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Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.

But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism……  (Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.)

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In the current issue of Contexts, James M. Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi, discusses efforts to address racism as a psychological illness. He begins by noting that celebrities, such as TV personalities Michael Richards and Paula Deen, exposed making racist remarks have responded by seeking “treatment,” as if they suffered from a mental health condition like alcoholism or PTSD. Thomas goes on to describe unsuccessful pushes over many years, for example by the well-known psychologist Kenneth Clark, to make racism an official diagnosis in the psychiatric profession.

It seems odd, from an historical or a cross-cultural perspective, to diagnose someone with racist – or, more generally, xenophobic – views as exhibiting a psychological abnormality. By that standard, most people in most places are mentally “ill.”

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Which University?

As I start this post, I hear voices on bullhorns in Sproul Plaza (ground zero for the Free Speech demonstrations 50 years ago) calling Berkeley students to walk out of classes today (Monday, Nov. 24) to protest the tuition increases approved last week by the University of California Regents for the entire ten-campus system. Many details are being argued about — promises, costs, efficiencies, subsidies, and much more. I am not going to address the particulars here; I lack the expertise to do so. Instead, I draw upon my 42+ years at Berkeley and what I know about the history of public higher education to make a few general points. They boil down to the simple observation that the citizens of California and the students need to decide what they want.

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The phrase, “sharing economy,” when referring to services like Airbnb or Uber, is, of course, camouflage language. “Sharing” is what we urge our children to do with their toys at playtime. If, however, our kids rent their toys out, it is the “getting paid” economy, in the words of San Francisco’s super-pol, Willie Brown. Lyft’s slogan is “Your Friend with a Car,” but my friends don’t charge for a lift. (Using “sharing” to describe, say, free recycling or a co-op housing’s common kitchen, is another matter.)

In some ways, these new “peer-to-peer” purchases are a step back to a more “informal” economy, the economy of guys repairing cars in their front yards, women doing hair-dos in their kitchens, laborers waiting on street corners for construction jobs, workers selling their home-made lunches to fellow employees, and the like. This is work that is unrecorded, untaxed, and unregulated. In developing countries, many, if not most, workers are in the informal economy. The 21st-century American, high-tech versions are certainly recorded in multiple online receipt systems; whether and how much those transactions are taxed is a matter of struggle now in many communities, as is the issue of whether and how much they are regulated. We have been there before.

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Of Places Past

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (see links below) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

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A recent article in Wired reported on the estimated 100,000 workers around the globe who risk their sanity culling the perverse, grotesque, horrific stuff that some people post on social media – child sexual abuse, close-ups of accident victims, self-mutilation, and the like. That there are circles of people who post such content and yet larger circles who presumably enjoy looking at and trading such content reminds us of the down-slide on the Internet’s “long tail.”

The “long tail” notion, argued in the early 2000s by then-Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, is that the internet allows businesses to make money even on products valued by an extremely tiny proportion of consumers. Sellers aggregate enough of those rare customers to make marketing to them profitable. Netflix, Anderson wrote, is a good example: “It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country … What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.” The same logic applies to producers and audiences of perverse contents.

At the same time, the Internet sustains niches for what most would consider positive activities, such as hobbyists trading tips, seekers of relatively rare sorts of mates finding one another (as in Jdate and FarmersOnly dating), fans of rarely-recorded world music discovering tracks, and sufferers from “orphan” diseases finding support and advice.

This “long tail” phenomenon – the good, the bad, and the very ugly – seems to be creating a new society. Except that we have been there before.

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The Blameless Only

Americans generally believe that the government should not take money from one person to give to another and generally believe that only recently – perhaps just since the 1960s or since the New Deal – has government done so. Consistent with these views, American “welfare” policy is distinctively limited, constrained, and grudging. Yet history shows that American government, notably the federal government, has for centuries used taxpayers’ money to help other people – for example, to assist businessmen with subsidies of various kinds and to provide large pensions for widows of Union Army veterans. Indeed, even a couple of centuries ago, Congress sent large sums of what we would today call “foreign aid” abroad. Two recent books clarify this seeming contradiction between American ideology and practice by showing that whether government helps or not depends not so much on principles of taxation and representation, but on whether those who are helped are seen as blameless or not.

Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber, in her 2013 book, The Sympathetic State, recounts the legislative history of federal relief programs, and Northwestern historian Susan J. Pearson, in her 2100 book, The Rights of the Defenseless, describes the evolution of anti-cruelty legislation. Both accounts revolve crucially around principles of self-reliance and responsibility.

It is the moral logic of blame, Dauber writes, that allowed Massachusetts Governor William Weld in 1995 to sign a bill sharply curtailing assistance to poor single mothers and to also simultaneously ask the federal government for millions in direct payments to the state’s fishermen. The arguments over both moves were arguments about blame and blamelessness.

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