Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and most desperate citizens. (This is part 2 of my review;part 1 is here.)
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).
Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)
Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:
The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.
The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.
And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:
Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.
Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!
Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.
One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.
And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.
One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.
I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.
Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.
Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.
At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.
It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.
I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.
One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.
In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.
McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.
I have posted about McD’s before, mostly in The Death of American Equality, discussing the decline of fast-food playgrounds:
There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.
Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.
McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.
I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.
People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.
It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.
But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.
Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.
Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.
The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.
Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning
This is your “recycling” on fire:
Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.
Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.
Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.
Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)
But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.
Burning plastic is very bad, by the way:
“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)
Arnade talks to many people who’ve been arrested or incarcerated, or are engaged in illegal activity like drugs or prostitution. While the legalization of drugs has issues (mostly more dead people–see the previous post for discussion,) legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution may have more going for it, eg, Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada: Examining Safety, Risk, and Prostitution Policy:
The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.
Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.
What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.
I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.
Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.
Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.
The police of Montreal, Canada, once went on strike, and the city descended into chaos within a day:
Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.
Deterring crime is good, but we (or Great Britain) may need to do more to deter kids caught committing small crimes from becoming repeat offenders.
Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.
I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:
How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.
The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.
I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest.