The F!@# You Conception of Control – Avoiding Customers Edition

This couple of stories do not really have anything new but it clearly illustrates what I have come to call the f!@# You Conception of Control, that is the idea that it becomes the accepted norms that corporations may not really care about the product they put out and rely on horrendous “customer service” to keep customers from using too much of the product they pay for.

Health care:

“Trying to get ahold of your insurance company means negotiating a bewildering maze of phone trees and webpages.  I use Humana, but I don’t have any reason to believe that any other insurers are any different.  The key point to remember is that your insurance company DOES NOT want to talk to you.  Maintaining a call center is expensive, and the company will undertake whatever means it can in order to force you onto an automated system or, barring that, attrite you into submission.  Moreover, the question you have, if answered properly, might cost the company money.  This is bad, and the insurance company is going to do its darndest to make it difficult for you to get the information you need.  On a couple of occasions I was forced to repeatedly enter my policy ID# in order to move on to the next phone tree, all with the carrot of a “patient care representative” dangling in front of me.  At one step, the system insisted that I verbalize my ID#, birth date, and zip code. No matter how clearly I said any of these, I was then forced to punch them into my phone keypad.  I was told at one point to represent any letters in my ID# with the star key.  I was then dragged through the agonizingly slow process through which the automated system tried to figure out exactly what letter a star represented (“Press 1 for G.  Press 2 for H.  Press 3 for I”).  At another stage in the phone tree, the automated voice refused to accept any number I pressed before it was done speaking.  If I made the error of pressing a number before the sentence was finished (and the robot, for some reason, favored long, pregnant pauses), then the system would stop for about 15 seconds before telling me that it didn’t understand what I was trying to say.  It would then repeat its entire spiel.  When you finally reach “waiting for the next patient care representative” stage, you are invariably treated to ridiculously terribly music punctuated by a voice patiently explaining how useful the website or the automated system would be, with the implication that you’re a moronic ingrate for needing an actual operator.  On one occasion, I made it through the phone tree only to be told that the call center was closed.

Perhaps my favorite roadblock was on the (otherwise useless) Humana website.  Shortly after creating your account, the website insists that you read a series of statements about the confidentiality of your health care, and that you click “I agree” at the bottom of each statement.  If you don’t scroll down and read the entire statement, it refuses to let you move on.  Ingeniously, one of the statements didn’t show any scroll bars on the page.  It simply didn’t allow you to move forward.  Clicking on “I agree” only makes you more angry, with the eventual (I assume) purpose that you will hit your keyboard so hard that your computer will break, thus saving the insurance company any additional difficulty.

None of this is accidental.  The point is to irritate and confuse the customer so much that he or she eventually hangs up.  It works, too.  We would all like to think that we have the wherewithal to fight through the system, but often we don’t.  We run short of phone minutes, or we get another call, or we have to do any one of the myriad things that amount to normal, everyday life, and we end up hanging up.  This is what the insurance company calls “a win.””

Wireless:

“I’ve never once gotten any money taken off of my bill from AT&T despite every single one of those months being filled with dropped calls and overall shit service. If I called to complain I might be able to get something back — but I’d have to do that each month. And even if I didn’t drop the call when calling them up, have you ever tried calling one of those customer support numbers? Kill me.

And I loved when AT&T tried to spin their recent termination of unlimited data plans as a good thing for customers. Almost all customers will be paying less under the new plans, is how the company line read. Sure, right now. But in a couple years (when you’re still under contract, by the way), these plans are going to screw you. This is all about AT&T taking precautionary measures so they can make more money down the road.

It’s not about saving their customers any money. It’s a lucky side-effect of their larger agenda to get data consumption under control. It’s total bullshit.

Vogelstein’s takeaway seems to be that all customers should get used to high prices and declining service as wireless demands continue to increase. Sadly, that’s probably true.”

And I am sure I could find further examples from the airline industry as well.

The Visual Du Jour – More Stratification Data

Some interesting graphs here. My “favorites”:

Social mobility in the US… almost vanished:

The CEOs… getting smarter and more hard-working than anyone else, right? Otherwise, how could we explain the stratospheric increases?

How do you make the rich richer and increase social inequalities? These things do not just happen. That is where political influence comes in: cut their taxes.

Some international comparisons:

And a classic that never goes out of style:

The Surveillance Society… Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

I have been writing consistently on the surveillance society, reporting on David Lyon‘s tireless work on the subject as well as on the NeoConOpticon initiative. Especially, NeoConOpticon has reported on the Full Spectrum Dominance approach adopted by EU countries:

“The NeoConOpticon report uses the idea of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ to explore and conceptualise the inevitable outcome of authoritarian EU approaches to security, risk and public order. The term was first used at the turn of the century by the USA’s Department of Defence as a euphemism for control over all elements of the ‘battlespace’ using land, air, maritime, IT and space-based assets. The doctrine seeks to harness the full capacity of the so-called ‘Revolution in Military Aff airs’ engendered by the revolution in IT. In a domestic security context, Full Spectrum Dominance implies control over a domestic ‘battlespace’: an intensive model of international surveillance and a model of policing based primarily on military force.

The EU has not formally adopted a strategy of Full Spectrum Dominance. Rather, EU policies on a whole host of formerly distinct ‘security’ issues—including policing; counter-terrorism; critical infrastructure protection; border control; crisis management; external security; defence, maritime, and space policy—are converging around two interrelated objectives. The first is the widespread implementation of surveillance technologies and techniques to enhance security, law enforcement and defence capabilities in these core ‘mission areas.’ The second is the drive for ‘interoperability,’ or the integration of surveillance tools with other government information and communications systems so that they may be used for multiple tasks across the spectrum of law enforcement and security. ‘Joined-up surveillance’ for ‘joined-up government’ is another way of describing this trend.

The pursuit of a domestic policy of full spectrum dominance has particularly profound implications for civil liberties, the rule of law and other democratic traditions. Magnus Hörnqvist, a Swedish academic, has described the way in which the rule of law is being eclipsed by the ‘logic of security’. His hypothesis is that it is security and not the law that is now the primary principle from which the use of physical force and other coercive measures can proceed. Within this process “the law has been ruptured in two directions simultaneously: upwards, through the erasure of the line between crimes and acts of war, and downwards, through the erasure of the line between criminal off ences and minor public order disturbances”. In turn, “the law is made superfluous… other methods are required that correspond more closely to military logic: neutralising, knocking out and destroying the enemy”.

The European Security Research Programme is comprised of five key ‘mission areas’: ‘border security’, ‘protection against terrorism and organised crime’, ‘critical infrastructure protection’, ‘restoring security in case of crisis’ and ‘integration, connectivity and interoperability’. For each of these apparently distinct ‘mission areas’, it is observed that the same response is proposed: maximise the use of security technology; use risk assessment and modelling to predict (and mitigate) human behaviour; ensure rapid ‘incident response’; then intervene to neutralise the threat, automatically where possible. The ESRP is also predicated on the  need to develop fully ‘interoperable’ security systems so that technological applications being used for one ‘mission’ can easily be used for all the others.”

So, in this context, this widely publicized first part in a series by Dana Priest and William Arkin in the Washington Post, reveals a state of affairs that is not surprising. The only question is where was the US media when this whole apparatus was being progressively built up over the past 10 years.

It seems to be the culmination of the re-organization of the national state in the age of global risk: the destruction of any kind of safety net (Social Security is next on the chopping board) but with expansion of the surveillance (domestically) and military (abroad) regimes and massive protection of corporate wealth. The neo-liberal (domestically) / neo-conservative state (militarily / foreign policy) is a repressive / aggressive state and most of its resources are dedicated to that. And this is irrespective of whoever gets elected. There is indeed great continuity between the Bush and Obama administration. As Glenn Greenwald notes,

“We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government:  functioning in total darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization.

Anyone who thinks that’s hyperbole should just read some of what Priest and Arkin chronicle.  Consider this:  “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.”  To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case.  Equally understated is the observation that we have become a militarized nation living under an omnipotent, self-perpetuating, bankrupting National Security State.”

The focus of this first part is more on the growth, size and resulting organizational inefficiencies of this entire apparatus, which will give the complicit media an out by focusing on “how do we make it efficient?” rather than the social and political implications of having such an extensive, secretive, public / private surveillance state. This incompetence dodge was once popular when it came to discussing the Iraq war. It was unconvincing then, it would be unconvincing now in this case.

Beyond the mass surveillance aspect, which is obvious, other social consequences include a vast funneling of money to private military contractors and private intelligence agencies, and therefore a shrinking of resources available for other social purposes (such as education or unemployment benefits). It also means an increasing wealth gap as some people and corporations get very wealthy thanks to this private / public surveillance-industrial complex.

But no authoritarian system can function without an ideological / propaganda apparatus, and this is where the US media comes in, to provide us with distraction, be they the latest Palin word-smithing, the latest fight on one of these Bravo reality shows, or the latest Tea Party outrage. And since America does not do social movements very well, this is a system that can persist for a while, despite the immense suffering it imposes on larger numbers of people.

Erik Olin Wright on Real Utopias

Erik Olin Wright‘s latest book, Envisioning Real Utopias, is on my to-read pile. In this interview with the New Left Project, he lays out the diagnosis that prompted his search for alternatives. Unsurprisingly, it is powerful stuff.

The diagnosis:

“We live in a world characterized by deeply troubling, if familiar, contrasts: poverty in the midst of plenty; enhanced opportunities for some people to live creative, flourishing lives alongside social exclusion and thwarted human potential; new technologies to cure disease, enhance health and prolong life along with untreated, devastating illness. There are, of course, many possible explanations for these facts. Some people believe that poverty in the midst of plenty constitutes simply a sad fact of life: “the poor will always be with us.” Defenders of capitalism argue that this is a temporary state of affairs which further economic development will eradicate: capitalism, if given enough time, especially if it is unfettered from the harmful effects of state regulations, will eradicate poverty. Many social conservatives insist that suffering and unfulfilling lives are simply the fault of the individuals whose lives go badly: contemporary capitalism generates an abundance of opportunities, but some people squander their lives because they are too lazy or irresponsible or impulsive to take advantage of them. If you accept any of these diagnoses, then there would not be much point in elaborating visions of social arrangements very different from those we have now. But if you believe, as I do, that there is very strong social scientific evidence that these morally salient forms of inequality and deprivation are mainly consequences of fundamental properties of the socioeconomic system, then it is imperative to understand alternatives to the existing world which would mitigate these harms.”

Why “real utopias“?

“The idea of this apparent oxymoron is to combine a commitment to our deepest emancipatory values and aspirations with a serious attention to the problem of how institutions really work. The “real” in the couplet forces us to continually worry about the problem of unintended consequences and hazards of social engineering; the “utopia” keeps the moral purposes of social transformation and social justice at the forefront.”

Wright defines his project as democratic egalitarianism. What is democratic egalitarianism?

The egalitarian part means, for Wright, equality of access as lifelong process rather than equality of opportunity which just means equality at the starting gates, then good old social Darwinism reenters the picture.

“In a socially just society, all people would have broadly equal access to the necessary material and social means to live flourishing lives.”

The democratic part refers to agency and control:

“The core value underlying democracy is that people should, to the greatest extent possible, be able to control the conditions and decisions which affect their lives, both as separate persons and as members of broader communities. We can call this the value of self-determination.”

Note that this is not a “return to the local”. Communities overlap and go from the local to the global level.

So, when you combine these two elements based on their degree of existence, you can obtain the following matrix:

Egalitarianism:

  • Shallow democracy is one where there is no or limited equal access.
  • Deep democracy is one where there is real and significant equal access.

Democracy

  • Narrow democracy is one in which agency and control is limited.
  • Broad democracy is one in which decision-making and participation extends to a large domain of activities.

At the heart of Wright’s theory then is social power:

““Social power” is power rooted in the capacity of people for voluntary association in pursuit of collective goals – what sociologists call “collective action”.”

This contrasts to two other forms of power:

  • Economic power: the power of the market
  • State power

In functioning democracies, state power is subordinate to social power. In statist regimes, social power is subordinate to state power. And in capitalism, social and state power is subordinate to economic power. Socialism is the subordination of economic power to social power. Of course, these are more ideal-types than real forms. In reality, hybrids are the norm. Reaching real utopias then, is a matter of increasing social power against economic power.

What are concrete proposals that Wright puts forth as a way towards real utopias?

  • Participatory budgets (using examples of municipalities… hmm, beware of the tyranny of the local, though)
  • Solidarity funds (investment funds for immobile small and medium-sized businesses, see the Québec example)
  • Worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives (it works in solidarity economics, see Mondragon)
  • Unconditional basic income (UBI): unconditional, universal and individuals (not family or household-based)

“In the present context, a universal basic income can also be viewed as a way of infusing funds into forms of economic enterprise within which social empowerment plays a substantial role. The term “social economy” covers many such enterprises. One of the main problems that collective actors face in the social economy is generating a decent standard of living for the providers of social economy services. This is, of course, a chronic problem in the performing arts, but it also affects efforts by communities to organize effective social economy services for various kinds of care-giving activities – child care, elder care, home health care, respite care. It would be much easier for communities to mobilize various sources of funding for these activities if the basic standard of living was already taken care of through a basic income.”

As I said, powerful stuff. Go read the whole thing.

The (Real) Value of Work

Via Pierre Rimbert in Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition, sorry, subscription required) comes this really great British study by the New Economic Foundation whose conclusions and implications apply beyond the UK. The idea is to calculate the actual value of different kinds of jobs based not on what they are paid (surplus value) but on what they actually contribute to society.(social value). Occupations that produce social benefits and low social or environmental externalities have high social values whereas occupations that produce social ills and high environmental externalities have lower social value.

The occupations examined are

  • Low pay
    • Hospital cleaner
    • Recycling plant worker
    • Childcare worker
  • High pay
    • City banker
    • Advertising executive
    • Tax accountant

Based on comparing compensation and social value, the results are as follows (the full methodology is available in the study, of course):

Bankers: with salaries between £500,000 and £10 million, bankers destroy £7 of social value for every £1 in value they generate. The negative social effects should by now be obvious.

Advertising executives: paid between £50,000 and £12 million, they destroy £11 of social value for every £1 in value they generate (for example, through their promotion of environmental destruction and labor exploitation in the promotion of the consumption of cheap goods.

Tax accountants: paid between £75,000 and £200,000, they destroy £47 of social value for every £1 in value they generate (for instance, through their contribution to tax evasion).

Childcare workers: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £7 to £9.5 worth of social value.

Hospital cleaners: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £10 in social value.

Recycling plant workers: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £12 in social value.

In addition to this comparative study, the report also debunks ten myths regarding the relationship between pay and value (against, based on the UK but applicable beyond that):

Myth 1: the City is essential for the UK economy. Again, by now, we can clearly see the damage done by the inner workings of the financial centers of the Western world primarily. And financial practices like the ones that got us where we are do not even really contribute to growth. The report states, for the UK, the City generates a 3% a year in value added compared to 12.5% for manufacturing.

Myth 2: low-paid jobs are not locked. There are opportunities for advancement open to all. Well, that is, if one completely ignores the various forms of capital (economic, political, cultural and social) that the wealthy can accumulate and use more easily than those lower on the social ladder (see here and here).

Myth 3: Inequalities do not matter as long as poverty is reduced. Well, not so, as has been brilliantly demonstrated in The Spirit Level, inequalities are bad for society in and of themselves, regardless of the poverty level. More equal countries are produced better outcomes (in health, for instance) for all social classes, including the wealthy.

Myth 4: high salaries are needed to attract and retain talents. Boy, did we hear that one on TV when someone dared suggest that Wall Street pay and bonuses were obscene. Clearly, considering the outcomes, high salaries do not correlate with talent and other considerations factor in the decision where to work. More equal countries do not seem to have trouble retaining talented and innovative people.

Myth 5: highly paid workers work harder. No, a thousand times, no. First, low-paid people cannot afford hired help, so they do more housework and childcare. Also, they sometimes work two jobs with limited leisure time and vacations.

Myth 6: the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. No, no, don’t laugh. Only two examples suffice: health care, and private military contractors. ’nuff said.

Myth 7: If the rich get taxed at a proper level, they will take their money and run. Well, first, they can do that already without running thanks to extremely favorable tax codes and the existence of tax shelters. Also, again, residency decisions are often based on more than this one factor. And, again, life is more comfortable even for the wealthy in more equal countries as society is overall more secure, less violent and risky. Think of the very wealthy in Brazil who have to live in fortress-like gated communities, hire bodyguards to protect their children against kidnapping and commute by helicopters to avoid being assaulted in traffic.

Myth 8: the rich contribute more to society. Actually, again, they pay less taxes than other less wealthy, either through favorable tax laws or through regressive taxes (such as VATs). As a proportion of their income and wealth, they even give less to charity.

Myth 9: some jobs are satisfying, so, they don’t require as much pay. That one is often mentioned in relations to teachers, who are supposed to work out of pure dedication. And actually, the most dangerous / physically demanding jobs in society are not well-compensated at all.

Myth 10: pay always rewards profitability. Again, that is one of the (many) things that this recession has made clear: in the financial sector especially, pay and bonuses are not related to talent or profitability.

Full report in PDF here. Well worth anyone’s time.

Parenting Without Social Safety Net in the Age of Risk

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, one of the myth sociology teachers have to debunk at the undergraduate level in the US is the idea that the family, as a social institution, is where society begins and ends, everything rests on it, it is the basic core of society. Every other institutions is subaltern.

It follows from such a beliefs not just that social policy is based on such a conservative and misguided idea as “strengthening the family”, but that because this is a puritan conservative belief, “strengthening the family” does not mean good subsidized childcare or paid parental leaves, but moral injunction and shaming.

Add to this that, because of its weak social safety net, the US is the Western society where the Great Risk Shift has hit the harshest, and the individualization of risks. This has translated into intensive and competitive parenting, stratospheric increase in expectations and obligations (and major social stigma and disapproval for anything less than perfect parenting).

So, in this context, this article is a perfect reflection of that (thanks, Jim King for pointing it out to me!) and a solid dose of reality as to what conditions culture, social structure, and symbolic violence create for parents, at the very same time that these are culturally denied (parenting and motherhood are never-ending bliss!!).

The article is longish but well worth it, all based on the most contemporary research on the subject of happiness and parenting and does a great debunking job.

I’ll extract just this short excerpt because it best fits what I just wrote above:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.””

The point is that social policy, in these cases, is designed not to make people do certain things (unlike marriage incentives or making women watch the ultrasound of the fetus they want to abort) but to remove risks for the entire population and produce desirable outcomes (healthier or more educated people) through open doors. It is not perfect but it makes more sense (unless the austerity puritans triumph and get all that stuff dismantled).

In other words, it is a matter of creating the social, economic and cultural conditions where parenting is not a competitive rat race and the only acceptable outcome is perfection (whatever the heck that means) but a part of life protected from the most severe economic and social risks.

These European models embed family policies within the social and economic contexts as a way of protecting them whereas the American model extracts family policies and moralize them based on conservative ideas themselves based on what Gilbert Ryle would have called a category mistake.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

The Patriarchy Continuum – Submit or Die

On the same day, I get all these different articles that point to the same series of action that are part of the same pattern of sexual control in a patriarchal environment.

First stop, Italy:

“In the eight weeks to last Sunday, eight Italian women died in strikingly similar circumstances that indicate a change in the usual motivation for “crimes of passion”. Their deaths have prompted anguished discussion about the interaction between the sexes in today’s Italy. All the women were killed by men who were unable to accept rejection.

“There is no infidelity at the root of these crimes,” said Fabio Piacenti, the president of Eures, a social research institute. “On the contrary, infidelity is even tolerated so long as the relationship continues. What some men find intolerable is the breaking up.”

The feminist writer, Dacia Maraini, said the killers seemed to have confused “affection with a sense of ownership”.

“Possession is a form of assertion of the ego that excludes the other person,” she said. “Possession demands domination and control. It forms part of an antiquated, arrogant and androcentric culture.” Androcentrism is the placing of the masculine point of view at the centre of one’s view of the world.”

Second stop, Brazil. If you think 8 women in 8 weeks is pretty high a number, then consider this, 10 women killed every DAY as a result of domestic violence:

“A recent study has revealed that ten women are killed every day in Brazil as the result of domestic violence. More than 40,000 women were murdered in Brazil between 1997 and 2007.

Meanwhile, famous Brazilian goalie Fernandes Das Dores de Souza has been suspended from his soccer club and stands accused of the murder and dismemberment of his former girlfriend, Eliza Samudio. Samudio was kidnapped from her Rio de Janeiro hotel room, strangled, and dismembered, and her body was buried and fed to dogs. She had previously accused Dores de Souza of being the father of her child, a charge he denied.

All of this in spite of a supposedly groundbreaking law passed in 2006 which tripled the punishment for domestic violence in Brazil and instituted preventative measures in domestic violence cases, such as forbidding offenders from approaching women they had previously attacked or threatened to assault.

The Maria de Penha law was named for a woman who was so violently beaten by her husband she was left paraplegic. Besides increasing the punishment for domestic violence cases and drawing attention to Brazil’s serious domestic violence problem, it mandated the creation of women-only police stations which deal exclusively with sexual assault and violence against women.

However, many of the women working in the police stations say the cases they report are never prosecuted. Samudio had reported threats from de Souza several times at these stations, but no action was every taken against him. The stations are also woefully unprepared to protect women who come forward with complaints against their attackers.”

Third stop, South Korea. It is easier to consider mail order brides property:

“Authorities in Vietnam have expressed concern about the number of women being sent overseas as mail-order brides, after one was murdered by her South Korean husband eight days after she arrived in the country.

Following the murder, the 47-year-old husband turned himself in to police, saying he had heard a “ghost’s voice” urging him to kill his 20-year-old wife. It later emerged he had been treated for schizophrenia more than 50 times in the past five years.

Last year it was reported that more than 40,000 Vietnamese women have married South Korean men and migrated there.

About 90 per cent of weddings between South Koreans and Vietnamese are arranged by illegal marriage brokers.

A foreign ministry spokesman said: “I think that it is not easy to identify which marriage is unlawfully brokered.””

And because no patriarchy post would be complete without some atrocity on the part of the Taliban in Afghanistan:

“Women in Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan say they are once again being threatened, attacked and forced out of jobs and education as fears rise that their rights will be sacrificed as part of any deal with insurgents to end the war in Afghanistan.

Women have reported attacks and received letters warning of violence if they continue to work or even contact radio stations to request songs.One female teacher at a girls’ school in a southern Afghan province received a letter saying: “We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut off the heads of your children and will set fire to your daughter.”Another woman, Jamila, was threatened in August 2009, in a letter bearing the Taliban’s insignia when she was working for a local electoral commission. It said: “You work in the election office together with the enemies of religion and infidels. You should leave your job otherwise we will cut your head off your body.”

Jamila ignored the letter, but days later her father was murdered. She left her job and moved house.

Activists are fearful that their rights will be sold out in a deal between the Taliban or other insurgent groups and the US-backed Afghan government. They believe that if the Taliban is given a share in power, women will again be reduced to a condition close to slavery, as when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan in 1996-2001. Then, women could not leave their house without a close male relative and had to cover their faces and bodies with an all-enveloping burka or chadori.”

Not to worry, the Obama administration is very involved in protecting women’s social, economic, political and bodily autonomy… oh wait

“This week, a commotion arose over the question of whether Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plans, also known as high risk pools, can include abortion coverage.  The Obama Administration responded immediately by imposing a total ban on abortion coverage in the pools that echoes the Stupak Amendment, even though nothing in the law requires such action.”

Incidentally, this is why I support things like these:

“The lower House of the French parliament today approved a ban on Islamic veils.

The move is popular among French voters, but has sparked serious concerns from Muslim and human rights groups.

In the vote, 336 members of the French national assembly voted for the bill, with only one voting against. Most members of the Socialist party, the main opposition group, refused to participate in the vote.

The ban on face-covering veils, or niqab, will go to the Senate in September, where it is also likely to be passed. Its biggest hurdle is likely to follow when it is scrutinised by the French constitutional watchdog scrutinises it.

Some legal scholars say there is a chance the ban could be ruled unconstitutional.”

It is a case where the multicultural argument is extremely weak.

Extreme Discrimination – Hunting Albinos

I have blogged about this topic many times before: the mutilation or killing of albinos in Tanzania based on the belief that turning albinos body parts into potions will bring wealth.

Here is a more recent video on this:

The website for the NGO mentioned in the clip: Under The Same Sun. It is a short clip that can easily be used in class.

Teaching Undergraduate Sociology – Contradicting Common Views

This New York Times article on the end of polyandry is interesting in itself but also provides a good example of the uphill battle we face when we teach undergraduate sociology as we have to battle inaccurate common view often initiated by powerful interest groups and propagated by the useless US media.

Case in point: our students often assume that (1) the family is the pillar of society, its most foundation institution, and (2) that the nuclear (breadwinner / homemaker) family structure is the default, most widespread, most “natural” structure.

This article actually reveals that this is simply not the case, but more a reflection of the power of various conservative family think tanks than established reality.

“Buddhi Devi was 14 when she was betrothed. In India, that is not unusual: many marry young. Her intended was a boy from her village who was two years younger — that, too, was not strange. But she was also supposed to marry her future husband’s younger brother, once he was old enough.

Now 70 and a widow who is still married— one of her husbands is dead — Ms. Devi is a ghost of another time, one of a shrinking handful of people who still live in families here that follow the ancient practice of polyandry. In the remote villages of this Himalayan valley, polyandry, the practice of multiple men marrying one wife, was for centuries a practical solution to a set of geographic, economic and meteorological problems.

People here survived off small farms hewed from the mountainsides at an altitude of 11,000 feet, and dividing property among several sons would leave each with too little land to feed a family. A harsh mountain winter ends the short planting season abruptly. The margin between starvation and survival is slender.

“We used to work and eat,” Ms. Devi said, her face etched by decades of blistering winters, her fingers thick from summers of tilling the soil. “There was no time for anything else. When three brothers share one lady, they all come back to one house. They share everything.”

Polyandry has been practiced here for centuries, but in a single generation it has all but vanished. That is a remarkably swift change in a country where social change, despite rapid economic growth, leaping technological advances and the relentless march of globalization, happens with aching slowness, if at all.”

For those who study family structures, there is no doubt that the kind of family and household structure that ends up dominating a culture at a given point in time is more a matter of politics / power and economics (and the associated technologies available).  This is something wonderfully illustrated by Stephenie Coontz in her book, Marriage: a History. Which is why it is also misguided to design social policy based on the faulty view of marriage and family as core / base institutions. Social relationships, from the most formal to the most intimate are shaped by culture and social structure as well mechanisms of power.

Fun With Global Poverty Statistics

This is nice follow-up on my previous post of delinquency statistics, this time, on global poverty statistics, via Social Watch:

“When the United Nations hosts a summit meeting of world leaders next September to assess the current state of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it is expected to single out one of the major “success stories” of the day: a reduction in global poverty.

But have there been any real, significant successes in the absolute number of people worldwide who have escaped poverty?

The United Nations is convinced the developing world as a whole remains on track to achieve the poverty reduction target (a 50 percent cut) by 2015. But the numbers may belie that.

At the global level, the number of people living under the international poverty line of less than 1.25 dollars a day declined from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion: a reduction of about 500 million people.

The argument by most critics is that these figures are distorted because the successes are mostly in a few countries, primarily China, Vietnam and Brazil, and to a lesser extent, India.

China and Vietnam account for the largest reductions in the poverty rate, and India accounts for much of the reduction in South Asia, according to the latest international assessment released by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

And the decline in absolute poverty levels in Latin America and the Caribbean – another so-called “success story” – is largely accounted for by Brazil.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Applied Economic Research, Brazil has exceeded the MDG target to cut extreme poverty by half by 2015: between 1990 and 2008, the number of Brazilians in extreme poverty has been reduced by 81 percent.

If so, is the reduction in “global poverty” a political myth?

Asked for his comments, Rob Vos, director of the Development Policy and Analysis Division at the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), told IPS: “It is true that most of the poverty reduction comes on account of China – when measured in absolute numbers.”

According to the data presented in the U.N.’s World Economic and Social Survey, the total number of poor in the world decreased from 1.9 billion in 1981 to 1.4 billion in 2005, when the last international survey was conducted.

In China alone, he said, the number of poor decreased from 835.1 million in 1981 to 207.7 million in 2005, which meant a sharp decrease of China’s poverty rate, from 84.0 to 15.9 percent.

In Vietnam, the decrease in the poverty rate over the same period was staggering: from 90.4 to 17.1 percent, and much progress was made in much of East Asia, said Vos.

“India’s contribution to global poverty reduction has been less impressive,” he added.

In South Asia as a whole, he pointed out, the absolute number of poor increased from 548 million to 596 million during 1981-2005.

As a share of the population, South Asia’s poverty rate did fall – from 59.4 percent in 1981 to 40.3 percent in 2005 – but because of population growth it was not enough to stop the increase in the number of poor, Vos argued.

(…)

If you take a second look at the figures, which are the World Bank’s revised estimates of people living under the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day, says Roberto Bissio of Social Watch, “What we have is that world poverty (including China) decreased by 500 million (1.9 billion minus 1.4 billion).”

Yet, according to those same figures, poverty in China decreased by 627 million (835.7 minus 207.7).

That means that, outside China, poverty increased in that period by more than 127 million people.

And those figures refer to 2005, when an international survey on household incomes was conducted that allowed the establishment of the PPP (Parity Purchasing Power of the different national currencies, used to adjust the poverty line).

Since 2005, according to the World Bank, the food crisis and the global financial crisis have sent at least another 100 million people under the poverty line, Bissio pointed out.

“Thus, it is just a spin to convince the naive that MDG Goal 1 is being met, while the same figures show that poverty is increasing around the world, with the exception of China,” he told IPS.

If you take other poverty lines – two or three dollars per day, or even better, national poverty lines based on the needs and means of each country – the actual number of people living in poverty around the world might well be some 4.0 billion, an absolute majority of the world population, and not just the bottom billion, he argued.”

Understanding Delinquency Statistics

In this great interview (sliced up into shorter video segments), Laurent Mucchielli explains the social construction (and sometimes meaninglessness) of delinquency statistics.

Part 1 – Official delinquency statistics are meaningless:

Part 2 – Delinquents are not more violent. They are now persecuted for acts that used to not be persecuted. Victimization statistics do not support an increased violence hypothesis.

Part 3 -The social production of delinquency statistics, research methods primer

The rest below the fold.

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