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A Minimum of Dignity

A Minimum of Dignity

This weekend, low-wage workers from around the country will be arriving in my city, Richmond, to make a case for increasing the minimum wage. It’s the first-ever national convention for the Fight for $15 movement, which in the past few years has launched wide-ranging strikes and protests to raise awareness about how a $7.25-an-hour wage—the current federal minimum—just doesn’t cut it for many workers struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families.

There’s a long line of economic arguments in favor of, and opposed to, increases in the minimum wage. Among other things, opponents say it will raise prices for consumers, cause employers to slash jobs or cut back on workers’ hours, and put many companies out of business. Advocates say it will help the economy by giving workers more money to spend in their communities, encouraging the unemployed to seek out work, and reducing the stress and anxiety the working poor deal with, as well as their reliance on government benefits.

As important as the economic impacts of this policy are, however, it’s even more important to consider its cultural and moral implications. After all, that’s what drives much of the widespread public support for increasing the minimum wage, even among people who have never heard of, say, the elasticities of labor supply and demand. Many Americans just don’t think it is right that people who work hard should have to struggle so hard.

Hillary Clinton and the Art of the Impossible

Hillary Clinton and the Art of the Impossible

Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech on Thursday brought to mind the wide gap that separates those in this country who want sweeping change and those who favor incremental reform. It's played out during the presidential campaign, obviously, in the fierce primary clashes between Bernie Sanders and Clinton, and between Donald Trump and his Republican rivals. But it's also a tension that can be seen in Clinton's own politics.

Today, Clinton is the centrist foil to Sanders's bold and radical idealism. She has explicitly described herself that way. "You know, I get accused of being kind of moderate and center," Clinton told supporters last September. "I plead guilty."

Helpers

Helpers

On the three-month anniversary of the Paris attacks, an American visitor remembers the fear on the streets—and the kindness of strangers.

It was the last night of my conference in Paris, and I was sitting with some new friends in a Brazilian restaurant near the Avenue de la République. We had just wrapped up a day of panels and presentations on the topic of race at the Sorbonne, and the six of us—two Dutch scholars, an Italian, a Belgian, a French woman, and me, the American—had gone out to celebrate. I felt a bit sheepish, as an American, to be eating food from the Americas in Paris, but a few drinks erased that feeling.

We had just finished eating and were sitting around chatting when the once emptying restaurant became full of people again. A young French couple hurriedly slipped into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to us. The man spoke English to us. “Don’t go outside,” he said.

The people at my table huddled anxiously around him. People were running in the streets away from something, he told us. I glanced around the restaurant and saw that everyone was already staring at their phones. Looking at my own, I saw a news alert that said that several bombs had gone off in the Bataclan concert hall.

“That is just 1,000 meters from here,” the French man said, eyes wide. Some of the women around me gasped.

Progress for African Americans? Yes, and No

Progress for African Americans? Yes, and No

All the discussions today of how much racial progress we’ve made since Dr. Martin Luther King was alive reminded me of a disturbing point about the black−white health gap mentioned in recent research, some of which I discussed in an Atlantic essay over the weekend.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans have been catching up with whites in terms of life expectancy at birth. So things are looking up, right?

Yes, and no. To a sizeable extent, what explains the narrowing of the life-expectancy gap in the last couple decades is not just that things are better for African Americans (though they have improved), but also that things are worse for whites—working-class whites above all.

Mazatlán

Mazatlán

The sun was sinking, the day finally ending. I sat on the beach in Mazatlán, propped against my pack, swim trunks still damp under my jeans. At this hour, the beach was empty.

The night before I'd stopped in Mazatlán, a city on Mexico’s northwestern coast, to break up the long bus trip from Tijuana to Guadalajara. Back in Seattle, the Sunday travel section had made the place sound like paradise. All I’d found was a gloomy hotel room, an ocean too hot for swimming, Gila monsters splashing in an open sewer nearby, and a couple of scrawny teenagers humping alongside a broken concrete path near the beach.

The bus to Guadalajara would arrive in an hour, but I didn’t feel like waiting in the bus station. I opened up a book and started reading on the beach.

Best of In The Fray 2015

Best of In The Fray 2015

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Don't Blame Canada If They're Doing What America Should Be Doing

Don’t Blame Canada If They’re Doing What America Should Be Doing

I wrote an essay that appeared in the Atlantic yesterday. Based on the research for my book on unemployment, the piece talks about the debate over Denmark in last week's Democratic presidential debate—and how the real debate should be over Canada:

Clearly, America won’t expand its social safety net to anywhere near the scale of Denmark’s over the next president’s time in office. Judging from their rhetoric in the debate, though, Clinton and Sanders both agree that government can and should play an important role in extending economic opportunities more broadly. Canada’s approach to policy shows us some of the practical ways a country can do that—without having to go far from our roots as a New World society of dreamers and strivers.

Page 99 of My New Book on Unemployment

Page 99 of My New Book on Unemployment

I participated in Marshal Zeringue's Page 99 Test at the Campaign for the American Reader. The blog is based on a quote by the writer Ford Madox Ford: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." New authors talk about the ninety-ninth page of their book and what it says about its larger themes. Here's what I wrote about my book Cut Loose:

Page 99 talks about how the unemployed deal with the depression and anxiety that come from losing part of their identities. Work is central to our sense of self—it’s often the first question we ask someone we meet—and during the workday we build friendships that sustain us throughout our lives. Many of the people I interviewed felt isolated. Friends could no longer relate. Relationships with spouses and children became strained. Unable to provide the way they used to, they found themselves mired in blame and doubts.

Op-Ed on the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

Op-Ed on the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

Newsday has published an essay of mine that puts the fight for a $15 minimum wage within the big-picture context of my new book, Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.

Futures for the Middle Class

Futures for the Middle Class

This week, after 167 years, the futures trading pits in Chicago closed down. Computers now handle the work that shouting traders flashing hand signals used to do. I was struck by this part of the story:

“What’s also disappearing is a rich culture of brazen bets, flashy trading jackets and kids just out of high school getting a shot at making it big. The pits were a ruthless place, but they were also a proving ground where education and connections counted for nothing next to drive and, occasionally, muscle.…”

America: A Country without a Cuisine

America: A Country without a Cuisine

In the United States, where I was born and raised, our relationship to food today seems more distant from our surroundings than ever. We Americans consistently lead the world’s wealthy nations in obesity. Have we forgotten how to nourish ourselves? Where and when did we lose our way?

The co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber, offers one theory on America’s problem: it doesn’t have a cuisine. “All cuisines evolved out of a negotiation that the peasants were making with the landscape,” Barber explained in an interview. “Now what could the landscape provide? And how could they make it nutritious and delicious in terms of a diet? That’s the genesis of every cuisine.” In other words, a cuisine is not just a style of cooking; it's “a pattern of eating that supports what the landscape can provide.”

Debunking the Myth of Self-Made Success

Debunking the Myth of Self-Made Success

Here is a short piece I wrote recently for a Zócalo Public Square discussion on the question "Is Rising Inequality Slowly Poisoning Our Democracy?" The discussion included experts from the Brennan Center for Justice, Cato Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.

When Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” half a century ago, he meant it to be an insult, not an ideal. In his view, a society where only the best and brightest can advance would soon become a nightmare. Young predicted that democracy would self-destruct as the talented took power and the inferior accepted their deserved place at the bottom.

Of course, the world we live in today is still no meritocracy. If most Americans are expected to go it alone, without the help of government or unions, elites continue to block competitors and manipulate the rules—as Wall Street did in spectacular fashion in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis.