types. (Here’s a resource on youth hate crimes.)

We would all like to imagine that the twenty-first century is going to be a better time than the twentieth century. And a big part of that hope is the idea that hatred and violence between groups will subside, replaced by the values of tolerance and civic equality. Anti-semitism, racism, hatred of gays and lesbians, and the forms of violence that are associated with these attitudes, must disappear. It is tough to be reminded how far we are from that ideal in the first decade of the new century.

Mobile social mapping

February 26, 2009

Wouldn’t it be interesting if our GPS units gave us basic social data about the spaces we pass through, along with advice about where to find the closest fuel stop? This would function as a sort of “social reality meter” that would render more visible the social realities and human inequalities we traverse as we travel.

Such a device is entirely possible. It would require a spatially coded social data base, including characteristics such as infant mortality, high school completion, poverty, crime, single-parent families, home ownership, property values, and as many other characteristics as we might be interested in. These features would be attached to a geographical location (a census tract, for example, with a boundary file), and the map would dynamically display several selected variables as we travel through the region.

This kind of GIS mapping is commonplace on the desktop. (See ZipSkinny, for example.)  But putting it into a mobile device — a GPS unit in the car or a GPS-equipped cell phone — would be a way of greatly extending our perception of the social landscape around us.

Here’s a possible snapshot of violent crime data as we drive across Chicago:

Or a drive through Washington D.C. showing the patterns of unemployment in the metropolitan area:

Or this drive through Cleveland observing the distribution of poverty across the city (measured by eligibility for food stamps):

The idea is “location-based social awareness” using the same technologies that cell phones and GPS devices currently use to keep track of local points of interest or “locations of your friends right now”; but providing the user with enormously greater ability to “sense” the social landscape around him or her.  Socially conscious iPhone programmers — how about it!

Wealth in the United States

February 11, 2009

So how is wealth distributed spatially across the United States?

Here’s a quick effort at analyzing the Forbes list of the top 400 wealth holders in the U.S. Here is a snapshot of the graphic included on the page:

It is logical enough that there is a great concentration of these wealth holders in a few important cities — Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, New York, Boston. But this snapshot is of limited value in helping us get a handle on the social geography of wealth. It tracks only the very tip of the wealth iceberg.

We might take a different tack and try to use the concentration of million dollar homes across the United States as an index of the concentration of great wealth across space. Unfortunately, I can’t locate a convenient data source that provides this information — though it’s probably not too difficult to find. But here’s a related approach. The map provided below represents counties by their median home rental prices; this ought to be a reasonable proxy for house values. So we might reason that the highest home rental counties are also the counties with the highest income.

It would be interesting to see a series of maps on this theme along the lines of the treatment that Richard Florida offers for the spatial distribution of various salient social characteristics — for example, his maps of the distribution of different personality types across space.

Fair prices?

January 27, 2009

We live in a society that embraces the market in a pretty broad way. We accept that virtually all goods and services are priced through the market at prices set competitively. We accept that sellers are looking to maximize profits through the prices, quantities, and quality of the goods and services that they sell us. We accept, though a bit less fully, the idea that wages are determined by the market — a person’s income is determined by what competing employers are willing to pay. And we have some level of trust that competition protects us against price-gouging, adulteration, exploitation, and other predatory practices. A prior posting questioned this logic when it comes to healthcare. Here I’d like to see whether there are other areas of dissent within American society over prices.

Because of course it wasn’t always so. E. P. Thompson’s work on early modern Britain reminds us that there was a “moral economy of the crowd” that profoundly challenged the legitimacy of the market; that these popular moral ideas specifically and deeply challenged the idea of market-defined prices for life’s necessities; and that the crowd demanded “fair prices” for food and housing (Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture). The moral economy of the crowd focused on the poor — it assumed a minimum standard of living and demanded that the millers, merchants, and officials respect this standard by charging prices the poor could afford. And the rioting that took place in Poland in 1988 over meat prices is a reminder that this kind of moral reasoning isn’t merely part of a pre-modern sensibility.

So where do contemporary Americans show a degree of moral discomfort with prices and the market? Where does the moral appeal of the principles of market justice begin to break down — principles such as “things are worth exactly what people are willing to pay for them” and “to each what his/her market-determined purchasing power permit him to buy”?

There are a couple of obvious exceptions in contemporary acceptance of the market. One is the public outrage about executive compensation in banking and other corporations that we’ve seen in the past year. People seem to be morally offended at the idea that CEOs are taking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation — even in companies approaching bankruptcy. Part of the outrage stems from the perception that the CEO can’t have brought a commensurate gain to the company or its stockholders, witness the failing condition of many of these banks and companies. Part is a suspicion that there must be some kind of corrupt collusion going on in the background between corporate boards and CEOs. But the bottom line moral intuition seems to be something like this: nothing could justify a salary of $100 million, and executive compensation in that range is inherently unfair. And no argument proceeding simply along the lines of fair market competition — these are competitive rational firms that are offering these salaries, and therefore whatever they arrive at is fair — cuts much ice with the public.

Here is another example of public divergence from acceptance of pure market outcomes: recent public outcries about college tuition. There is the common complaint that tuition is too high and students can’t afford to attend. (This overlooks the important fact that public and private tuitions are almost an order of magnitude apart — $6,000-12,000 versus $35,00-42,000!) But notice that this is a “fair price” argument that would be nonsensical when applied to the price of an iPod or a Lexus. People don’t generally feel aggrieved because a luxury car or a consumer device is too expensive; they just don’t buy it.  It makes sense to express this complaint in application to college tuition because many of us think of college as a necessity of life that cannot fairly be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. (This explains why colleges offer need-based financial aid.) And this is a moral-economy argument.

And what about that other necessity of life — gasoline? Public complaints about $4/gallon gas were certainly loud a few months ago. But they seem to have been grounded something different — the suspicion that the oil companies were manipulating prices and taking predatory profits — rather than an assumption of a fair price determined by the needs of the poor.

Finally, what about salaries and wages? How do we feel about the inequalities of compensation that exist within the American economy and our own places of work? Americans seem to accept a fairly wide range of salaries and wages when they believe that the differences correspond ultimately to the need for firms to recruit the most effective personnel possible — a market justification for high salaries.  But they seem to begin to feel morally aggrieved when the inequalities that emerge seem to exceed any possible correspondence to contribution, impact, or productivity.  So — we as Americans seem to have a guarded level of acceptance of the emergence of market-driven inequalities when it comes to compensation.

One wonders whether deeper resentment about the workings of market forces will begin to surface in our society, as unemployment and economic recession settle upon us.