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Extremely Exhausting

Extremely Exhausting

The Atlantic has published a piece I wrote about living in an extreme meritocracy:

Increasingly sophisticated data-gathering technologies measure performance across very different domains, from how students score on high-stakes tests at school (or for that matter, how they behave in class), to what consumers purchase and for how much, to how dangerous a risk—or tempting a target—a prospective borrower is, based on whatever demographic and behavioral data the credit industry can hoover up.… Statistical models that measure performance have biases that arise from those of their creators. As a result, algorithms are often unfair and sometimes harmful.… But as serious as their shortcomings are, the widespread use of decision-making algorithms points to an even bigger problem: Even if models could be perfected, what does it mean to live in a culture that defers to data, that sorts and judges with unrelenting, unforgiving precision?

Here’s the full story.

Only Poor People Take the Bus

Hopewell-Mann is a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the predominantly Latino city of Santa Fe. Close enough to downtown to make it a short commute, yet a world away so that tourism doesn’t quite reach it, it’s a stark reminder of some of the inequalities present in this city. While the stunning adobe architecture downtown looks like it’s been preserved in aspic, Hopewell-Mann’s main drag is lined with big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and cheap motels offering month-to-month leases. The neighborhood attracts a mix of the transient and the locally displaced, and not surprisingly, people downtown tend to avoid it.

Earlier in the year, I was a writer in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, which is located in Hopewell-Mann. One day, I asked a friend to drop me off at the mall downtown, where I needed to pick up a few essentials. From there, I planned to catch a bus and take the scenic route back home.

Calvin and Raul waiting at the bus stopWhen I finished my shopping, I headed over to the bus stop—which took several minutes to locate, thanks to its inconspicuous signage. When I got there, I saw the back of a white-and-blue city bus trundling into the distance. I’d missed it by seconds. According to the timetable, the next bus wouldn’t be for another hour. I was stuck. Just then, the rain began to pour.

Halva with Tea

Halva with Tea

It’s a small coffee shop, a Shingle-style shack with blue trim, listed by Yelp as one of Laguna Beach’s best. Cookies and biscotti lie in a basket in front of the order window. The barista, an upbeat blonde woman in her late fifties, early sixties, comes over to me. As I’m trying to choose what flavor to put in my coffee, we start talking. She finds out I’m from Phoenix and asks what brought me to Laguna.

“My friend passed away two weeks ago. I’m here to clear my head,” I tell her. Hal, a pastor, was one of the first friends I’d made after moving to Phoenix a year and a half ago with my fiancé. He had helped us through some tough times.

She’s curious about where my accent is from. I tell her I was born in Iran. “But I have lived here longer than I have lived there,” I quickly add.

It’s a cool, sunny November morning. As she’s making my coffee, the woman spots the book I’m carrying in my hand, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, by Hooman Majd. She asks me what it’s about. I tell her it was written by an Iranian immigrant who had left Iran when he was eight months old. When he turned fifty, he decided to go looking for his grandmother’s house halfway around the world, hoping to find his roots. He found the area, the familiar scents, the leftover mud walls. But he couldn’t find the actual house.

His story is not much different from mine, I say. Several years ago, I visited the neighborhood where my family used to live in Tehran. For the first time in more than two decades, I walked our old block, looking for the home I had grown up in. But it wasn’t there anymore.

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.