New OrleansI don’t read much fiction anymore, not necessarily because there isn’t some good stuff, but simply because in the preciousness of time there are so many things I’m trying to learn in the constant wrestling to make sense of facts and weld them into plans, policy, and just plain sense that I have little time left.Luckily, I have a friend on the West Coast who annually looks across the table as I’m having breakfast at her house and asks if I’ve read any good books recently, and she’s only asking me about fiction.As a firm believer in sweat equity, I make sure that I’ve given a fair shot to some titles that speak to me for some reason or another, so I can try to make a recommendation from my peculiar taste.
Recently, I used some of my endless hours on airplanes to start paying my dues in readiness for this perennial question.Of the current crop I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, a finalist for the National Book Circle Award and a winner of extensive prizes in the UK and a Times Notable Book.I also read Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, a finalist for the National Book Award.I caught up with Lost City Radio, a 2007 book by Daniel Alarcon as well as The Informers a 2008 first novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez.Reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a National Book Circle winner in 2009, roughly a book running between the violence of missing women in Juarez on the border of the United States and life in Mexico City, had given me a greater interest in the depth and contributions of writers working on Latin American themes, and I’ve now read quite a number of Bolano’s novels, which I find unendingly powerful.
Now all of these books are very different.Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman’s search for self and place in both the highs and lows of the American immigrant experience and the conflicting claims and ambitions of life, love, and home in a complex city like Lagos and country like Nigeria.The subtext of the book though as importantly is a frank look at the contradictions and importance of race in both the United States and elsewhere.Flamethrowers purports to be about a classic American girl from Reno trying to find herself as well in Nevada, New York City, and Italy, and being both lost and found in all three places in the time of the Red Brigades.Both are interesting books with interesting issues, though I’ll recommend Americanah to my friend as the easier and more valuable climb.
But, Lost City Radio by Alarcon, the Peruvian-American writer born in Lima and living in the Bay Area, was the best of my recent crop.The book follows a young man from the country snared in a minor mess with the government who becomes a messenger for a guerrilla formation modeled on Sendero, the Shining Path, from that period, and a woman whose melodious voice finds her moderating a radio show where families, friends, and others look for the lost and disappeared.We are no longer in the era of “magical realism” in dealing with these issues, but excellent, beautiful and powerful writing evoking the layers of life and identity in trying to live, love, and stand for something in oppressive times.I couldn’t help wondering if KABF should have a similar show.
My recommendations aside, I started to believe I was seeing patterns, despite my narrow reading focus.Does current literature almost require a global focus in order to speak to the curious nature of America today?Are we best educated about ourselves through the prism of the exotic?Is the narrowness of our politics and the provincialism of our experience being taunted by the devastating and cataclysm experiences of others overshadowing the mundaneness of so much of contemporary culture and concern?
In fact, do I need to make sure I’m sprinkling more fiction into my reading?And do you need to do the same as well?
New OrleansOne of the many unresolved issues from the Great Recession, still painfully winding down, is whether or not it is time to call the dream of home ownership for low-and-moderate income families a tragic mirage.Having wiped out a generation of increased ownership among African-Americans and Hispanic families, and lacking a concerted funding stream, credit and lending standards, federal policy and national consensus on this goal, this is likely to end as a toothless debate.So maybe it’s time to more seriously look at what it might take to make tenancy a stable, long term alternative that works to build citizen wealth.
Looking at the “healthy homes” and landlord licensing campaigns being waged by ACORN Canada in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa as well as ACORN’s EPTAG affiliate in Edinburgh, Scotland organizing among private tenants and ACORN Bristol in Easton, it is clear we still have a long way to go.There are thousands of landlords obviously in the atomized real estate market and the rental business is overwhelmingly local, giving real estate interests an outsized voice in local politics, yet it is city councils that continue to be where real standards with solid, sharp teeth must be won.
It’s no wonder that this is becoming a bigger issue.The Financial Times found in the United Kingdom that private renters had increased from 1980 to 2013 from 11.9% of English households to 18% in 2013, while social or public housing households had plummeted almost in half from 31.4% to 16.8%.In the USA, these issues are becoming lightning rods in San Francisco where tenants are organizing against the gentrification being triggered by the growth of the high-tech industry.In New York City, the new government is pushing for more affordable housing from new developments.
Obviously for renting to work for tenants, it cannot be a good deal only for the landlords.There have to be minimum standards, but more than that the standards have to be enforced, widely and firmly, which happens pretty much nowhere.It is also hard to avoid the fact that rents have to be affordable while also guaranteeing landlords a fair return on private investment, which means that both tenants and landlords need to be subsided.That is the theory behind the section 8 program, but the waiting list is huge and the program just isn’t adequate at the level required.In England, where 4 million household are now in private tenancy, 25% of these households are subsidized through the country’s housing benefit, which far exceeds the USA.
But, if the housing sucks, the divide just becomes an unbridgeable chasm and a trap without escape.
At the same time under the current arrangements for lower income families, there is no way that renting builds citizen wealth or income security because without rent caps or more serious subsidies there is no incentive to savings.Home ownership builds wealth and the wealth is generational.If renting and tenancy are going to more and more be our future, there has to be a way citizen wealth is increased, and there’s no road there yet.
New OrleansThere seem to be no lengths to what some states, and we’re talking about Texas now, will go to in order to try and block enrollments under the Affordable Care Act desperately sought by so many families.Governor Rick Perry, like a number of dug-in anti-Obamacare Republican governors with Presidential ambitions, was finally able to persuade the state insurance department to promulgate a number of rules to particularly obstruct the work of navigators in helping people, especially hard to reach groups in lower income and working as well as minority and Hispanic communities, access the program.
The final rules were not as bad as Perry wanted as the insurance department and others wilted under the fire of the obvious discrimination in both financial and testing requirements for the navigators and the impossible time constraints on certification, but they were bad enough.By March 1st in order to continue to act as a navigator, one had to get a precise application into the state with fingerprints from a state certified source that could be reviewed by the FBI.By May 1st to continue as well the navigator would have to complete some additional testing and instruction to continue.
When the rubber hit the road though, the big Texas talk and the slower Texas walk exposed an unhelpful contradiction for Perry and his state’s rights, anti-federales gang.For a state to trump the federal government it has to prove it is more competent to do something that the Washington bureaucrats.If there is anything that the whole process of rolling out the Affordable Care Act on both the federal and state level has proven is that this is a heckuva complex and hard job.Of course Governor Perry had to learn the hard way himself rather than by watching others stumble and fall.
First, there were delays in the long queue to get fingerprints from state certified sources.In Dallas, there was no problem and only day’s wait, but in Houston it was taking up to two weeks to get an appointment to have finger prints.Secondly, though even small toe stubs and traffic problems decades old kicked the approvals back for more explanation, letters, and so forth stalling the process even more with March 1st looming ever nearer.
Finally, the Texas Department of Insurance realized they were potentially the rock in the road.If they had not finished certifying people at this simplest level, the whole enrollment process in Texas would be crippled, and the mess and all the attendant political consequences would be at their door.Over the last week they hired people like crazy and worked the overtime so that at least some people would be certified by March 1st so that weekend events, long scheduled could go forward.
The Insurance Department says it will be working all of the first weekend in March overtime to get more certifications done with the enrollment deadline of March 31st on final countdown.Orell Fitzsimmons, state director of Local 100, described to me a conversation he had with an employee of the insurance department on Thursday as the first chat he had ever had with any state official who was in a “total hurry.”As for the testing face by May 1st, no one of course has a real clue yet!
People are enrolling in Obamacare.The numbers are now at 4.2 million or so.The Wall Street Journal finally reported for the first time on insurance companies crunching the numbers and believing that the 25% younger enrollees may in fact be more than enough to handle the oldsters who have enrolled.People are voting with their feet and the bureaucrats at all levels, just like in Texas, are getting the message:politicians come and go, but the people want government to perform for them, so no matter the slow talk, there better be fast walk in responding to their demands.The tide is turning and no one wants to be accused of getting in the way as the water is rising.
New OrleansWhat is going on these days?Seems like everywhere we turn there are attacks on women in what seems a backlash against the self-satisfied progress we had hoped we were making.
The International Labor Organization finds that there is no country where women have achieved pay equity with men.This includes even the Scandinavian countries, which start out pretty equal, but go the other way once women have children.
Masked in the employment statistics for more women working are numbers like the fact that 40% of women in the United Kingdom are working part-time compared to only 12% of the men.Furthermore in 2013 the wage gap for part-time women compared to part-time men was a whopping 36%.
It almost seems to be a part of the standard features of our polarized political discourse in the US for there to be comments about female politicians that virtually rise to the level of human rights violations.Needless to say part of this is the deeply held view of many conservatives that they, rather than women, should be regulating women’s reproductive choices and options.Wendy Davis from Texas, Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri, and of course Hillary Clinton are all grist for the mill, and the fact that women’s organizations have turned the attacks into contributions, including a record $25 million this election cycle for Emily’s List, is frankly no comfort.
And, if you believe this toxicity doesn’t leech into the very bedrock of American political opinion then ignore the recent survey data that a majority of both men and women still believe men should be President and that men should be in charge of the 500 largest American corporations.That’s not a glass ceiling.That’s solid iron and steel welded firmly in place after all of these decades of social change.
There are some fixes here, universal daycare being a major one, and more flexible work schedules being another one, but both run into difficulties in being tagged as “women’s options” rather than critical social programs for families and children, benefiting men as well.Frequent studies find that ambition is equivalent in men and women, but simple changes in human relations departments are too often simply window dressing without real targets, according to KPMG and its recent reports.
And, nothing disguises the flat out hate and opposition from an increasingly dug in set of men and some women who are waging what we might have hoped was a Custer’s Last Stand for a traditional role for women, but we are increasingly finding is more like an unending civil, guerrilla war, we still have not rooted out and won.
LondonWhen privatization of public services is ubiquitous, it’s actually kind of scary, as I just witnessed in England and Scotland.
Catching a train from Edinburgh to London, I did a double take when I saw a pink Virgin train rolling down track 3 towards me as I waited to jump from Haymarket to the Waverly station in Edinburgh.Once in the massive, old Victorian looking station at Waverly there seem to be a smorgasbord of different companies before I ended up plopping down into a seat on a train called East Coast thanks to the help of someone with First on their jacket and Robert on their nametag, all of which were various private companies I’m sure.In London, I did a triple-take at seeing small garbage dumpsters, or bins as the locals call them, with Veola’s name all over them and that was true of a number of garbage trucks there as well.Our union of course has an agreement with Veola as the private company managing the bus and ferry services in New Orleans making it not so much a small, as a scary, world of privatization gone wild.
Of course the ideology is about competition on both sides of the water, and doubtlessly it rings equally hollow on each shore, but with differences.
In London, when I was doing my first day of community organizer training I started to give an example of picking appropriate tactics tailored to the target and used the example of not hitting the meter reader with everything you have when you want to save that for the utility company.The blank stares quickly educated me to the fact that even when it comes to utilities, they have choices in England between a half-dozen or more companies with correspondingly different prices.Cell phone and internet service?Yes, you guessed it, cheaper and of course much faster.The slowest service my friends in Scotland were explaining is almost the fastest premium service for businesses in the US.
A piece in the Times, I scanned quickly as I ran for Heathrow today, should be must reading for both weak kneed FCC and our straight backed Attorney General Eric Holder.The reporter looked at the impact for consumers – wow, that’s radical already! – of the FCC rejecting the merger of T-Mobile and AT&T, and then ticked off the examples of how, following the rejection, T-Mobile has essentially turned the cellphone market upside down by cancelling 2-year mandatory contracts and pretty much anything else that has been a burr in the saddle of millions of consumers.And the result?Well, they are growing and for consumers it has forced prices to begin falling because, voila!, there’s real competition rather than monopoly pricing.Finally, they are even “breaking the bundle” and separating phone from data services, which has been a personal bugaboo of mine for years now.
Underlining the point, this is a shot across the bow at the arrogant, money walks, everyone else just talks, stance that Comcast has taken to snubbing its nose, and lobbyists, at any talk of the obvious monopoly it is expanding, by thumbing its nose at both the government and the consumers, with its effort to buy Times-Warner and strangle the internet and lock the door behind them.
GlasgowSeptember 18th may not already be circled on your calendar but it’s a huge date in Scotland when the vote will be taken on the referendum of whether or not Scotland will be independent of the United Kingdom.The papers are full of charges and counter-charges about the impact of the vote and speculation about who would control the oil reserves in the North Sea, whether or not Scotland would be able to use the pound sterling, and what in the world either a “yes” or a “no” vote might mean.
It’s not fair to say that I have heard the discussion on everyone’s lips over my days in Scotland, but it is fair to say that in the 9 months since my first visit to the country, the conversation has become much more serious as both the date of the election and the margins on the polls have tightened.Last year even among advocates of independence there was more of a “keep pushing” attitude than a sense that victory might be possible.Now with many polls saying that the margin may only be 9% with “no” leading, but “yes” closing the gap, supporters are anything but overconfident, but there is a lot more discussion of “when,” rather than “if.”In Glasgow, after a meeting of the organizing committee for ACORN International’s Glasgow affiliate, I heard about the work of the Jack Reed Foundation in funding and doing research now so that there would be plans and policies ready for muster in the event of a victory.
Much of the initiative for the referendum has come from the Scottish National Party (SNP), a nationalist outfit, which is by far the largest political party in the country and operating widely at the local governmental levels.The vote is especially complicating for many of our union allies because they are strongly wedded to the Labour Party and therefore strong “no” voices in favor of the continued bonds of the United Kingdom, even realizing that many of their members and their activists are more inclined to vote yes.Some of the organizers expressed frank worries about the future of the Labour Party in Scotland, win or lose, because of this position, and the increasing dominance of the SNP, given their leadership on the referendum, once again, win or lose.
Talking to professors at the University of Glasgow after a fun couple of hours with almost 50 folks who had crowded into a room and filled every chair to learn about ACORN International and our work around the world and in Scotland, they reported that students and the campus itself was very quiet on the issue of Scottish independence.I found that surprising, having assumed that students were probably a natural constituency for a “Yes” campaign.In fact listening to some of the organizers later who had been on the doors, it was also surprising to hear that in talking to older people there was also a strong “No” vote that just didn’t believe that the Scots were really capable of self-governance, which might have been a predictable sentiment from some in a developing, post-colonial nation, but caught me looking when it came from a sophisticated, modern democratic entity.
Who knows, and passing through, I was hardly able to have a straw poll in my several days of careful listening, though it seems a close vote is likely, the “yesses” have the more uphill climb.What was certain, speaking simply as an organizer, is that air of change, transition, and uncertainty provides the kind of unsettling political climate that is made to order for putting the pedal to the metal in building organization to force issues to the forefront.