31 Mar

It’s a Trap!

Book Review: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke

The Two-Income Trap cover

The Two-Income Trap cover

I picked up this book not because I am a mother (as if I would have time to read if I had a child), but because I came across this quotation on Reddit about a month ago, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” And my thoughts were That’s all the reason I need not to procreate and also I should read that book. This is a big claim though; the main thing that will bring a woman down is children. I was interested to see how Warren and Warren-Tyagi (the mother-daughter duo that wrote the book) substantiated that claim and treated the issue.

The basic premise of The Two-Income Trap is that by sending mothers (the book does focus on mothers, rather than second-earner more generally) into the workforce, we have doomed ourselves. At first, this sounds very anti-feminist. I found myself wondering whether the authors thought women should go back to staying at home, but they later make it clear that this is absolutely not what they are proposing. Rather, the “trap” is twofold: having two income earners means that families structure their budgets around having two full time workers. Using this increase in cash (compared to families with only one income), these two-income families buy homes in better school districts, driving up the home values of everything in the area, making it impossible (for most people) to afford a home in a decent district on only on income. The second piece of the trap is that because families are focusing all their resources on affording homes in a nice school district, if one parent becomes unable to work or loses his or her job, the family is immediately sunk. We have created a system in which the only way to compete is to have two full time incomes and no one gets injured or laid off.

I was surprised to learn that school districts were such a major factor in where people decided to live (although, as a former teacher, I should not have been). In fact, “A study conducted in Fresno found that, for similar homes, school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices [emphasis theirs].” And furthermore, I found this statistic quite telling, “Schools that scored just 5 percent higher on fourth-grade math and reading tests added a premium of nearly $4,000 to nearby homes.” What! That’s basically adding a whole year’s salary onto a mortgage just for 5% more in test scores. The tone of this book definitely communicated the importance of getting into better school districts to middle class families. People are willing to bring themselves to the brink of financial ruin just to make it happen. I expect this is a function of the middle class drive for children to do better than their parents and the parents make this part of the American Dream come true by positioning themselves as strategically as possible, even if it means spending almost all your money on a house. Warren and Warren-Tyagi’s solution to this housing madness is “a well-designed voucher program.” I know that for anyone in education, vouchers make you tense up, but the goal of their proposed voucher is to make it so each child is entitled to go to school somewhere, but that school doesn’t have to be tied to the family’s domicile. The “voucher” travels with the student to whatever school the family chooses. I like the idea of de-coupling residence and school; however, I find it hard to believe that this can work in a pragmatic sense. Won’t everyone just try to get into the best school in the area? Wouldn’t this just result in lotteries like many charter schools already do? How are kids going to get to school? I will admit that I don’t have a better idea (of course I’m not a professor at Harvard Law School like warren is), but I am not confident that this would work without seeing a lot more data and plans.

Even though the book is primarily about two-income families, it also gives some attention to single mothers who have it even worse than everyone else. Unfortunately, “Single mothers are more likely than any other group to file for bankruptcy.” Essentially, anything that is financially negative, will happen to single mothers more than anyone else. They are more likely to lose their homes and to be past due on bills. Even though the “trap” described in this book is for two-income families, single mothers (and presumably fathers) are caught up in it in their own way. According to Warren and Warren-Tyagi, “For every increase in the paycheck of a single mother, there is now a corresponding increase in a married couple’s income as well … the income gap between single and married parents is growing.” So, if you think that being a single parent will let you opt-out of this two-income trap, you’re wrong about that.

Another issue that is discussed in detail is the issue of debt, consumption and inflation. They explain that one of the major things that can drive a family into debt—and potentially bankruptcy—is medical bills. They state that “Over the past twenty years, the number of families declaring bankruptcy in the wake of a serious illness has multiplied more than twentyfold, or 2,000 percent.” They also discuss the rise of subprime mortgage lending (and for anyone who has lived in the 21st century, subprime is not a term I need to define for you). Subprime mortgages offer interest rates of more than twice as much as a standard loan. The authors give the example of a 6.5% and a 15.6% interest rate: on the life of a $175,000 mortgage, the higher rate would result in $420,000 more in payments over a 30 year loan. That is insane, you could buy two more houses (in someplace that isn’t California, I suppose) for that amount, yet people are racking that up as mere interest. Apparently, the mortgage industry was being somewhat less than honest at this point in time, and the authors cite a figure that 40% of people who were sold subprime mortgages could have qualified for a standard loan. It seems that many people are not well enough educated to know when they are being scammed by the bank, and thus were taken advantage of by lenders who were pretending to be friendly. Again, this is madness and it is absolutely irresponsible and predatory on the part of banks.

From my standpoint in 2013, I’m thinking, Well, obviously, but this book was published in 2003. It pre-empted the financial crisis by five years. Some of the issues they discuss make them seem almost prescient, but of course, they weren’t making magical predictions, it was clear even then that our economic model was not a sustainable one. To get on my soapbox for a moment: the fact that people knew and were writing about the problems of medical debt and people getting into mortgages that they could barely sustain in 2003 (which means the data would have been primarily from the 1990’s), but nothing happened and the economy was allowed to completely fall apart in 2008 is infuriating. The authors mention that in 2002, Citibank’s subprime lending arm was “prosecuted for deceptive marketing practices.” And yet, nothing happened. They paid $240 million to settle and, presumably, went on stoking the fires of financial ruin for the country. My generation is going to be trying to cope with the after effects of all this thanks to the legislature deregulating so many industries and bankers profiting off of all this foolishness.

At the end of the book, Warren and Warren-Tyagi offer some suggestions for how to avoid the two-income trap. The first is the somewhat obvious “Stay home?” I get that having a parent stay home can be a way to opt-out of this trap, but for that to work, one partner has to be making a significant amount of money and the other must be okay with staying at home and leaving the workforce. I don’t see that being a great solution (and even the authors present it in a tentative kind of way). However, I think the lesson from this suggestion is to not rely so heavily on two incomes. If a family has two incomes, then they shouldn’t be putting a full income of one member into a mortgage. An entire lifestyle cannot be predicated on having just enough to pay for necessities without any savings. The second solution (and my personal favorite) is “No children?” (all the suggestions have nice, tentative question marks). Notably, “By forgoing childbearing, a woman decreases her chances of going bankrupt by 66 percent” and “By remaining childless, a woman greatly improves her odds of having a comfortable retirement.” If you read this book looking for reasons you shouldn’t have children, then here it is, you win this round!

I had a hard time figuring out what I thought about this book on the whole. A part of me wants to say Well, just never have children! Problem solved, but of course that is not an actionable solution for everyone, and frankly, there are lots of people who want children and feel good about having them, and I wouldn’t want to deny people that choice just because the financial game is not a fun one for families with children. Another part of me was enraged because injustice is upsetting for me. Every school should be a good school that parents want their kids to go to! People shouldn’t be pushing themselves to the brink of bankruptcy just so their kid can get a free and appropriate education. That is the most anti-democratic concept that I can think of. It guarantees that only rich (or relatively wealthy people) will get a good education, thus perpetuating a cycle of socio-economic inequality. I’m not sure what a good answer would be, but I feel that, as a society, if education, equality, and democracy are things that we actually value (rather than things we just say we value) then this is a problem that needs to b e fixed.

Finally, if you hate reading, or just like watching things, here’s a lecture by Elizabeth Warren about things from this book and “the coming collapse of the middle class.”

The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren [57:37]

25 Mar

Welcome to Crazy Land

Book Review: Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane

Over the Cliff book cover

I know I am not the only person to ask themselves “Why are these people completly insane?” while watching the news (or, while watching the bits of Fox News crazy that The Daily Show cherry picks for our amusement). I know this because John Amato and David Neiwert wrote Over the Cliff. Surely, they started with the same “What the hell?” sentiment that so many non-conservatives—and probably quite a few fiscal conservatives have felt since this century began and George W. Bush took office. What happened? How did we get here? More importantly, how can we get out?

Over the Cliff was published in 2010, so while a few things have changed since it came out, the analysis and coverage of the events leading up to Obama’s election and his first year in office are on point. Amato and Neiwert are both internauts of the original liberal blogosphere (do we have a better word for this yet?), with Amato being the creator of the Crooks and Liars blog. They both seem to have a fair bit of news watching street cred and, hey, they lived this period—and more importantly they were paying attention (unlike me, finishing college and having an existential crisis).

The first thing that stood out to me from reading the coverage of the Obama campaign was just how racist it was. I remembered that it had been racist, but seeing the vitriol compiled in text was alarming. I’m used to racism operating in its normal, insidious way, but seeing flat out racism is, for me, really shocking. Of course, much of the blatantly racist quotes are stated in that crazy, nonsensical way that we have come to know and love from Republicans. For a fine example: “Obama wins, I’m gonna move to Alaska. Haven’t you heard that the United States is gonna be taken down from within? What better way to get taken down from within than having the President of the United States be the one that’s going to do it?” Irrefutable logic, truly.

As much as it is fun to giggle at the apparent stupidity of some of these people, Over the Cliff makes the point that when networks like Fox News prominently feature incendiary rhetoric, people who hold these same beliefs feel validated, like their beliefs are correct and right because someone on national television is sharing in the same sentiments. As such, the book takes aim at people like Glenn Beck, in particular, for giving a forum to this militant fringe crazy bullshit.

A lot of these right-wing extremists subscribe to the “lone wolf” ideology, which is a form of “leaderless resistance.” By operating alone, it is difficult to pin down some kind of hierarchy that could be targeted by law enforcement, but it also means that a quite often crimes or terrorist acts committed by extremists often aren’t connected with the ideology because they appear to be a one-off event by a crazy person. In fact, the “oh, that guy is just crazy!” defense seems to be a popular one. The book discussed a few instances where there was a shoot-out or someone reacted with what was an apparently disproportionate response for the situation, at least based on the way the news reported it. Whereas in many such cases, the perpetrator can be connected with extreme right wing ideology, either via activity on the Stormfront forums or similar sites. What’s really convenient about that for the people on TV fanning the flames of these people is that they can just say “He’s a crazy person! Not my fault!” and move on from the subject. Glenn Beck did this pretty often. Unfortunately, unless you’re paying extremely close attention (or you are in on the right-wing extremist secret handshakes) they do seem like unrelated crazy people flying off the handle, making things seem just insane, when they represent a pattern of violence based on an extreme ideology.

Another theme of the book is Fox News’ promotion of the Tea Party. It seems like they never would have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for Fox promoting their events and really signing on with the message (anyone remember the Tea Party Express?). With the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the “Birther” issue and the “Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Hitler” rhetoric took on a life of their own in the insane signage that many of the participants carried. Again, Amato and Neiwert make it clear that this is really a function of racism. These people did not have a cogent message other than “Oh no, black man!” Thus, they equated Obama with all the worst political things they could think of and continually tried to cast doubt on his legitimacy. Racism all the way.

When the issue of passing some health care legislation came up in is when the Tea Party found its voice. The authors express that after the initial tax day protests and the 9/12 foolishness, the Tea Party was losing momentum and lacked any kind of focus, but unfortunately for the rest of us, the health care debates invigorated them. The Tea Party leadership actually distributed guidelines to people on how to be maximally disruptive during town hall events so that there could be no civil discourse. From a rational point of view, it is really hard to understand why you would want to shut down a discussion where people might be sharing actual information. Even after reading this book, I still don’t totally understand that, but it seems to be fueled by racism and the espousal of just really extreme beliefs. I’m sure there’s a certain element of mental instability as well, but I’ll go ahead and admit that’s mostly speculation.

It ends on a not very hopeful note, cautioning us against being dragged down by right-wing madness, but also giving a call to action to everyone else. I think now, a few years down the line, things are more optimistic in some ways, but the same in some others. First of all, Glenn Beck—the book’s villain—no longer has a show on Fox News. For this, we all rejoice. I think that Obama’s landslide re-election beat back some of the crazier sentiments that emerged during his first term. The people have spoken! We’ve now elected a black man to the presidency twice, any person of color who comes after Obama will not have it as bad as he did. He has made it possible for everyone else.  In news that is both hopeful and profoundly depressing, Mother Jones offered this article on the outcome of adopting many Tea Party policies in Florida. The state cut taxes, 4 million people are without health care, $3 billion was taken from education, and agencies that serve disabled people were hugely cut. While there is nothing hopeful about this news for Florida, I hope that everyone else in the country sees this and realizes that this is the “logical” extension of the policies of the Tea Party. Hopefully, over the next few election cycles, Florida digs its way out of this madness and the rest of us can let the Tea Party become a historical footnote.

17 Mar

The Ordinary Review

Book Review: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall

Cover image for

The Ordinary Acrobat

The Ordinary Acrobat occupies the literary territory between memoir, history, and anthropological report. Wall opens with his nod to the “circus memoir” genre, in which the author describes his or her first interaction with the circus, before jumping into the circus experience that captivated him, compelling him to learn more about the exotic culture and history of the circus. Not surprisingly, Wall was became fascinated with the circus while in France, a cultural stronghold for the contemporary circus. France classifies circus as a fine art, and it is governed by France’s Ministry of Culture, which puts millions into supporting the art and its state supported circus school annually.

Wall researched this book from the enviable position (from my perspective as a scholar and a former circus performer) of a Fullbright fellowship and the ability to sit in on classes at France’s National School. In compiling the work, it’s clear that Wall also spent an immense amount of time speaking with circus professionals and historians, reading works of circus history and lore, and “chasing ghosts”—the name the author gives to visiting sites of circus history, even if there’s nothing left connecting the site to the circus anymore. When I picked up the book, I was worried that it would be heavy on memoir (What do I care about reading some circus neophyte’s memoir? I asked myself), but in fact, the memoir aspects permeated the narrative without overpowering it. Wall’s personal experiences tied the history and cultural observations together, propelling the story forward and providing a great sense of how the circus developed to where it stands today.

Even though I’ve been involved in circus arts for about half my life, I learned a lot about the roots of the circus and how some of its traditions developed; some of which I had never even thought about. For example, the traditional red and gold circus colors and ring master look are based on military fashion. One of the first and most influential circuses (as we think of them today) was put together by Philip Astley, a retired cavalry officer. When he started his circuses, he based his shows on equestrian skills (a tradition that persisted until very recently, although still seen in “traditional” circuses today), and lifted most of his style choices from his military experience. Wall makes the point that such choices became codified into traditions that were handed down through the years between performers, resulting in the rather uniform look of circuses in the 20th century.

The first skill that the author describes learning is juggling and he devotes three whole chapters (three!) to juggling and speaking to professionals. As a juggler, I was impressed; jugglers are typically the misfits of the circus (speaking as a juggler), and as one performer that Wall spoke with put it, jugglers are “heady.” Wall also described the problem with juggling performance: it tends to only really be appreciated by other jugglers. “Be hinging their craft of virtuosic execution, jugglers painted themselves into a corner. Although it is thrilling, this kind of technical juggling is tough for audiences to appreciate … Many tricks are harder than they look, and vice versa.” He also noted that since there is no inherent danger in juggling as there is in other circus disciplines, audiences sometimes have a difficult time connecting with it. Some jugglers have moved past this by turning it their acts into full blown art pieces. Wall spoke with juggler Jerome Thomas, who confided the secret to engaging the audience with an act as art: “You make him work his imagination … You make him dream!” The audience has to do some mental work in order to connect with the act, not just be wowed by a deluge of props cascading to the floor.

Wall also relates his foray into trapeze and investigations into clowning, all the while including fun facts. One of the most ridiculous (and terrifying) was that in 1829, a town in Pennsylvania prosecuted a group of acrobats for witchcraft for “‘having private conferences with the spirit of darkness,’ as well as exposing their populace to such ‘performances of magic’ as ‘leaping over a horse through hoops.’” Jumping through hoops: the devil’s handiwork! I also found the section on clowning quite informative. Wall met Andre Riot-Sarcey, director of Les Nouveaux Nez, a modern clowning quartet. Andre explained that clowning is “the reduction of ourselves into our purest desires, to our desperate hunger for approval,” and he also offered the most important information about clowning: “CLOWN = FUNNY !!!”

At the end of the book, Wall discusses the cultural significance of circuses and compares the artistic landscape in Europe and the U.S. One of the best comments on this came from Bernard Turin, director of France’s National School in discussing why circus arts declined so sharply in the middle of the 20th century: “A popular art should bring people together. It should unify them and pull them upward. Unfortunately, television doesn’t do this, it pulls them downward. Instead of bringing people together, it isolates them.” This segues into something of a call to action from Wall. Circus arts can bring people of all social classes together, but in the U.S., we leave the funding of circus arts entirely to the private sector, so the artists we get really only end up working in corporations. No one starts troupes or shows because there is too much financial risk involved, thus leaving the American circus landscape devoid of new contributions and innovation. Circus can pull people upward, as Turin put it, and as someone who spent most of my youth in a circus environment, I tend to agree.

I recommend this book for both people who have an existing interest in circuses (you will learn something!) and for people who don’t (it will endear you!). Like I said, I found that this book was a great way to get in touch with my circus “roots,” and I think that it’s a highly accessible work on the past, present, and future of the circus as an art form.

13 Mar

Obligatory Introduction

I want to write, so I am blogging. I also want to work on making and designing a Web site, so I created one.

My name is Lindsey and this is Digital Manticore. I am primarily planning on writing book reviews, but I also expect that I will be offering various opinions and commentary on culture, the Internet, society, languages, my life, and really anything that appeals to me. Although I’m saying this now, the nature of blogs tends to be such that they find a niche over time. So, be welcome, comment, and enjoy.