Hipster economics and the problems with gentrification

My latest for Al Jazeera English is on gentrification:

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

Read the full article, The perils of hipster economics, at Al Jazeera English

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The broken promise of college education

For Al Jazeera English, I bravely reread David Brooks’ 2000 scifi masterpiece, Bobos in Paradise, and extracted a few lessons for the modern era:

According to Brooks, baby boomers had surmounted class and ethnic barriers through the accumulation of credentials. A degree from Harvard now carried more prestige – and provided more opportunity – than the bloodlines that had propelled the Protestant elite.

But the appeal of a college degree was also its fatal flaw: Anyone could get it. The formula could only work once. The same educational system that created new elites now threatened the prospects of their heirs.

“Members of the educated class can never be secure about their children’s future,” Brooks wrote. “Compared to past elites, little is guaranteed.”

He claimed the burden of maintaining success fell on the children themselves, who would have to “work through school” just like their parents.

As it turned out, there was another way.

In the 14 years since Bobos was published, elites have done much to guarantee their children’s security. Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.

Since 2000, the average cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled, while student loan debt has grown at double-digit rates and well-paying jobs have all but vanished. Since 2001, employment in low-wage occupations has increased by 8.7 percent while employment in middle-wage occupations has decreased by 7.3 percent. The most popular industries pay poorly: According to the April 2014 jobs report, four of the top six industries that saw job creation were in the lowest paying fields. Meanwhile, in prestigious professions entry-level jobs have been replaced with full-time, unpaid internships.

Today’s youth are the best educated generation in US history. But opportunities are reserved only for those who can buy them. Young US citizens have inherited an entrenched meritocracy that combines the baby boomers’ emphasis on education with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it allegedly undermined.

Read the full article, College is a promise the economy does not keep

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Minimum wage workers and the struggle to maintain

Some of you have been wondering why I’ve been writing for Al Jazeera and other outlets with less frequency. The answer is my in-depth article on the fast food workers of St. Louis, “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”. An excerpt:

Fast-food workers begin each week with uncertainty. They do not know how many hours they will work or when those hours will be. They do not know whether they will come up with the cash — and it is always cash — to make it to the job. They do not know if the lights will still be on when they get home. They do not know where, in a few months, home will be. They hunt for cheaper or easier or safer, knowing that to combine them is impossible.

When I ask workers if I can call with follow-up questions, they tell me they no longer have a phone or worry about wasting prepaid minutes. Meetings are canceled because the car runs out of gas, because someone’s child needs to be watched, because an unexpected opportunity arises — extra hours on the job, or a chance to do some paid yard work for a neighbor.

The paradox of poverty is that tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes.

The word I hear over and over is “maintain.” Krystal, a 23-year-old Taco Bell employee working 25-35 hours a week, tells me that for six months she had no gas or heat in her apartment, because she could not afford it on $7.65 per hour. She took cold showers and boiled water to bathe her six-year-old son. Now nine months pregnant with her second child, Krystal is scrambling to prepare for the new baby. She and her boyfriend, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, have a “money bag” where they put spare change in the hope of paying for laundry and diapers. I ask how she handles it all.

“We maintain, we maintain,” she says, sipping on ice chips to ease the pregnancy pain. “We have lights. We have a roof over our heads. For now.”

“Maintain” is both what you do to survive and what you survive to do.

Patrick frames “maintaining” as an aspiration. “A person who has to work with the struggle — how do you expect them to pretend everything is fine and dandy?” he says, gesturing in exasperation. “The second you take off your apron, it’s not all peachy keen. It’s fake. It’s all fake! You want me to follow the rules? All I ask for is a livable wage, something to maintain.

Fast-food workers often refer to “the struggle” — not in a dramatic way, but as a synonym for life. The struggle is what people did not know about, they tell me. The struggle is what people cannot see, even though the struggle is happening right in front of them.

Read the full article here.


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Where are the women in foreign policy? Here’s your answer, from one of them

I have a new article for Al Jazeera English on the dearth of women in U.S. foreign policy. I was originally asked to write about this for Foreign Policy, who instead last week published a piece asking where the women in foreign policy are. They asked nine people: eight of them were men.

Before that, I was asked to write about the lack of women in IR for a prominent international affairs journal. I could not accept their request to do so, for the reasons you are about to read. Below is the original introduction to the Al Jazeera piece (and the FP piece), which my AJE editor had to cut for reasons of length:

A few weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to a prominent foreign policy journal. Previous contributors include Kofi Annan, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hans Blix. The journal was putting together a special issue on women, or the lack thereof, in international relations. The editors knew my work on the former Soviet Union as well as a popular piece I had written on motherhood’s financial toll. They thought I would make a good contributor since I understood the struggles women face in the field.

Great topic, I said. What do you pay?

Nothing, they said. We offer all our contributors nothing.

I explained that without compensation, I could not afford the childcare needed to write an article on the plight of working mothers. They said that I would get great exposure. Unfortunately, the babysitter watching my kids would not accept “exposure” as a viable currency. I suggested that childcare might be a good topic to address in the special issue. They agreed. We parted ways.

I wish this journal well on their special issue, which is indeed on a topic of great importance. The dearth of women in U.S. foreign policy is a subject of continual interest, mostly because it never changes. According to a 2011 survey by policy analyst Micah Zenko, women make up less than 30% of senior positions in the government, military, academy, and think tanks. As of 2008, 77% of international relations faculty and 74% of political scientists were men. In international relations literature, women are systematically cited less than men…

Read the rest of the piece at Al Jazeera English, U.S. foreign policy’s gender gap. Please share if you like it. People need to know.

Thank you to the readers who have supported me, which include many men. The problem in foreign policy is not men – it is misogyny. And it is rampant in journalism as well.

Update: Thanks to Atlantic Wire for naming this one of the five best columns of the day, and also thank you to the many people who interviewed me on this topic, especially Chuck Mertz at This Is Hell.

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The age of the apocalypsticle

My first article for Politico is on “disaster porn”, with Ukraine coverage as a key example:

The Kyiv protests were also starting to look like clickbait. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Business InsiderTalking Points MemoBuzzfeed and Mashable had all published their own listicle versions of what Huffington Post called “Ukraine Crisis: 12 Apocalyptic Pictures After Nation’s Deadliest Day.” High in resolution, low on explanation, the articles painted Ukraine’s carnage by numbers.

A new genre had been born: the apocalypsticle.

Ukraine has never been a country that attracted mainstream media interest. The tens of thousands of people viewing, sharing and posting photos of the Eastern European state likely had little knowledge of what Ukraine looked like before the violence—protesters are now claiming at least 100 people have died in the latest clashes—took place. The fascination of the photos is not that Ukraine no longer look familiar, but that it finally does. Ukraine looks like a movie set, like World War II, like the apocalypse. It spurs the imagination because it is real.

Ukraine looks like nothing is really supposed to look, and so no one can stop looking.

Read the whole thing: The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine: What does our addiction to disaster porn say about us?

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The disappearing middle-class college student

From my latest for Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae:

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama announced his intent to make college affordable. “We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education,” he proclaimed.

The day before his speech, the Pew Research Center released the results of a new survey on inequality that revealed a change in how Americans define their class identification. In 2008, 25 percent of Americans self-identified as “lower-class.” By 2014, that number had risen to 40 percent, while the number of self-identified “middle-class” Americans fell from 53 to 44 percent…

The newfound willingness of Americans to identify as lower-class speaks to the desperation of the post-recession jobless recovery. The rhetoric of “waiting out tough times” has been replaced with acknowledgement of a structural shift. For many, the American Dream is not deferred. It is over.

Putting aside the facile nature of Obama’s promise—which he has made every year he has been in office, as tuition costs soared and the standard of living plunged—what does it mean to promise a “middle-class kid” an affordable education in an era of downward mobility?

And what does it mean when higher education, often portrayed as a ticket into the middle class, is now a way out of it, saddling students with insurmountable debt in a time of diminished opportunity?

Read the whole thing: Who is Obama’s ‘Middle-Class College Student’?

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Hashtag activism and Twitter feminism

Why does the US media portray foreign Twitter activism as empowering but black Twitter activism as “toxic”? My latest for Al Jazeera English takes on — among other things — the Nation article on the alleged hazards of Twitter:

Social media is viewed by gatekeepers as simultaneously worthless and a serious threat. Balancing these opposing views requires a hypocrisy that can be facilitated only by the assurance of power.

Gatekeepers to mainstream feminist venues, like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, proclaim that tweeting is not really activism. In contrast, the women behind hashtag activism argue that Twitter is one of the few outlets they have in a world that denies them opportunities.

“Twitter hashtags happen because the chances of getting real contact and effective representation from our ‘leaders’ is non-existent,” notes writer and activist Sydette, who tweets as “Black Amazon”. Her statement mirrors those of activists around the world who use Twitter to oppose repressive governments.

Twitter activism among black Americans causes discomfort because it highlights the structural nature of racist oppression in the US as well as the complicity of those who uphold and benefit from it. When US journalists cover Twitter activism in other countries, they portray it as empowering. When marginalised people of colour – people whose own history of oppression in the US is systematically played down – share their plight online, it is recast as aggression, exaggeration and lies. This, too, mirrors the rhetoric used by dictators around the world.

Rhetoric is not the same as action. But it is the disparate nature of repressive foreign dictatorships and the comparatively open media environment of the US that make the similarity in rhetoric so striking.

Read Blame it on the internet at Al Jazeera English.

Shortly after the article was published, I did an interview with the great Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein of Citizen Radio, which you can listen to here.

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In the news

My thanks to Matthew Clayfield for this profile of me and my work in the Australian news website Crikey. An excerpt:

Since the op-ed columnist and self-described “recovering academic” began publishing opinion pieces on the news channel’s English-language website nearly two years ago, she has demonstrated a remarkable knack for sniffing out bastardry wherever it may fester. And I do mean wherever: rather than merely focusing her ire on Wall Street, the rotten wellspring of American wealth inequality, Kendzior has boldly resolved to call bullshi-t on the less obvious but no less deserving bastards of what she calls the country’s “prestige economy” as well.

“The questions that are important to me are: who is suffering? What causes their suffering? Who benefits from their suffering? Who enables it, who accepts it? Then I go from there. Even if our current political and economic situation improved dramatically, I would ask the same questions,” she toldCrikey.

As a result she often takes on both the world she has come from and the world she has entered: academia and the media have both been subjected to the writer’s scathing critiques. Kendzior has also made powerful enemies. An expert in Central Asian affairs, she recently upset the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who openly threatened to have her killed. “[Gulnara] thought I lacked sympathy for the loss of her Swiss villa, which she was whining about on Twitter,” Kendzior said. “This is true. I totally lack sympathy for the loss of her Swiss villa.”

Her approach has proved wildly popular. In 2013, Kendzior wrote seven of AJ English’s 30 most-read op-ed pieces, including the top story…

Read the full interview: Follow Friday: @sarahkendzior, commentator, and the ‘full Kendzior’

I also did a few radio interviews recently, including one on expensive cities and creativity with Chuck Mertz, and on the prestige economy and debt crisis with Vanessa D. Fisher.

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What ‘counts’ in academia?

For the Chronicle of Higher Education, I debunked the myth that publishing in academic journals will get you a job, and encouraged scholars to take a broader perspective to research and writing:

Most scholars hesitate to take this approach even when their writing has had proven appeal, for it appeals to those who do not “count”. But what “counts” should be producing work of lasting intellectual value instead of market ephemerality. What “counts” should be the quality of the research and writing, not the professional advantages you gain from producing it. This is particularly true for new Ph.D.’s, because in all likelihood, those advantages may not exist—at least not within academia.

Making your work “count” on its own intellectual merit helps rescue you from the sense of personal failure that accompanies loss on the job market. When you orient your scholarship toward a future that never comes, it can start to feel like you have no future. When you orient your scholarship toward its obvious yet overlooked purpose—furthering human knowledge—its value does not need to be determined by others, because the value lies in the work itself. This is what counts.

Read What’s the Point of Academic Publishing? at CHE’s Vitae.

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When the mainstream media attacks

I took a couple of weeks off to recover from surgery, but I’m back with a new article at Al Jazeera English on how the mainstream media is really the fringe:

The terms of public debate are rarely set by the public. “Inequality” has risen to the fore in pundit discourse, but mostly in terms of whether it deserves to be debated at all, as recent columns by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and the New York Times’ David Brooks demonstrate. For a public well aware of income inequality – since they have to live with its consequences every day – such debates reflect an inequality of their own: A paucity of understanding among our most prominent voices.

In the American media, white people debate whether race matters, rich people debate whether poverty matters, and men debate whether gender matters. People for whom these problems have no alternative but to matter – for they structure the limitations of their lives – are locked out of the discussion.

Read the full article here.

Other updates:

Foreign Policy named my Twitter feed among “the best writing in global political economy for the past calendar year.” Political scientist Daniel Drezner writes: “Kendzior writes about the role that fear and contingency play in the global workplace. I don’t agree with many of her points — in fact, there are times where I find her intellectually infuriating — but she’s never boring nor bombastic, and she’s caused me to contemplate what it means to be privileged in the current economy. She’s a scholar, a blogger, and an Al Jazeera columnist, but I think it’s really on her Twitter feed that the “full Kendzior” is on display. I’m glad to see her acknowledge in this interview the care she devotes to crafting her tweets — because very few others do it as well as her.”

* Chuck Mertz interviewed me about my  AJE article Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity on his radio show “This is Hell”. Listen to it here.

* I’ll be speaking at George Washington University February 28 and will also be giving talks in Pittsburgh, Boston, and St. Louis over the next few months. Details to come!

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