Author: Matt Loveland

Sociologist. I do my thing at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.

Open up a can of sociology

Sometimes I worry I’m turning into my dad. I’m afraid I’ll start to seriously believe trite sayings like “success comes in cans not can’ts,” or listening to motivational speakers while I drive. These things don’t work. They don’t work because the world doesn’t reward hard work in anything like equal measure. They don’t work because positive vibes can’t control the balance of your brain as well as SSRI’s. I think I’m fortunate to know those things, but I don’t blame my dad for believing what he did. And I can’t help thinking some inspirational words are needed right now, even if they are leveled out with some sociology.

Have you noticed that the world is a mess? Trump is president. Chaos and absurdity abound. Have you noticed friends and acquaintances seem to be having trouble managing unexpected challenges that have made their personal lives feel as chaotic as our political world? I have. I can’t help but think these facts are connected. Instability breeds instability. The details of the Trumpian chaos and the personal struggles are endlessly complex in their moments, but less so in the abstract. In the abstract they aren’t even new or odd. If my dad had inspirational Bible passages on his checks, I’ve got sociological aphorisms like C. Wright Mills’ wise words, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both,” or “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages.”

I don’t know if the sociological imagination requires any more than those two fully packed sentences to get going. None of us chose to be born at this time, in this place, with these material advantages or disadvantages, in this body, with this brain. Most of our life is a function of things that were set in motion by randomness, and big or small choices others made before we were born. In addition, the choices we do get to make have consequences no one can fully anticipate. This is as true of the choices that end up good as it is of the ones that turn out bad. It is self-torture to believe that your own decisions are much more than putting one foot in front of the other on a path that shifts with each step you take (even if I am sometimes jealous of the fortunately brained people who seem to believe in their own remarkable agency). The relationships we make, and we do make them, are as much a function of the historical time in which we live as the work we do to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘surround ourselves with good people.’ Most of the times I’ve ‘found myself,’ it turns out I really found out who I used to be – and don’t want to be anymore – because of some new way I’m living – some way I don’t entirely understand in the moment but is a function of steps I took along the way.

I know this sounds like fatalism. It isn’t fatalism. We do make choices. We can choose to focus on some things and ignore others, like those who decide to ‘accentuate the positive.’  We can do right and wrong by others, and we can know that by their reactions when they let us see them. We should acknowledge the nice things when we notice them. We should make every effort to do right by others. We should recognize when we’ve done someone wrong and try to fix it. But this can’t mean ignoring hardship like it isn’t real; it can’t mean ‘going back to how things were.’ The flow of history and biography make these things impossible. I think what we can do is try to recognize how that flow is beyond any one person’s control. We can recognize that bad exists without granting it cosmic significance. It’s a mundane part of human life.

For me, remaining aware of these things is as valuable as my dad’s insistence on appreciating a sunny day was to him. People don’t choose their historical or personal conditions, some of which are truly miserable, and none of us can fully understand either. We don’t all have the same choices, and we can’t know the consequences of the choices we make. To recognize that is freedom from the torture that comes with believing that it’s possible to make no mistakes; from believing it is possible to eliminate the negative and avoid the inevitable struggles of living in the here and now. Besides, the sun is shining in Syracuse today.

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We Care A Lot: Profits of Social Entreprenurship

Social Entrepreneurship is often championed as a solution to social problems. As I understand it, social entrepreneurs are ingenious people who use their creativity to help those who suffer from poverty, sickness, lack of education, and whatever other problems catch their attention. Their solutions, because ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ would never question the basic good of capitalism (would they?), are of course only feasible if they return a profit to good-as-angel investors. Let’s ignore that the framing of Social Entrepreneurship, by itself, suggests that other profit seekers are Anti-Social Entrepreneurs (which is probably right). Instead let’s offer a brief critique of social entrepreneurship itself.

Here’s a good example in this morning’s New York Times. Retail monster Walmart is well known to pay its employees a less than livable wage of, on average, $13.85 an hour. One fortunate worker highlighted in the piece, Alexis, earns $19.25 an hour. Trading 30 hours a week with Walmart, she gets in return around $30,000 a year. This would put Alexis and her 4 children just beyond the $28,780 federal poverty guideline for a family of 5 in 2017, but they’re certainly eligible for many forms of assistance. So, this is a paycheck to paycheck life.

Alexis says she’d like to save more, but that’s hard to do with most of your money spent between pay-periods. So, here’s a problem for the Social Entrepreneurs to solve. In this case the solution is an app called Even, cofounded by idealistic young man Jon Schlossberg, to help low-wage workers manage their money. With Even, workers can even withdraw some of their earned cash before the next paycheck. No more pay-day loans with their high interest rates, but rather earlier access to money you’ve earned. Jon is focusing his entrepreneurial energy on helping those in need, which is good. He’s able to do this because he’s already created something very useful for us:

“Before creating Even, one of the firm’s founders, Jon Schlossberg, had developed an app called Knock, which allows phone users to unlock a Mac computer by knocking on their phone.”

Having made his money via this invaluable contribution to society, it was time to do good.

Idealistic and flush with money from the success of Knock, Mr. Schlossberg said
he began studying how a cash shortage affects people’s physical and mental well-being. “It is a fundamental problem with the capitalistic society,” Mr. Schlossberg said in an interview. Mr. Schlossberg, 30, said he set out to create a product that could reduce the stress associated with money problems, joining a crowd of other so-called fintech start-ups seeking to disrupt the traditional banking model.

Sounding like a real Marxist (who conveniently came to understand how awful capitalism is for workers after he’d made his money), Jon identifies how capitalism is fundamentally alienating and destructive of the human person. That’s not good. So, what’s the lesson? Do as any good capitalist would and disrupt! For a profit, of course.

Walmart pays a small fee to Even to allow workers to withdraw their wages
ahead of payday. Workers can take out only a portion of wages that they have already earned during the two-week pay cycle — so technically, Even says, these are not loans.

Walmart is paying Jon. Jon, flush with cash because he made it easier to unlock your computer, is being paid by Walmart so that he can help Walmart employees manage their paycheck to paycheck lives.  Stand-up guy, Jon. But, far from alone in his social entrepreneurial quest for justice, he has partners who share his concern for the struggles of the poor.

“You have earned this money,” said Safwan Shah, founder of PayActiv. “Who
decides you should get paid every two weeks?”

Jon’s comrade Safwan owns a company, missing an ‘e,’ that helps process the transactions between Walmart and its cash poor employees. Safwan understands that workers are the source of wealth, and how unfair it is that the capitalist decides when the worker gets access to the fruit of their labor. He’s going to help by processing a limited number of mid-pay-period transactions for a fee paid by Walmart, or if things get really bad, the employee.

With the new service, every Walmart employee can obtain a portion of his or her
earned wages eight times a year free of charge. For most of the workers, the so-called Instapays will be deducted from their next paycheck. The workers can pay extra if they want more than eight Instapays.

Safwan is also being paid by Walmart, at least indirectly, to help out it’s cash-strapped workers. Walmart is making the “reasonably substantial investment” in Even because C.O.O. Judith McKenna believes it’s “the right thing to do.” Judith says the company will keep “investing in its associates.”

$10.20 an hour Walmart associate Matt Fixel has some input for entrepreneurial justice warriors Jon and Safwan:

“That app sounds helpful,’’ Mr. Fixel said of the Even service, but added, “I
would prefer it if they gave me more hours.”

So, what do you say Jon and Safwan, maybe a campaign for better, more frequent pay for hard-working associates like Alexis and Matt? Of course, the needed changes might put your profits at risk, but you don’t actually care about those, do you? You care about justice.

The Silent Majority and Mayor Ben Walsh

Ben Walsh, running on the Independence Party line, among others, was elected mayor of Syracuse yesterday. He won 54% of the vote to Democratic candidate Juanita Perez Williams’ 38%. Behind the two front runners were Green Pary candidate Howie Hawkins at 4%, Republican Laura Lavine at 2.5%, and Working Families nominee Joe Nicoletti at 1%. Yes, the Green Party beat the Republican party.

The early narrative appearing in the local media is well summed up here. The Post-Standard reports that voters told political parties they’re not needed, and that “The city decisively elected Walsh Tuesday.” Perhaps this a rejection of Republicans and Democrats, and maybe it is significant that the Republican candidate got just 2.5%. But, Lavine’s campaign was barely funded nor supported by the party, and Republicans haven’t been strong in Syracuse for a long time. Walsh, while saying often that he doesn’t represent the GOP, is the heir to one of the most prominent Republican families in CNY history. I don’t buy the easy ‘Republican in sheep’s clothing’ argument about Walsh. While he may not be a Republican, certainly a lot of Republicans voted for him. A lot of Democrats, too.

But, the most popular choice among the voters was not Walsh. Rather, it was to not vote at all. Early estimates of turnout are about 35%. The silent majority, in this case, just kept quiet. Do the math and you see that the incoming mayor of Syracuse won the votes of about 18% of eligible voters. This looks more like a message about what Syracuse residents think of government, period, rather than a rejection of parties. It’s a stretch to call this a decisive victory. If Walsh’s message about the importance of civic life is sincere, I hope he’ll do what he can to get that 65% who stayed home involved in city governance. In any case, the final vote tally in the 2017 Syracuse mayoral race looks to be ‘Who Cares Party’ 65%, mayor Ben Walsh 18%.

Songs are better than sociology

Jason Isbell’s lyric “Is your brother on a church kick? Seems like just a different kind of dopesick” is everything I’d like my sociology to be.

It’s critical without being uncaring. It points out that religion is mundane – that it’s just like a lot of other human salves.

The next lyric, “Better off to teach a dog a card trick than try to have a point and make it clear” clearly makes a point I’ve never been quite able to communicate. This is that any successful human communication is pretty remarkable given how difficult it often is to get across the most basic things like what ingredients you want on your sandwich.

The whole song, “Relatively Easy” on his album Southeastern is an excellent portrayal of privilege, a concept social scientists know matters a lot but seem never to be able to share without producing mass confusion and angry backlash. Listen to it:

Thoughts on evaluating President Obama

Quick impressions to follow. Maybe I’ll build this out later with references, but why not enter the ‘Obama Legacy Game?’

Barack Obama was a good president in the sense that he did a good job administering an inhumane place. He effectively led America as it did the same sort of inhumane things it has done for most of its history. His passage of the ACA, something Democrats had been trying to do for at least 50 years, can’t be dismissed. It was a massive political achievement, even as its flaws were immediately obvious and its far from a progressive win.

He wasn’t transformative, but what a ridiculous standard to which no white president would be held – certainly not a white male president. Obama’s failings are the failings of American Institutions, of American culture, of American politics. He led those institutions, worked within that culture and our polarized politics with remarkable skill. He won most of the political battles he entered, even as Republican opposition was set on not letting him claim even the smallest victories.

As Obama now faces attacks from both the right and left, criticizing him as a failed leader, it is important to remember that expecting a black man to be excellent in exchange for granting him adequacy is the essence of racism. Look at who President Obama followed. George W. Bush was the definition of mediocre, and his rise to power was entirely a function of his family ties and wealth. Look at who is following America’s first black president. Donald Trump represents all of the worst things of white masculinity and American arrogance. Say what you will about how much better President Obama could have been, maybe even should have been, but don’t apply a different set of standards than we have before, and certainly will not with President Trump.

How to ruin voting for a 4 year old

My polling place was only slightly busier than normal today, which was nice because it let me see one of the strangest, saddest things I’ve ever seen.

A man and a woman with two young daughters went to the table to check in. They were then handed their ballots, but turned them down because, according to the dad, they were going to “cancel each other out anyway.” So, they didn’t vote. They walked out. But, as they did, their younger daughter started to cry. She wanted to vote.

She could have gone into the booth with one of them, right? They could have given their daughters a great lesson about civic responsibility. They could have gone in with their Clinton voting parent and ‘voted’ for a woman president when they were 4 years old. Hell, they could have started making America great again at 4 years old.

Instead, their dad took that away with “we’re going cancel each other out anyway.” Yes, the mom left too. But, come on. Who does this? What explains it? Sexism? Desiring marital stability? Apathy? I don’t get it.

Electric Customer-Service-Lady Land

We have Verizon Fios, and this morning our Fios box in the basement started beeping. It is notifying us, via the beep and a little flickering light, that the backup battery is about to fail and that we should replace it. This means calling Verizon customer service which I hate because I’ve had to call it far too many times and it’s almost always futile. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced worse customer service than I’ve received nearly every time I’ve called Verizon. Problems with Fios aren’t resolved without talking to at least 4 different people across multiple phone calls; even then it seems like the problems just resolve themselves without anyone doing anything. I prefer just to avoid calling and the problems usually go away after a bit. But, sometimes it requires an angry phone call with an employee who has no responsibility for what’s wrong and a manager who tries to tell us nothing is wrong. I hate it, and it often involves a rant about capitalism and a let’s move to the woods lament.

About a month ago we got a new wireless router which we required to buy from Verizon or they’d put a new service charge on our bill for keeping the old router which apparently isn’t supposed to work anymore. The old one worked just fine, but I installed the new router when it arrived, and, surprise, it didn’t work. I hooked the old one back up and went about my internet saturated life. Rather than call Verizon, I’ve been putting it off because why deal with the terrible customer service? Why hassle the employee who picks up the phone who won’t be able to help?

Well, the beeping Fios box in the basement isn’t as easy to ignore. The cat doesn’t like it at all. So, I called, if just to save my cat from the terror of the periodic beep. I figured at least I can deal with the router issue now too, so twice the help for half the agony!

I dialed the customer service number on the Fios box, and who picks up? A robot. ‘She’ tried to sound like a human woman, but it was an automated customer service agent. ‘She’ asked me human questions like “are you authorized to make decisions about this account,” and then paused to wait for answers, just like a human would. She even waited long enough for me to think to myself “Am I supposed to push #1, or do I just say ‘yes?'” She wanted me to say “yes,” and the interaction moved on. ‘She’ verified my phone number, started casually calling me Matt, and then immediately told me my backup battery was about to die. It saved so much time not having to say it. So efficient. She understood my problems better than any human customer service representative ever has, and I bet she never demands a raise or quits in the middle of her shift. ‘She’ asked if I’d like to order a new battery. I wondered, ‘do I have a choice, robot lady?,’ but all I said was “yes.” Would I let the charge go onto my next Verizon bill? “Yes.” That’s how you do business!

After that last “yes,” I think ‘this interaction is going well.’ Too well. It’s going so efficiently, in fact, that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to ask my question about the router. As I was realizing the potential problem, I think the robot lady said some things about how I might continue the conversation with the right command, but I was too distracted to hear it. “Oh no,” I thought, “what did I just miss? Was that my chance to say my router sucks? Can I talk to her about this problem she clearly wasn’t programmed to already know about?” The pause was long enough to have that entire thought, and then the kind robot lady said “thank you” in the coldest slash cheeriest voice I’ve ever heard and hung up. Interaction over, and I’m stuck with the bricked router and I’ve still got to call Verizon. Sigh.

 

 

The steady Humvees of War

I can’t forget March 2003. I was teaching a section of Research Methods to Notre Dame undergraduates. The country was having the ‘debate’ about invading Iraq. There was no debate. We were going. We knew, if for no other reason, because the American General plant in Mishawaka, IN was surrounded by a sea of recently produced Humvees. Bush was going to send those Humvees and their 20 year old drivers on his revenge mission to the desert. People the same age as the privileged ND students I was in the room with.

I brought it up one day. To a one, they had no idea the ‘debate’ was even occuring. They had no opinion one way or the other. I told them that was not OK, and that even if you disagreed with my anti-Iraq war stance you should be just as engaged. Just as angry. But why would they be. I’d guess most of them are now living comfortable lives mostly untouched by that war that has destroyed so many lives, given us ISIS, and tied this country’s hands with debt and turmoil for at least a generation. Their lives were set one way or the other. I think about that whenever I reflect on the fact that Bush got away with it. People don’t care because why would they?

It’s nice to see that British Parliament may try to hold Tony Blair accountable. Will we ever do the same to Bush, Cheney, and Powell?

Secular is good for us!

I’ve been fascinated to see a growing literature showing that religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about god, reduce social trust (examples here and here). Much of the work in the sociology of religion for so long has had a more or less explicit ‘religion is good for society’ thrust. I’ve published in that mainstream view myself, and usually the most you’ll see is ‘religion is mostly good for us, except for maybe fundamentalism.’

But, I’m starting to think this is because most survey data, particularly in the United States, has only allowed quantitative sociologists to study the very religious and the moderately religious, until recently. Now, with more and more seculars all the time, our samples are catching more people at the ‘not religious’ end of the spectrum, and it turns out they trust people too, and a paper I’m finishing up argues nontheists are more trusting than believers. So, it’s not ‘mainline’ versus ‘evangelical,’ but really it’s ‘very religious,’ ‘moderately religious,’ and ‘not religious.’And it turns out secular is good for you, and for us.

Goldilocks and the three GOP’ers

It’s ‘somewhat important Tuesday’ with primary elections in Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, and Hawaii. Today’s media narrative appears to be ‘Is Trump losing Momentum to an ascendant Ted Cruz?’ Frankly, it’s a terrifying question, and there do seem to be reasons to believe Cruz could a make  real move today (admittedly without consulting polling data or experts). I think you have to hope Trump’s recent fascist antics would cost him the campaign, and I think there is a good explanation as to why Cruz is better positioned to take advantage than Rubio (and all the polling data I look at suggest this is what’s likely to happen should Trump trip). Here’s my take in one short paragraph.

“Ideas” candidates, like Paul Ryan, for example, sometimes struggle to effectively connect their ideas to people’s perceived problems. Because that can come as ‘I know your problems better than you do,’ it appears like a fundamental misunderstanding of representative government. I think voters, maybe particularly GOP voters, prefer at least the impression of responsiveness to material problems rather than champions of philosophy who say ‘you’re seeing it wrong, you don’t quite get it.’ This explains, at least partly, why candidates like Donald Trump, for example, can be successful. Trump’s campaign is framed as a reaction to some people’s ‘real’ problems rather than a lesson about a worldview they don’t understand. Cruz might be the middle ground between Trump and Rubio in this regard. Rubio comes off as a teacher committed to out-of-date ideas. When Trump calls Rubio a loser, he’s really just saying you’re out of touch like Romney, like Bob Dole! Cruz, however, is effectively offering a better balance of material analysis and philosophy than either Rubio or Trump. Whereas Trump seems to be saying, ‘geez, not having jobs because of foreigners sure isn’t great, let’s get rid of the scary brown people’ and leaving it at that before jumping into some other crazy rant, Cruz seems to be saying pretty much the same things while also being much better able to articulate ideas about the constitution and religiosity that give his message more philosophical substance and continuity. But, not so much that it feels like old-GOP commitment to free trade and economic theory you have to study in college to really understand. So, for GOP primary voters maybe the moral will be that Trump is too reactionary, Rubio too professorial, and Cruz just right.